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Business Observer Thursday, Mar. 5, 2009 12 years ago


Victor Griffith's roadmap for beating the recession is marked with lessons he has learned in 30 years of being in business for himself. Some keys: Be organized. Be prepared. And have lots of rules.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Victor Griffith's roadmap for beating the recession is marked with lessons he has learned in 30 years of being in business for himself. Some keys: Be organized. Be prepared. And have lots of rules.

One of the greatest compliments Victor Griffith has ever received in 30 years of owning businesses started out as a vicious complaint.

It happened last year, when a Manatee County homeowner used some choice words for Griffith, accusing him of ripping her off and of outright fraud. The homeowner had hired Griffith's Bradenton-based Breathe Easy Mold
Remediation to totally rid the house of any mold particles. It was a $40,000 job that required the family to leave the house for a week.

“We did all that work,” says Griffith, “but the owner swore we had never been there.”

Not only had Griffith's crew been there and completed the work, but they returned everything — from chairs and lamps to staplers and paperweights — to its precise original position so well that the homeowner couldn't tell anyone was there. Griffith had to show her a thick photo album of before, during and after photos to prove his crew had done the work and returned items with perfection.

While not every job is as perfect as that one, Griffith says the obsessive pursuit of that perfection on every project has been his ticket out of the recession.

In fact, Breathe Easy, with nine employees including a Ph.D. in microbiology who studies the spores and samples, is in rare air among Gulf Coast home and real estate-related companies: It's growing.

Griffith says the company, founded in 2002, is projected to hit $1.7 million in revenues in 2009, an 88% jump from the $900,000 in 2008 revenues. The potential for an even greater jump in sales is possible, too, as some homeowners in Manatee County worry about the Chinese dry wall controversy currently engulfing parts of the Gulf Coast.

So far, however, Griffith hasn't taken on any customers who want him to check their walls for Chinese-made materials used by American homebuilders. The situation has led to a few lawsuits, as well a federal investigation, and
Griffith says he wants to wait out the controversy for a while before moving ahead.

Meanwhile, the company is growing in other ways. It recently added three employees and spread its geographic reach as far south as Naples and as far east as Orlando. Says Griffith: “Our business is growing at a pretty fast rate.”

Go 'mac daddy'
Griffith, who has owned everything from car washes to arcades to a pest control company, says his pursuit of perfection is grounded in his bedrock rule for any business: Preparation.

With Breathe Easy, for example, Griffith spent two years researching the guts of the industry, down to how to write an estimate. He traveled to industry seminars as far as California and Canada and brought in Dr. Andrew Swanson to help him learn the science side of the business.

Says Griffith: “A lot of mold remediation companies have gone out of business due to lack of knowledge.”

The second death knell for mold fighting companies such as Breathe Easy, Griffith says, is lack of attentive customer service. It's a cliche-style approach preached in just about any business or industry, but Griffith follows it fanatically.

“I have a lot of rules,” he concedes. “If you are particular about your own things, you tend to be particular about other peoples things.”

One of Griffith's rules is to follow through with an established customer first. For instance, he has pulled crews off current jobs to deal with issues arising at past work, no matter how trivial. “I will take care of my current customers before I will do new business,” says Griffith.

Another rule can be considered the “be tidy” rule. Griffith says he requires his crews to maintain a clean work environment, from doorknobs to the cars parked kin a home's driveway. If something gets dust or debris on it, the employee is required to make it spotless or face a dock in pay.

In addition to customer-focused rules, Griffith has several internal business philosophies he sticks to. Like his other rules, these ideas can also work in just about any business or industry.

For example, Griffith is studious about being organized, the type of organization practiced in books such as the One Minute Manager. That means only handling a piece of paper once.

“Organization is the key to making more money,” says Griffith. “It takes less time to do a job.”

Finally, Griffith doesn't hesitate to spend money on equipment, which he believes gives him an advantage over the competition.

“I buy mac daddy stuff,” says Griffith. “I don't buy cheap stuff I know is going to break.”

In total, Griffith estimates that he has about $300,000 worth of equipment at Breathe Easy. That includes having a few $15,000 infrared thermal imaging cameras, which his crews use to go deep into a home in an effort to find any amount of moisture — the root cause of most mold buildups.

Says Griffith: “It's almost like having an X-ray on the inside of a house.”

New invention
The best example of Griffith's expenditure philosophy, however, is the company's FAS-TRAC system, known officially as the Fungal Air Systems-True Removal of Airborne Contaminants. The system, which Griffith says he invented but has not trademarked or patented, places hard tarps in a strategic way over homes so that it can create negative air pressure.

That negative air pressure can remove mold-producing spores and replace the entire air composition of the structure. Griffith has spent at least $200,000 on developing and fine-tuning the system, in addition to hundreds of man-hours in testing and research. The company also keeps a stock of the specialized tarps, an inventory worth about $70,000.

Since the FAS-TRAC system is so big and costly, it's only used in the toughest mold cases, such as old commercial buildings.

Griffith actually came up with FAS-TRAC while working in another business — termite and pest control. It was there that he discovered a tarp could be used for that purpose. Griffith owned separate pest control companies in Largo and Bradenton for 30 years, businesses he ultimately sold to Terminix.

Owning his own business has long been a way of life for Griffith. He was born on a farm in Indiana working on local corn and tobacco farms on his own.

That's also when Griffith began his entrepreneurial career. He picked up any job he could find, from mowing lawns to cleaning windows.

Breathe Easy is about the 12th business Griffith, 54, has owned. He says he takes the same workaholic approach to it as he has for his other ventures, including starting his day at 4 a.m.

“It's a very rewarding business,” says Griffith. “It's really all I want to do.”

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