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Business Observer Friday, Apr. 21, 2017 3 years ago

Kleen Break

A former millionaire lost it all. But his successful do-over is filled with lessons learned.
by: Randi Donahue Contributing Writer

John Cloud is a born adventurer with a pilot's license and a keen business sense. “I've always been eager and enthusiastic as opposed to cautious and calculated,” says Cloud.

A love of photography as well as college summers with a local newspaper had him considering a career as an international photojournalist. But upon graduation from Vanderbilt University, an intriguing job opportunity with a company that engineered and manufactured state-of-the art catamarans confirmed Cloud's career path in business.

In 1983, after flying to Arkansas to solve a major production dilemma in his father's timber business, Cloud took over ownership. He grew that company from $1.5 million to $55 million in annual revenue at the time of its sale in 1998.

If success is measured in assets, Cloud was at the top of the charts following the sale: a waterfront home; a plane; a 34-foot boat; a vacation home in North Carolina, and free time to pursue his passions. But in 2009, a middle-aged Cloud was faced with a hard reality. A major investment in a North Carolina real estate development just prior to the market crash, coupled with investments in what turned out to be Sarasota-based Art Nadel's Ponzi scheme eventually forced Cloud to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

“My investments were my job and my income,” says Cloud. “So in that case, when the money is gone, you don't have anything. I said, 'I have got to do something and start over.'”

He flew to Phoenix to explore an offer in the trending home health care industry.

But instead he walked away with a different idea: a nationally recognized and professional exterior cleaning business. Cloud launched Gorilla Kleen in 2011. His intention was to create a company with reliable brand recognition in an industry where a standard of accountability and professionalism were scarce.

“Pressure washing tends to be a low-entry threshold business,” says Cloud. From its inception, Cloud's business plan included a structure to support a large staff and incorporate strong training and multiple levels of management. He wanted his company to be capable of taking on complex projects.

Now five years in business, Gorilla Kleen has 13 employees, four cleaning crews and one paver sealing crew, and holds large commercial accounts with Sarasota Memorial Hospital, Ed Smith Stadium, spring home of the Baltimore Orioles, and Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. Gorilla Kleen also received the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce 2016 Small Business of the Year Award.

“We are big enough that if we say we are going to do something it'll get done, says Cloud. He says while a one-man show carries potential risks and unknowns, Gorilla Kleen performs criminal background checks on all employees and carries insurance. Cloud says he's also cost competitive with smaller outfits.

Cloud's management style focuses on empowering employees. As a big-picture guy, his ultimate goal is to steer clear of day-to-day operational tasks.

“You want things to happen without you,” says Cloud. “It lets you focus on improving things. It's a bad way to parent, but a good way to run a business.”

Cloud advises other business owners to hire somebody who loves to do the stuff you hate to do. He tends to get bored by the details, but still likes to research and gain new knowledge. He also satisfies innovative passions by refining the techniques and machinery his crews use to make the work more efficient.

“I'll sit here at my desk a while and eventually go out to the shop and fix something or build something,” says Cloud. “I can't sit and be that cerebral for that long without a break.”

Cloud's previous successes and failures continue to guide him.

“The very fact that I had to start over...I didn't really want to,” he says. “But it allowed me to prove to myself that I am capable of starting from scratch.”

Cloud also has a vested interest his employees' quality of life.

“I've maintained a respect for the people who make up the business,” he says. So much so that after the sale of the timber company, Cloud created a fund that provided junior college tuition and books for his former employees and their families for the four years following the sale.

He may not be in a position to offer such benefits to his Gorilla Kleen employees, but Cloud finds satisfaction knowing he is supporting his employees by providing salaries and sharing in some major life events.

“I guess the way to say it is I wouldn't have chosen this route - I would have preferred to have kept all the money and the waterfront homes and the airplane,” says Cloud. “But even detours that you didn't want to take can be an adventure.”

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