For four years, Integrated Cleaning Services in Denver ran on autopilot. The staff lost their drive and goals. The company reacted to change instead of being proactive. Then one day, company president B.J. Mandelstam had enough and said “‘time-out.’ We need to change.”

How did the company get this way? Integrated Cleaning Services had experienced tremendous success only one year after Mandelstam bought what was then a mom-and-pop janitorial company. By revamping the entire business, from products to operations to management, she grew the company 600 percent. She and her staff were able to ride that wave of success and not worry about the future. But this became the problem.

“People need goals or they start to settle into a comfort zone,” says Mandelstam. “People lose energy if they don’t have goals to work for. Over time staff will only do the amount of work required. You lose your drive.”

It took a seminar on business growth to wake Mandelstam up and make her realize she needed to re-evaluate her company’s goals. But she is not alone when it comes to the need for a wake-up call.

“You can get so caught up in the daily grind that you fail to step outside to measure and benchmark your business,” says Ernest Clark, Jr., CBSE, president, Mister Kleen Maintenance Co., Alexandria, Va. “Sooner or later you must measure progress.”

Some companies are fortunate to have a system, such as a board of directors, already in place to monitor if a company is still growing, or is beginning to stagnate. Others, like Mandelstam, need to make the call on their own and find other eyes to help measure progress.

Benchmarking basics
An owner might take a step back for any number of reasons. It could be an urgent circumstance, such as revenues dipping into the red. It could be a desire to ensure that products or technologies are up-to-date. Maybe it’s time to research new markets or new certifications. Or, there might not be a trigger — just that it’s in the company’s best interest for an owner to routinely evaluate his company.

Benchmarking can help propel a company ahead of its competition or regain a foothold in the martketplace. If business is stagnating or declining, owners need to find out why and how to rectify the situation.

BSCs should continually track data needed for benchmarking, says Paul Condie, vice president, GMI Building Services, San Diego, Calif. That way, when owners find themselves needing to take a time-out, they will have the resources on hand.

Executives can benchmark their companies against past successes or to data compiled from industry resources such as the Building Service Contractors Association International or ISSA.

For the most accurate studies, executives should stick with benchmarking their companies against their own past results. This way they can see exactly what is working and what isn’t, says Condie. Plus, they can see if any past changes are truly having an effect on the company.

Benchmarking against other organizations often can lead to an apples-to-oranges problem because both organizations probably don’t operate exactly the same, says Condie. But benchmarking against the competition can help executives get an accurate picture of their position in the market, he adds.

While BSCs may be capable of benchmarking best practices with their own staff, it may be beneficial to look outside the company for a fresh perspective.

Mandelstam felt her company was at a stand-still when she asked consultant John Walker of Managemen to come in and benchmark her company against his (OS1) procedures. She had spent a year researching what her company’s problems were, but knew she needed help finding the solutions. Walker compared how well Integrated Cleaning Services set up janitor closets, maintained equipment, trained employees and handled detail and project work, among other things.

One major problem Mandelstam identified was machine maintenance. Profits shrunk because of constant vacuum repairs. Through her consultation with Walker, however, Mandelstam learned to keep a schedule for changing filters, and log the run times of vacuums. Now, she knows when machines are more apt to break down. Also, she learned how she can prolong a product’s life by recycling it to another account where it may be used less. Now, less money is spent on repairs.

Sometimes, bringing in a fresh pair of experienced eyes will provide new direction for the company. Walker forced Mandelstam to look at problems from different angles and ask questions she wouldn’t have thought of on her own.

At one account, Mandelstam wanted more space to use as janitor closets, but she dismissed the request because she knew the area she wanted was already occupied by the building tenants. Walker didn’t let her drop the issue so easily. He had Mandelstam give the facility manager a list of desires. In the end, Mandelstam didn’t get everything off her list, but she did get more than she would have believed, including that extra space.

Peer group
Consultants can add great expertise when owners are looking to improve specific needs, such as new technology, products or cleaning methods, says John Ezzo, president, New Image Building Services, Inc., Mount Clemons, Mich. But for general business matters, Ezzo turns to his peers.

For the past five years, Ezzo has been part of a peer group made up of industry colleagues. Currently there are five members of the group, two more than when originally started five years ago. The group was founded by Mr. Kleen Maintenance’s Clark, who set out to find other business leaders in the cleaning industry, each encompassing a different perspective and representing a diverse group in company size, scope and location.

The peer group is sometimes a sounding board for new ideas, a resource for answers and a great benchmarking tool. One of the functions of the peer group is a peer audit where the other four members evaluate the fifth member’s company. The audit includes customer site visits, financial review, sales process review and interviews with the management staff.

“The most revealing activities are the customer site visits and the management interviews,” says Ezzo. “It is amazing what people will tell the peer group that they have never mentioned to the company.”

With multiple industry-experienced minds working together to evaluate a company, each peer audit is a success. The host company always walks away with plenty to work on.

“The weaknesses that are exposed cause me to realize that as good as my company is, there is always room for improvement and often problems discovered that had not yet surfaced,” says Ezzo.

Based on his peer group findings, Ezzo has changed a lot in his company, from restructuring operations management to terminating managers. He even made his vice president a partner in the business thanks to the peer group’s suggestions
Having a consultant come in and tear down your business can be a nerve-wracking experience, but having four colleagues do it doesn’t make it any easier.

“I still remember the first time I had my peer group come in and examine our company from top to bottom,” says Clark. “The minutes seemed like hours as they sat down on the final day and consolidated their feedback and recommendations for me. It’s kind of like wanting to get in better physical condition — you have to really want to do it and it might be a bit painful in the process. But, in the end, we all know it’s the right thing to do to improve.”

Even when their companies are not the host, the members of the peer group still learn how to improve or change their way of business.

“Though I am evaluating another business, I can’t help but learn things that may apply to my business,” says Ezzo. “When I find something that I am doing is working well for the company I am evaluating, my efforts are further validated. The company may be failing at something I was considering doing, which is an opportunity to step back and ask, ‘why is this failing and how can it be fixed.’”

Without change, businesses can not improve. And without taking a time-out to examine a company, an owner might not know if change is needed, or if past changes are working.