From The Frontline To The Corner Office
As a kid growing up in Florida, Paul “Dutch” Owens, president and CEO of Orlando, Fla.-based Gem Supply, spent most of his nights and weekends working alongside his father, Paul, a building service contractor.
Spending the majority of his childhood cleaning facilities, Dutch gained enough knowledge about cleaning products and procedures that he thought he would be well positioned to pursue a career in the jan/san industry — just not as a professional cleaner.
In 1976 after talking his plans over with his father — and borrowing a handsome amount of money from him, too — at the ripe young age of 23, Dutch dove right into the distribution side of the industry and purchased Gem Supply, the same company that was one of his father’s suppliers.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Dutch has built a reputable company of his own. In fact, since Dutch set foot in the corner office 33 years ago, Gem Supply has worked closely with Orlando’s leading hotels, country clubs, resorts, theme parks, attractions, schools, churches and institutions to ensure their facilities meet the levels of cleanliness and sanitation that today’s consumers demand.
But because Dutch has a history as a cleaner himself, he respects those on the frontline. In fact, he views a cleaner’s role as a career that has a great impact on humanity. And with that in mind, he also values the health of building occupants and cleaning professionals. Because of that mindset, Gem Supply has become a company with a heavy focus on promoting green cleaning and cleaning for health.
As long as Dutch owns Gem Supply, he maintains that the company will not only give customers a greener way to clean, but also make sure they are properly trained on how to use green products.
Q: You say your father was a building service contractor when you were growing up. How influential was that in helping mold you into a jan/san distributor today?
A: My father started his BSC business in 1958. Like so many others he had a full-time day job and started with a vacuum and trash barrel in the trunk of his car. I spent nights and most weekends working with my father and crews, cleaning anything. I’ve heard it said that parents need to spend more time with their kids, but in reality, kids need to spend more time with their parents, learning the important things, working and learning alongside. More is caught than taught, and I was fortunate to catch the work ethic and values from my mother and father. I caught the enthusiasm, and fun of work from them. Coming from the BSC side of our industry has provided an empathy for the BSC that many on the jan/san side does not have.
Q: You say cleaning is an honorable profession, can you explain why?
A: As a young one, working alongside cleaning professionals, I developed a deep appreciation for the qualities of the people I worked with. Most everyone had a full-time job during the day and had the part-time cleaning job, sometimes just to make ends meet, or to put a child through school. To me, these people were exceptional because they showed the initiative to make a difference and to better their lives without looking for charity or bailouts.
These are honorable people, willing to make the necessary sacrifices. I remember one man telling me he was not spending money when he was working, and with no idle time he didn’t have the opportunity to get into trouble or complain about those who do.
Q: Why is your company so pro-green? Is there an underlying reason to why you push this concept?
A: Providing green products, green processes and procedures, is simply the right thing to do. We have sponsored several green symposiums, bringing in guest speakers from the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), the Green Lodging Association, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), University of Central Florida, and St. Pete College. Dave Collins, our marketing director, speaks to local civic groups on green several times per month, dispelling the myth that green costs more and emphasizing the benefits to society. All our training classes emphasize green cleaning.
Not long ago the only bowl cleaner that worked was hydrochloric acid, the strippers were super ammoniated, and we would take a deep breath, apply the chemical and run out of the room for fresh air. How many brain cells were damaged in those years? Now we have safe, green products that really perform. As technology continues to change, we will all be better off and have fewer health issues. It is simply our duty to offer our clients the safest performance based products on the market.
When given the choice of green certified product or non-green certified we choose green certified.
Q: What are some of the things your company is doing internally to become more sustainable?
A: Attempting to do away with paper has been a fun initiative. We’re e-mailing invoices instead of mailing, capturing electronic signatures on deliveries, e-mailing purchase orders and using electronic catalogs instead of paper literature. We’re also moving more clients to Web-based ordering, more Web-based marketing. We’ve added GPS routing for our delivery trucks and installed skylights in warehouses. We are always looking for a better green way.
Q: How do you get customers to switch to green cleaning products from traditional products? What do you sell them on?
A: Educate, educate, educate. The more people know about green cleaning the better they respond. It doesn’t have to be complicated, we ask clients to try a green product, do side by side demonstrations, and then ask them to try another and another. Going green is overstated. Each choice we make should be just another step in the right direction. The next time you need glass cleaner, try a green one. Next time you need an all-purpose cleaner, try a green one. Selling green doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. Green is a journey, a continuum and greener is the objective. It’s about beginning the process of change — a one bite at a time concept. There is also a misconception that green costs more, simply not true. As we present items and processes our clients quickly realize that going green is the right choice.
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