Updated: Oct 14, 2022
Ludington Michigan is a popular summer vacation town and docking port of the last coal-burning ferry on the Great Lakes. It is also just a tiny dot in the 231 Franchise Happy Window Cleaning Territory. The franchise territories correspond to the North American Numbering Plan designed by AT&T and Bell Industries in 1947. It spans the entire west side of northern Michigan from Norton Shores to Mackinaw City.
Ludington is where it all started for me with Scott’s Janitorial and Window Washing, my first cleaning company. Little did I know then that 13 years later I would grow a business someone actually wanted to buy. Patrick Quinn, who had been my business manager acquired that subsidiary of what became a division of “Scott’s Building Solutions INC”. With a background in Environmental Science and a Michigan Builders License, I found myself suited to building restoration. Cleaning and sanitizing things were just the tips of the iceberg of what our company did in those days. Pat continued with Scott's Janitorial for three years when the 44-year-old man suddenly passed away.
At the time of Pat's death, I was living 60 miles south of Ludington in North Muskegon and was fully invested and involved with Muskegon-based businesses so although heartbroken, it was impossible to step back in at the time to save my first cleaning company.
Many lessons came from the experience of passing a business onto another human being. Emotionally and Spiritually, I realized how much my former team had meant to me. It also became apparent that I hadn’t considered a succession planning strategy. I started in business as a trained science geek, like most in small business I had very little formal business education. I had failed to prepare my employees for greater things beyond the job they were hired in for. If I had encouraged employees to learn the language of business (i.e., business finance), well then just maybe someone working at Scott's Janitorial might have been able to take over its operations and disaster could have been averted. We do not know what we do not know and someone once said "hindsight is 2020".
The second lesson I learned is that I had put myself into the situation of becoming acquired because I had become complacent in my own personal growth as well as Scott's Janitorial and Window Washing's numbers. When a company takes its foot off the accelerator of growth and doesn’t sufficiently invest in continuing the education of its people, the business is on its way to zero! It is just a matter of how long. When there is a vacuum in the market someone will always rise to fill it.
What's more, I learned that when a leader does not construct the proper foundation to establish the prerogative to scale the company, staff will eventually outgrow the company and move on. As a young thirty-something, I hadn't yet grasped these things until I had to watch my own company, something I loved and had nurtured from infancy, completely dissolve.
The die was cast. You see I hadn't started out with the mission to be a businessman, for me it had started as a "lifestyle business". That sounded good, but here is the truth, until a leader really masters the finer points of recruiting, operations, marketing, and finance that "lifestyle" is going to have limitations! A successful business begins with a vision of where you want to take the business. So long as there is a market for the value proposition we make a choice of what kind of competitor we will be in that market. This is true whether we are conscious of it or not. Of course, everything has a lifespan, and most businesses don't make it past the second generation. It just depends on who is running the show.
Still, when Pat died I realized that I could have done even better with my former company. (The truth is that I really wasn't enjoying the experience of the new business I had invested in down in Muskegon). Leaving Scott's Janitorial and the 231 had been a mistake, (don't confuse "mistake" with "regret", I have no time for regret). I realized that God had put that company in my path to keep me grounded. A home service company suits that purpose. I wanted to do it better than before and as good as anyone on the planet. So I began my journey to prepare myself to be a better business leader.
It wasn’t long before I was thinking about retooling and starting up a new cleaning company. The difference would be that I wanted to build a company where every stakeholder would have unlimited opportunities. That is a big goal, and I knew that not everyone would avail themselves of that. I didn't want anyone to feel trapped in a dead-end job nor to be able to complain to others that no one had given them a chance! So I became laser-focused on delivering just a few home services and translating every aspect of that value to my employees. "Keeping things simple" avoided the "cognitive switching penalty" (A big college term that basically means there is no such thing as multitasking, our minds can only do one thing efficiently at a time. So when we switch back and forth we lose productivity). This gives people a chance to really get good at their jobs.
Maximizing proficiency and profit in a service business are all about great thruput. Sure big companies can do lots of different things. but there is always someone knowledgeable and experienced in charge in every department. You might not meet him or her because she is back in the office on the phone, but there is always someone. Small companies create their own chaos by doing too much, too soon. To be outstanding in a market we need to be better than good. Seth Godwin, the marketing guru, says "you need to be remarkable".
Even after building a business for over 13 years, I knew that I needed to figure out the areas of my business where I could be even stronger. It is difficult to work "on" a business once you are busy working "at" the business. To figure out the "how" of my new business plan, I then took a few more years of college classes, and I did a ton of extracurricular reading too, along with extensive proof of concept studies and research which culminated in the book "Cleaning For Profit". All of this in preparation to build a franchise based on experience gained in the 231 markets.
It become apparent to me that I had reached a ceiling in my business sometime before I had sold it. I would come to realize that continuous growth is important to a company. It all begins with leadership. A business leader needs to know his strengths, and weaknesses, as well as the market's opportunities and threats. I knew the problems my service would solve with the highest possible productivity. I learned how to invest in people so they get good at their tasks.
Ultimately I chose the name “Happy Window Cleaning” because I knew that God wanted me to pursue a simple life, to be of service to others, and to never be dependent on anyone but him. And I had truly been happiest when I owned the cleaning company. I knew that I wanted to work with people who like myself would take ownership seriously, and I want to stay involved with my new partners. In the 231, I had measured every step I took, which kinds of ads worked, what returns I got with mailings, when, where, and what, I had done every variation of a marketing mix and spent millions learning these things over the years.
Franchising was a way to make the most of these experiences. Open Book Management, (Thank you, Jack Stack author of those books) was a way to get my whole team involved in the game. So I decided to start over in a larger metropolitan area. My team and I chose Grand Rapids and after six years of building our systems, we were ready to execute the plan. It really began in 2010 proving the concept of "Happy's Window Cleaning" licensed as a "truck in the company", specializing in Window Cleaning in Las Vegas. I documented the whole experience in my book.
My wife Cherie is an accomplished Juris doctor and she worked alongside me reviewing everything I was doing, every step of the way. Cherie's contributions to the company are too many to enumerate. She is the hardest-working individual I know. Together we developed the content that became a 900-page Franchise Operations and Reference Manual, and we supplemented that with a comprehensive abridged version of those principles with our "Happitude Training Series", (Graphic design is another one of Cherie's many talents). In addition to the Franchise Training Proper, which takes a month to cram through, we have our own Technical Vocational Courses and an additional Business Lesson Series for our employees and future franchisers' continuing education.
Since we didn't wish to start from scratch again, back in 2015 we began to look for an established company that we could purchase. Eventually, we found the right one and acquired Brad's Window Cleaning in Rockford Michigan in the summer of 2016. A twelve-year-old book of business. The owner Brad Carey was turning 60, he had made good financial decisions and was ready to retire early. The Christian brother had built a really solid book of repeat customers, just like I had with Scott's Janitorial and Window Washing, It buying his business felt like my life had been restored. I had been given a second chance.
Brad had earned his good reputation the right way. He taught me more than a few things. You can be sure that Brad required business references while considering whether to sell to me. Fortunately, even though it had been a spell since they had seen me personally, my former customers in Ludington were still willing to give their recommendations. In many ways, 231 has continued to shape the course of my life.
The 231 Territory has several great areas where three or more separate locations have the potential to earn six-figure revenues. Like all of the Happy Window Cleaning territories, 231 is expansive and exclusive to the owning franchise partner. Someone could spend their whole career developing 231 himself or he might choose to share management of additional franchisee partners. as the "master franchise". The whole point of Happy Window Cleaning is that we are building an organization where every stakeholder has the greatest potential to choose just how far he or she is willing to go! We don't want external forces deciding that for them. That is why at Happy Window Cleaning, we took six years to build and test our systems,. It is why we focused on providing higher education and collaboration with outside partners for that, in our operating plan!
Having come from rural Michigan, I believe in the resolve and ingenuity of the people there. Whether one is set up in Ludington, Cadillac, or Traverse City, those are communities that support their local businesses. I know that there is plenty of opportunity in Northwestern Michigan to grow a business larger than the $200,000 a year business that I, (or a younger less experienced version of myself), had built in that space. Nonetheless, 231 holds a very special place in my heart because I have more than a list of old customers in the area. I have true friends there.