Talking Travel and Plastics with the Third Generation Owner of Ablitt’s Fine Cleaners
“It’s the best thing I could have done,” says Sasha Ablitt about taking charge of Ablitt’s Fine Cleaners and Tailors, Santa Barbara’s multi-generational, family-owned dry cleaning institution at 14 West Gutierrez Street. “I love the business. It’s about the people — the customers and my employees.”
More than 40 people work for Ablitt’s. Sasha proudly uses open-book management, providing her employees with transparent financial information so that they can make better business decisions. “I teach them how to run a business,” she explains. “I teach them how to forecast. They all get interpersonal leadership training, and they get to be heard. I love to do that for my employees. They all take pride in what they’re doing.”
Sasha’s grandparents Alberta and Neil Ablitt came to Santa Barbara in 1949 with the goal of buying a business. They looked at Enterprise Laundry, where Enterprise Fish Company is now located, but eventually settled on a dry cleaning business, then called St. Paul Dye Works; they also purchased the building, which is now home to Ablitt’s Fine Cleaners.
But, explains Sasha, “My grandparents didn’t want anybody in the family to go into the dry-cleaning business. They considered it the bottom of the food chain.” So they sold St. Paul’s in the 1960s to Russell Kraft, but kept the building.
Sasha’s dad, Neil Ablitt, worked for Caterpillar motors, and moved the family around quite a bit, with stops in Mexico City, Quebec, and Winnipeg. Sasha was born in Peoria, Illinois, but raised mostly in Canada from 1975 to 1984. That year, Neil and Sue Ablitt decided to move back to Santa Barbara, where they purchased the dry cleaning business back from Kraft and re-christened it as Ablitt’s Fine Cleaners.
“When I moved back here, everyone thought I was Canadian,” laughs Sasha, who entered Carpinteria High as a sophomore and then attended SBCC — “the best thing that could have happened to me!” she says. She transferred to UCLA and got a degree in aerospace engineering in 1992. “I wanted to be an astronaut and a pilot,” she admits. “Too much Star Trek.”
After graduating, she got an MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management and was hired by Honeywell Aerospace in the turbo machinery department.“I have a patent for the environmental control system fan for the Boeing 737, the fan that pushes the air that cools you off,” she admits casually.
“My story is a bit weird,” confesses Sasha. “I gave up on engineering. It was just too boring. It was so tedious and time-consuming. I love the idea of science, but I was a female in engineering in aerospace, and there weren’t a lot of us.”
Honeywell offered her work on the corporate side of the business as an internal auditor. “I learned how a CEO runs a multinational conglomerate,” she explains. “I lived in Hermosa Beach and traveled all over the world. Every six weeks, they sent me to a different business unit and I learned how that business worked, their strengths, their weaknesses, and I’d make recommendations to corporate. It was a lot of fun.”
In 2001, Sasha got pregnant and quit Honeywell when they wanted her to move to their Phoenix headquarters. Her father was thinking of retiring and Sasha reached out to him. “As a single mom, it was a difficult choice, coming home,” Sasha acknowledges. “It was important to me when I took over the business that I pay full price for it.”
Not only did Sasha kept up the standards of Ablitt’s, but she implemented eco-friendly practices that were ahead of the curve. She installed two 90-pound Green Earth dry cleaning machines, which uses pure liquid silicone made from sand that is not toxic to the environment.
She also started to look for a solution to 1,000 pounds of plastic they collect per month from the sheets that cover the clothes. It’s now sent to the Trex company to make outdoor decks. She put her money where he plastic went too, explaining, “I had a deck in my house made out of recycled dry cleaner’s plastic.”
It’s been 17 years since Sasha bought the business from her parents. “I look at my daughter and it helps me mark the time,” she says.
Sasha Ablitt answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What is the quality you most like in people?
Kindness. We all have something going on, so when people take the time and effort to be kind, it makes a difference.
What is your greatest fear?
I am afraid of what is happening to our environment. Climate change, the Pacific garbage patch, single-use plastics. I worry that humans may be destroying the ability of the earth to sustain us.
What is your current state of mind?
I read a book by Peter Diamandis called Abundance. That is the state I try to keep my mind in. I focus on all the wonderful things science is bringing us. Things like AI, AR, longevity, plastic-eating bacteria, etc. It helps keep me positive. This really is a wonderful time to be alive!
What do you like most about your job?
Getting to know all the fabulous people Santa Barbara. We are blessed with amazing customers. But even more meaningful to me are the folks who work at Ablitt’s. Watching my staff learn, grow, and move on has become a big part of my life! Some start working at Ablitt’s in high school and then they move on, becoming medical students, lawyers, and entrepreneurs running their own business. I like to think I helped shape someone’s life for the better.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Hanging around outside, the beach, on a boat, the mountains, having great conversation with people I love and admire.
Who do you most admire?
My parents. They have this natural ability to make people they talk with feel special, listened to, and cared about. I think they were both born charming. They are also both entrepreneurs, having created several business and selling real estate, before settling down with Ablitt’s Fine Cleaners.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Travel! I try to go on at least one big trip a year. This year I went to Cartagena and England. I’ve been to Iceland, Brazil, South Africa, and Cuba, among others. I love to see how people think and live around the world.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
The ability to get personally offended too easily. I love dialogue, the ability to discuss without agreeing and still like the other person. New ideas come out of diversity and differences in thinking. When people go to quickly to being offended, they can shut down communication.
What do you most value in friends?
Playfulness. I tend to be hyper focused and serious. I love being around people who don’t take themselves too seriously and like to play. It reminds me to relax and enjoy myself, and not take myself too seriously.
What is your most marked characteristic?
My intense focus and determination. I can get lost in a problem for hours.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“I’m sorry.” I probably say that 20-plus times a day. I’m not sure if its my way of being kind, if it’s just necessary for working in the service industry, or if it’s a left over from being raised in Canada. They are rather polite in Canada.
Which talent would you most like to have?
I would love to play an instrument really well, and sing. To be able to entertain people would be so fun.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
My hair started going grey in my 30s. I would love to not have gray hair! Although I love that it keeps me in touch with my colorist, who is a good long-time friend.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Graduating from UCLA with an engineering degree. I was shy and introverted and honestly not the best in math — today, I use the calculator on my phone for the simplest addition. It was difficult on many levels, but I focused and was determined and I did it!
Where would you most like to live?
I think I’m here. I think I will always live by the ocean. Ocean air makes me happy
What is your most treasured possession?
The only thing that comes to mind is my house. I’m so lucky to have been able to get a house in Santa Barbara, and it has made such a difference for me and my daughter. It’s a little home. We have a lovely view of the city and that is a daily reminder of how blessed we are
What makes you laugh the most?
I have a weakness for animal videos that are passed around on the internet
What is your motto?
“Live long and prosper.” I love Star Trek and this always seemed about right to me.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
I’m not sure that she is historical, but Eileen Fisher founded her company in 1984. It is now a mega brand and a “conscious company.” I feel we have many of the same values regarding how to run our businesses, and she was doing it before it was a thing.
On what occasion do you lie?
I’m a terrible liar. So I really try to avoid it. I suppose I may lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. For example, saying I enjoyed the meal they cooked for me even though I don’t eat XYZ. Well, I suppose I did enjoy the meal because of the company.