Gen-Xers — or those born anywhere from 1961 to 1983 — were, in their young adult years, labeled as lazy, passive, dismissive, pessimistic, distrustful of authority, and without direction or identity.
As they enter mid-life, however, these reformed slackers have found success using the more flattering characteristics of their generation to their benefit.
Their individualism helps them think confidently outside the box; their desire to balance work and life results in the embracing of technology to become more efficient and productive; their flexible, team-player attitudes helps them operate comfortably between two very different generations — Baby Boomers and Millennials; and their exposure to a more diverse population, as workplace minority and women populations have grown, has enabled them to embrace and build upon differences.
"Gen-X building service contractors look at business a little bit different from their parents or grandparents," says Taylor Bruce, president of IH Services, Greenville, S.C. "They want to make a difference, they want to be green, they want to have fun, they want more family time, they don't like confrontation, they like time off, they like vacation, they want to dress casual — but they all want to make money."
More 30- and 40-somethings are rising up through the ranks of the cleaning industry and making names for themselves as leaders, innovators, networkers, and stewards of their workers, communities and the environment. Most Gen-X BSCs either grew up in the industry and took over the company from a parent as a second-generation business owner, or they got some professional experience in the cleaning industry, working their way up before seizing a big opportunity to run a cleaning company.
Gen-X leaders don't pretend to know it all; in fact, they are open to criticism from others and aren't afraid to put themselves under the magnifying glass. After all, identifying weaknesses and faults means that those areas could stand for improvement, and if there's one thing successful Gen-Xers have in common, it's that they want to keep getting better. There is no such thing as "good enough."
"They are much quicker to adapt to change and are not content to be part of the environment of the industry, but to affect that environment through their action, personal involvement and leadership," says John Barrett, CEO of Kimco Corp., Harwood Heights, Ill.
In essence, a generation defined by being hard to define has come into its own. Perhaps a lack of identity in their younger years fueled the fire that led them to blaze their own trails. Be on the lookout for these up-and-coming Gen-X BSCs — or "young guns," as Bruce likes to call them.
Scott Stevenson, President, CEO
KleenMark, Madison, Wis.
Hands-on. Competitive. Consistent. Supportive. Those are just some of the words that define the work ethic of Scott Stevenson. Stevenson, who took over his father's business in 2003, is one of the many Gen-X second-generation BSCs stepping up to become leaders in the industry.
Other than a stint in Montana for college, Stevenson — the youngest of six — has always worked in the family business (formerly DnS Janitorial, which was an offshoot of Hoffman Chemical), which gives him a more personal stake in the success of KleenMark and of the contract cleaning industry as whole.
"Growing up in the industry, you start to form a passion for people and that's really what our industry is about — we're not really in the cleaning business, we're in the people business," he says. "Employees, customers, potential customers; you have to have an understanding of the people."
With 750 employees and an increasing territory, it's hard for a company president to stay on top of what's going on at each account — but Stevenson, an active, tenacious triathlete in his spare time, tries. After all, day-to-day operations essentially depend on the behavior of those employees, he says. A bad day for a front-line worker could result in losing an account and reflect on the entire company.
"It's so labor-intensive and there are a lot of opportunities for failure. Something can go wrong at any time, so if you don't have your finger on the pulse of what's going on at all times — let's put it this way: you snooze, you lose," he says.
To encourage camaraderie and the integration of a progressive company culture, Stevenson created and implemented a franchise model of continuing education for both employees and customers: KleenMark University. As it's become more difficult to get customers and employees together physically for class, Stevenson plans to use technology to deliver the KU classroom to them.
Gen-Xers' ability to adapt to changes is key to their continued success in an industry that is quickly evolving. Technology is driving that change, he says, as is the economy.
"For us, you can't do tomorrow what you did yesterday and expect positive results. You have to look forward into tomorrow and forecast where you want to be," he says. "I love the saying of Wayne Gretzky: 'I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.' It's a great business analogy. At KleenMark, we're constantly asking, 'Where is the puck going to be?'"
Jamie Van Vuren
Jamie Van Vuren, President
Bee Line Building Service & Supply, Elk Grove Village, Ill.
Jamie Van Vuren is a second-generation contract cleaning company owner, but she went about it in a rather unorthodox way. Her father had run his Chicago-based cleaning company since the 1950's, but even as she took the company over in 1996, she had never worked a day for him. However, thanks to the leadership he gave her as a father — encouraging her to go to college, major in Spanish, get an MBA and earn her success — Van Vuren and her husband, Andre, were able to take over the small, four-account business and grow it into Bee Line Building Service and Supply. The couple also started a second company, Bee Line Construction, and combined, the two have about 250 employees.
Being encouraged to follow her own path certainly helped Van Vuren take the business in a new direction when her path led back to the company. Like all small business owners struggling to grow their companies, Van Vuren has worn many different hats over the years. But now, she says, she has learned how to delegate, has managers in place who understand how the company needs to run, and has taken on more of a strategic planning and marketing role.
"I'm very Type A — go, go, go — and as far as work and leadership I've kind of become a master of delegating," she says. "I'm very self-motivated; we're always striving to grow and be one step ahead of the competition by reinventing ourselves and keeping that competitive edge."
With two young children, Jamie and Andre find themselves juggling their roles running the company with that of being parents and running a household. Despite the rushed pace of life, she says it's worth it to have that precious hour right after school gets out with her kids.
"We run our family like a business and we always have, otherwise things aren't going to get done," Van Vuren says. "It's all on a system. A very calculated system. We make sure that we're there for them and for the business, too."
She's also very active and competitive in her personal life, on the marathon course. Not much of a competitive athlete prior to 2007, when she ran her first marathon (thanks, in part, to a bet with fellow Gen-Xer Scott Stevenson of Kleenmark), Van Vuren already has three Half Ironman Triathlons under her belt and will be competing in her first full Ironman through Ironman Executive Challenge this summer.
Jill Frey, President
Cummins Building Maintenance, Prospect, Ohio
In such a globalized world, BSCs are expanding not only regionally and nationally, but internationally as well. For second-generation business owner Jill Frey, expanding into foreign markets seemed like a natural progression. Crossing the Mexican border to service accounts in that country is something her father probably never would have considered, Frey says, but it has helped her gain recognition as a businesswoman. Last year, she was recognized as an honoree of Global Exec Woman's International Women of Influence Awards.
Frey took over her father's company in 1996, just a few years after graduating college with a communications degree. It was a sink or swim opportunity, she says, and she was determined to swim. The company at that time was small — run out of her parents' basement — but having grown up in the business, working there during summers while in school, gave her an intuition about running a cleaning company that business school would not have given her.
"I had a sixth sense for it and it's just kind of ingrained in me," she says. "I had cleaned, so I go out there and look at areas that I knew were hard to clean when I was cleaning. And I can still strip and wax floors, I can still get out there and talk business or talk cleaning to my employees and that means a lot."
A self-described common-sense driven problem-solver, she moved the company to a different facility, "started selling like a madwoman," and grew the company some 300 percent since then. She attributes its success to diversifying into security services, and her own persistence and commitment to being an exception to the rule that second-generation businesses have a high failure rate.
As female leadership in the industry is a relatively new trend, Frey says she appreciates how welcoming the men have been toward her and other women. That convivial environment has translated to business partnerships. In 2009, she partnered with Kimco Corp. to secure an international contract.
"Not only did she secure an international contract for a major American corporation across three countries, but as her U.S. partner, I can assure you that she's been bossing us around quite effectively the whole time," says Barrett. "The results speak for themselves and her comfort in the leadership position of the relationship is all the more remarkable as our firm is easily 20 times her size."
Janelle Bruland, President
Management Services Northwest Inc., Ferndale, Wash.
From a very young age, Janelle Bruland had a knack for working with people to help them realize their potential. While she's come a long way from tutoring fellow students in elementary school, her service-oriented personality has remained at the core of her leadership style — and has helped escalate her company's growth, placing it on the Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Private Companies in America lists in 2008 and 2009 and on Washington State's top 100 Fastest Growing Companies in 2008 and 2009.
Bruland, who purchased the company in 1995 and grew it from 10 employees to about 160, has also been honored as one of the top women entrepreneurs in the state of Washington.
With a business degree, a background in property and facility management consulting and a passion for growth and strategic planning, Bruland initially took on the company as a side job to supplement her income and still have some time to raise her three children.
"As I got out and met with clients, because of my business and management background, I was able to relate to some of the business owners and managers," she says. "I had been in their shoes because I had been in facilities management so I understood their problems and challenges and I was able to relate to them."
Management Services Northwest eventually took over as Bruland's full-time job — partly because it allowed her to spend time with her kids, thanks to laptops and smartphones.
"One way that technology has helped me is I was able to set up a home office where I can work some scheduled time," she says. "I don't want to be putting in 60 hour workweeks and never seeing my kids and not seeing them grow up so I'm definitely one of those who puts my family first."
Bruland stays connected, though, as a member of the Building Service Contractors Association International (BSCAI) board of directors, networking professionally using sites such as LinkedIn, and making the company available online with a modern, navigable Web site and frequent Twitter updates.
Technology plays a big role in not only her work life but in her personal life, helping her achieve balance between home and the office. Just as she schedules time with clients and employees, technology also enables her to schedule family time.
Her family activities and "kid time" are scheduled with her three children — who also have electronic calendars to keep track of their lives.
"One of the things that many of us do in business is we do one-to-ones with our colleagues and our direct reports," she says. "I can take that and use those things for family improvement, too. I schedule one-to-ones with my kids. At first it seemed strange to put your child in your calendar, but if you're not spending that quality and quantity time individually with your kids, then what's wrong with scheduling out a half day to take off work and spend it one-on-one with your children?"
James Heck, President
Team MJV, Lafayette, Ind.
The leadership style of James Heck can be traced back to his childhood. With a father who was a basketball coach, Heck literally grew up in the gym, watching his dad coach others. As a high schooler, he joined the team, and was coached by his father, whose lessons and guidance on and off the court stuck with Heck for life.
Heck's experience on the court led him to the cleaning industry. He continued to play basketball in college, at the University of Toledo — a team supported by alumnus and founder of Impact Products, James R. Findlay, who offered Heck a summer internship. That turned into a full-time product manager position upon graduation; three years later he took a job with Stockdale Co. LLC as a manufacturer's rep. During that tenure, he developed a vendor/customer relationship with Team MJV founder Marc Vaughn, who is also a Gen-Xer.
In 1999, Vaughn hired Heck as a sales rep. But Heck went above and beyond that job description.
"When you're a small business like we were 10 years ago, you wear a lot of hats," Heck says. "We would be selling by day and cleaning buildings by night and patching up problems in the morning and moving forward. It was a very interesting and exciting time in my life."
With his commitment to "the Team," industry experience and expertise of the contract cleaning side of operations, Heck was promoted to "head coach" of the company. Soon after that, a concerted effort to change company culture, from that of managing to that of coaching, and focus on the "team" aspect of Team MJV, commenced.
"It took a little while for it to catch on but I feel our team members respond better to us, and I think all of us — even in management — respond better to the coaching team member scenario rather than breathing down somebody's neck, managing them and telling them what to do all the time," Heck says.
The difference between managing and coaching a staff is the similar to the lesson from the proverb of giving someone a fish vs. teaching that person to fish, Heck says.
Coaching is the recognition of employees or team members for their individual strengths, and working to create stronger members of the team. Managers are even called "coaches."
"We try to coach our regional operations coaches this way: don't just go do it, coach somebody, teach somebody and educate somebody on how to do it, so if and when the issue and opportunity comes up again, you're not thrown into the same scenario," he says.
Jeffrey Packee, Eastern Division President, COO
Marsden Holding Corp., St. Paul, Minn.
With a degree in marketing and a minor in sociology, Jeffrey Packee started out selling life insurance but his desire for a management position led him to jobs with a few different cleaning companies — one national and one smaller regional. Packee has always been interested in working in teams with individuals with diverse skill sets and areas of expertise, and his desire to lead has catapulted him to a top position in a national company.
Now the president and COO of the Eastern Division of Marsden Holding Corp., a security and facility services company based in St. Paul, Minn., Packee is a corporate success story. He worked his way up the ladder at Marsden, starting at Milwaukee-based CleanPower (owned by Marsden), which hired Packee in 1999 as general manager/executive VP of operations, and where he served as company president from 2001 to 2008. He now oversees CleanPower in addition to other Marsden companies east of the Mississippi.
While he was with CleanPower, Packee helped grow the company more than 300 percent, making fastest-growing companies lists year after year for double-digit organic growth. Part of that growth was also due to Marsden Holding's relatively bigger pockets creating the opportunity for acquisitions.
"Our generation realizes that things are always going to change, and so you've always got to be evolving or doing something different or new, and that's a part of the culture at Marsden Holding Corp.," he says.
However, as companies are becoming bigger, the personalized service that mom and pop companies are known for must still be a priority for all BSCs, Packee says. This is where care needs to be taken with technology, which has done a lot to increase the efficiencies of communication, but it can also take away from the personal touch that customers need, he says.
"You have to be able to stay face-to-face, or you become a commodity," Packee says.
Gen-Xers tend to be in the industry because they truly want to be, Packee says, using himself as an example. He's changed employers a few times but decided to stay in the cleaning industry because it was something about which he is passionate and truly enjoys.
Packee's leadership is based on teamwork and transparency in decision-making.
"I would say that we emphasize consensus-building, that we all have input," he says. "Ultimately it will be me making the decision but we need to hear everybody's thoughts so everybody understands why we are going in a particular direction."
That sociological aspect of management is indicative of the generation, says Barrett.
"I see this generation as being much more in tune with their employees' feelings and taking the time to understand what motivates them," he says. "Packee is a highly participative manager and I believe he represents this class of manager in particular. They care, and that caring is real and deep."
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