Gary Walker maintains he looks nothing like Elvis. It was a case of mistaken identity by a foreign tourist — thanks, he says, to the long state of his sideburns — that likened him to the infamous Mr. Presley. It is no accident, however, that the president of Kansas City, Mo.-based Magic Touch Cleaning now proudly bears the nickname, “The King of Green Cleaning.”

After the mistaken identity incident, a customer jokingly wondered if he’d start calling himself The King of Green Cleaning, and somehow it’s evolved into a serious nickname. Walker has gone above and beyond to live up to it. He works tirelessly as a businessman, building and maintaining relationships with customers and peers, and is also investing in other ventures as sort of a green cleaning ambassador.

A different kind of road

Though he feels he’s living the American Dream, Walker’s path there has been unique.

With natural leadership skills, a dedication to service, a passion for life and a talent for sales, Walker has overcome hardships and challenges with experiences that have been different, difficult and inspiring.

At 17, Walker joined the military. It was his time in basic training that gave him the first taste of cleaning. With great attention to detail and a dedication to excellence, Walker learned how to clean, military-style.

“When you’re in basic training, you learn how to clean and you learn how to clean with very little. Back then, I think we were using pine oil and some towels. We didn’t have a lot to clean with; they made you use all your resources,” Walker says.

Later on, working night-shift security, where part of the duties included cleaning floors, he learned how to use a buffer. The military had much else in store for Walker, however. After he married his high school sweetheart, Trish, Walker worked for the Air Force security police, guarding nuclear-uploaded B-52 bombers in North Dakota, and within a few years he was ordered to Germany.

There, he had the opportunity to work as an undercover police officer — something he’d always wanted to do. It was dangerous work, and he learned that the hard way, when an unfortunate accident in the line of duty left him with two herniated discs and a detached sciatic nerve, rendering him 60 percent disabled and medically retired.

So the couple and their young son, Zach, moved back to Kansas City, and Walker went into sales. The family was doing OK financially but when Walker was approached by a friend who was part-owner of a floor care company to make some extra money before the holidays, he jumped on the chance.

Putting old floor buffing skills to good use, Walker says as soon as he began the part-time work, he fell in love with it and knew it was what he wanted to do.

“You just finally realize at one moment in your life that this is what I’m going to do and it just happened. And it was so easy for me to take it and say, ‘I’m passionate about it,’ because I love to take care of people, I love the service mentality and it just fit,” he says. “It fit so well.”

We can do better

Shortly after Walker’s venture into floor cleaning, the wheels in his head started turning. Some nights, while he was cleaning floors in a bank, he’d observe the janitorial crews as they went about their work, and he didn’t like what he saw.

Walker pulled his friend aside and told him they could do better.

“I didn’t say ‘We can get rich, we can build a huge conglomerate of janitorial chains across the United States.’ I just said, ‘We can do better than this,’ because it was substandard,” Walker says. “I would watch these folks come in and rearrange the dust with a feather duster and they would dump a few trash cans and they would eat some candy off a desk and make a few phone calls.”

Taking pride and putting effort into everything he did was instilled in Walker in the military, and had served him well in his civilian sales career. Starting a cleaning business was a big step — especially because he’d never cleaned a building in his life — but Walker had the confidence, dedication and skills to jump right in.

Health is a big factor in Walker’s everyday life; since his injury in Germany, he’s undergone 13 back surgeries and is in constant pain. Over the past four years, Walker has had some health scares. In fact, Walker spent most of 2004 running the business from his bed. The worst was when his morphine pump malfunctioned in the middle of the night and an overdose nearly killed him.

“I started to think about, ‘Is this it? That’s it? There’s no legacy, there’s nothing,’” he says. “So that changed the way I operate, the way I look at things. I started looking at the business and started thinking about what are we doing for people, how are we taking care of them.”

Walker was never a stranger to the harshness of cleaning chemicals, and as a hands-on owner of his company, he experienced the sting of breathing in toxic fumes and the burn of chemicals on his hands. Those issues were also a huge motivation in his switch to green cleaning procedures. When Walker’s sinuses collapsed, he knew firsthand how damaging chemicals can be.

“We were starting to grow and you start thinking, you’re exposing your associates to it, you’re exposing your clients to it, and we’ve got to make a change in how we’re running our business,” he says.

Five years ago, green products didn’t work very well. Slowly but surely, however, products started to improve and it became more of a reality to be using them in commercial cleaning, he says. Then he looked at the process: how they were cleaning, including air quality, equipment and ergonomics in the green cleaning plan.

“I was just fascinated by the whole thing and it’s developed into an obsession of mine because I’m a very passionate guy,” Walker says. “I’m fired up about how our industry wants to make changes and move in cutting-edge directions. I’ve just seen so many changes in the last few years, in chemicals, in equipment, in processes.”

Spreading the message

Walker’s passion has translated to an infectious attitude that affects employees, customers and his community. Perhaps “green prophet” or “ambassador of green” are more fitting nicknames than The King of Green Cleaning for Walker, whose unabashed zeal has landed him magazine articles, speaking engagements with esteemed organizations such as the U.S. Green Building Council, interviews with local television news, a special green cleaning column in the local paper and involvement in a recently-aired episode of ABC’s “Extreme Home Makeover.”

“We need to get it way into the mainstream,” he says in reference to his green cleaning message. “I want to get it out and let everybody else hear it. I want to shout it from the mountaintop.”

That message starts at the source: with his workforce.

All employees are immersed in the green culture Walker has created with Magic Touch Cleaning. From internal habits such as recycling and other environmentally sound procedures to providing a library full of literature about the green movement, the Walker truly wants all his employees to be on the same page.

New hires are usually from outside the industry, Walker says, because “I want folks that I can bring in and bring them up into our system and create good habits that we have within our structure.”

Administrative Assistant Andrea Barnett runs the newest branch of the business, an online store called “Return to Green,” and was new to the industry and new to green when she was hired. She was assigned a curriculum of green cleaning and environmental issue literature, and has developed her own passion.

“It’s changed my life, to be honest with you,” she says. “It really has, I’m not just being hokey about it.“

So, not only are people learning from Walker, but they’re taking that knowledge home and applying it in their personal lives. That, Walker says, is the brilliance of the business design.

“When we did the culture shift within our corporation to go green, we wanted people to be immersed in that culture of understanding why we went that direction. It wasn’t a big marketing gimmick; it was a cultural shift, it was changing how we conduct ourselves. Why we recycle, why we use the chemicals we use, why we use the process we use and why we are constantly trying to improve upon that process,” Walker says. “If they don’t understand, how can they embrace the process?”

Employees enjoy working for Walker because of the personal attention he pays to employees’ happiness and well-being. He cares about how you’re doing, not just what you’re doing, Barnett says.

“He isn’t just concerned about what’s going on in the company, he’s concerned about what’s going on with us as individuals and I think that’s part of the reason he’s taken to green, was as much for his health as well as employees’ health,” she says.

The green cleaning movement started as a concern for the environment. But for Walker, environmentally friendliness starts with people — after all, humans are part of the environment and if you’re taking care of humankind, you’re also taking care of the earth, he says.

“If all we think about is trees and streams and we don’t think about ourselves — and us polluting us, making each other sick — then we’re missing the whole point,” he says. “I’m just trying to get the message out where people will think about it and think about what we’re doing.”

CleanLink: Additional Info
Smart Podcasts For The Commercial Cleaning Industry

In the podcast, A Green Culture Starts From Within, Gary Walker, president of Magic Touch Cleaning in Kansas City, Mo., explains how he infused his staff with a green mentality, why it’s so important and the results of the attitude shift.