Commercial Flooring Maintenance: Floorcare offers synergistic opportunity for the flooring contractor - April 2021
By Jessica Chevalier
Commercial flooring maintenance has long offered commercial contractors a potentially profitable avenue for diversification, and it became an even more important part of the contractor portfolio amid the pandemic as renovation and construction within the commercial market ground to a halt, diminishing the demand for product and installation (P/I) work, but demand for some cleaning and disinfection services continued.
While some may assume that launching a floorcare business is simply a matter of buying a commercial carpet cleaning machine and hiring an employee to operate it, in reality, successful operations require a great deal more knowledge, strategy and investment. And offering more sophisticated services that set floorcare apart from janitorial services is key. Ultimately, the payoff for floorcare work can be good, especially taking into consideration the added opportunities to fortify relationships with P/I customers and vice versa.
THE VALUE OF SYNERGY
Perhaps the greatest payoff for a commercial contractor-owned floorcare business is the symbiosis between multiple divisions, having varied offerings with which to target and service the customer. Success in one area increases the likelihood of adoption in another. In addition, when one slows, the other may sustain. All three of the floorcare experts with whom we spoke vouch for the value of offering a diversified portfolio in an evolving market.
“We want the floorcare division to be profitable, and it is, but because we are an installation company, we also see the floorcare business as a strategic division to offer solutions to ongoing customers,” says Mike Arians, floorcare and specialty coatings manager at G&W Commercial Interiors, based in Kent, Washington. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone out to talk to a P/I customer about issues they are having with their flooring-not necessarily to generate business-and discovered it was how the floor was being maintained that was the problem.” Arians will offer advice to that customer about how to correct the problem, which may or may not equate to new business for the floorcare division, but it does cement the customer’s relationship with G&W.
“The profitability of the maintenance business is number one. But in our team, as with a handful of other Starnet companies with P/I businesses, there is synergy between our maintenance and our P/I commercial contracting business, DSB+,” says Delmar Vasquez, vice president of sales for Livermore, California-based Premier Maintenance Group. Premier Maintenance Group has been in business for 11 years.
These synergies also pay dividends for the customer. Together, the P/I and floorcare divisions can offer a customer a complete flooring package and the peace of mind that the flooring is being cared for by a team knowledgeable about the product and its needs. And don’t overlook the benefits of a one-stop-shop for a busy facilities manager.
Of course, when relationships are deep and multifaceted, the stakes are even higher. “It’s cheaper and easier to keep a customer than search for new ones,” notes Bryan Heller, sales manager, maintenance division at CFS Interiors & Flooring, based in St. Paul, Minnesota. “On the sales side, we take a long-term look. Not every job ends up profitable, but it has to turn out right to keep a customer for a long time.” CFS Interiors & Flooring began as a DuPont regional dealership in the ’90s. In 2004, the company was acquired by its current ownership group.
Many floorcare firms entered the business cleaning carpets, but as hard surface has taken share in the commercial market, it became imperative that they diversify into caring for the various types of flooring on that side of the business; these include VCT, LVT, porcelain, laminate, hardwood, rubber, epoxy, concrete and terrazzo. The more specialized services a floorcare contractor can offer, the more able they are to position themselves as a valued expert that stands apart from janitorial services and their budget pricing.
G&W originally got into maintenance on the small scale with carpet cleaning and, over the years, branched out into hard surface maintenance and specialty coatings. Says Arians, “In the last five years, we have really tried to take a good look at new possibilities and different products so that we are less dependent on basic carpet and hard surface maintenance, which is full of competition and oftentimes price-determinant. If you do things that are more value-added, the margins are better. It’s really tough to operate in a commodity-type business. It’s about differentiating yourself from the janitorial guy who will throw in floorcare. Janitors are different. They do a daily job. When they add in floorcare, the results are often not good. The biggest challenge for us is explaining to customers the value we bring. Once they figure that out, they say, ‘Okay, I understand the difference in price.’”
Vasquez adds, “If your offering is limited to a handful of services, that will inhibit your growth potential. Our main goal was not to say ‘no’ but to provide solutions to our client base. We didn’t want potential clients to establish relationships with competitors for maintenance services, so we have ramped up into other finish types at the request of our clientele.”
Heller seconds the “yes” approach. “We really try to listen and find out what the client’s needs are,” he says. “Our goal is to help our customers have a good day, so we try to say, ‘Yes, we can,’ whenever possible.” For CFS, this may include agreeing to do services it doesn’t complete in-house-such as washing skylights or dusting high-ceiling airducts-and subbing these tasks out to other firms.
Says Arians, “When Covid hit, a lot of ongoing traditional work just stopped. Many of those were corporate clients. We have found in the last year that doing work as an add-on or adjunct to the installation has really given us a lot of business. For example, G&W was doing some epoxy work at a local hospital. My division had a little cleaning part in it, and when I was on site, the client said, ‘Why don’t you come look at the ground floor?’ which had porcelain, terrazzo and VCT. I gave them a quote that was bigger than the rest of the work on the job. They then called and said, ‘We have 5,000 square feet of VCT on five floors that we’d like you to look at.’ That’s what we have been doing in the last year to keep busy and fill in the void left by Covid.”
The Premier division of DSB+ added services during Covid and strategically promoted services that it already offered, such as disinfecting.
CFS actually saw growth throughout the pandemic because it “concentrated on disinfecting and sanitizing. We’ve been using Vital Oxide with electrostatic sprayers to disinfect offices, healthcare areas and manufacturing plants.”
“Those [members] that didn’t get into disinfectants felt quite a bit of business pain in 2020,” says Eric Boender, vice president at Starnet Commercial Flooring. “But with our relationship with XL North, nearly every member that is in maintenance was about to keep crews relatively busy. I wouldn’t foresee that many had a record year, but they are in the position to survive.”
With so many different flooring surfaces to care for, the many chemistries on the market, the various needs of the many commercial environments and the technicalities of the machinery used, the learning curve for floorcare is fairly steep. “There is a big ramp up for someone jumping in,” says Vasquez. “From the outset, we were fortunate to recruit an operations manager who had a tenured background, so from day one, we were ahead of schedule.”
“My learning curve was quite humbling,” says Heller. “We wanted to do more than just clean carpet and wax floors. We want to stand out from the other guys, and we’re able to offer services and products that can really save our customers money and be environmentally friendly. But early on, we did stretch ourselves in some areas and had some outcomes that weren’t profitable. We kept practicing in our warehouse until we got it right.” Heller reports that the business is now beginning to live up to his initial hopes and expectations, adding, “It was pretty hard starting out, but it’s more fun now. It’s satisfying that our salespeople, who before only sold P/I, are now seeing our maintenance services as a good source of additional income.”
Arians notes that, even years in, “There is still a lot to learn. I will never get bored.”
Finding employees to learn the business can also be a hurdle. “We sleep better at night if we get employee referrals from people we trust,” says Heller. “We pay out a nice finder’s fee to our other employees if we hire a referral from them, half of the amount when we first hire and the other half if the new hire is still around three months later. We’ve found some great people from online sites, too.”
Vasquez also looks to current employees for references and notes that this has been a very successful approach. “We promote from within and incentivize,” he says. At Premier, new hires start in carpet and resilient maintenance, but ultimately, the goal is for them all to be cross-trained.
“Training maintenance tech labor is a long process, and it takes a lot of hands-on experience,” Heller notes. “There are so many issues that aren’t uncovered until after the job has started, so our job leaders need to learn to anticipate. Our new employees, even our sales staff, all get certified training with IICRC [Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification]. Our new techs spend a lot of time practicing in our warehouse and restrooms. They polish the concrete or strip off urethane and epoxy flake finishes and then reapply them.”
He adds, “Having a knowledgeable, experienced operations manager is most important. Pay your maintenance techs well. We pay higher than most companies around this area, and we pay bonuses and incentives.”
The commercial market sectors vary in how they approach their floorcare needs. CFS’ top clients are in the healthcare, government and corporate sectors. For Premier, corporate is the largest target market, followed by healthcare, while healthcare comprises much of G&W’s client base.
“Some market segments won’t use all of our services because they have in-house staff or they have a janitorial company,” says Heller. “So we hit ’em where they ain’t. If they clean the carpet, we may polish the terrazzo or do deep cleaning on the restroom ceramic. I think we have services that hit all markets pretty well. We were starting to make some good inroads in hospitality, but Covid put that market on hold.”
Boender reports that the sector use of floorcare professionals varies significantly, even region by region. “Healthcare remains in-house for the most part, especially on a day-to-day basis for quick turnover,” he notes. “Starnet members do well with healthcare due to our ability to do carpet cleaning and high-performance coatings as well as color and seal grout. But for basic cleaning, it’s mostly in-house. Some have tried floorcare professionals and shifted back in-house. Education is more in pockets. Corporate has been contracting out cleaning for a couple of decades. Less than 10% of corporate America does in-house cleaning. As for hospitality, hotels obviously have cleaning staff but may contract out carpet cleaning or concrete maintenance.”
While the cost for machinery to do basic operations such as carpet cleaning isn’t onerous, the expense for machinery generally rises as the work becomes more technical. Arians says that a company might invest $15,000 to $20,000 for a piece of highly specialized machinery for terrazzo or stone care. With that kind of investment, it is imperative that the machinery be well cared for so that it lasts for years to come.
“Being mechanically inclined is a real bonus in this business,” says Arians. “We have two guys on staff who do nothing but maintain and fix equipment.” Arians recalls a recent situation in which an inch-thick metal plate on a machine got bent. The loss of that part “turned the machine into a boat anchor,” says Arians. The company considered sending the part back to the manufacturer for repair, an endeavor that Arians predicts would have cost $2,000 and left the machinery sitting unusable for a month. Instead, one of the mechanics took the piece home, and, to Arians’ surprise, brought it back the next day fixed. “All it ended up costing us was a really nice cordless drill, which we bought the mechanic as a gift,” he laughs.
CFS also has an in-house repairman and believes that saves money in the long run by helping maintain machine life and lower costs.
Both Heller and Vasquez note that having supportive leadership is crucial to operating a successful floorcare operation.
“Our ownership has always been smart about not over-extending the company, but they’ve never been shy about investing in equipment or training,” says Heller.
Vasquez believes that those commercial contractors interested in opening a floorcare division should only do so with the complete support of ownership and management. He adds, “Fortunately, our team has built a successful business due to unwavering support of the ownership group. An idea may lead to the concept but without constant push and dedication, the business will be challenging. And the willingness to think outside the box to expand service offerings is key. From day one, we have been willing to take risk to achieve differentiation.”
“We look for vendors providing high quality, consistency and good support,” notes Arians. “Price is kind of secondary. It’s not a non-factor, but I will pay more to support a vendor who gives me support. I have also found in using various vendors that the chemistry isn’t always consistent. We’ve been halfway through a job and realized a failure because the chemistry is bad. For carpet cleaning, we always go with XL North. They have it down to a science. We do quite a bit of epoxy work and, for that, we use Spartacote-a division of Laticrete. I’m partial to them because an outstanding rep drove 75 miles and back to bring me a bucket.”
“Products and processes have improved a lot in the past five years,” says Heller. “We really try to stay current on what’s out there. Being a Starnet partner has helped a lot. The vendor partners really go the extra mile with support and pricing, and there are a number of extremely knowledgeable and successful dealer partners that we can call for advice, just like old friends.” Heller mentions XL North, NeverStrip, Foaming Floors, Jon-Don, Ecolab, Dalco and Barker-Hammer as his best resources for product, noting for anyone considering the floorcare business, “Use good products and work with helpful suppliers that you trust.”
Vasquez lists its key manufacturer partnerships as, “NeverStrip, Jon-Don, XL North and Cirtex systems. Not only are their products great, but they provide continued support, knowledge and training that really helps us reach our goals.”
CFS always starts out by touring a customer’s facility to see the condition of their floors as well as the flow of foot traffic. It then provides them a colored drawing showing their high, medium and low traffic areas. “We might suggest high traffic areas to be cleaned quarterly and medium areas cleaned twice a year,” says Heller. “In Minnesota, cleaning schedules need to be flexible because of snow, salt and sand. We have some customers with high traffic areas that need to be cleaned weekly. We’ve had some customers who, in the past, have just cleaned their entire area once every year or two and don’t want to spend more than that. We can usually show a better way to spend their budget if we set up a cleaning schedule for them. This can often lead to sales of our other services, like furniture cleaning, restroom restoration, terrazzo or concrete polishing, and construction cleaning.”
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