When the young Arlo Luke set off for college at Idaho State University, where he pursued and obtained a degree in pharmacy, he never envisioned that he’d end up in a career in the contract cleaning industry. But a chance friendship with a fellow tenant in his apartment building changed the course of his life. When he met Don Aslett, founder of Varsity Facility Services (formerly Varsity Contractors), the two hit it off despite being opposites in some ways.

“I was a city slicker and he was a farm boy, but we met, we clicked and we had some things in common,” Luke says. “We played sports and we went to the same church and our wives got to know each other. We became good friends. But most important, we had common values and a vision of the purpose of life.”

From the beginning, Luke recognized something special about Aslett, that he was a “pure entrepreneur,” which is the highest level of business enterprise, complete with taking huge risks and reaping huge rewards.

Aslett started Varsity Housecleaners as a residential cleaning business to help him get through school. Luke — eventually one of the two major owners — came on board, became a general manager within a matter of months, and the company grew from there by leaps and bounds. By the time they graduated, Varsity was a full-blown house-cleaning and restoration business, and employed 30 to 40 college kids.

“Don and I had chemistry. He is a visionary, and I put it together and made it go. That combination has lasted us our relationship, one without any serious disagreements — we’re still the best of friends after 54 years now,” Luke says. “These types of partnerships are rare. They just don’t last. Together, we built this business.”

Luke went to work full-time as a pharmacist, still working part-time for Varsity. But after three years of that, Varsity had grown so much that he had to decide whether he wanted to commit to it full-time.

In an era where nearly all companies hired in-house cleaning staff, he saw a golden opportunity for Varsity, and had a vision that led to the company being an early leader in the industry when it came to organic growth on a national scale.

“Everybody thought I was crazy to leave a professional medical profession and go into the janitor business,” Arlo says. “But I saw the potential of building a contract service business. We weren’t janitors — we’d become businessmen.”

Organic growth continued through the decades — through generations of customers as well — and now the company has a national service area as well as operations in all 50 states and Canada.

Luke was the CEO for 28 years, during which he was very active in industry associations such as Building Service Contractors Association International (BSCAI), for which he served as president, and is now the chairman of the board at Varsity. He’s enjoying that role, which allows him to concentrate more on his personal life than CEO might have. He’s highly involved in the community, church and his family — and with 44 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren, he’s loving every minute if it.

But looking back, he cites three significant things he has always believed in as the leader of the company: developing a unique and strong culture, believing in a higher purpose through your business and seeking to become the standard of excellence in the facility services industry.

A culture valuing integrity, family and an emphasis that every employee is important, is one that the company still retains today under the leadership of Arlo’s son, Eric. Simple, good old-fashioned fun is a priority as well.

“Every year we had company meetings and contests. We had zoo animals and musical entertainment made out of cleaning equipment and supplies in a contest, we had performances every year like the janitor opera, the janitor rodeo, we had a company song, we had a company dessert — we have a strong culture within,” Luke says.

Aslett and Luke shared a belief in a higher purpose in life from the very beginning — and this belief has permeated the company, with employees feeling like they were part of something good.

“It didn’t matter what religion you were. It wasn’t about a single religion. It was about a belief in a purpose to life that we felt that the company should have something more important that they’re trying to achieve than making money,” says Luke. “That it should be about doing good. That if you can’t be an example and be a contributor to making this a better world, you’re just an average company.”

Click here to read the profile on Eric Luke, which ran in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Contracting Profits.

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Varsity Facility Services: Like Father, Like Son