Hank Unck is the Secretary, Executive Committee of the IICRC and Tony Wheelwright is International Vice President, Executive Committee of the IICRC.
How would you best sum up the last 50 years (or the time that you’ve been a part) of the carpet cleaning/restoration industry?
Tony Wheelwright: I believe that our industry – carpet and fabric cleaning – began in London in 1901 with the invention and use of the first vacuum cleaner. Founded later was the British Vacuum Cleaner Company, which began operations in 1901 with the development of Puffing Billy - huge vacuum cleaner that was transported from house-to-house by horse-drawn sleigh and parked near the house. Cleaning inside the house was carried out using a 30-meter hose. This cleaning method has gained huge popularity in the British aristocratic circles, and even spawned a special tradition - at the time, while employees of the company cleaned the carpets in the house, ladies gathered and arranged tea (called vacuum cleaner parties). Even Queen Victoria was a regular customer. A company’s services rendered to the British Admiralty (removal of dust in the barracks, sailors) helped stop a plague epidemic then raging.
When ICS began publishing, carpet cleaning was being done primarily by in-plant rug cleaning or on-site shampooing or other low-moisture methods. Then in the mid- to late-60’s, the next great leap forward took place with the invention of hot water extraction machines. Portables soon followed by truck-mounted units.
Hank Unck: For 21 years, I have been a part of this industry, primarily from the manufacturer’s standpoint, and secondarily as an independent marketing consultant. Looking back over those years, I see a dichotomy in regards to professionalism. Smart business practices have definitely grown and it appears that the more successful businesses understand that it’s not about cleaning and restoration, but about the level of customer service and how the customer is serviced. Expertise, certifications and experience are critical factors in the equation, but thousands of cleaners and restorers also have all of those abilities. The ones that really shine and succeed in breaking out of a job of their own making, and building a viable business with capital worth, are the ones that understand their customers’ needs and treat them for what they are - the very lifeblood of their business’s existence. Unfortunately, way too many owner/operators, and even larger firms, haven’t realized that “secret” yet, and won’t, because trying to make a quick buck by lowballing seems easier to them. Part of the reason for that lies with the fact that this is a very easy industry in which to set up business, with a next-to-nothing investment. Thus it attracts both those who have the desire, drive and determination to make something of themselves, and those who do not, but just want to be their own boss.
In your opinion, what have been some of the most significant events and milestones to impact the industry over the past 50 years? What about some of the most significant people?
TW and HU:
What are some of your fondest memories of being involved in the industry in years past (i.e., association involvement, trade shows, etc.)?
TW: This is the last and greatest bastion of the independent, family-run business that is almost unique in working inside people’s private homes and castles. We inherently know that we all share this in common along with the camaraderie, the humor and the determination of this group. My fondest memories are all about the characters that I have come to know and respect throughout this industry of stubborn and fiercely independently people all over the world.
HU: My opportunity, as VP of Sales & Marketing for Prochem, to create The Prochem System. After a short time in this industry, I was so sad to see so many cleaners work so hard and barely get anywhere, because, even though they had the technical expertise, they didn’t have much, if any, business knowledge. Thus, I got permission from Jim Roden, founder, and then-owner of Prochem, to design and implement the Prochem System. In its original incarnation it was designed as a “Business Systems, Sales, Marketing and Marketing Training” resource for the independent operator, in order to compete effectively and profitably in an ever-increasing competitive environment. We conducted annual Business Systems Symposiums, at which leading industry and allied industry names presented useful information and methods, which attendees could incorporate into their operations. People such as Lee Pemberton, Carey Mitchell, Dr. Eugene C. Cole, a young Chuck Violand, and an even younger (but brilliant) Howard Partridge, as well as noted marketing and businesses individuals from outside of our industry participated in those two- and three-day symposiums. We created brochures, door hangers, post cards and other marketing aids that could be purchased at cost. We offered a complete “business blueprint” manual for cleaners. The Prochem System was the forerunner of what would eventually be offered through organizations like Jon-Don and Bridgepoint Systems (Interlink).
Regional trade shows put on by the regional associations and Customer Appreciation Days (CADs). As much as manufacturers complained about the amount of travel, expense and time away from the office that these involved, there was no better way to come face-to-face with the front lines - the people who work every day with the equipment and chemicals that manufacturers produced. Large shows, such as Connections, are great for many reasons and on many levels, but they don’t afford that grassroots exposure to customers and potential customers.
Moving forward, what do you see in store for the cleaning/restoration industry’s future?
TW: Another Florence Nightingale will one day make homeowners everywhere realize that the connection between cleaning and health is real. Only then will the regular cleaning of textiles in people’s homes and workplaces be done for health reasons rather than just for appearance reasons.
HU: I don’t see a lot of drastic change. I believe that this will remain an industry dominated primarily by independent operators and complemented by franchise organizations. The less savvy businesses will go by the wayside as those who can work smarter, and perhaps, harder in some ways, put them out of business. This is just the basic cycle of free enterprise. The mills, big box home improvement stores, carpet retailers have all either tried, considered or flirted with having add-on revenue generation through offering carpet cleaning. The reality is that, although a successful cleaning and/or restoration business can generate substantial income and profits for its owners, the training, employee turn-over, etc. does not make the potential net revenue a large enough factor to be an attractive add-on for large retail organizations. Is that bad? No. This industry provides one of the few remaining opportunities for entrepreneurial individuals to start out with very little capital outlay, and transform that into quite a nice small fortune, if they apply good business principles and practices. And that is good!