United Services of America: Two Men, One Vision
It's amazing how two completely different people, and their two completely different paths, can converge to form a whole that is stronger than the sum of its parts. It happens in people’s personal lives, with friends and significant others, and it happens to professionals looking to augment their careers by aligning with business associates.
In rarer instances, a partnership successfully infiltrates both the professional and personal lives of each player. Business partnerships require intense emotional investment, and often end up being one of the most important relationships in an executive’s life, making commitment to the health of the alliance paramount.
Even more exceptional is an equal, 50/50 business partnership between two unrelated people, and in the contract cleaning industry, Paul Senecal and Michael Diamond are the epitome of how successful that can be.
The two initially came together in the late 1990s. Senecal was working for another cleaning contractor and Diamond was positioning to take over his father’s company, Premier Maintenance Inc., Milford, Conn., where he had worked for most of his career.
“We started talking during some of the caucuses at the union negotiations. We’d met before but we started to talk about opportunities of what we could do together,” Diamond says.
In 2000, PMI was sold to Diamond by his father, Alan. Two years later, Diamond took on Senecal as an equal partner to run United Services of America. Since then, United has experienced amazing growth, skyrocketing from no annual revenues to a $20 million company today — due in great part to Senecal and Diamond’s commitment to relationships with customers, to providing quality services, and to each other.
Laying the groundwork
Their backgrounds aren’t all that similar: Diamond grew up in his family’s cleaning business, and Senecal grew up in his dad, Paul Sr.’s, retail store, hanging out with the maintenance and cleaning staff, learning the skills that would end up paving his career path. Both, however, say their fathers are their mentors, and that their guidance directly contributed — and continues to contribute — to their professional lives.
“My father started Premier in 1966 and has always shown tremendous leadership, charisma and caring in all he does,” Diamond says. “He made it a point to invest in me early in my career and I still rely on him for guidance.”
Senecal had been accompanying his father to work since the age of 10, and bypassed the sales floor and stock room for a more interesting place: the maintenance shop.
“The cleaning and maintenance guys were all over the store, and their agreement with me was, if I helped them get their jobs done, the last couple hours of the shift we’d play in the maintenance shop with the tools and build things, which gave me two working knowledges: one of cleaning and the other, handyman skills,” Senecal says.
That experience helped him get a job working for cleaning companies once he was old enough to work, and laid the groundwork for his career in building services, including some experience on the property management side of the business.
“For many years, I was working for other people’s cleaning companies, knowing that I always wanted to have my own business,” Senecal says.
The two men strategically aligned in 2002, when Senecal and Diamond formed United Services. They chose to engage in a 50/50 partnership, under which each partner shares equally in profit, and has an equal voice in decision-making that affects the company.
Most BSCs do not have 50/50 partnerships, Senecal says. They’re majority partners, family businesses or something else, making this arrangement an anomaly in the industry.
“We’re probably one of the few 50/50 partnerships that people know of that works,” Senecal says. “It’s difficult for most people to think that two unrelated guys who own something 50/50 can work together and have one person not feel slighted by all that.”
The men admit they have distinctly different personalities and management styles. Senecal describes himself as more of an aggressive, “New York type” while Diamond is more subtle and patient in his approach.
Diamond and Senecal have made a point of knowing how their personality types and communication styles might work with certain people, in order to facilitate relationship-building with their customer base.
“You need two things to be great in this business, you need to do great work and then you need to have great relationships — you can’t be successful without having both,” Senecal says.
Recipe for success
It’s not as if there is a “secret sauce” to which their prosperity and success can be attributed, Senecal says. Their combined experience provides foresight and perspective which allows them to be strategic about the endeavors they decide to take on. And it all begins with customer service.
Rarely do the two men both build a relationship with one client; rather, they decide at the beginning of customer partnerships which one of them should handle an account.
“The customers don’t say, ‘I want to talk to Paul’ or ‘I want to talk to Michael,’” Diamond says. “We help make that decision, and then we focus on forming great relationships with the customers that we’re handling separately, which takes complete trust in the other partner.”
Personalities click at different times for a variety of reasons. Having the option to hand off dealings to the other partner when personalities are not clicking has also helped customers stay loyal.
“We had one customer that started with Paul, and through a variety of different things it became clear a relationship change would make sense, so I took over with that,” Diamond says. “Then over a period of time, that person, through a connection of similar-aged children, connected with Paul again and we shifted back to Paul.”
Senecal likens their growth strategy to having the guts to dive into deep waters together, knowing that they’re strong swimmers and that they can help each other out if either encounters trouble. Looking out for each other’s interests means they’re less likely to make mistakes together, he says.
“Because we’re 50/50 partners, we have to agree,” Senecal says. “We have to agree on which direction we’re going. We have to agree, every time we dive. So if somebody sees the pool differently, it’s talked about quickly, whether we want to dive there. But if we both see it the same way, it’s likely going to turn out, because we’re both strong swimmers. … Diving into the pool together makes it so that if somebody hits something that they shouldn’t have, the other person can bring them back up to the top.”
By being proactive and diving in, their family of companies will tend to come out ahead of competitors who are still on the shore, trying to figure out whether they should dive, he adds.
The strong swimming has paid off: This year, United Services landed at 1,259 on the Inc. Magazine 5,000 fastest growing companies list, with 231 percent growth over three years, growing from $5.2 million in 2007 to $17.2 million in 2010. Contributing to that growth was an acquisition of another BSC, Melillo Maintenance, in 2008.
“When you grow at this pace, you’re a new company every few years. You’re really a different company every few years,” Senecal says.
That kind of growth gives Senecal and Diamond the freedom to take risks on certain customers in certain areas — but it also comes with some growing pains. It can be hard to manage, particularly at an administrative level. Senecal admits a few stumbles along the way with the company’s accounting software, for example, which had been outgrown and needed serious updating.
They continually invest in their service delivery platform to support the foundation so it can handle the weight of their growth.
“In most companies, it’s, ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’ In our company, we break things to fix them. That’s our tagline,” Senecal says.
A new chapter: Affineco
The individual footprints of PMI and United Services inevitably crossover and intermingle with each other as they both expand into Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. In recent years, as they continued to grow and cross paths more often, they needed a common brand to avoid any confusion in the marketplace as to who they were. They decided to form a holding company to bring PMI and United and Melillo together under one family of companies.
Last year, the two entered another 50/50 business partnership, this time to create a company called Affineco. Affineco is a holding company for United Services and Melillo, and PMI. Under Affineco, all companies combined have $32 million in annual sales and 1,250 employees.
“We have customers that are loyal to each of these companies but we want to leverage the benefit of, a happy United customer could mean an opportunity in a Premier area, and a happy Premier customer could lead to a Melillo one,” Diamond says. “So we’ve formed this company, Affineco, to help us with that.”
Organizationally, running these four companies has allowed the executive team to streamline efficiencies in a number of ways, from insurance plans and industry certifications to technology utilization, association memberships and purchasing groups.
Customers tend to contract with names, Senecal says, so this enables customers to stay loyal to the company that has been providing them services — whether it’s PMI or United or Melillo. By creating a brand that fits on top, but doesn’t take away name recognition from the other companies, customers can continue to do business with the companies they’re happy with, and don’t have to deal with the process of changing the name on a contract.
“The biggest benefit of keeping the names is not having to deal with changing the names of the contracts we have in place,” Senecal says. “The second biggest benefit is the options it gives our customers.”
Customers have contracts with Affineco, United Services, PMI or Melillo — and some customers have multiple contracts with more than one.
“I think what’s important about that is we’ve been able to do it with providing systems for the customers so that they don’t know the difference,” Diamond says. “We’ve developed a lot of efficiencies in our organizations, operationally and administratively. So the customer sees us, even though we have multiple names, as a family of businesses.”
Investing in the future
Senecal and Diamond have worked hard to create a common overarching culture valuing hard work, attention to detail, trust, loyalty, integrity and accountability. They have invested heavily in their executive management team, going so far as to hire executive coaches for 10 employees, including themselves.
“Both of us have taken the approach that one of our strongest traits, besides appreciating what our customers do for us, is developing our staff and supporting them in their growth. We’re blessed that we have some of the very strongest people in the industry, very well-liked, very high performers and we’ve helped them develop their strengths,” Diamond says.
The coaching has also helped Diamond and Senecal align their visions for the future, both professionally and personally.
“The only way to know where you’re going is to have a map,” Senecal says. “And if you don’t have the same goal at the end of the map you tend to go in different directions. Every day things change in life, so the investment in on-going alignment is well worth it.”
While the businesses have to remain profitable, Diamond and Senecal believe that reinvesting profits back into the company, sometimes at the expense of their personal lives, is the best way to create a solid future for the group of companies. This practice helped them greatly when the recession hit.
“When the financial crisis hit, and most companies were struggling to get through it, we were on very sound footing, and we were able to go to our clients and proactively offer them reductions in services which reduced their price,” Senecal says. “We were ahead of the curve because we weren’t worrying how we were going to pay for it. We knew we were going to have a good year. Those clients became much more loyal to us.”
Senecal and Diamond are dedicated to providing quality service and maintaining a good reputation.
“We’re not revenue junkies, so the pursuit of revenue is not the ultimate goal,” Senecal says.
They also know they’re not the service solution for all companies — so they don’t try to be. Their focus is more on financial institutions, corporate headquarters, multi-tenant, bank branches, educational institutions and other owner-occupied buildings.
“Owner/occupant buildings want a higher level of attention because they’re paying the bills and it’s their employees who are sitting in those spaces. The size of our service delivery platform suits that type of user because we have lots of people they can talk to even when their primary contact is not available. The additional management staff allows us to focus more time on them,” Senecal says.
In everything they do, the focus remains on what will support the growth of the company.
“Some of the stuff we do this year might not benefit us for two years, but since we plan on being partners for a long time, we invest today and whether that benefits us tomorrow, two months from now, or two years from now, it’s all good,” Senecal says.
Despite having different backgrounds, the two men ended up in the same place, doing the same thing, with similar skill sets. Neither of them have to carry each other from an experience standpoint. Their unique perspectives balance the partnership and help to strengthen the collective expertise of the executive team.
“He’s probably been doing this since he was 10 years old, too. But his perspective is from a family business, and mine from more of a corporate world because my father was in the corporate world, so those sort of opposite viewpoints together with the exact same skill sets allow us to problem-solve rapidly because nobody has to bring the other person up to speed,” Senecal says. “So whatever the situation that we face, one or both of us has dealt with it before.”
The relationship is not unlike a marriage, Senecal says, in that the other person is just as vested in the success of the business. Issues should be explored and resolved not with an agenda but with a sincere hope that it will help, he says. Maintaining the health of the relationship between the two remains a high priority as they head into 2012.
“Unresolved issues plague your relationships, so by learning how to resolve your issues quickly and efficiently, you can move on to new opportunities,” Senecal says.
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by CleanLink.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of CleanLink.com or its staff. To find out more about Facebook commenting please read the Conversation Guidelines.