‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ passionate about making a difference


By Kathy Day

For the last five years or so, RSF’s Tom Gildred has been focusing on making a difference in San Diego. It’s something that runs in his family.

With a successful business in FMT Consultants and his latest project – Emerald Textiles – whirring along, he has put his time into serving as president of the San Diego Museum of Art, working with Irwin Jacobs on the Plaza de Panama proposal for Balboa Park and serving on the board for Sharp Healthcare.

It was in the latter role that he learned a lot about the business of running a hospital and became particularly interested in the impact that hospital linens have on patients and the staff who risk exposure to infectious diseases.

With a background as an entrepreneur, his interest was piqued, and two years ago he began looking into the healthcare linen business and didn’t like what he saw – heavy use of water, energy and chemicals; old, inefficient equipment, and disregard for health regulations designed to guard against infection.

That was enough to inspire him to see what he could do.

“When you are in a weakened state, you want to know the linens come from a place that’s clean and compliant,” Gildred said. “You wouldn’t serve food out of a dirty kitchen.”

They started “with a blank piece of paper in March 2010 – no customers, no facility,” he recalled. “It’s been quite a ride.”

That ride led Emerald Textiles to the recent honor of being named one of Ernst & Young’s “2012 Entrepreneurs of the Year.” (Coincidentally, Gildred started his business career at Ernst & Young, although his first job was a summer of picking up trash at SeaWorld.)

Along the way to opening the laundry in San Diego, with a total project cost of $20 million, Gildred identified partners like another well-known San Diegan, Bob Payne and his family.

Then they had to find the people to run the day-to-day operations and hire a staff that now tops 275 and runs two shifts a day. He and his team (who he emphasized really deserve the award) also had to purchase, design, get permits for and equip a 77,000-square-foot facility in Otay Mesa – an Enterprise Zone designed to spur the city’s economy — and buy all the linens and trucks to transport them. Oh yeah, and find customers.

Somehow, they managed to open six months later.

Despite the rough economic times, he said, with the right people, “We were fortunate to have the pieces come together at the right time.”

And they did it with an eye to saving energy and water by spending on their equipment, Gildred added, noting that their cleaning process takes one gallon less per pound of linens than others in the business in San Diego. That’s a significant savings since they clean about 40 million pounds of linen a year.

They also invested in an energy reclamation-heat transfer process that saves about 750,000 therms of natural gas annually – and turns out cleaner linens.

SDG&E and the California Public Utilities Commission have both honored the company for its efforts.

Today, Gildred and his team, which includes people who knew the industry from the inside as well as a controller who came from the biotech industry, are looking at expansion into the Los Angeles and Orange County markets. When they go north, they’ll invest in new facilities, too.

Emerald Textiles already serves Sharp Healthcare, Scripps Health, UCSD Medical System, Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, and Kaiser in San Diego and Orange Counties.

But while Gildred acknowledges he’s turned into a bit of a workaholic in recent years, he is all about making San Diego a better place as his family has done over three generations. His parents Philip and Lyn Gildred, like him, are Rancho Santa Fe residents, and he’s close to his two sisters and their families.

His father grew up in Mission Hills; his mom in the Chula Vista-Bonita area before moving to Point Loma. Now their son is president of The Gildred Companies, a real estate company managing over a million square feet of industrial and business parks that’s been in business for 85 years.

FMT Consultants, an Enterprise Resource Planning software company he founded in 1995, has done well, Gildred said, “providing me the opportunity to be more engaged in the community, which I see as my responsibility.”

He believes strongly that people should take time to do what they can.

“If not us, who will it be?” he asked. “If you are waiting for the answer, you are doing the wrong thing.”

His grandfather, Philip L. Gildred, came to San Diego with his brother Ted Sr. in 1925 and built the Fox Theatre — now Copley Symphony Hall. Philip then helped found Sharp Hospital. Tom’s uncle, Ted Jr,. is a former ambassador to Argentina who was instrumental in establishing the Institute of the Americas at UCSD and formed the Lomas Santa Fe Group.

Both of his grandfathers – one was an artist — were presidents of the San Diego Museum of Art, as was his mother, so his involvement with the museum was in his blood, he said, adding. “I never did expect to be an expert.”

But because he understands the operational aspects of running a successful business, he said he believes he can be an asset.

“I want everybody in San Diego to be aware of the museum and go visit the museum,” he said. “It’s important to be aware of the museum and participate as visitors or through school groups. What if there’s a DaVinci out there and they never are exposed to the museum.”

Gildred’s passion for the museum and Balboa Park have him smack in the middle of the plans for Plaza de Panama, the proposal to remove cars from the center of the park and restore it for pedestrian uses. The plan calls for a new Centennial Bridge and road and a new underground parking structure topped by a park.

The San Diego City Council voted 6-1 July 9 in favor of the plans for Plaza de Panama.

“I am thrilled with the outcome of the vote by the San Diego City Council,” Gildred said. “This is a great day for the citizens of San Diego and a huge step forward in preserving and restoring Balboa Park to its historic use including a grand public plaza and pedestrian park spaces.”

A one-time member of the USC sailing team who later competed in windsurfing, Gildred manages to find time each day for a one-hour run followed by a session at Haute Yoga. But he doesn’t get out on the Fairbanks Ranch golf courses as much these days as he used to since he makes the trek to the Emerald Textiles plant three days a week and generally stays from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. so he can keep track of how the operation is functioning.

He has traveled frequently, most recently to Spain for the opening of the Edwin Binney 3rd Collection at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum of Art in Madrid, is starting to collect art and has become an avid collector of wine.

“That’s not a habit you want to get your children involved in,” he said with a chuckle.

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