Floor Care: Commercial Focus: Increased revenues and profits are not the only reason to get into floor care - April 2023

By Darius Helm

There are plenty of reasons for commercial flooring contractors to get into floor care, the most obvious being the boost to the bottom line. There’s also its value in maintaining relationships to generate future business. But in a way, the most compelling reason for contract dealers to clean and maintain the products they install is because it aligns with how stakeholders in the commercial market understand and approach flooring in the built environment-the lifecycle model.

The business of commercial flooring has grown more sophisticated over the years-and more complicated. One critical development, for instance, has been the understanding that the most effective and fiscally responsible way to look at the cost of a flooring product is to factor in three distinct elements: the upfront cost of product and installation, how long the product will last, and the cost of maintenance. That’s how facility managers and property managers understand it; that’s how specifiers do their calculations. There are plenty of other elements that can modify this formula, like changes in the use of space, trends in design and environmental considerations, but it’s now generally understood that the real cost is the lifecycle cost.

From the perspective of the lifecycle model, it seems like an unnatural fit for the care of the flooring through the duration of its functional life to be consigned to environmental/janitorial services that are effectively generalists, tasked for a diverse range of duties, rather than the actual flooring specialists, the contract dealers.

Flooring in a commercial space is either going to be maintained by floor care specialists like contract dealers or by onsite or subcontracted environmental services. However, environmental services are responsible for the entire interior space-cleaning all the surfaces and components, including windows, desks and lighting fixtures, along with waste disposal and a range of other duties. Using specialized cleaners and equipment is just about the last thing they want. On top of that, they need to be trained in the appropriate protocols for each type of flooring. And all of this cleaning and maintenance must be done correctly to maintain the warranties.

In a nutshell, that’s the reason why most contract dealers that expand into cleaning and maintenance meet with success-because they have huge inherent advantages over the competition. It would be a harder sell if flooring didn’t account for such a big share of the interior space, but today’s facility managers better understand the role of maintenance in maximizing the investments in flooring and keeping the space looking good and performing well.

Contract dealer networks like Starnet Worldwide Commercial Flooring Partnership and Fuse Commercial Flooring Alliance have been encouraging members for decades to get into floor care and maintenance, yet too many contract dealers are wary, feeling that it’s not in their lane. But those already doing floor care contend that, in fact, it’s central to the contract dealer’s role and expanded relationship to the products they install. It not only maximizes the performance, aesthetics and lifecycles of the flooring they installed, but, in a business driven by relationships and reputations, it also strengthens key partnerships and helps secure more flooring projects down the road.

According to Eric Boender, director of the Starnet Floor Care program since its inception in 2012, approximately 20% of Starnet’s member locations offer floor care and maintenance, about the same as a decade ago, with a couple of new locations added every year or so. For most of those members, it makes up at least a third of their revenues.

These floor care providers also have another message-that it’s more profitable and a more consistent revenue stream than flooring installation. Boender notes, “Floor care is maybe six to seven times more profitable than the tighter margins [of flooring procurement and installation], and the cash flow is great for them.” He adds that there aren’t the same issues in terms of scheduling and getting paid-and wrangling with general contractors-and it is in many ways like residual income, with the investment in equipment and the securing of a floor care contract taking place at the front end. As long as crews do a good job of cleaning and maintenance, the money will continue to flow. Boender adds that many members have had the same floor care clients for years.

Once the business is up and running, it’s a low-overhead operation. The administrative side is simple and straightforward compared to flooring contracts, and equipment and supplies use negligible warehouse space.

Jesse Castro, who has been running the floor care operation of Texan Floor Service for about 30 years and chairs Fuse’s maintenance committee, says, “For every million dollars that maintenance produces, it would take $2 million to $3 million in flooring installation to make the same profit.” Geoff Gordon, Fuse’s executive director, estimates that about 40% of its members offer floor care and maintenance programs.

Boender and Castro agree that the initial investment is manageable-less than $50,000 for equipment and a van, generally speaking, and about a quarter of that to get started just with carpet care-though specialized equipment for jobs like concrete maintenance can entail more sizeable investments.

However, Boender contends that the success of the venture largely depends on getting the right person to run it. He points out that many of the contract dealers reluctant to get into offering floor care feel that it’s outside of their core competencies, seeing themselves more on the construction side than the service side.

Boender’s advice is to hire someone to lead the program, but it’s important to find the right leader. A motivated go-getter will capture a lot of business. “Every now and then, a contract dealer will get into it but then throw in the towel,” he says, “usually based on the strength of the person running the division.”

According to Castro, while some members find an existing team member to lead the program, others find someone they can train and sub it out to them.

Boender notes that those who do floor care are typically the larger members, and they’ll often have multiple technicians. And some members pursue national accounts, then farm out the jobs to local Starnet members.

When Castro got into floor care in the early 1990s, it was “95% soft,” he says. Carpet absolutely dominated the typical floorscape but, with every passing year, has lost share to hard surface. Boender says that ten years ago it made up perhaps 80% of floor care revenue, and now it’s closer to 50%, with ceramic, resilient, concrete and terrazzo gaining in share.

These hard surface products generally require their own specific cleaning and maintenance regimens. The most high-maintenance product is probably VCT, which needs regular buffing and polishing, as well as periodic stripping and recoating, all in order to maintain its original (and outdated) speckled visual. LVT, sheet vinyl and rubber also need regular servicing, but that’s generally just straightforward cleaning with the appropriate cleaning solutions. Ceramic tile’s surface is also easily maintained, but the grout needs regular deep cleaning. Like VCT, maintenance of terrazzo and concrete is fairly intensive, requiring both regular cleaning and polishing and periodic refinishing.

Even though there’s less new VCT being installed these days, it still makes up a sizeable chunk of commercial square footage because it’s a stubbornly long-lived product, lasting decades if the original installation was sound. And its homogeneous construction enables it to be brought back to life, time and time again.

Boender reports that VCT stripping and finishing is actually increasing for some members because fewer onsite environmental services teams have the necessary expertise. So even though carpet square footage, and therefore the need for carpet care, is down, there’s still a major market for high-maintenance hard surface flooring with terrazzo, concrete and VCT. But the fastest growing hard surface flooring is LVT, which has the lowest maintenance profile of them all, in terms of day-to-day cleaning, and is often handled by onsite services. However, it will scratch, and surface damage is more obvious than with VCT and is harder to fix.

According to Castro, “Most profitable are quarterly or semi-annual carpet maintenance programs,” adding that some of members’ carpet care programs go back decades. Concrete polishing and epoxy applications, both of which have grown in recent years, are also lucrative programs, but they’re one-time events.

Nothing has impacted commercial floor care in recent memory more than the Covid pandemic. Carpet maintenance contracts for Starnet members, for instance, quickly plunged by 75% because no one was in the workplace-Boender reports that those contracts have now rebounded by 75% to 80%-but disinfectant work soared. Castro reports that several Fuse members that had never done any kind of maintenance started up programs entirely driven by the need for sanitization.

Fogging machines and electrostatic sprayers became the go-to disinfection tools for contract dealers, though equipment was in short supply for 2020 and into 2021. And Vital Oxide from XL North, a major supplier of cleaning chemistries with strong partnerships with both Starnet and Fuse, emerged as the leading disinfectant chemistry.

With Covid steadily fading, so are the sterilization programs-by as much as 80%, says Boender. But the services have brought awareness to end-use clients, and contract dealers are still called in for the occasional outbreak. On top of that, these programs brought contract dealers into closer contact with many end users.

There have also been some important technological trends and developments in recent years. One has been the development of low-moisture carpet cleaning systems. Fast Foamer, developed by Foaming Floors about seven years ago, has become an essential floor care technology for the vast majority of participating Starnet members. Low-moisture systems appeal to today’s facility managers, who are much more focused on environmental impacts.

An even more widespread development has been the shift from floor pads to brushes in buffing machinery. It turns out that brushes work just as well for flat surfaces and even better for textured flooring, including grout cleaning. And they last longer too, which is both cost-effective and environmentally friendly. There are even soft brushes for floors that more easily scratch, like sheet vinyl.
Copyright 2023 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Fuse Alliance, Fuse, Starnet, The International Surface Event (TISE)