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Profiles in Parking Area Sweeping

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Clean Sweep on The Cowlitz

Jeff and Tammie Wilson explain their successful growth strategies, with emphasis on finding and keeping outstanding employees.

by Ranger Kidwell-Ross

Twelve years ago, Jeff and Tammie Wilson bought "an old, extinct, regenerative air sweeper," and proceeded to generate $20,000 worth of business in parking lot sweeping in their first year of operation. During that year, they discovered there was an equally viable market in selling heavier duty sweeping services to mills and factories. Confident with their new-found sweeping success, they decided to purchase another used sweeper to handle the 'big' jobs.

Although they're contractors for sweeping services, Jeff says he and Tammie took great pains to become specialists in filling their customers' needs. Today, Cowlitz Clean Sweep is a highly service-oriented firm handling all manner of sweeping tasks ­ and much more.

Sixty pieces of equipment are now in the Cowlitz (a Native American-derived name of their county and a nearby river) Clean Sweep fleet. Seventeen of those are sweepers, ranging from small, trailerable, warehouse machines to their new Schwarze A7000. All are painted bright red - most with black pinstripes - and outfitted with chrome and aluminum accessories galore. And, according to Jeff, they are all kept spotless.

"The public's perception of our industry is very important to us," says Jeff. "To me, one of the obvious basics is that both the equipment and the operators must be clean. I'm continually surprised to see that many sweeping contractors don't recognize the importance of keeping a clean fleet. After all, that's the business we're in. I've found equipment cleanliness to be far more important than newness or what signage is on the side. Our trucks are washed inside and out every day.

"We've also found that our customers are unconcerned about the details of what sizes and brands our sweepers are. They're far more interested in knowing they'll end up with a well cleaned area. Giving customers what they want is everything, and we do just that. Giving great service also means we don't have to pay much attention to the competition - we compete with ourselves: 'How can we get even better, improve our services, and provide even more for our customers?' Focusing on the competition always ends up becoming more negative than positive, anyway.

We do good cost analyses and know, absolutely, where our profitability level is.

"When we bid, we don't worry if the competition is going to bid against us. Bidding is nothing more than offering your services at the dollar level you need to succeed. If we don't get a bid, we don't worry about it, because our bids reflect the amount we need in order to do an excellent job, pay our overhead, keep our fleet in good shape, etc. We do good cost analyses and know, absolutely, where our profitability level is. If we lose a bid, then that job wasn't ours to get. We certainly don't wish we had bid less so we could have picked it up."

Currently, Cowlitz Clean Sweep has 52 employees. In addition to performing municipal and parking area sweeping, the company also offers scrubbing and scarifying for warehouses and parking areas, industrial cleaning services, catch basin cleaning, oil transporting, water trucks, hydro-blasters, marine spill cleanup services and more.

Wilson believes his company's high growth track is a result of continually striving to meet the needs of each and every one of its customers. "We initially became a one-stop shopping service for sweeping, which meant we needed a wide spectrum of sweepers. We learned early on that most of our customers also had a need for catch basin cleaning, so we chose sweepers which could perform that function, too. Most companies specializing strictly in cleaning catch basins can't compete with us, because we can spread our cost out through our entire service line. Our next move, in terms of expansion, was to go to equipment for cleaning out catch basin lines. From there we added chip sealing and cleanup of debris piles. In our experience, it doesn't matter what you do; if the job gets done right, the customer will be happy and they'll pay you for your work.

"A common theme among sweeping contractors is that they wish they had more work. What most of them haven't done, however, is to make sure they're providing all the services their existing customers need. That's the best way to build a company. I would much rather service 250 accounts completely, than just provide sweeping services for twice that many. There's no doubt in my mind that the future is in diversification. We call it 'point source servicing.' My advice to someone who wants their company to grow is to see if their customer service has any voids, then see about filling them.

"Be on the lookout for diversification wherever you can find it. Most companies are downsizing or consolidating, and prefer to work through fewer contractors. Emergency response and spill response tie in well: oil spills, antifreeze recovery, accident scene cleanup. If you're sweeping for a trucking company, be sure to let them know you'll be there to help if they ever have an emergency. Make sure they know you stand ready to come out and get their floor dry for them, or perform cleanup at the scene of an accident."

Our drivers schedule their own routes, follow-up and quality control. It's up to us to reward and keep these people.

Cowlitz employs a somewhat unusual marketing force - their sweeper operators. "We went back to the basics in sales," said Wilson. "Sweeping is so personal that even the best equipment must be matched with the right drivers. We've found that the best salespeople are the employees operating the sweepers. They are, by far, the most knowledgeable about the area being swept, and we count on them to develop a strong customer relationship and get the referrals.

"Our key marketing principle is that your best reference is the customer with a smile on his face. It certainly isn't the biggest yellow pages ad or fanciest business card. Tops on our list is networking with our customers. A handshake is very important - your word and the job you do is better than any bond you can buy. It's up to our operators to make sure the job gets done right and to be accessible to the right person in the customers' organization. We always leave notes that say we've been there sweeping, and address it to someone personally, including details like: 'Greg, your lot looks good and I noticed this...'

"Many sweeping companies can't think about putting this level of reliance in their operators because they haven't figured out how to keep them. For us, when we find the people who are happy with going out in the middle of the night, etc., we do what it takes to hold onto them. Our operators are people who are open-minded and not stagnant, and they can grow with the company. Our drivers schedule their own routes, their own dispatches and, believe it or not, their own follow-up and quality control. It's up to us to find out what it takes to reward them sufficiently to keep them with us. Once you get to the point of attracting and keeping these people, you've reached a milestone in your ability to grow.

Wilson credits some of his company's success to having established a 'team' concept. "Our company is broken into two sections, each of which has a sweeper team. This allows us to alternate which team is on call each weekend. It's very important to us to make sure all employees can have a strong family life and social life. Otherwise they won't be as happy with their job, and won't perform as well.

"We also keep the same operators on the same route. If we get a complaint from a customer, then the operator handles it. That way we can show accountability in both directions. I'd estimate that 80% of our customers know the first name of their sweeper operator. It took us years to establish that, especially with our municipal sweeping. Public works directors are the hardest to do this with, but getting everyone to recognize the human element is really important.

Wilson's well-heeded words of advice reflect his professionalism, sincerity, and 'street-smarts': "Nowadays, sweeping technology is very good and advancing wonderfully. There's no problem with getting the job done right. It's up to us to operate properly and perform up to the level of quality every customer expects. If you combine that level of service with honesty and integrity in your relationships with both customers and employees, you'll have a guaranteed recipe for success."


This article is reprinted from American Sweeper magazine, Volume 6 Number 1.
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