by Ranger Kidwell-Ross
The market area for Sweep Masters, Inc. extends from Waveland, Mississippi to Mobile, Alabama. The company was founded in 1998 by Don Odom, who remains a principal today. The company does all types of sweeping as well as power washing. Cheryl Monroe, who is now company president and who we interviewed for this article, arrived on the scene to work in the office in 2003. However, when Odom needed someone to help with the rolling stock she saw the opportunity that appeared available to her if she learned about that part of the business. Then, after that, she learned how to handle cleanup services and, in 2005, bought into a partnership in Sweep Masters.
As though on cue with her purchase, Hurricane Katrina hit that area of Mississippi in August of 2005, changing the landscape — and the business landscape — ever since. Overnight, the company lost 75% of its customers. With no work for their employees, the ownership duo took over all tasks in the company, a situation that continued for the next two years.
Because of all the structural damage and loss of business revenue, parking area sweeping took a complete nosedive. Finally, though, the area got cleaned up enough for street sweeping to become a viable occupation so she and Don purchased a Schwarze A8000 street-class sweeper, which was delivered in May of 2006. The sweeper went to work the day it arrived and was kept busy on a profitable basis full-time for the next two years.
One of the employees they’d lost when Katrina hit came back at that point and Sweep Masters once again had some growth, albeit minor. However, from there the company has continue to persevere through the lean times to eventually come back out the other side now a decade later.
This past July, Monroe became president of the firm, changing job titles with Odom. Their current arrangement of having him handle exterior affairs and her with the office and customer support portion for them, says Monroe, works great. Recently, with so much new business coming from the Mobile, Alabama area — about an hour’s drive away from their Gulfport location — the company will be opening another office in that city in October of 2015.
“It got to the point where it just makes more sense to open an office over there and then we can get local people to help us run it,” said Monroe. “We’ll be glad to quit running a sweeper over there in order to service the area. That will let us be more competitive in that local market. I’m proud to say we’ve never lost an account over bad service, but we have lost some over the dollar.”
Today, Sweep Masters operates three Schwarze Gale Force model sweepers (formerly S348). Along with those they additionally have a low-profile Schwarze Updraft, which is mounted on a Chevy Silverado chassis. Now, after having the Updraft for a year, Monroe says it was a good choice for the run to Mobile every night, even though the sweeper doesn’t have the suction of the Gale Force models. Although it won’t pick up sand very well, she related, it does a fine job on the material they have to remove for those customers, primarily paper, cups, and the other debris typically found on a parking area.
“We are now seriously looking at one of Elgin’s Broom Badger machines now for construction sweeping.” Monroe said. “We like the fact no CDL is needed for the driver; all employees, let alone CDL drivers, are hard to find and expensive to keep in our area. Currently, we do about 70% parking area/parking garage sweeping, with the rest split between industrial and warehouse sweeping. A broom sweeper is needed to transition into highway sweeping, which is an area we would like to tackle next.”
The duo and their drivers like the re-design Schwarze did from the S348 to the Gale Force. Monroe said with a chuckle that they had to go buy another two after they bought their first one because, once they’d purchased one of the newly designed Gale Force machines, no one wanted to drive their old S348s any longer. “We got tired of the fighting over who would drive the Gale Force on a given night,” laughed Monroe. “Now we have three of them and there’s no fighting over who gets which one!”
On the topic of finding good employees, Monroe says they used to put an ad in the paper, at a cost of @ $700. In the last two years, though, they’ve started attending job fairs. “The booth is $200, and the first time we needed a couple hundred dollars of support signage, a banner, and that sort of thing,” said Monroe. “We take a number of applications with us and, as people fill out and hand us their application we pre-interview them right on the spot. The ones I do not want to consider I mark with a star, so if they see me mark their application they may think I’m marking them down as a positive, if anything.
“I’ve gotten several good workers out of the job fairs, though not all of the fairs have been productive. However, we’ve also found the job fairs to be a good advertisement for our business. That’s another plus that you certainly don’t get with a newspaper advertisement. A lot of people don’t know that sweeping companies exist since we mostly deal business-to-business.”
The Gulf Coast, with all the sand, does create upkeep problems for the company’s sweeper fleet. Monroe says they minimize repairs by having a strong preventive maintenance program, cleaning and power washing all their sweepers after every shift. However, due to their location there’s still a good bit of welding needed on the sweepers over their lifetimes.
Repairs are needed more often when the Gale Force units are used for construction cleanup, typically the most difficult job the machines face. Use of a magnet bar was a requirement for a job for the Airbus manufacturing facility. Management has found that use of the magnet bar comes in handy for other work, such as the job pictured, which is at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Coliseum. The sweeper was cleaning up after a traveling carnival called the Summer Fair and Expo.
“All sweepers need frequent repairs in our experience,” said Monroe. “That, again, is why you need to be charging the right amount of money for providing sweeping services. You have to be able to save up money to have your sweepers and other equipment fixed and kept in good operating condition and that’s not cheap. In our experience, when you keep newer equipment and then fix whatever goes wrong immediately, that’s the way to minimize expenses. If there’s a wire that goes bad, fix it right now. Otherwise that can just lead to bigger problems.”
When it comes to backpack blowers, Monroe says they’ve come to trust blowers made by Stihl, specifically the 600 Magnum models. Priced around $600, she feels they provide long-run cost-effectiveness and do a good job during their service lifetimes.
“Stihl’s 600 Magnum blowers are light,” said Monroe, “and they are very powerful. We also have many Stihl dealers in our area. In addition to a good sweeper, you have to have a good blower for your employees. You don’t want them to have their arms get tired when they have to blow 500′ of sidewalk. Plus, if it’s truly difficult to operate any given piece of equipment your employees aren’t going to do it. You have to make it as easy as possible to make sure the task gets done well.”
Sweep Masters runs one person on the sweeper for light routes, but are flexible enough to put two into the sweeper for holidays and heavier routes. Every new hire, no matter what the job description they were hired for, trains by running a backpack blower for a week. The management team has found that to be a way to weed out the ‘bad seeds’ from those who have the tenacity to stick around and continue doing a good job.
All the sweepers are tracked via GPS, so Monroe and Odom are able to monitor all the routes remotely. Still, they also check behind all their route drivers to confirm the type of job that’s getting done for their clientele. Depending upon which of the principals is out working on a route on a given night, the duo splits up the monitoring task however makes the most sense.
“To provide the best results for your customers, the management has to be involved in the outcomes on the lot,” said Monroe. “You have to be out there confirming that service is being provided the way it should be. In our area there are some sweeping companies where that isn’t the case and it’s easy to see the difference in the end result that gets achieved.
“To do a great job, management team members need to be checking on results, not home sleeping like some are. You have to care and you have to show your employees that you care. Your customers will see the difference. Also, we all need to remember that our companies are only as good as our weakest link. We try to make sure our weakest employee, whoever they may be, is the best they can be.”
Sweep Masters provides two basic services, sweeping and pressure washing, although they will do small asphalt patching jobs, large item removal and those sorts of related tasks. The rest they refer out to local specialists in the area(s) needed.
In the accompanying audio podcast, in addition to the above Monroe discusses the many difficulties that have been encountered by the Gulfport and similar business communities since Katrina. Mostly, she details the types of ‘finger-pointing’ insurance companies have engaged in so they don’t have to pay claims, or at least in an attempt to minimize their payments of them. She criticizes the federal government’s efforts in getting the business community back, as well. This makes good listening for anyone who wants to get a first-hand account of how the rebuild after Katrina has gone.
Although there was much focus on New Orleans, as Monroe pointed out this was a man-made flood due to the levee failing. Largely unnoticed was that three other counties, including their location in Gulfport, were pretty much “wiped off the map.”
When asked about any difficulties her firm faces in providing services in a relatively small market area, Monroe had a ready answer. “I know there are companies out there sweeping 200 parking lots a night. Although we’re a force in our area, we sweep about 50 a night. That means that each one is of paramount importance to us. If there’s a problem, it gets handled right away.
“I also make sure to have a good relationship with most of our property managers. And, I say ‘most’ only because some are the third party guys where every time you call there’s a different person at the job. Fortunately, those are only 15% t0 20% of our total customer base. Many of them I’ve told ‘no’ because they want us to basically sweep for free. Why would anyone do that? We’ve never swept a property where we didn’t make money. That’s the only way anyone can afford to do a good job, which is what we are known for.”
Although faced with an uphill struggle, the Sweep Masters organization shows that even after a disaster like Katrina competent members of the business community can persevere and come out the other side in growth mode. It is a testament to the grit and determination American entrepreneurs have long been known to have — and which Monroe and Odom exemplify.
If you would like to contact Cheryl Monroe or the SweepMasters location, you may do so through the company’s website, which is located at www.SweepMastersOnline.com.