C & J Sweeping’s Ray Confer Integral to Community

cjlogoanimsmallRay Confer has been a sweeping company operator for almost 40 years.  He is the owner of C & J Parking Lot Sweeping, which is located in Warren, Michigan. Confer was recently awarded a very special certificate of achievement – what amounts to a lifetime achievement award – by the Governor of Michigan. Volunteerism is a large part of how Ray Confer runs his business and his life.

rayconferheadshotFor this WSA Contractor Profile I asked Ray, shown to the left, to talk about how he has conducted himself in business through the years with an emphasis on the kinds of personal involvement he has gotten into for his community.  I also wanted to discuss the benefits of this he has seen for his business by being somebody that really gives back to his community. Ray is also a member of the Advisory Board of the World Sweeping Association.

WSA: Ray, thanks for joining with me here today to talk about your community involvement, as well as your outstanding company, C & J Parking Lot Sweeping and Maintenance. I look forward to hearing from you directly about the kinds of things you’re involved with in your greater Warren, Michigan, community.  First off, what type of organizations do you work with there?

Leader Dogs LogoRC: Well, thank you, Ranger!  I really appreciate it!  I’ve been a member of the Shelby Township Lions Club for 30 years. We do fundraisers that support Leader Dogs for the Blind and other charities. I’m chairman of two of our big events and co-chair of the third one, in which we raise quite a bit of money for Leader Dogs.

On November 4th of this year we had a wine, liquor and beer tasting event that took up four wedding halls. We had 900 people who attended and it was a great charity event. Attendees included all kinds of celebrities, including congressmen and judges. I try to give back to the community, where I live and what I do, and that was one of the ways that I could do it – by putting my time (which is a lot of time!) to put these functions on, to raise money for our charity work.

The night of any event where I’m the coordinator, everybody has a good time except me: I’m working away and trying to get everything situated, so everybody else can have a good time!  One of the points I’d like to emphasize is the importance of having classy events.  For example, at this most recent one we had wine-tasting along with a live ‘music festival.’ We had top notch bands that played Journey, Doors, Rolling Stones; music that people have heard and like. I also coordinated a boxing night, where we had around 700 people. My involvement in these are ways I can help to give back to my community.

WSA: What have you learned about how that affects your business, even though I understand that’s not why you’re so involved.

RC: For one, when you do things like that you end up meeting a lot of different people, a lot of business people. I want to re-emphasize that, with whatever I do, I make sure to put on a class act event for Lions. That, in turn, reflects the way I run my own business. There’s no question that just the contacts I make, between the municipal people and the people in business, are a plus when it comes to my own company.

I’m always out selling tickets for these events. When you’re doing that, everyone lets you into their office. I typically talk to them, give them their tickets and then, by the way, let them know I’m the owner of C & J Parking Lot Sweeping. It all works hand-in-hand and combines to really be a good opportunity.

WSA: I know that you’ve been somewhat involved with this sort of thing for 30 years, but have you become more involved in community activities in the last decade or so, or how did that grow? I know a lot of people in business think: “Well, should I join the Lions, or should I join the Rotary, or should I join the Kiwanis?…” Then, with whichever they join, many don’t end up actually going to the meetings; oftentimes, they just want to put that on the logo onto their company’s letterhead.  Doing that is not nearly as effective in terms of helping the community, for one, but in my experience it also doesn’t do much to help a business get a better profile. What are your comments on that?

RC: Speaking for what I do, I definitely go into my volunteerism with a goal of helping the community, to give back to the community.  I confercertificate400wgo to all the meetings and I get involved. I try to figure how we can do our events, how we can raise money. I’m pretty good at marketing the events and organizing them. I can train the guys that don’t know what to do, help them out, and just, it’s a sense of giving back to the community.  That’s what I do.

I’m also in the Rotary, the Fraternal Order of Police and the Sheriff’s Department Auxiliary; it goes on and on with different things that I do. And, because I’m good at what I do and I like what I do, I meet a lot of different people. The business comes afterwards. I don’t go for the business first. I give first and everything else follows.

WSA: Well, I think that’s certainly a good approach and philosophy to have. This recent Special Tribute Certificate: Did you know it was coming?  It’s pretty impressive to get a special tribute presented to you, but how wonderful to have it signed by your State Representative and your State Senator, as well as Rick Snyder, the Governor of Michigan. How did that evolve that you were provided with that tribute?

conferawardpicRC: That Certificate was a total surprise!  I had not a clue that it was coming my way. I always provide some sort of tribute on the night of events I coordinate. These might go to a Judge or someone else that works in our community. This time, after I gave out my award, our State Representative came up and said there was a special award they’d like to introduce to the people at the event. I had no clue this was coming my way and was totally shocked!

Editor’s Note: If you want to see the 1.5-minute video of Ray receiving his award, here’s the YouTube link. (Opens in a new browser tab.)

I also got an award from my local hospital. It was also a surprise to me when it was given out at the Henry Ford Hospital’s $250/plate dinner. In front of the 700 people who were at the dinner they awarded me “Man of the Year.”

I also received an award for the community where I live – Shelby Township – for making the community a better place to live. That was an award from the City Council there. Believe me when I say that I don’t look for awards for what I do; they just pop up.

WSA: I want to also include some information about how you’ve grown your business, as well.  How long have you been in operation as C & J?

RC: Pretty close to 40 years.  I think I started in 1978 with one truck; now I have 45-50 vehicles.

WSA: And you do parking lot sweeping and street sweeping, construction sweeping – you do really whatever a client needs to be done?

RC: Yes, we specialize in handling whatever issues a client might have.  In addition to all types of sweeping we do a lot of power washing. I have five units just for power washing parking decks. Our goal is to be a one-stop shop. People like to be able to deal with one person so whatever it is we just get it done for our customers. [For the work we sub out] if the job’s done right I get paid and then I pay my supplier.

WSA: Talk a little bit in terms of the sweeping itself. What kind of a company have you grown into?  How did you decide to develop C & J? You must have a strong management team in place, one that can handle your day-to-day operations, in order for you to have the opportunity to work with your community as much as you do. Is that what frees you up to do the marketing for your company as well as these external kinds of highly visible work efforts that really bring so much to your community?

RC: You know, I do have a great team here at C & J. And, I have to thank my wife, Wendy, for letting me do all this stuff that takes time away from my house. What really allows me the freedom to be so community involved, though, is my management team. They can cover me because C & J is a well-oiled machine!

When I take time away I don’t have to worry about it. I go and focus 100% on the function of doing for the good of the community without having to worry about the company. My initial job was to put a great staff together and now it’s keeping them happy and just having a good working relationship with them.

On that topic, about half of my help came to this year’s wine tasting. I had a couple of tables there for them. I thought it might be valuable just to show what I do out in the community and they were quite shocked when they saw the awards that took place. They had not a clue of all the stuff I do for others. Since then, each one has given me a five-minute lecture on how proud they were.

WSA: Well, that certainly speaks well for your employee group as well, you know.

RC: Oh, absolutely!

largesweeperimage400WSA: There are going to be contractors out there reading this and saying: “That’s fine for him because he has such a large company. I’ve got three sweepers and I’m having trouble keeping my business growing, let alone doing the kinds of things this guy is talking about doing!” How did you decide to allocate time for more community involvement, which most people would think came “at the expense of your business”? Many people think that the recipe for success is “the more time spent on their business the more it’s going to grow.” However, that’s not necessarily true and certainly not in this case.

RC: I mix the two. When I’m out and about, marketing or selling to a potential customer, I’ll talk about what’s currently going on in the community even if I don’t get the job. I will say:  “Here’s a flyer for our upcoming Lions’ Club event. Would you like to come? It’s going to be a great event!”

At that point, someone might say “I’m a Lions Member too!” When that happens, the whole conversation changes. I’ve had situation where, when that happens, we end up getting the job and have remained friends ever since.

WSA: That’s where you can get into trouble if you belong to the Lions Club, for example, but you don’t go to the meetings and are not really involved. As a member, you might have the Lions Club logo on your promo material. However, you run the risk of looking unprofessional if you’re in a face-to-face with somebody who is an active member and they find out that you don’t actually go to the meetings, you just pay your membership dues once in a year.

RC: Exactly! In our club we have a policy where, if you’re not in a committee, or if you don’t come to our meetings all the time, you can’t just stamp your name as a Lion and use it on your promo. You have to participate. In that little emblem of the Lion’s logo it says: “We Serve.”  So you have to serve, too; that’s how we do it.

WSA: — Do you have any tips for somebody that might want to start in a Lions, Kiwanis or Rotary setting?  How should a contractor get started?  Go to meetings and don’t miss a meeting to start, and then get on a committee that you think you can handle, or something like that?

RC: Yes, that’s exactly it. Sometimes I don’t make every meeting. For the Rotary we have to be there at noon, and that’s tough sometimes. However, when I can’t make it I let someone know upfront. And I do volunteer for committees and to help or lead in putting on functions and that’s kind of like putting the time in for a meeting. None of the service clubs demand that you’re there every time, either.  You do the best you can. The other members know you’re a business man and probably aren’t going to make each and every meeting. That said, you’ve got to be able to do something.  Otherwise, why join? You just find the time for it, that’s all.

WSA: So I know you didn’t start your community involvement just to help your business, but there’s no question that it has helped your business. What kind of impact has that made to your business growth? Do you think it’s been highly important or highly responsible for your business growth through the years, or not so much?

RC: Actually, I think there’s no question that people like working with a company that gives back to the community. Also, when I do have my functions – like the recent wine tasting – my company will take two or three tables. For them, I’ll invite my customers that are real good to me, or my maintenance guys that save me all the time. Believe me, it goes a long way!

After that, when they call you they talk to you in a different way. They’re almost like buddies, which works out pretty good. And then, when they see you up on stage as one of the coordinators or getting an award, they no longer think of you as “just the sweeper guy.” When I invite clients and others to these functions, it’s just a whole new program. There’s no question that it makes for a tighter web when somebody else comes in and tries to take away my customers.

WSA: Another thing you do is you go visit your customers at Christmas time. Talk about what you do then, during that time.

dickssweeperimage400RC: I always like to stay in front of my customers. So, at Christmas time, I take a box of Fuji apples to about 200 of our customers. This is a tradition I’ve done for years and I can tell you that now, when it comes Christmas time, they wait for the apples to come. I try to deliver them all within a couple of days of the same time each year. If I’m there 3-4 days after, sometimes they call you and say: “You didn’t bring any apples by, I’m just wondering…” That’s kind of good, you know. They’re waiting for their yearly box of apples to come. [The cost] is not that much, you know.

In contrast to something like liquor, a box of apples goes to the whole office: the secretaries, the people that make your check out, the regular workers. If I have a problem with getting my check, I only have to say:  “Ray from C&J – you know, Ray the Apple Man!” They understand real quick who it is. When I do my apple box dropoffs I always plan to spend five-to-ten minutes with the people.

Sometimes, if  they don’t have time to talk to you at that particular time when I drop in, they always come out and shake your hand and thank you. Some are big health nuts and they know that Fuji apples are a good apple!  So it just breaks the ice, keeps you in with them, and when somebody tries to come in the back door, they get told:  “No, Ray at C & J does this, Ray does that… you know, we never have had a problem with Ray.”

WSA: I bet they don’t say: “Ray brings us apples every year. Instead, they say:  “He’s responsive, he’s efficient, he has good quality equipment.” Those are the responses that something like what you do will generate. And you make a very good point that that’s so much more important than something like taking a bottle of alcohol, because, for one, some people will be offended by that. You don’t know who might be in AA or something like that. Also, a bottle of liquor only goes to upper management; they’re going to keep it in their desk or in their liquor cabinet in their office. Those kinds of gifts can actually create animosity among the rank-and-file employees because it’s something that’s not shared throughout the office.

RC: Exactly! With apples, the high-ups and the underlings all share in it and, as a result, they all try to help me out.  If there’s a problem, the maintenance guy will call me and say:  “Ray, you know, this wasn’t happening, that wasn’t happening – can you see a way to fix it?” Otherwise they might just fire you for making a mistake and you wouldn’t even know what you’d supposedly dropped the ball on. When they call with an issue my answer is always to say “No problem, we’ll take care of it!”  Everybody makes mistakes, but it’s how you handle the mistakes, as well as positioning your company’s reputation so you get an opportunity to correct them. Still, if you don’t handle them properly you’re going to have an unhappy customer.

After 40 years of sweeping, we’ve got it down to a science, pretty much. By bringing the fruit, I stay in front of them. Sometimes I also offer good customers something like baseball tickets, or I offer them tickets to one of my functions. Even though they say “No,” it’s just like they went. Your voice is in front of them. You’re not just an invoice that comes once a month. When they see the invoice they think  “Ah, I wonder how Ray is doing?”  Which is good.

We run a very personal business. It’s amazing how many customers come up and you can hug them. When you have a relationship with people you do business with then it’s more of a personal thing; and, trust me, it’s harder for them to get rid of me and hire somebody else. At least I get that last phone call, a last look at the job.

wsaadvisoryfoundinganimlogourlweb_150wWhat we’re talking about is respect. That’s how I run my business and that’s how I’m glad a lot of my customers run their businesses. If they’re “fly-by-night” people, anyhow, I don’t want them!  I pay my help well and I don’t want customers who won’t pay or who complain about nothing just to get money off their bill. I want to be able to make money and pay my help good. Otherwise, as time goes on, it gets harder and harder to get good help.

WSA: Right!  And if your help is in shoddy equipment, they’re not going to want to be there either, so you have to be able to pay to upkeep your equipment and keep it all rolling.

RC: Exactly!

WSA: Something, I think, a lot of people miss out on, especially in this time of third-party vendors, price-cutting and all that’s going on, is that the real people that you want to do work for want you to be profitable. They want to know that you’re going to be around; you’re not going to have a disruption in service; you’re not going to be cutting corners on their property; and, that you’ll have what you need in terms of equipment, manpower, expertise, education, follow-through, and follow-up to really do a fine job for them, each and every time. The good customers are the ones that don’t want to be looking over their shoulder or checking up after your work. They pay a fair price to get good work. That’s something that many contractors really miss when they’re trying to just sell price.

RC: I sell exactly that!  I do it by counting off on my fingers.  I tell prospects to pick two out of the three items:  “What do you want?” I ask them. “Price, quality or service? You can pick two out of the three.”  “Why not all three?” they respond.

“Well, then,” I tell them. “You’ll have to pay for it! I’m going to save your butt when the bank comes into town. When, all of a sudden the night before you call me in a panic. With C & J, you can call me at 8 o’clock at night and say:  ‘I just got a notice that the bank is coming in,’ or:  “My head boss is coming into town.  I know you don’t sweep tonight, but can you go out there and sweep it tonight, just so it looks good for me?’  I mean, that’s huge!

WSA: They know it’ll happen, and you know you’ll do it!

RC: Yes, when they call it does get done. It saves them and it saves me!  The guy you save five dollars with, do you think he’s going to do that? Not hardly! So your job’s on the line [because your place looks messy when the boss comes to town], and you don’t have to put it on the line. Hire me and I’ll take care of it for you.

WSA: Would you agree that most of your complaints also come from those people who are pinching their pennies?

RC: Absolutely 100% true!  The story goes, “80% of your gross comes from 20% of your people!”

WSA: The same thing for your lowest price: the lowest margin 20% probably generate 80% of your complaints.

sweepercomingtoward400RC: Yeah, that’s what I’ve learned. I’ve learned the value of firing a customer or two a year – the ones where you’re not making money.  You have less stress, you need less help and you’re not wearing your equipment out. At first you might think, oh, my competitors are going to get them – let them!  They can be the ones who are stressed out with bad customers. I can tell you for sure, after almost 40 years of doing this, that you spend more time on someone you don’t make any money on than what you do on the people that are paying your bills. Those are the ones you need to concentrate on keeping happy.

For many years we were always worried about losing customers. I’ve learned to just say: “What are we making on that guy? In those instances where I’m only about breaking even I now think “For what?!” I don’t need it! Let your competitors go out of business! I mean by that the guys that bid so cheap. In the long run, they can’t afford to do a good job, buy new equipment, etc. Figure out what it costs per minute, per hour, to run your sweeper. If you’re sweeping something for $30 and you are there an hour, you’re making 30 bucks an hour. It’ll cost you that much just to run the equipment!

In today’s day and age, equipment’s is so expensive, help is expensive.  You better know your profits, you better know your cost and everything else that’s part of your business.

Know when to say “No!”  A good friend of mine told me that long time ago.  “Don’t ever be afraid to say NO,” he told me. “Give your best deal and then walk!  If they can get it cheaper somewhere else, God bless them.” When I do that I always remember to tell them that if they have trouble, call me. I can’t do it for the same price, but call me.

WSA: Right. And have you found that you get a number of those back?

RC: Indeed I do! I’ve also fired customers and then found that they would not leave. Once we have the pricing right, another thing that happens is that we hear no more complaints out of them. Funny how that works.

It took us a long time to have the courage to do that, though.  I mean, that wasn’t done overnight. I’ve been out there with only one truck, by myself, sweeping. Mommy and daddy didn’t give me anything. This company was built as I went along.

RC: Growing anything you do is important. When I took up the responsibility for the wine-tasting event at our Lions’ Club the average attendance was 135 people.  I took it from 135 to 900 people. There’s a big difference in what we can support when you go from 135 to 900 people.

WSA: There’s a lot more revenue for the community, spread out into the community.

RC: It’s all in marketing and in making it a class-act event. And, I concentrate on doing the same with my business. When you market right and you provide good service, business will come your way and stay with you.

I encourage everybody reading this to just go do your very best; do what’s right and you’ll more than survive. Treat your customers good and treat your health good. When you do, you’ll find that work will be easy for you.

WSA: Having known you going on 30 years myself, I can understand why you’d get this tribute from the State of Michigan. You are somebody that gives back in every way you can and it’s a very admirable trait. I’m proud that we’re friends as well as that you are part of the World Sweeping Association’s Advisory Board.

RC: Thank you!  Appreciate it so much!


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