By Terri Perrin / Published February 2015
Editor’s Note: This is the last installment in an 11-part series that traces the history of the pressure washing industry from the mid-1970s to present day. Those interested in reading the early industry history, or who may have missed the first installments of this new series, may view them online at: http://cleanertimes.com/artgrp.cfm?fpid=82.
“In the 1970s and ‘80s, most pressure washing businesses operated within a 60 mile radius of their home base,” recalls Roy Chappell, Chappell Supply, Oklahoma City, OK. “Most were mom-and-pop operations with a couple of employees, and they considered it a huge success if they grossed $200,000 a year. Today, it is not uncommon to find companies with two or three locations, a dozen employees, and annual revenues in excess of $4 million. Some exceed $20 million in sales per year and have more than 80 employees. This is amazing growth, considering the economic challenges of the last two decades.”
Chappell believes that the success of our industry is due, in part, to a greater public awareness of the need to keep buildings, equipment, and facilities clean, combined with pressure to decrease air, water, and ground pollution. Another reason is the type of people who are entering our industry. “Pressure washing is no longer considered a job to get young people started in life,” he says. “It is looked at as a career, and a very lucrative one at that.”
Beth Borrego, vice president of See Dirt Run, Germantown, MD, agrees. “I think that a lot of people go into the pressure washing business because there is something within them that is entrepreneurial in nature,” remarks Borrego. “A lot of husbands and wives end up working in this industry together. Typically, the man wants to get started, and the wife is along for the ride. If she has skills and takes a shining to it, then it becomes a career for her as much for him. As a result, more and more women are in sales and management roles in the industry and that is changing the way we do business.”
While pressure washing duties may be too physically demanding for some women, Borrego firmly believes that women and men actively involved in management and ownership should know how to work the equipment and not be afraid to get their hands dirty. “It is important for anyone involved in management to know how to do the work because there could come a time when they have to be able to train, teach, and guide employees,” states Borrego. “As I get older, I am mostly focused on sales and management, but, at the end of the day, I could do the work or direct a crew if I had to.”
It is difficult to gauge whether or not new recruits and business owners are better educated than they were in the past, but it can be said that they have a great desire to learn. Fortunately, there are far more seminars and trade show opportunities for people to get help for their businesses. Manufacturers now offer more training and on-going support. Associations, like PWNA, CETA, and others, also offer training and certification. Business owners and employees can also look to the Internet for a wealth of information and inspiration. There are classes; books; articles in publications, like Cleaner Times|IWA; as well as YouTube videos, online bulletin boards, forums, and social media groups. Many of these resources are available at low or no cost. The industry benefits in terms of people hitting the ground running and not making costly mistakes that many new businesses used to make.
Paul Horsley, Scotts Pressure Wash, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, stresses that with knowledge and education comes confidence. “All pressure washing business owners can benefit from belonging to an organization like the Power Washers of North America,” states Horsley. “The education and certification, networking, talking to seasoned contractors, and building friendships that happens at conferences, is so important.”
Horsley adds that there is also more transparency in the industry today and a realization that other contractors should not be looked at as threats. An excellent example of this is the Millionaire Club Panel at PWNA conventions. Many attendees never even dreamed that a pressure washing company could make a million dollars a year. They get to ask the panel questions, and they go away super charged and motivated.
“One thing that hasn’t changed is that many pressure washing businesses, even some of the bigger ones, are still family-run operations,” points out Gary Scott, Alkota Cleaning Systems, Alcester, SD. “Even with our 90 employees, we try to keep it as a family atmosphere. I can still go through our factory and call people by names or greet them at church on Sunday. It is an open and welcoming atmosphere, and I think this attitude of camaraderie and equality goes across the industry.”
From a human resources standpoint, it remains difficult to find good people and employee retention remains a challenge. There was a time when people were just grateful to have a job. Not so today. As unemployment rates dropped, employees began to expect higher wages and more benefits. It can be a juggling act to ensure that your jobs are priced to support what you are committed to pay in wages and incentives, without pricing yourself out of the market. It may mean you have to repackage some of your services, how you are positioning and selling things, to include value-added services at an additional cost.
“The industry is definitely attracting a different type of employee,” agrees Dennis Black, McHenry Pressure Cleaning Systems, Frederick, MD. “In the past, it was easy to get farm boys who wanted to work, not so any more. Today’s generation doesn’t want to get their hands dirty. Considering that much of our training is done through on-the-job experience, it can take up to a year to get a technician to be self-sufficient. That’s a lot of time and money invested, so employee retention is vital. As a business owner, I have found that when I have employees that are fairly well-rounded they become attractive to other companies. So, we have to be as competitive as we can with wages, programs, 401ks, and health insurance. None of this existed in the 1980s. We didn’t have to consider the cost of incentives, bonus programs, and uniforms.”
“Employee retention is also a huge deal for us, so we pay close attention to employee benefits,” adds Horsley. “In addition to paying for 50 percent of health benefits, we pay for staff cell phones. We no longer do a Christmas bonus and have introduced quarterly profit sharing instead. We talk to our employees as if they are business partners; they get a buy-in as part of the company profits.”
From equipment to environmental awareness, human resources to education, the pressure washing industry has undergone extraordinary change in the last three decades. While no one can predict what the future will hold, we can all rest assured that it will be an interesting ride.