When he attended Edmond Memorial High School in the mid 1970s, Mark Neighbors was the only guy to play on the football team and in the band. He had to get special permission to do both, because his school days started at 7 a.m., with band practice (he played the drums and bells), and didn't end until seven at night, after football practice (he played center). The nearly straight-As student also worked most every Saturday at Parkway Cleaners, the dry-cleaning business his father Ed Neighbors started in 1959.
“I liked doing a lot of things,” Neighbors said.
It's the same today.
Neighbors, with his younger brother Brian, now owns and operates Parkway Cleaners at 136 E Fifth. They and their younger sister own and lease 90,000 square feet of commercial space west of them on Fifth Street, to Hideaway Pizza, Sam's Optical and others. Plus, Neighbors owns and co-owns Mark's Shoe Room and Parkway Men's Wear, respectively. He started the former in 1977, four years after his father opened the clothing store.
From his three adjoining establishments, Neighbors, 54, sat down with The Oklahoman on Wednesday to talk about his professional and personal life. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Tell us about your roots.
A: My parents were childhood sweethearts and grew up next door to one another on farms in Prague, Oklahoma. They moved to Edmond when I was 11 months old, and opened the cleaners on my first birthday. Edmond's first swimming pool, started in the ‘20s, used to occupy our original site. My dad paid the city for the land. He didn't have to pay for the dirt to fill in the swimming pool because the city was paving Boulevard Avenue at the time and, instead of hauling the dirt to Arcadia and dumping it, the contractors gave it to us for free.
Q: When did you start working at Parkway?
A: I don't remember not working here. Remember, my parents grew up on farms where, as soon as you can walk, you pick vegetables and feed the chickens. I started out sweeping and cleaning the bathrooms, and grew into what I could do. We used to have a Laundromat and my father taught me, at age 9, how to fix the washing machines and dryers. I always knew I wanted to work in the family business.
Q: And college?
A: I worked here, went to UCO and lived at home my first year. We didn't have a lot of money when I was growing up, and I figured it would be hard to find a job to support going to OU or OSU. Already 6-foot-5 in high school, I was offered a football scholarship to UCO, but I turned it down. I wasn't good enough to go pro, which didn't pay then anyway, and didn't see any reason to have sore knees all my life.
Q: How did you meet your wife?
A: At UCO. I enrolled in a pre-nursing health class to meet girls, and there were only two men in the class. I walked in with snow and ice in my then shoulder-length hair and asked her if she had a comb that I could borrow, which she did. She jokes now that that's the worst pickup line ever, but it worked. We — both at 19 years old — married six months later. After two and half years' college, I quit school to work full time in the business. My dad, who wanted my full time help, gave me a raise (to $350 a week) and loaned us the money for the down payment on a 900-square-foot house a few blocks from here on Sunset. It was the same street where I lived until age 10, and where Pamela and I lived the first 10 years of our marriage.
Q: When did your dad retire?
A: At age 56 in 1988, which is when I became president. He wanted to retire when he and my mom were young enough to do things. But, sadly, she died of cancer, which was diagnosed a few years after he retired. He since remarried a woman from Enid who lost her husband about the same time he lost Mom. Dad and I have always had a wonderful relationship, and meet for lunch every other Thursday.
Q: What makes your cleaners successful?
A: Not many offer the quality service we do. Most are drop-off and pickup shops, but we do all our cleaning in-house and on-site. We're the biggest, single-site cleaners in North America — handling 20,000 pieces a week, compared with an average of 800. Eighty percent of our business comes from Edmond, but Oklahoma City accounts for some 20 percent. We offer free pickup and delivery, which is 18.67 percent of our business. CO2 cleaning, auto-sorter and auto-bagging machines, along with bar-coding, keep us high-tech and efficient.
Q: What do you like about this business?
A: I like talking with and taking care of the staff. We have 49 (employees), 70 percent of whom have been with us five years or longer; four have more than 30 years' service. On any given day, I may grab my tools and, in the absence of our maintenance man, help repair a broken iron worth hundreds of dollars; meet with my banker or work from my desk while watching my grandson. I'd be surprised if I ever retire. I like working. I like people. The best thing is talking with customers.