3rd Generation BSC: My Cleaning Service
They call themselves the Three Musketeers. But they’re not peers like the famous, fabled musketeers were; they’re father, daughter and granddaughter, and collectively, they’ve been presiding over a family business for more than 40 years.
Thanks to a family culture that has entrenched its members in the business, and that has lent strong values to its leaders, Baltimore-based My Cleaning Service (MCS) is poised for a third-generation handover. With the help of Gerry Rogers, the company founder, and his daughter and current company president Lisa Bands, Lisa’s daughter Kathleen is committed to learning the ropes and continuing the family legacy.
Third-generation companies are fairly rare — an oft-cited statistic is that businesses passed on to a second generation succeed only one-third of the time, while those that make it to a third generation have but a 13 percent success rate. In the cleaning industry, the success rate may be even slimmer. But MCS has continually grown during the five decades it has had its doors open, and there is no intention of being anything but more successful in the years to come.
“A lot of people will say to me, ‘So, are you getting ready to sell the company to someone?’” Kathleen says. “And I say ‘No, this is our story, this is how we get people to remember us, is that we’re a third-generation company.’”
In addition to the generational succession, the company is also woman-owned and currently being led by a wife-husband team of Lisa and Danny Bands. Recently, the mother-daughter dynamic has been introduced as Kathleen graduated fromWashington College in 2010, moved home with mom and dad, and took on the position of marketing and business development director. These family and business dynamics are complex, to put it lightly.
“Being part of a family business adds dimension to the complexity of running a business,” says Danny, CFO, with a knowing smile.
Danny and Lisa just celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary. Their relationship embodies the idea of the tension of opposites — opposite personalities, working together, influencing each other to make decisions that end up on a balanced middle ground. The way they work, Lisa admits, isn’t always pretty; there are some bickering and disagreements.
“It’s not that he’s wrong — he’s just more scientific than we are, a lot of times he’s right,” Lisa says. “I don’t like to be told that I’m not!”
Now that Kathleen is working with them, it feels almost as if Gerry has returned, Lisa muses.
“Working with someone you trust, that you can bounce things off of, and has the same instincts and feelings as you,” is of huge importance, Lisa says.
Kathleen agrees, saying while her father is an important weight in the balance of things at the office, she and her mother and grandfather share the same way of thinking and the same logic.
“I think a pro of being in the family business is that when I have some sort of issue now, I can come talk to him and I have someone to support me with business decisions,” she says, referring to her grandfather, who she calls “Pop-Pop.”
Not too many building service contractors these days have that much history to look back on. It’s easy to start up and it’s easy to fail in the cleaning business, and in the time MCS has been up and running, thousands of similar companies have met their demise. Acquisitions and mergers have tipped the playing field in favor of huge national conglomerates. Yet those who focus on their strengths, deliver what their customers need and excel at developing quality relationships — no matter what their size or scope — are thriving.
To get an idea of just how much has changed in the cleaning industry in the last 50 years, all one has to do is consider this: when Gerry Rogers first entered the industry in 1960, there were only two janitorial companies competing for business in Baltimore.
Today, a quick glance in the Yellow Pages lists more than 200.
In 1970, Gerry left the cleaning company he had been working for and started his own, calling it My Cleaning Service — a name suggested by his lawyer after Rogers said he always ran the other company like it was his own.
“He said, ‘That’s your name: My Cleaning Service,’” he says. “I said, ‘OK, we’ll try that for a while.’ That was 1970, and here we are.”
Gerry and his wife, Margaret, ran the business out of the basement of their Baltimore row house for years before moving to a larger home — which still housed the business. Their daughter Lisa, who had been answering phones since age 12, started working for them in high school and became a supervisor while attending college at Loyola. By graduation, she knew that she wanted to continue her career with the family company, and was hired as director of operations.
“It was so cool. I knew I wanted to do it,” Lisa says. “I’d been in Junior Achievement, and when I came into the company it was so much like Junior Achievement — conferences, having to work with people — it was so much fun. I said [to Dad], ‘I need experience, no one will hire me unless I have experience, you need to give me experience.’ And then I realized this is a pretty good business.”
Once the company moved into an office, in the early ‘80s, Gerry gave Lisa the corner office and gave himself the cubicle — one of many subtle moves that signaled a transition was coming.
Gerry bought a condo in Florida and started spending more and more time there, leaving Lisa to run the company in his absence. He took a hands-off approach, trusting her with bidding and negotiations and the daily personnel- and service-related fires that need to be put out.
MCS was eventually sold to Lisa in 1993, in a rare move that left a woman at the helm of a second-generation cleaning company. Having watched other companies be transferred from fathers to son-in-laws, Lisa vowed that things would be different for her.
“I wasn’t going to be just a spouse,” Lisa says. “I think that really influenced everything I was doing — why, just because I’m a girl, can’t I run the company?”
Under her leadership, the company became a state and locally certified minority and woman-owned business, opening up a world of opportunity in government contracting and subcontracting. Thanks to her father’s connections in the business community, Lisa was welcomed with open arms by most customers. Not that she hadn’t had to prove her mettle, not only as a woman but as a young person — or as Lisa puts it, a “whipper snapper.”
Those who worked with her knew she was more than capable of running the company, that she knew the business as well as her father did.
Of Lisa and Danny’s two daughters, Kathleen, the younger one, had been accompanying her mom to various business meetings and events since the age of 12. Unlike her mother, she didn’t spend her adolescence on the janitorial front lines; she spent it on the professional, executive side of things. As she grew up, she realized that she, too, wanted to be a part of the company.
“That’s what I knew how to do because she always took me along to everything. She took me to all those meetings,” Kathleen says.
Those meetings included local business associations as well as national industry associations such as Building Service Contractor Association International, Capitol Association of Building Service Contractors and National Association of Women Business Owners.
If handing down a company from father to daughter raised eyebrows — which it did at the time — then a mother-to-daughter transition might also come as a surprise, despite its modern-day setting.
“They don’t understand,” Lisa says. “Many people say, ‘Why are you letting her come into the company?’”
Some people have had bad experiences working with family, and might warn against it — but it’s all Lisa and Kathleen have ever known, and they want it to work for them.
As for the three generations of kin who were, are and will be the faces of the company, the lines between work life and home life have always been a bit blurry, if not downright nebulous. But they’ve learned how to manage the unique situation, with rules that include working separately, not talking about work after 8 p.m., and being encouraged to bring up funny or good stories about the day rather than bad ones.
“You’ve got all that pressure from people thinking it’s a bad mistake to work together, but not many people understand how to work together and live together — and we do,” Lisa says. “We’ve been really good about making sure we’re doing separate activities and we’re not always in the same place.”
Even though Gerry is retired and splits his time between condos in Baltimore and Florida, he is still just a phone call away. After all, his years of experience and his wisdom as dad and grandpa have made him a beloved and indispensable member of this unique family.
“I can always go and talk to my grandfather, he can help me through a bad day more than almost anyone in my life,” Kathleen says.
Gerry’s beginnings in the cleaning industry were accidental; he was a school teacher who left that profession and was selling cleaning chemicals when he was asked to help run a window cleaning company with 10 window cleaners and one five-day account and one one-day account.
“I started to work on it, and the second day I was there, I knew I made a big mistake,” he says with a warm laugh, “but I decided, ‘Well, I’m here, let’s see what happens.’”
He ended up growing that company to 435 employees in one decade. When he left that job, an offer from a priest at a seminary he’d been cleaning was the starting point for his next venture: starting his own company. It was the first of many kind and generous gestures that came from customers and competitors alike in the early years of MCS. From personal loans to equipment rental to the lending of storage space, members of the Baltimore business community came together to help Gerry and MCS succeed.
And the company has committed to paying that forward, through mentoring other young business owners and helping out customers and employees in need.
“Because those guys helped dad, I still help other people,” Lisa says.
The culture of helping others, while it has faded, still exists in Baltimore, and is helpful to Kathleen.
“People are willing to help you get started,” Kathleen says. “Even though the company’s been around for a long time, they know I need help, so a lot of people have taken me under their wing and told me, let me introduce you to people around town who can help you.”
Though the three of them are a lot alike, the differences that, somewhat amusingly, affect any family are apparent here, too. From not knowing what’s going on in someone’s head — how they arrive at a formula for bid pricing, or where important information is filed — to the differences that come from experiencing life in different generations.
“Dad likes to keep a lot of things in his brain and I was constantly getting stuff out of his brain, and now she’s constantly getting stuff out of my brain, and I thought I wrote down so much more, file cabinets and computers full of information, she should have no problem with it,” Lisa says. “Doesn’t seem to work that way all the time.”
Preparing for transition
Kathleen is already making waves in her second year on the job, with a focus on bringing more modern technology into the office, and developing a presence on the Internet, through a redesigned website and a social media presence unrivaled by a lot of other cleaning companies.
“Things are changing for us so rapidly,” Lisa says. “She’s got me on an iPhone right now. I’ve got to check my e-mail all the time! I did everything I could to avoid e-mail and she’s got all these jobs coming in on the computer. It’s such a different world.”
Using the Internet to communicate with current customers and find new ones is something that Lisa is truly impressed by.
“She’s getting jobs through the Internet. And I’m going, ‘Where did she get this person from Canada, who wants us to clean in Baltimore?’ And that’s one of the biggest changes that I see: when I came in, everybody knew Dad, it was just so easy to enter, and now companies are headquartered God-knows-where, so you have to get business so differently. It is somewhat who you know, but it’s a lot more about finding your customers elsewhere.”
Gerry nods in sympathy, remembering when pagers came out and he had to start carrying one around. Then there was the car phone, which made way for the cell phone. Now, people can’t even talk on their cell phones in the car.
Not only is Kathleen keeping her parents and coworkers up to speed, she’s also becoming known for her social media savvy in the various organizations she’s involved with in Baltimore.
“In all the associations we’re in, I keep getting that: You want to be social media chairperson?” she says, laughing. “I’m one of the youngest members of most of these organizations because people my age are in introductory level jobs or office jobs, and they don’t necessarily go out and do the networking.”
Lisa, 50, thinks it’ll be about 10 years before she leaves the company, which leaves Kathleen with a lot of time to learn the back end of the industry — as well as make inroads for growth.
“There will be a point where she doesn’t need us anymore. I want that to be her decision,” Lisa says.
The legacy of running an honest company and of fairness to customers and employees, which was started by Gerry and continued by Lisa, is going to continue to be the cornerstone for MCS.
“I am carrying on what my grandparents and my parents have done, and I will take it into the future and make it bigger and better, still having our values intact,” Kathleen says.
Kathleen, on what she learned from writing her thesis on the family company:
“Definitely surveying our customers helped us realize where the priorities lie for our customers and it helped us identify who our target customer is,” she says. “I interviewed employees and it was neat for me coming into the company to see what somebody does on a daily basis or to learn something about that position that you didn’t know before. For instance, I knew what our front office person does but she will go out of her way to do something that goes unnoticed. We need to learn to appreciate it, the stuff that makes our company run.”
Lisa, on paying a living wage to employees:
“One thing that we do that we never had before is higher pay. At one point, BOMA sent around a survey asking cleaning services how many people were earning minimum wage vs. above minimum wage,” she says. “I went through and I was surprised that more people than I thought were getting paid minimum wage, and I thought, ‘I’m never going to pay minimum wage again.’ And I haven’t. Some aren’t extremely higher, maybe just a quarter. We’re getting more jobs that are dollars higher and with benefits and things like that. More what I want for them so they can get a little bit ahead."
Kathleen, Lisa and Gerry, on customer relationships:
“We still take people out to golf outings, that’s huge here, or take people out to dinner, people like to spend time with you, get to know you a little bit,” Kathleen says.
“I think there’s a lot more of that nowadays than there was when I was running it,” Gerry says. “The only thing I ever worried about was the Rotary oyster roast, we’d take a couple dozen people to that, and I would take people to lunch, nothing more than that. At Christmastime, you’d give them something small.”
“The last two buildings I lost, neither one had anything to do with cleaning, and that really hurt,” Lisa says. “It’s all relationships and how companies change.”
Lisa and Kathleen, on cleaning for occupant health:
“We’ve changed the mission from just having the place clean, to now, it’s having the place healthy and the people healthy, and it’s a lot to educate all the people to think a completely different way,” Lisa says. “It’s not good enough that it looks clean. Where do people touch, what do you have to wipe off every day, it’s a whole different way of making sure things are clean. And [employees] love that because they realize how much they’re helping other people.”
“Recently one of the accounts had to make sure the floor was sparkling clean, and [janitors] were saying, ‘The tables — don’t you care about the surfaces where they’re eating? It’s just so gross, that can’t be right. And they said, ‘No, no we want the floor to be the cleanest thing in there.’ And they said, ‘No that’s not right, you want the tables to be.’ It was really interesting. It’s interesting, our employees will educate our customers,” Kathleen says.
“They stand up for things they believe in like that,” adds Lisa.
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