By Terri Perrin / Published April 2018
In 1945, during the postwar era that saw America’s return to prosperity, Ben Meyer had the foresight to start an industrial cleaning business, operating a steam cleaner that he had built himself using a high-volume Hardie pump and a Clayton boiler. In addition to having an entrepreneurial spirit, Ben was mechanically inclined, and he taught himself to repair his own steam cleaner.
According to Ben’s son and current company president, Gordon Meyer, many of Ben’s customers at the time already owned small steam cleaners for day-to-day cleanups, calling on Ben to tackle the major jobs. It wasn’t long before they noticed that he was adept at servicing his own equipment. They began asking him if he could repair their steam cleaning equipment too and be responsible for ordering the necessary parts to do so. Eventually, they asked if they could just buy steam cleaning equipment from him, considering that he would ultimately be the one responsible for ongoing maintenance and repairs. It was the beginning of a shift in the company’s focus.
Today, after several evolutions, Ben’s Cleaner Sales is recognized as one of the largest and oldest full-service steam cleaner and pressure washer distributors in the United States. They sell, service, and rent cleaning and commercial equipment as well as chemicals, parts, and accessories. They carry many of the major pressure washer brands, including Mi-T-M, Alkota, Whitco, Kärcher, HydroTek, BE Pressure, and many others.
In 1969, based on customer demand, Ben Meyer transitioned his primary business strategy to a sales and service model. He and his wife Doris leased a building on Seattle’s 4th Avenue South and moved the company one mile north from its original location. Together, they officially opened Ben’s Steam Cleaner Sales and Service. A typical ‘mom and pop’ shop, Doris ran the office while Ben was on sales and repair calls. She dealt with all the phone calls, customers, and accounting until Gordon took over in 1978.
Ben and Doris built the foundation that has supported the company to this day, one that believes every customer is important no matter how small. They built an inventory to cover customer demand, combined with their knowledge of the cleaning industry, and provided continuous education to properly guide their customers’ cleaning equipment needs.
“Ben’s product lines changed over the years as cold water pressure washers and other new technologies became prevalent,” recalls Gordon, “but because of our history of cutting our teeth on straight steamers, we have the benefit of knowing and understanding when steam will do a better job than hot water pressure washers. Other specialties we pride ourselves on are dive suit heaters, hot water ice drills, multi-gun systems, gill net cleaners, and de-icers, among other specialty applications. We still have people who contact us to purchase and repair steam cleaners because they don’t want to switch to hot water pressure washers. In many applications, steam cleaning is still the most appropriate method to get a job done.”
After 73 years in business, Ben’s is still going strong and remains a family-owned and -operated company. Ben and Doris’s three sons, Gordon, Jerry, and Ron, all started working for the family business in the 1970s. In 1982, they purchased the company from their parents and shortened the name to Ben’s Cleaner Sales Inc. to more accurately reflect what their business now entailed. Sadly, in 1996, Ron passed away from Lou Gehrig’s disease at the age of 42. Later that same year, Ben also died. (Doris passed away in 2013.)
“It was very difficult to lose both our brother and our father in the same year,” recalls Gordon. “Naturally, it necessitated a major transition for us. At the time of his passing, Ron had been in charge of the service department; Gordon handled sales, administration, and accounting; and Jerry ran the warehouse. Jerry ultimately took over the service department.”
Ben Meyer would be proud of the fact that the third generation of Meyer kin is now involved with the business, ensuring the continuation of the company. “Succession planning is something that many companies struggle with,” says Gordon. “We are most interested in the continuation of our company.”
Of the staff of 25, Gordon feels fortunate to have his wife Bobbie and three children (Russ, Melinda, and Chris), as well as Jerry’s wife Dee Dee and son Lynn, all now working with him at Ben’s.
“In addition to looking after most of the accounting, our son Christopher manages our website and computing, and he recently installed a new server system and upgraded the accounting software and our phone system,” says Gordon. “Russell is pretty much doing the same thing on the sales side, helping with hiring and training, and is the ‘go-to’ guy for any installations. Our daughter, Melinda, works here part-time, and she is responsible for marketing. Jerry’s son, Lynn, is focused on customer service and assists Jerry in running the service department. Bobbie is responsible for administration, payroll, HR, and overseeing accounts payable and receivables. Dee Dee works part-time and is responsible for our payables department.” Chris is also currently on the CETA Board of Directors, and Russ has served on CETA’s board in the past.
Family involvement aside, Gordon also credits some of their business success to Ben and Doris having had the foresight to choose an excellent location in what would eventually become a major industrial area in Seattle. Coincidentally, in time it would be accessible to future transportation routes that access markets in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
“While we may have moved a mile down the road in 1969 and to a building that we purchased next door to that in 1982, Ben’s has been located on the same street since 1945,” explains Gordon. “We have immediate access from the north/south transportation corridor on the I-5 highway and are at Mile Zero of the I-90 to the east coast. Our location is very convenient for people, and we benefit from a lot of walk-in business due to our visibility and ease of access.”
The ability to purchase both the land and a building is also considered by the Meyers to be another secret to their long-term success. No one locates in Seattle anymore, except Starbucks, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft types of businesses, due to the cost. The Meyers feel fortunate to be ‘grandfathered in.’ “We could make a huge profit selling our building, but we have chosen the legacy of the business that Ben and Doris started, which now supports 25 employees and their families, as more important instead,” remarks Gordon.
“We have 16,000 square feet of space which allows us to have a full shop with four hydraulic lifts to mount pressure washers on and raise them to a workable height,” he adds. “There is a complete ventilation system over each station. In addition to the shop area, we have our offices, an equipment warehouse, and a large parts’ room. It is pretty rare that we don’t have what our customers need.
“It feels great to look at the past and to the future, knowing that the legacy that Ben started 73 years ago will continue,” concludes Gordon. “Our father built this business over his lifetime, and he made many friends along the way. People still come by the shop and tell stories about how he helped them out. It is heartening to continue his legacy, and I feel such a sense of pride. An integral part of the continuation of the company is the focus on integrity that he instilled in all of us. Following in his footsteps has kept the business going.”
Learn more at benscleaner.com.