Smith Cleaning Moving Toward Third Generation

Smith Cleaning Moving Toward Third Generation

StuartFaceStuart Smith virtually grew up in the parking lot sweeping business in his hometown of Newberry, SC, which is near Columbia, the state capitol. At the tender age of 10 he started helping out his father, William, who took over the sweeping business of a friend who died in the early 1970s.  They had a Clark-brand push sweeper that collected debris in a cloth bag. The machine had to be trailered to the single account that came with his dad’s newfound company.

Stuart helped out in the mornings before school, which meant getting up before 5am. Their activities took about two hours to complete. Both his sister and his mother also went on the routes in order to get everything done as quickly as possible. While his dad used the sweeper on the sidewalks and around the stores, Stuart’s job was to go around the parking lot and pick up all the accumulated larger debris by hand which, he says, was mostly paper.

SonBackpackingAfter working for about two hours each morning, he’d come home and get ready for school by 8am. “As you can see, this business has been with me for quite a few years,” says Smith, “which is why I have such a strong passion for parking lot sweeping. Now my son, though only six years of age, has a similar interest in the job I do and comes along sometimes and wants to run the backpack blower.”

As the town grew, Smith Cleaning picked up some additional centers to clean. Plus, from only sweeping they soon added grass cutting for many of their accounts. The kids got paid once a month, which occurred only when the clients paid. “I don’t remember anymore how much we got paid for working,” said Smith, “but I do remember looking out for when I’d get that check each month. On a particular day it would be payday for everybody. It really taught me the value of a dollar and what kind of effort it took to earn money. That’s something that has helped me throughout my career and in life.”

At an early age Stuart also was taught the maintenance procedures for the company’s Clark sweeper. Worst, he recalls, was when they’d unzip the sweeper’s trash container bag to empty it and then the zipper would somehow get stuck and wouldn’t go back up again. That happened on occasion and meant we had to do a lot more hand-work when sweeping. The kids were also taught about the rest of the mechanical operations in addition to how to add the gas and oil correctly.

“That whole process taught me a lot of mechanic skills, economic skills and life skills,” recalls Stuart. “We learned that you get back out what you put into something. I grew up learning how to work with property managers, too, and keeping them happy. It was really a good life-learning experience. It’s also helped me in the long-term to figure out how to do things in the most economical way possible. Now, thirty years after I first started out, I find myself having to come back to those lessons in these days of the third party vendors and the economy creating shrinking margins.

“Pricing has been cut and, at the same time, the cost of fuel and upkeep have increased. It seems like, in some ways, we’ve come full circle to where we started. However, we still have that same shopping center we started with so that shows we’ve learned our lessons on how to maintain and keep our customers happy as well as to make the mechanics of the business itself work for us.”

After about five years of using the Clark, Stuart’s dad decided it was time to get another sweeper, which was a Schwarze 220 pull -behind machine. For those who have been in the business awhile, this was like Schwarze’s well-regarded 222 but was mounted onto a trailer instead of onto a Toyota pickup. Smith says the new sweeper model “was really a game-changer. I know my dad thought long and hard about making the purchase since using the Clark was working. In the end, though, he decided it would end up making their cost of operation lower and that spurred the purchase. He also knew that if we wanted to get some more shopping centers we’d have to upgrade our equipment. Although we had to shovel out the debris from the Schwarze, we all thought it was much better than dealing with the cloth bag system on the Clark. I remember us all thinking we had really, really come up in the world when we got that Schwarze machine.”

Once they got the 220 his mother and sister dropped out of the morning cleaning routine and service started being performed just by Stuart and his father. Mom just went out if Stuart wasn’t available for some reason. Stuart reminisced that there were a number of truly good benefits that came out of having the family spend that much time together and all working together for a common, family goal. “I remember it all to this day,” he said, “and I wouldn’t change one part of it.”

About this time dad also decided to start sweeping into the evening some of the time instead of just in the mornings, and Stuart says as a teenager he really got to like staying up late much better than getting up so early every day. He says he enjoys the flexibility that can be utilized in the business even to this day. And, his father’s story backed up that flexibility in a different fashion: His dad stayed in the business even after he could have retired but passed away suddenly at age 75 about five years ago. His dad did several parking lots on his own, including any needed maintenance, and Stuart says his company handled the rest.

SmithAndSonStuart says he is committed to passing these types of life lessons on to his own children, although admits it’s not as easy with the life we all live today as it was when he was growing up. He’s taken his six-year-old son, Will, out with him a few times and “he’s rarin’ to go, but it’s too early to involve him in any meaningful way. In a few more years, though, he’ll be out here with us. We’re excited about the future of having this become a third generation business.”

Today’s Smith Cleaning LLC  does many services that are requested by its clients, many of whom are absentee managers. “We’ve gotten into lawn mowing and landscape maintenance,” said Stuart, “as well as power washing for both residential and commercial. We’ve even gotten into building maintenance projects. The different avenues for the business just keep growing. People see us performing these other services and want us to do the same for them or, alternatively, something a little different. We’re happy to oblige.

“When it comes to determining the scope of services you want to tackle, my advice is to keep your options open. Don’t preconceive that you should or shouldn’t do a particular service.  In our experience, which has been very positive, if the opportunity comes then we try it. There are some services that we hesitated on that have turned out very well for us. Then, it seems those open up further opportunities as you go along.

“My advice for anyone getting started would be to start small and then try to diversify wherever customer requests take you. At one and the same time you’ll increase your list of services and keep your customers satisfied they can make just one phone call and count on getting their problem solved. Anything can not work out just the way you want it to at first, but if you work your business that way opportunity will keep coming to you. Just keep in mind the roots that got you there. That’s a philosophy that has worked out very well for me.”

Smith offers more advice for anyone looking to get into the parking lot sweeping business, which is that you can keep your day job and just start out part time to see how it all works out. In his experience the nighttime sweeping accounts can provide significant additional income and then, at the right time, you have the opportunity to quit your day job and go full time into sweeping. However, even when you get bigger you can hire employees to handle the work without being full time into it yourself, he says.

In the accompanying podcast, Stuart Smith also discusses his thoughts for how the parking lot sweeping industry may well change in the coming years, including automated sweepers that sweep on a GPS-designed grid all by themselves. In the coming years he says he expects there will be some new, innovative changes to the industry that may change the entire landscape of the industry.

“In the last about six years, one of the changes we’ve seen is that customers seem to want more for the same amount of money,” said Smith. “As a result, I think we all have to become a little smarter in how we operate. Find out how you can help your customer and, at the same time, become more valuable to them. We now, for example, show buildings for some of our customers. These can either be to show vacant spaces or to have someone be there for an insurance company representative or roofing company or other entity that needs to take a look at a property. We’re on the shopping center all the time so who better to do something like that?

“When it comes time for them to look at pricing, you’ll stand out above the rest when you’re doing more for the customer than just sweeping their lot. You may still lose it if the property is taken over by a third party vendor with some different type of agenda, but most of the time you’ll definitely be better off because you’re a diversified company.”

Stuart also reminds that it’s never a good idea to ‘burn a bridge.’ Although his company sweeps for the first account his dad got when they started out 30 years ago, the fact is that they lost it at one point when the property was sold.

“We were professional when we lost the account to another contractor who made big promises at lower prices and later ended up getting the account back,” said Smith. “It was a good reminder to never burn a bridge when that shopping center came back because they were no longer getting the service they were accustomed to. In the meantime it had gone to a third party vendor and that wasn’t satisfactory, either.

“We do our best to get better every day: new ideas for service, better routing, GPS service on the sweepers, finding ways to save money on expenses and more. We think our move to Masco sweepers also resulted in a better work product in less time. I look forward to whatever will be coming next to improve how well we can do our job.”

In the accompanying podcast, the topic of innovation in equipment is also discussed, with a general lament on both sides that ‘game changing’ innovation has come slowly to the sweeping industry since the advent of air sweeping and automatic dumping.

Smith stresses the way to keep your sweepers in top condition is to stress preventive maintenance in repairing them. He maintains a log that details all the maintenance procedures that have been done on a machine. One of the challenges is with employees, though, in finding employees that can provide top quality, diversified services, and also have the skills to be their own boss out on the job. He feels having the correct personnel allows diversification as well as doing more delegation.

He also discusses the value of GPS, stepping back to reminisce that, back 30 years ago when he got started, there would be some sort of system that would tell an owner of a sweeper where it went, how long it was there, what route it took, etc. Next, Smith speculated, will be self-driving vehicles that sweep on their own without even having an operator involved. It underscores how much has changed in the past three decades.

The topic of third party vendors was also discussed briefly. Smith said contractors today have to recognize that, no matter the size of the client company, in most instances it all goes back to pricing in terms of who will get the job. That’s what has spawned the third party movement; however, in many instances the promises made by third party companies simply are unattainable. Contractors are already doing the best they can in terms of pricing and when third party vendors become inserted into the equation to get a lower price, inevitably there has to be a long-run drop in quality received to make the numbers work.

“There’s always somebody out there who is hungry, so you can’t become complacent about making more than a normal profit,” said Smith.  “We have to keep finding ways to lower our costs and expenses, as well as be able to do a more efficient job on the client property. Every day the other competitors are out there doing the same so there’s no way to let up in that process and remain successful.”

Smith references a book he read by a Canadian contractor who wrote about how he runs his sweeping business with a broom and dustpan, not a sweeper. To keep grit down somewhat, he hires an air sweeper once every six months. A discussion on the podcast ensued about the viability of doing this in any sweeping company if that’s all the client is willing to pay for before deciding to have an employee do hand-pick cleanup instead of hiring a contractor.

“Our job as a sweeping contractor is to find a way to handle every sweeping job that comes along at the price the client is willing to pay,” said Smith. “If it’s a very low number that you can’t afford to take your sweeper to do the cleaning, perhaps you can find a retired person who wants a part-time job and is located near the client property. That again goes back to being creative to get the job done at the rate willing to be paid. Better that we do it than to have some employee of the center do the same thing, isn’t it?

SmithLogo“However, ideally the economy will keep improving to where retail clients will return to wanting quality performance. I believe if I, as a contractor, keep the mindset that my long-run success will be best accomplished by our continual insistence on providing a top level of service that will be the best for my company as well as my clients.

” Having a high standard of morals with your company is something you can hang your hat on each and every day.”

Stuart Smith may be reached by calling 803 924 2096, or by sending an email to



















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