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VOL. 123 | NO. 220 | Monday, November 10, 2008

Service, Family Drive EnviroUSA’s Specialty Cleaning Business

By Tom Wilemon

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BIDDING THE JOB: Tyler Merritt, from left, and Geoff Merritt discuss costs and profit margins on a potential job with their father, David Merritt. David Merritt started EnviroUSA Corp., a building maintenance and cleaning service, in 1993.PHOTO BY TOM WILEMON

The business model for EnviroUSA Corp. is somewhere between the world of basic cleaning tips and the interesting jobs on the TV show “Dirty Jobs” on Discovery Channel.

EnviroUSA cleans the things other people either don’t know how to or don’t want to.

“We’re a building service contracting company,” said owner David Merritt. “I know that’s a mouthful. I always tell people that’s a fancy way of saying, ‘We’re janitors.’ We clean things.”

The jobs can range from a 900-square-foot office to a hangar big enough to house C-5 transport aircraft. The contracts are spread out across 18 states. EnviroUSA has about 65 employees plus contractors and associates to get the jobs done.

Merritt started the business in 1993 as a residential cleaning service called Magic Maid Janitorial Service. When he recognized the demand for cleaning services in the commercial sector, he formed Enviro­USA Corp.

Family business

The company’s clients include transportation hubs, manufacturers, medical facilities and retail outlets.

“Ninety percent of what we learn we take in through our eyes,” Merritt said. “We have about 30 seconds to generate a good first impression. That usually lasts. So how important is it that the beginning, the entrance, to your building be sparkling? It’s critical.”

Merritt and his sons, Tyler and Geoff, recently surveyed the floor plan for a 250,000-square-foot structure. Quoting a service contract or estimating a bid is one of the toughest decisions for any business, David Merritt said.

“We need to be at a price point where we can have the very best people out there and the best equipment, but at the same time low enough so that it pleases the customer and we beat the other guy,” he said.

Merritt said he is proud that EnviroUSA has a relatively low turnover rate for a janitorial service.

“We try to find top-notch people and pay them better than the rest of the industry so we can keep them,” Merritt said. “Our industry average turnover rate is about 300 percent. Our turnover rate is more like 35 percent. The reason we’re able to do that is that, No. 1, we treat our people like we want to be treated. We do believe in the golden rule. We do believe that we’re all adults and that we don’t need to be throwing rocks at each other. We don’t put up with people yelling and screaming and that sort of thing or using profanity.”

Overcoming adversity

A former insurance salesman and underwriter, Merritt started the business out of his home in Cordova. He now operates it out of an office at 8390 Wolf Lake Road in Bartlett.

The company has navigated rough times. Over an 18-month period beginning in 2000, EnviroUSA’s revenues plunged 70 percent.

“We were feeling the recession before people were saying we were in a recession,” Merritt said. “We felt it.”

EnviroUSA kept its employees through the downturn, which Merritt credits for the company’s survival.

“The reason we overcame it is because we had very good people,” he said. “It goes back to the recruitment and selection of quality people, people that you would be willing to invite into your home more than once. By management of time, money and other resources we were able to keep everybody employed without any layoffs. Some of them had to go to part time. Some of them had to do other things, but we kept everybody employed.”

However, Merritt admitted his biggest mistake in business probably relates to human resources.

“I’ve made my share of mistakes, but probably not firing people quickly enough is the biggest,” he said. “That’s kind of a generalization. I guess I’m a big softie. I do my very best to make sure that everybody that is with us is given every opportunity to succeed. I’ve gotten a little tougher about that over the years.”

So far during this economic downturn, Merritt has not experienced the loss in sales revenue that he did eight years ago. With national accounts now, he believes EnviroUSA is better braced to weather an economic storm.

However, he said he’s not taking any business for granted. EnviroUSA just lowered its rate for one client who had been bought out by another company when the cleaning contract expired.

“I went back to them and lowered the cost,” Merritt said. “Let’s face it. When you go in and do a proposal, it’s a best guess. What we found with this customer was we were making a very good profit margin, good enough to where we could give them a break and we did. When we do that with our customers, they know we’re in their corner and don’t leave us unless they absolutely have to.”

Getting dirty

The dirtiest job his company has ever tackled was cleaning excrement in a vacant commercial building that had been inhabited by homeless people.

“I turned to the lady we were going to be reporting to and said, ‘You realize that is going to be very expensive,’” he said.

Merritt offered employees hazard pay to get the job done.

His workers don’t use the cleaning products that most people reach for when faced with a dirty job. He’s anti-bleach.

“Not only is it not as good a disinfectant as people think it is, it’s dangerous – not only to you personally but to the things you’re cleaning,” he said. “There are a lot of other products not nearly as dangerous that do as good a job.”

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