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Cleaning up

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  • | 11:00 a.m. November 6, 2015
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Executive Summary
Company. MaidPro of SW Florida Industry. Franchise Key. Franchising support can help grow an existing business.

When Michelle Spitzer started Michelle's Classy Cleaning in Naples 20 years ago, her total outlay was $300 for cleaning supplies and a liability insurance policy.

Spitzer parlayed that into a cleaning business with $2.6 million in revenues last year. She routinely ranks among the top-three MaidPro franchises out of 180 nationwide. Now Spitzer is expanding her territory to Sarasota from her base in Naples and Fort Myers.

The business got its start in a classroom assignment at Hodges University, which was then called International College and located in a Naples strip mall. The instructor was Gene Landrum, the founder of the Chuck E. Cheese franchise. “He became one of my original mentors,” Spitzer says.

One of Spitzer's first assignments for Landrum was to write a business plan. She picked housecleaning because she was doing that to make ends meet, charging $25 an hour. “It became my passion,” Spitzer says.

Spitzer is unusual because she had a well-established business before joining the MaidPro franchise, a Boston-based company. “I wanted to take the business to the next level,” says Spitzer.

MaidPro offered Spitzer the tools she needed, especially scheduling and business software to be more efficient. And because MaidPro was a young company, the franchise fee cost $1. “It was well worth the investment,” Spitzer smiles.

College try
An Illinois native, Spitzer says she cleaned homes while attending business classes at Hodges. She used a book, “Speed Cleaning 101,” to get started.

But the business-plan assignment in Landrum's entrepreneurship class sparked her interest in developing her part-time gig into a full-fledged business. Landrum gave Spitzer an A for his class, but he was nonetheless surprised when she implemented the business plan because students rarely follow through. “She was sharp and she got it,” he recalls.

Like most startup ventures, things didn't go smoothly at first. For her first job she recruited her sister-in-law, Michele Reed, to clean a convenience store for $75 and it turned into a half-day ordeal. The store's owner initially refused to pay because they didn't clean the windows. “I had seriously underbid the job,” Spitzer says. “My sister-in-law quit.”

Before she moved the business into her garage, Spitzer used the Winn-Dixie parking lot on Immokalee Road in Naples as the dispatch area. “I made lots of wrong hiring decisions along the way,” she says.

But those lessons taught Spitzer how to spell out contracts and gave her insights into whom to hire. “I built up a nice little business,” Spitzer says.

Postcard in the mail
After about four years in business, Spitzer received a postcard from MaidPro. Spitzer was worried it was a new competitor, but they were looking for cleaning businesses to buy into their young franchise system.

“We hit it off right away,” says MaidPro CEO Mark Kushinsky. “She was definitely a go-getter, a lot of energy.”

Spitzer, who became franchisee No. 9, says MaidPro offered support such as scheduling software that was indispensable to grow her business. Although she had to pay the franchisor a percentage of sales, the $1 franchise fee was worth it, she says.

Spitzer was taking a gamble with MaidPro because the chain was in its early stages. “The first franchisees are taking quite a risk,” says Kushinsky.

And MaidPro was taking a different approach by having an existing business join the system. Most franchisors prefer newcomers, not someone like Spitzer who already had a successful cleaning business. “Those that convert tend to be stuck in their ways a lot,” says Kushinsky, noting that only 10% of MaidPro's franchisees have followed that route.

MaidPro's growth in Southwest Florida wasn't straight up. Revenues fell 40% during the worst of the downturn, and Spitzer had to cut staff and trim expenses. “Worst case scenario I'll go clean myself,” she remembers thinking.

In a way, the recession made Spitzer a better operator and negotiator with suppliers. “I'm watching the P-and-L statements more closely than before,” she says.

Kushinsky agrees: “Florida was hit with a pretty hard recession,” he says. “She's come back even stronger.”

Now, finding talent is becoming a challenge. For the first time during the busy winter season last year, Spitzer had to turn some prospective customers down because she didn't have enough people on staff to handle the extra work. But lately she's found good job candidates through Goodwill Industries' job placement programs. She pays $100 for employee referrals.

To retain employees and encourage top performance, Spitzer has monthly prize drawings for employees who receive positive feedback from customers and have perfect attendance. For every positive comment from a customer, an employee receives a poker chip to put in a jar. At the end of the month, Spitzer draws names for $150 gift cards.

Sarasota expansion
Over the years, Spitzer grew the Naples location and added Marco Island and Fort Myers. A call center and administrative operation off Pine Ridge Road in Naples efficiently coordinates all the cleaning and routes for the region.

To sign up new clients, Spitzer uses a combination of television and Internet advertising. On television, MaidPro advertises during the news hours, targeting busy people, women and older people. “I'm targeting people who are affluent,” she says.

Those who work with her to create the marketing say she's not afraid to spend what it takes to brand the business. “Some entrepreneurs we work with are helter-skelter,” says Randy Mitchelson, vice president of sales and marketing with iPartnerMedia in Bonita Springs. “They don't have that consistency and commitment required to build a business, but Michelle does.”

Spitzer's ads resemble any top brand. “The first thing that comes to mind is the quality,” says Mitchelson. “Whenever you see Michelle in person or on TV or something online, everything's polished, professional. It looks consistent.”

In August, the company added Sarasota to its network. Spitzer says she's had the right of first refusal to open that market but the recession delayed her decision to go north.

With the help of her accounting firm, Spitzer says she won about $80,000 from the BP oil spill settlement money, and she's using that to launch the Sarasota operation. “The biggest challenge is giving our pros enough work,” says Spitzer, who is guaranteeing hours to her Sarasota employees while she grows the business.

Spitzer says she's learned to delegate over the years, trusting each of the managers of her four locations and about 100 employees. That's important because she's set her sights on other markets that don't yet have a MaidPro franchise.

“Michelle is magnetic,” says Kushinsky. “A lot of people like to be around her. She's a great motivator and leader. That goes a long way.”

Advice from the pro
Michelle Spitzer grew her cleaning business into one of the nation's top MaidPro franchises in the nation. She shares advice for entrepreneurs:

Learn all you can about finances. Sales are great, but watch those expenses to be profitable. “What really matters is the bottom line,” Spitzer says.

You never know when the next recession will slow business, so start building a rainy day fund. Spitzer says a good target to start is one month's worth of payroll. “Start that habit right from the beginning,” she counsels.

Don't give up. You'll have setbacks, especially at the beginning.

Learn to delegate. As your business grows, you'll have to depend and trust others with jobs you performed during the startup phase.

Be familiar with technology. For example, Spitzer's operating system is in the cloud so she can access her work anytime from any location.


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