By 1995, Lamon Carter was exhausted and defeated. He had worked tirelessly for nine years trying to grow his part-time cleaning company into a profitable, full-time operation. Despite his technical know-how and tireless effort, the business wasn’t taking off. He was ready to throw in the towel.

“I knew I needed to take my company from just a ‘mop-and-bucket man’ to a more legitimate business,” Carter says.

In a last-ditch attempt to turn things around, the Kansas City man attended a seminar given by Don Aslett, a well-known contract cleaner and industry author from Pocatello, Idaho. The event fueled Carter’s passion for his work and, more importantly, introduced him to Laura Dellutri. The chance encounter changed his life.

Dellutri owned a very successful referral service in Omaha that connected area companies with contract cleaners. Her intelligence and enthusiasm so impressed Carter that upon his return home, he wrote to thank her for sharing her knowledge with him. Soon he was making frequent calls to her for advice and before he knew it, he had a mentor.

“It’s funny because I actually had more experience than her,” Carter says. “But she was further along than me. She had the business savvy and the charisma for customer service.”

The duo’s relationship forged ahead and within two years they were business partners.

Worth the effort
Carter’s tale illustrates the innumerable benefits of a mentoring relationship. An inexperienced cleaner has the priceless opportunity to pick the brain of a successful, established leader in the industry at no charge.

The mentoring relationship tends to be a bit more beneficial to the mentoree than the mentor, Carter acknowledges.

While contractors should be discerning about how easily they dispense business advice and to whom, the fear of creating competition shouldn’t deter companies from trying to help others in the industry.

Jim Simmons, vice president of FBG Service Corp., Omaha, Neb., has mentored many small cleaning companies through his work with Building Service Contractors Association International (BSCAI) and says the benefits outweigh any potential threats.

“We’ve found that there’s been very few, if any, cases where helping a smaller company become better at what they do has negatively impacted us,” Simmons says. “It almost always ends up being an advantage.”

At first glance, it may be difficult for some cleaners to see the advantages. Simmons says not only is there personal satisfaction in mentoring, it also benefits the bottom line.

“If they know what they are doing they’ll be more competitive and they won’t come in 50 percent less than what we’re bidding,” Simmons says.

In fact, there is some risk in not helping others in the industry better run their businesses: “If a small group comes in and doesn’t know what they are doing, the client gets a bad taste in their mouth and may decide to go in-house,” he adds.

Low-ball bids and loss of contract cleaning jobs hurt everyone in the business. But rather than withholding help, cleaners who are worried about losing business to a mentoree can use a non-compete agreement to set boundaries. In their referral business, Carter and Dellutri help plenty of up-and-comers by providing training and certification. To get these benefits, however, the companies must agree not to solicit the duo’s existing clients.

Now that Carter has graduated from protégé to mentor, he views his current mentoring work as a type of karmic payback for the help Dellutri gave him just a few years ago.

“No one ever succeeds in life without reaching back to open the door for the next person,” says Carter. “By helping someone else, you’re showing gratitude for those who helped you.”

Dellutri is a bit more practical. Although she loves the personal satisfaction of mentoring, she also has learned that her kind deeds tend to create profitable returns. Quite simply, mentoring helps her business.

“Mentoring is such a great idea because you are helping the new cleaning contractor with all the years of trial-and-error experience that you can’t put in a textbook,” Dellutri says. “It also is great if you are looking for someone to subcontract business out to.”

Of course, subcontracting and mentoring are not one in the same. Money exchanges hands with a subcontractor when you pay them to do some portion of a job. But there is an even bigger difference.

“With mentor and mentoree, there is actually a relationship,” Carter says. “You become friends and you have a bond. In subcontracting you don’t get as close — you don’t have them in your everyday life.”

That said, it can be advantageous for larger contractors to eventually subcontract with companies they’ve mentored in the past.

“There is no greater benefit than subcontracting business out to a cleaning company that has your same training and philosophies on cleaning,” Carter says.

Searching for the right fit
Networking is key to finding a mentor, as it is in developing any business relationship. With just a letter and some persistence, Carter turned his brief meeting with Dellutri into a long-term relationship.

Carter never goes into a networking situation unprepared. He keeps his business cards in one coat pocket and collects others’ cards in another pocket. He always jots a note or two about the person on the back of their card. Birthdays and children’s names are great conversation starters for a follow-up phone call. Also, always send a thank-you card when someone takes the time to talk or answer questions, Carter says.

Finding a good mentor involves being in the right place at the right time, Dellutri says. So go to the right places, such as cleaning conventions and seminars, college business courses, professional organizations, and vendor visits.

If you aren’t meeting the right people, Simmons suggests simply calling a company you admire.

“Contact a company that’s reputable within the industry,” Simmons says. “If you do that, you should not receive a bad reception.”

To make mentoring sound more palatable, try companies that are not direct competition, such as those in a different location or serving a different niche. Ask the potential mentor to lunch; try to get to know them personally. Be honest about what you are looking for in a mentor. Remember that the mentor is evaluating you as well.

“I look for someone with an open mind, no negative attitude, a hard work ethic and a grateful heart,” Dellutri says.

She also advises owners of small companies to do more listening than talking to gain the most from a mentor relationship. Even if they disagree with the other person’s advice, she suggests protégés keep an open mind.

Dellutri knows that of which she speaks — Carter became wildly successful while under her wing. Dellutri sold her referral company — now operating in two metro areas — to Carter in 1997. He quickly asked her to join him as a partner. She agreed and America’s Cleaning Connection was born.

“Since that time he has mentored me on my weak areas, such as floor care, carpet cleaning and human resources,” Dellutri says. “The best part is Lamon took the office to a level much higher than I ever had during my reign. They say no student is better than his teacher but in this case, the mentoree did better than the mentor.”

Becky Mollenkamp is a free-lance writer and editor based in Des Moines, Iowa.

Tapping into a government-assisted mentoring program
Interested in mentoring? Businesses large and small can mentor contract cleaners in the 8(a) Business Development Program, which assists firms owned by individuals classified as socially and economically disadvantaged.

The Small Business Administration’s Mentor-Protégé Program connects an 8(a) company with a well-established business that can share its expertise. The program also allows mentors to own equity interest of up to 40 percent in a protégé firm to help it raise capital.

Centennial One in Maryland acts as mentor to dozens of small and large 8(a) cleaning companies, both within and outside the SBA program. The company so strongly supports mentoring that it only hires as subcontractors those business that were once its protégés.

“They get paid and learn our trade secrets at the same time,” says Centennial’s vice president, Legusta Floyd. “I’m developing them and they become a part of our corporate image. I’m confident in their skills and abilities.”

To encourage strong relationships and to prevent abuse of the 8(a) contracting system, mentors must sign a one-year commitment.

Although the goal of the program clearly is to assist the small 8(a) protégé, there are perks for the mentor. Despite losing its 8(a) distinction years ago, Centennial One still is able to benefit from the nearly 3 percent of government contracts that are set aside as 8(a). This is because the SBA’s program allows mentor and protégé to joint venture as a small business for any government contract.

To enter the Mentor-Protégé Program, both firms sign a written agreement. The protégé’s local SBA office evaluates and approves the agreement and conducts an annual review for continuation. Protégés can have only one mentor at a time and mentors typically have only one protégé at a time through the SBA program.

For more information about the program, visit the SBA online or contact a local SBA office, which can be located by calling the Small Business Answer Desk at 800/817-5722.

Tackling tough issues
Mentorees should feel free to ask their mentors anything, and to expect an honest answer, says Lamon Carter. His mentor, Laura Dellutri, walked him through many tough issues, including how to fire an employee and how to land bigger accounts. Other questions to ask could include:
  • What types of accounts should I seek?
  • How much should I charge?
  • How much money can I expect to make?
  • When will the business become profitable?
  • How fast should the business grow?
  • When should I add management?
  • How do I deal with customers who won’t pay?
  • Which is the best product or tool to use?
  • How do you balance this career and family?