Enlisting in the military is a path that requires sacrifice and carries daunting risks, but it’s also an opportunity for service members to open new doors and see the world outside of their hometown. The valuable training, team building, and leadership development are a recipe for lifelong success. This was the experience of Terry Lee Pickens, II, who was managing a fast-food restaurant in small-town Ohio at age 17 when he decided he wanted more than his hometown offered.
“I knew I didn’t want to work in a burger joint the rest of my life, and I wasn’t making a lot of money,” Pickens says. “There was a chance to ‘get out of Dodge’ by joining the military. So that’s what I did.”
Pickens speaks humbly about his time in the U.S. Army, but it seems his leap of faith destined him for entrepreneurial success in a rather ironic way.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, 21-year-old Pickens was deployed to Iraq; and was assigned to the laundry and bath unit. Nearly two decades later, the veteran is a Tide Cleaners franchisee who owns or oversees nearly a dozen dry cleaners in five states — an all-too-perfect narrative.
“Believe it or not, there actually is a job to do laundry in the military, and that’s what I did,” Pickens says. “We would set up laundry trailers with washers, dryers, generators, and other equipment. My job was to perform maintenance, keep the equipment running, and be a guard with a gun on my hip for the first few years of the war. Seriously, it was the easiest job you could pick in the Army.”
Now a husband and father of four, Pickens bravely answered a call to action at an unsettling moment in American history. Despite his modest account, the young soldier’s time in Iraq was certainly not without challenges.
“We went to Iraq with the initial surge, and there were no resources. We didn’t have food. There was nothing,” Pickens describes. “This is a true story. I had a bag of Skittles, a 1-liter bottle of water that I had to share, and we would get an apple, banana, or granola bar in the morning. That’s all we had to eat for the whole day. That’s what we lived on for the first three months at war.”
After more than 10 years in the military, Pickens returned to the United States and began pursuing a civilian career. While managing a restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, a job recruiter stopped in for a sandwich and introduced Pickens to Tide Cleaners.
“She said, ‘What’s your background?’” Pickens recalls. “I told her I was actually in a laundry unit in the military. There is no correlation whatsoever with me owning a bunch of dry cleaners, I promise. But it probably did open the door for me to come work for Tide Cleaners.”
Prior to becoming a Tide Cleaners’ franchisee, Pickens managed Tide Cleaners’ stores in Columbus, and he climbed the ranks at the franchise’s headquarters in Cincinnati. Eventually, an opportunity presented itself to purchase a store in St. Louis, Missouri.
“My wife, Sonia, is from St. Louis. She was my boss in the military, so that’s how we met,” says Pickens. “We were starting our family and knew it was time to move closer to home.”
The couple currently lives in Alton, Illinois, with their kids, 19-year-old Chloe, 12-year-old Mya, 8-year-old Myles, and 2-year-old Mason.
Now, with Tide Cleaners locations in Michigan, North Carolina, Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas — and plans to continue expanding — Pickens uses valuable lessons from his time in the military to successfully manage 115 employees in multiple states.
“The military taught me that people come from all walks of life, and there are different ways you need to lead, coach, and manage each employee,” Pickens says. “There are 115 different conversations that need to be had to lead 115 people. I want everyone to know they’re important, and I want to help each person achieve their goals and the goals of our company.