Photo by Kris Kathmann
At night when most southern Minnesota businessmen are snoring loudly and dreaming of sugar plum profits, New Ulm native Jon Gasner is roaring his machine across a Wal-Mart parking lot, gulping hot java, and trying to stay awake by shoulder shimmying to Alabama and Alan Jackson. Other than being a fastidious neatnik, buying a $35,000 vacuum sweeper in 1998 to begin a new business with no customers, purchasing the old UPS facility with no renters, and circumnavigating a messy divorce in 2001, Gasner’s story has little shine.
His chosen occupation of cleaning parking lots fits hand-in-glove with his night-owl personality. “I’ve always been a night person,” says Gasner, 33, owner of Ground Zero Services, a New Ulm-based parking lot maintenance company that operates out of the old UPS building south of town. “Working at nights is peaceful. There isn’t much traffic. I just go out, and do my thing,”
Parking lots are vacuumed and cleaned during early morning hours when most businesses are closed, parking stalls are empty, and regular customers aren’t around to be terrorized by the roaring of a Zamboni-sized vacuum sweeper. Jon Gasner lives out his compulsion for clean lots using either an old, lumbering Elgin street sweeper or the $35,000 used Schwartz vacuum sweeper he purchased off the Internet.
Born a neatnik, his compulsion was fueled early on at home by a messy sibling. “I used to share a bedroom with a brother who would never put his clothes away. I had to clean up after him. He was never that clean, and still isn’t to this day,” he says of an older brother who works for a large manufacturer in Mankato. Jon’s cleanliness trait is readily apparent at his New Ulm facility: his vacuum sweeper casts a reflective shine and the floors in his building are swept clean. Not one loose thread or piece of lint hangs off his shirt.
The clean seed for Ground Zero Services was planted in 1990, when Gasner began sweeping New Ulm KMart’s parking lot once a week at 4:00 A.M. with an Elgin sweeper while being employed by Hoffman Construction. After he left Hoffman Construction, he often felt that, with better equipment, a person could make a decent living cleaning parking lots full-time. In 1998 he finally acted on his immaculate dream by locating and buying a dependable Schwartz vacuum sweeper — one he knew could be driven to Mankato in less than 30 minutes, where he had a slew of potential customers. While driving the sweeper home from Alabama he stopped near St. Louis to telephone a management company in southern Minnesota about a bid. Only then did he know for sure that he had won his first contract, which was just enough to cover his monthly equipment loan.
“And if I hadn’t won that contract I would have been out knocking on doors to get business,” he says as a matter of of fact, showing a quiet self-confidence.
To increase business he went store-hopping. “I would just give the owner or store manager my card and explain what I could do. Almost every place I went I could tell they had a need for the service,” he says. He sent Kraft Foods a letter, and they responded. The maintenance supervisor of a large business in North Mankato saw his handiwork, and placed an order to have all the company’s lots cleaned once a year. “When I’m out shopping and walking into a business, I look at the parking lot. If it isn’t clean, I give them a card.”
His regular, year-around account list today includes two Wal-Marts (Mankato and Montevideo), Kraft Foods-New Ulm, New Ulm Hy-Vee, New Ulm CashWise, New Ulm KMart, Mankato Southern Valley Co-op, Bethany Lutheran College, and maybe a half dozen others. In spring, the peak season for clean-up, he adds seasonal accounts such as Taylor Corporation, Wendy’s, Baker’s Square and properties cared for by Fisher Management.
The usual cigarette butts and fast food litter that turn a potential customer’s stomach aren’t the only reasons many businesses are having their lots cleaned. Most have learned that winter sand prematurely wears down asphalt and concrete. The sand acts as an abrasive, cracks develop, and weeds spike through the cracks. Annual sweeping is much cheaper than a new parking lot, Gasner claims. Business owners also realize that sand tracked in on wet shoes after a snowfall makes for an ugly mess that also quickly wears out store carpets and tile floors. An employee has to scrub and mop up all those wet, grimy, black marks, too.
“There is a big difference between sweeping a parking lot and cleaning one,” he says. “We clean. Just about anybody can sweep.”
Beyond all that, Gasner says, “It’s similar to retail. The lot is the customer’s first impression of a store, what they remember. If it isn’t kept up, a potential customer also may think the backroom or kitchen isn’t kept up.”
After cranking up Alabama on the sweeper radio and guzzling his liquid caffeine, to begin a typical clean-up he uses a backpack blower to clear trash from sidewalks, around dumpsters, and from other places where his bulky vacuum sweeper can’t reach. If an abandoned parked car or two blocks his path he has to blow under them and make do. To properly fine-clean a parking lot a person has to use a blower, he claims, because it is so superior to “brooming.” The next step can be the toughest: vacuuming the lot as if he were mowing a lawn, by “making a mental map” in order not to miss spots. At the end of a morning’s work, the trash is stockpiled at a New Ulm shop and later carted off to a county landfill.
He has one main competitor in south-central Minnesota (and others periodically show up in the Yellow Pages), but his stiffest competition works out of Minneapolis, where perhaps a dozen sweeping companies, some with as many as eight machines, have been signing large contracts with corporations that have outposts in Mankato and New Ulm. For example, one of these larger companies sweeps New Ulm Target and Mankato Menard’s. “Because of their resources, [these companies] can get one big contract for all of a retailer’s stores,” Gasner says. “I can’t do that.”
Business slows in the winter, and during the lean periods to earn a few bucks he hauls freight for D&A Trucking in New Ulm. “Last year was my worst winter [in sweeping] because we had so much snow,” he says. “The years previous I was lucky because of the mild winters. You could actually sweep until December and January.” But having downtime isn’t all bad. His two heavy machines need fixing, and worn parts need replacing, such as that fan or fan housing.
Business heats up in March when all the parking lot snow in southern Minnesota melts. Gasner then has all the work he can handle, even having to hire a couple of seasonal employees. He cleans an important North Mankato manufacturer’s lots once a year in spring, which requires long weekend hours when employees are off work and the lots are empty.
He isn’t particularly worried about any of his seasonal employees wrecking a vacuum sweeper or even smashing an account’s new red Mercedes or light pole; he’s more concerned they won’t perform up to his own tough, neatnik standards. “If they don’t do a good job, someone is going to be calling me about it,” he says, adding, “and that’s important because my name is on each job, whether I personally do the work or not.”
He houses all his sweeping equipment in an old UPS building south of New Ulm near Searles, where Route 68 meets US 15. He had no renters when he bought the building. He will be subleasing parts of it to at least two companies: one being Bartels Trucking, which will pre-load semitrailers for private carriers headed for a nearby manufacturer, and work out of an upstairs office; and the other will be his own company, one that will wash commercial vehicles and trucks. United Parcel Service washed all its trucks on the site daily, and the building has drains and oversized doors.
“Bartels is going to be running trailers back and forth, unloading them at the manufacturer, bringing them here, dropping them, doing paper work, and cleaning and washing,” he says. “There could be 50-60 loads per week running through here.”
In 2002 he plans to expand into Hutchinson and Fairmont, with the goal of servicing all the accounts in a town on a particular day: New Ulm on Monday, and Hutchinson on Tuesday, for instance.
Success Has Unwanted By-Product
Gasner has paid a steep price in building his business, a price hundreds of other young entrepreneurs in the region have paid on their way to reaching their business dreams. If you notice Tammy Wynette’s country music song D-I-V-O-R-C-E really affecting him, it’s because the song hits close to home: Gasner and his ex-wife recently went through one. The struggle nearly cleaned out his business, sending his emotions on a wild rollercoaster ride.
“It was really hard,” says Gasner. “Any divorce can be hard, both emotionally and financially. My business suffered. There was a time when I didn’t know coming out of it if I was going to have a business. You have your good, smooth divorces, and then your bad. Mine was bad.” The divorce was final August 13, 2001, and he has spent time since trying to do what comes naturally: cleaning up.
When he bought his vacuum sweeper in 1998 to begin the business, his wife was backing him “100 percent.” But the two became strangers in the night: she worked days, and he, of course, nights. In addition to sweeping, in 1998-2000 he also drove truck for D&A Trucking during the day. The wall-to-wall work schedule in that period did make possible his current business success, but it also exacted a heavy toll on marriage and family.
He describes a typical work day then. “On Sunday nights I started sweeping at nine,” he says, “and I ran straight through my work sweeping, hurried home to shower, and took off for D&A, where I had to begin work at 5:30 on the dot. I drove truck all day, and headed home to sleep before starting the same routine all over again. There wasn’t any free time to do anything except sleep.
“It was hard on our marriage and family. As with anything, you get out what you put in. Some things are going to suffer when you’re trying to build a business. Rather than being at home, I was working all the time. But I’ve tried to put it all behind me by looking to the future. Now I’m just moving forward.”
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