Nothing tests the true colors of a group of people — whether it’s a family or a business — like a crisis. An emergency situation can either bring people together to face it head-on, or it can expose apathy and detachment from the well-being of the group. 

In April 2011, the mettle of Rite Way Service was tested when a series of extraordinarily strong and deadly thunderstorms and tornadoes swept through the South, destroying the homes of a handful of employees and damaging the homes of dozens more in hard-hit Tuscaloosa, Ala. 

The Birmingham, Ala.-based building service contractor, which employs about 3,000 people throughout the Southeast, sprang to action immediately, collecting monetary donations at its corporate headquarters as well as organizing an emergency drive for necessities for their employees.

There were actually two sets of storms within about a week, says Travis Smith, area manager for Nashville. At the time of the storms, he was living and working in Tuscaloosa as a district manager for Rite Way, and his home and yard sustained some damage in the first group of storms. 

“We were trying to clean up from that mess when a week later the big tornadoes came through and actually ripped through the middle of Tuscaloosa,” Smith says. 

The history-making storm that hit Tuscaloosa on April 27, 2011, produced a mile-wide twister with winds that may have exceeded 260 miles per hour, qualifying as an F5 — leaving a trail of devastation that included dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. 

At the time, Smith oversaw about 35 employees at a Tuscaloosa tire plant — four of whom lost everything they owned to the storms — and he was at work when the tornado touched down.

“One of the things that Rite Way did was to put together an immediate need drive within the company, and everyone rallied together and came up with items that these people were going to need just to survive for the next three or four days until more permanent assistance came in,” he says.

From bottled water to clothing and toiletries, the donations from employees at Rite Way filled the van that Smith drove to Birmingham a few days later, after Tuscaloosa roads had been cleared. 

“I had worked for several different companies over the years and I had never worked for a company where everyone came together like that when everybody needed it,” Smith says. “Not only did they have all that stuff, but they had 15 to 20 members of senior management out in the parking lot to help carry this stuff and load it into the van for me.”

Anthony Lepore, the CEO, was one of the first people to start loading up the van with bottles of water, Smith adds. 

Lepore, who became president of Rite Way in 2003, says coming together as a group to help their own is just an example of the company culture that prioritizes people over everything else. The spirit of giving is something he has worked hard at ingraining into the employee ethos.

He is most certainly an entrepreneur — having owned a small business in Birmingham after moving there from Detroit in 1978  — but there is something almost evangelical about the way he talks about treating people with respect and dignity. 

“People need to feel worthwhile, and accommodating that need is the definition of respect,” Lepore says. “The opposite is forcing someone to do something, and that’s not how we work. We like ‘buy-in.’ That’s what truly drives behavior.”


The Rite Way family

Rite Way focuses on giving people opportunities to be successful, and it goes so far as to refer to employees as “internal customers” — as opposed to “external customers,” or clients — in an effort to empower them to succeed and respect each other. 

In a recent visit to the Rite Way headquarters, numerous employees described the company culture as one that is “preached” to them — and it’s one they happily repeat as gospel.

“It’s something that’s been preached from day one: showing appreciation, not being negative, not gossiping, and a continuance of that is helping our brothers when there’s a downtime,” says Angela Stern, corporate director of strategic customer relations. “There was a serious downtime last April.”

Employees took joy in the fact they were helping each other out in a true time of need, and to be able to alleviate some of their pain, Stern says. 

Rite Way, as an employer, has a great reputation in the region, says Smith, who had worked in the cleaning industry for a decade before joining Rite Way in early 2011. He had come across front line Rite Way employees over the years and sensed a loyalty in them that is uncommon in the contract cleaning business. It’s very rare, Smith says, to have someone who makes $8 to $10 an hour stick with a company for 25 years, and Rite Way has several such employees — and it’s because they’re treated well and appreciated.

“After seeing how the company supported and came together and were willing to do whatever they could to help out [after the tornadoes], it just makes you appreciate things more and definitely gives you more respect for the people you work with,” Smith says. 

That can be traced back to the company’s culture, vision, and even tagline: “A culture. A service. A way of doing things right.” At Rite Way, it’s all about taking care of people.

When Vice President of Finance and Administration Rhonda Siegel started at the company 27 years ago, there were about 300 employees. Though the company has seen continuous growth since then — expanding into 12 states and adding thousands of positions — the small-company culture of family has remained.

“Many of us have worked together so long, we are like our own family, and that part of it has not changed,” Siegel says. “We still have those relationships and a lot of really long-term, wonderful employees that make us what we are.”

Lepore is interested in not only respecting and taking care of his employees, but also in examining just who they are as people and accommodating them as unique individuals with the different strengths they bring to the table. Part of that requires an understanding of behavioral styles and how they can make or break workplace relationships.

In analyzing people, each has a dominant behavioral trait, followed by a secondary or passive trait, and Lepore uses these four traits as the guide: relater, socializer, thinker and director. While there are varying degrees of dominance, most people are influenced by one more trait than the others. Lepore, for instance, is director-dominant and then a socializer. 

When employees know, first, what their dominant behavioral styles are, and second, what their coworkers’ or clients’ dominant behavioral styles are, it can greatly benefit social interaction.

With such an intense focus on healthy workplace relationships, Lepore thought it necessary to document how Rite Way employees should treat each other and their customers. Five years ago he developed a list of 33 “relationship builders.” Some examples include:

• Take ownership of your customers’ problems — even if you’re not the cause of them.

• Find ways to surprise and delight your customers (internal and external).

• Your attitude is your personal signature. Make sure that people associate a positive, helpful attitude when they hear or read your name.

• Start with a clean slate. Do not carry around past, negative experiences that you’ve had with customers or co-workers.

• When you make a promise, keep it.

Lepore discusses how the company uses the relationship builders and behavioral styles to instill a “can-do” attitude in employees. Used correctly, the relationship builders help employees learn to interact with each other and communicate successfully in order to accomplish their goals. (Lepore discusses his favorite relationship-builder in this CleanTips video.)

Practicing the relationship builders, Lepore says, can help employees, particularly in sales, improve customer service for potential and existing clients.  

Even though in the post-recessionary business climate, loyalty is not what it used to be, Rite Way appeals to customers that have similar values.

“These things are important to us, and if they’re important to our potential customer, the retention is there,” Lepore says. “People are important to customers, too. There’s an element of culture out there that this is refreshing to. People aren’t just a number anymore. They’re not just a statistic. I think that’s different.”


External customers

People are, in fact, very important to customers. From the people who are cleaning their buildings to the people they are communicating with on a regular basis about their accounts, customers value being able to be confident in their contractor’s hires.

“Their people have been there a long time, that’s the telling tale to me,” says Stephanie Walker, managing director at Corporate Realty Management, a property management firm in Birmingham. 

In the 11 years Walker has worked with Rite Way on servicing some of the facilities she manages, key staffers have not changed very often.

“It’s all about the people. They’ve got to be able to do a good job. The ones that are there that put forth the effort, they’ve been there forever. And that’s part of why I’m so comfortable with them. It’s like talking to family — and it probably shouldn’t be,” she adds with a laugh. 

The ability to partner with her cleaning contractor has been instrumental in Walker’s green cleaning education; in 2010, Rite Way received ISSA’s Cleaning Industry Management Standard (CIMS) with honors and Green Building (CIMS-GB) certifications. Walker decided to mine Rite Way for more information about how green cleaning can fit into the larger facility maintenance and green building picture. 

“I went and spent a half day with Rite Way people to see what they had to go through, what they recommended, what they learned out of the process,” Walker says. “We work with a lot of architects, a lot of people, but [Rite Way] is involved enough and knowledgeable enough that we spent time with them and I got a lot out of it. … I realized that green cleaning is something you can do almost 100 percent of the time.”

The sharing of cleaning expertise, even about something as simple as microfiber mopping, was fascinating, Walker says. The fact that Rite Way can expertly clean one of Birmingham’s historical buildings downtown as well as a brand new green facility is a big plus for her: “I guess it boils down to, they’re more than just a commercial cleaning company. Rite Way’s a more sophisticated company and they just do more in the industry.” 

Another aspect of good customer service in the cleaning industry is responsiveness, and Rite Way has that down, says Valerie Sanders, senior property manager for EGS Commercial Real Estate in Birmingham. While the properties she manages don’t have the same focus on green cleaning that Walker’s does, Sanders brings in Rite Way to her accounts whenever she can.

“What I look for, specifically, is responsiveness — somebody who I can contact and say, ‘This isn’t right,’ and they’ll get it fixed,” she says. 


Having gratitude

Angela Stern’s job as corporate director of strategic customer relations for Rite Way is simply to say “Thank you” to customers for their business. From gifts such as a book filled with quotes about giving thanks, to special events to show appreciation for customers, the company’s emphasis on gratitude stems directly from Lepore’s relationship builders: “You can never thank your customers too often. Build ‘Thank you’s’ into every communication, both verbal and written.” 

“Anthony and Rhonda were looking for someone to go out in the field, aside from sales and aside from operations, to go out and really represent them and to say thank you to our external customers. … The vision that Anthony and Rhonda have is to continue to say thank you,” Stern says. “Not just every day — which we do — but after the sale, to make sure they remember that we do appreciate their business.”

Facility services are, of course, what Rite Way provides, but the heart of the company is in its personnel, and its extended family of internal and external customers.

“We’re in the people business, and building services is the end result,” Lepore says. “Dealing with people day-to-day is what is exciting. It’s about solving problems, re-engineering manpower and helping customers achieve their monetary goals.”

Even though the storms of 2011 have been cleaned up and life has moved on, the Rite Way family continues to help those affected by storms. In January, another round of tornadoes hit Alabama, and staff took up donations to help victims. 

“You can’t take away the loss of a home or an injury or the loss of a loved one, but I think it helps to know that your company cares about you,” Stern says.

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View a CleanTips video of Anthony Lepore discussing his favorite relationship-builder here.