Clean Team Founder Makes Moves to Leave a Commercial Cleaning Legacy
Clean Team’s journey isn’t the typical flash-in-a-pan success story. Founder Bob Armbruster is a man on a mission — a mission that he formulated early in life.
To hear Armbruster describe his journey is to hear the hard-won wisdom of a man that formed a plan, carefully went about his preparations, and made his move methodically — one step at a time — until Clean Team Inc., which started in Toledo, Ohio, was a force to be reckoned with.
When most high schoolers spend the waning days of their senior year eagerly counting down the days until summer and whatever comes next, Armbruster was already putting the pieces into place and laying the foundation for what would, in 1996, become Clean Team Inc. The deliberate, careful research Armbruster conducted in those early days was not just valuable in terms of building industry-specific knowledge, but it also helped provide the network of contacts that allowed Armbruster to expand his pool of resources.
“I knew from the start that college wasn’t going to be my next step,” he describes. “I developed a plan, chose a strategy and got locked in on the vision — much to the chagrin of family and friends.”
He was smart enough to avoid worrying about being a trailblazer, and instead, wisely, saw the value in carefully observing those that went before and following in the best of their tracks.
Off and Running
When he felt comfortable with what he wanted the cultural foundation of his operation to look like, Armbruster was intentional about what would come next: rapid and comprehensive education in anything and everything he could find. Operations were small; Armbruster was responsible for everything from site visits to closing sales calls, managing inventory, and cleaning during the evenings, just getting his feet wet.
By 2004, Armbruster was burning the candle at both ends. It was then that his dad came to his aid and presented a flier that he’d come across while visiting with a client. This was Armbruster's introduction to Building Service Contractors Association International (BSCAI) and their Contracting Success Conference that was happening nearby.
Armbruster stopped in and sat in on a session called “Plateaus and Growth”. This proved to be a turning point for him and his company. Panelists described revenues in the tens and hundreds of millions; and to Armbruster, sitting at a few thousand, the sky suddenly seemed limitless.
“That first BSCAI event was like drinking from a fire hose,” he recalls. “I filled up a whole legal pad of notes.”
Using what he learned, Armbruster took his mom-and-pop organization out of the house and into a real office in 2005. He learned how to hire a staff that would allow him to focus on things that could grow the business, and also retain some separation of his home and work lives.
Looking at Clean Team’s success in the Toledo market, it was decided that to maintain growth, it was time to move into a more regional operation. Armbruster began researching acquisitions and took in every session and seminar on the topic he could find, learning how to value a company in the space and how to conduct diligence.
“We did our first deal around 2010, a couple years after I started seeking out education,” he remembers. “It was a smaller company, but it got our feet wet.”
Clean Team’s acquisition strategy is, like many other aspects of the company, measured, deliberate and grounded in good intel. One of the many skills Armbruster developed along the way is the specific process that Clean Team now uses for all vetting of potential acquisitions. Does it meet the benchmarks they’ve identified as critical for success?
The strategy is savvy from a geographic standpoint: start local, grow slowly, and stay consistent from region to region. It’s the challenge of developing a consistent workplace culture that often becomes the pitfall of businesses that are looking to expand too quickly.
“It’s not by dumb luck,” Armbruster reflects. “We try to find companies that fit our culture. It has to be a win-win.”
Once his strategy was in place, things for Clean Team continued to take off: one deal after another, all the while documenting what was done right and wrong, learning each time. Every acquisition has been successful, and Armbruster credits that to understanding the industry and knowing how to integrate.
The operation now maintains between 1,200-1,500 employees at any given time, spread across 17 offices in 11 states, and Clean Team is able to grow quicker than was possible early on. Armbruster attributes these successes to resources available today that weren’t an option early in his career, as well as a refined rinse-and-repeat model.
Whether it’s an existing arm of Clean Team, or a newly acquired entity, the office culture that Armbruster created is the product of years of trial-and-error. It has been honed to a fine, easily repeatable point over the years of watching workers come and go for a variety of reasons.
When this was happening, Armbruster started paying closer attention to the patterns of employees that were coming and going. Though it looked like a hiring challenge, Clean Team was actually dealing with a retention issue. They were having success bringing people through the front door, but what does that matter if they’re being lost out the back door just as quickly?
Interestingly, Clean Team’s approach to flexible work scheduling became the key to their higher retention rates. Rather than hoping to find three or four full-time employees to fill out a local staff, Clean Team doesn’t mind — and, in fact, often prefers — to find a handful of part-time workers that are willing to split the shifts. Scheduling is more flexible, employees are happier, and people stick around longer.
It was a bit of foresight that has helped navigate various hiring challenges over the years.
“You have to know who you are trying to hire and why you are trying to bring them into the company,” Armbruster remarks. “You are providing a lifestyle as well as a salary. If you figure out what you’re looking for, and you know how to recruit the right people, you find the right job without the arms race of higher salaries.”
Armbruster would stress, wisely, that this mindset works for Clean Team because the leadership team took their time, monitored the results and made strong decisions incrementally. All the while, they anticipated that there would be unique factors they’d have to consider as they went along.
“I never had the bad habits or the woe-is-me stories you hear from owners who grew up in this industry,” he adds. “I came into this not knowing anything, so we did what we did, took bits and pieces, made things our own. But we never got into a negative mindset.”
Clean Team did eventually hire an industry consultant that worked with the company for a number of years. They place a big emphasis on being open to asking for help with various challenges and questions.
“I learned early that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel; you can just ask — someone has probably already dealt with this before,” Armbruster says.
Embracing New Tools
Armbruster credits an operating system called EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System), a sort of behavioral approach to running a business, for helping formulate a strategy for analyzing and refining performance.
“It’s one of the best things we’ve done as a company,” says Armbruster.
After the system was recommended to Armbruster, he took the plunge and has been using it successfully for the last year or so. He also hired an implementer to visit quarterly and keep the system on track, helping run it from the outside. To hear it described, it helps keep everything pushing in the same direction.
Armbruster is able to use the system to help assess how employees are performing.
“Forcing someone to stick around an organization in a role that doesn’t work for them isn’t fair to either the worker or the company,” says Armbruster.
The process also placed a new emphasis on transparency, making it clear to everyone that has a stake in the success of the business that their role helps the entire team. Armbruster especially loves using his experience to provide a step into the system for those who need that guidance.
“It’s a way for somebody that has that drive to own a business, but maybe doesn’t have the business background or education to do it. They can join our franchise model and run a business with the support of the corporate office — we can support these businesses,” says Armbruster. “We’re around 115 offices at the moment and work around the northern Ohio region and expanded to Michigan, Indiana and Central Florida.”
Starting locally, expanding regionally, making a national impact? What could be next for Clean Team?
“It’s hard work to run any business," says Armbruster. "You can have the secrets, but you still have to go out and do the work.”
Armbruster has put in the work and doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon. The future of Clean Team looks bright.
Jackson Silvanik is the Managing Editor for Contracting Profits, and lives and works in Lexington, Kentucky. He joined Trade Press Media in 2021 and also edits and writes for Facility Cleaning Decisions, Sanitary Maintenance and CleanLink.com.