Sixteen-employee Le Sueur cleaning business taking care of details others might miss.
Photo By Kris Kathmann
Five years after founding Professional Cleaning Services, president Sherry Johnson still works from an office in her Le Sueur home. She not only appreciated being able to start up in February 2002 without going into debt, she also likes having less overhead cost than a storefront would require. Her real payoff, though, is, “being able to do invoices and paychecks in my jammies,” she says.
Adding to the down-home atmosphere is Lacey, the company’s four-footed director of security. She’s not a pit bull, not even a Doberman, but a toy poodle with red ribbons on her ears. Her bark both announces and welcomes visitors.
Given these facts, it should be no surprise that it’s not Johnson’s varied sales background or her ability to learn anything from a book (including how to “crunch numbers” on a computer) that she considers her most important business asset. It’s not even her creativity. “My strength is getting to know people,” she says.
After Johnson and her husband Dewy, who was looking for a retirement career, researched business prospects, they decided to start a service business they could grow slowly into a retirement income. While the strictly descriptive company name was her husband’s idea, Johnson came up with the company slogan: “Your business is your profession…keeping it clean is ours.”
“I absolutely didn’t want to clean people’s homes,” Johnson says. “We found there was a need for people to clean businesses, large and small, some once a month, some once a week, some every night. Cleaning vacant apartments and homes for realtors and construction sites provides more opportunities.”
“We started out with one customer, someone Dewy knew at a construction company,” Johnson recalls. “Our other customers came from word of mouth. We now have thirteen companies as customers, some with many sites. In fact, we clean thirty-seven sites for just one of our customers.”
“I was a teen dealer for Stanley Home Products, on the home party plan,” Sherry Johnson explains of her personal work history. “I wanted to sell their cosmetics, but found that their home products were more saleable.” (Johnson held demonstration parties at which the hostess received free merchandise based on the dollar value of her guests’ purchases. It was also Johnson’s goal to recruit and train more dealers.)
“While in high school I also worked for a company that cleaned buildings after fires,” Johnson says. “I was amazed at how the chemicals worked, and the sponges. The job was a lot of work, but I learned I could handle hard work, and I was making about three times what my friends made as carhops at drive-ins. I learned to be responsible and dependable.”
After the Johnsons’ marriage in March 1966, they moved to Hibbing, where Dewy had a job offer. Their first child was born within the year, and Johnson decided she wanted to stay home with the baby rather than pursue the cosmetology career she had intended. Instead, she returned to party-plan sales in the evenings, first with home decorating merchandise, then with jewelry. Two more children followed, along with moves to Duluth and Grand Rapids as Dewy climbed the career ladder. In 1980, when his employer offered him a transfer to one of several southern Minnesota locations, the Johnsons chose Le Sueur.
“I was in Canada at the time, doing genealogy research, when I agreed to the move,” Johnson says. “Our children thought the name Le Sueur was French for ‘the sewer’ and were really happy when they found out it was the name of a French explorer.”
At the time of the move, Johnson was a party-plan sales manager with about a dozen people in her down line (people she had recruited and trained). She developed additional sales people in Le Sueur, but two years later she decided to leave direct sales and open a ceramics shop in her home. She offered classes in ceramics and eventually began to specialize in porcelain lace-draped Dresden figurines. (See sidebar.) She kept busy preparing for the several weeks each year that she had a booth at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. About this time, she also joined the office staff at St. Peter Clinic because she felt the need to be in the work force while her children were in college.
When Dewy retired, the Johnsons wanted to develop a business that involved both of them and for which there was a need in their area. After much brainstorming, they decided it should be a service-related business that could eventually offer employment to area residents. Since Johnson had experience in cleaning, the couple researched the need and made their decision.
“Anything I’ve ever wanted to do, whether a craft or a business, I’ve been able to self teach by reading a variety of sources,” Johnson says. “If I can get a book on something, I can learn it. So, we’ve done a lot of reading, and we researched cleaning products, chemical uses, janitorial literature and bidding of jobs in industry materials and with Internet sources. I took a class in Quick Books through the Small Business Administration and Dewy received training in floor care. But much of it is common sense and years of experience in homemaking. My home is clean, but my mother’s was immaculate. I’ve passed on things I learned from her to employees. My advice to anyone who wants to clean properly is to buy a toothbrush for the detail cleaning. Details matter. Little details matter.”
Although Johnson began Professional Cleaning Services as a sole proprietorship in 2002, she and Dewy formed an S corporation three years later with her as president, him a vice president. The corporation employees sixteen, not including the owners. Until recently employees have been recruited by word-of-mouth. Lately, as the business continues to expand, Johnson has placed ads for workers.
“We hired our first employee four months after we began,” Johnson says. “We’ve had as many has twenty-eight when we had a short-term project, such as a flooded library or a house (repossessed by a bank) that needed extensive cleaning. We have hourly employees rather than contractors because we want them to be covered under workers compensation insurance and our business liability insurance. We also have more control over their work when they are employees rather than independent contractors. We have had wonderful employees, having to let go only three in five years.” With pride, Johnson points out that she and Dewy have helped three employees work their way through college, that they offer evening employment opportunities to stay-at-home moms and that they provide a retirement income for their oldest employee, who is sixty-five.
There’s a natural division of labor between Johnson and her husband. She explains, “Dewy’s specialty is floor care. He also orders and maintains our chemicals and makes a personal weekly visit to each customer while doing that. This ensures our quality assurance.” With a smile, she recalls, “Dewy always joked that when he retired, he would come back as the janitor. I say, ‘Watch what you wish for.’”
The twenty-five to thirty hours a week Johnson devotes to the business offer some variety. In addition to handling all the bookwork (taxes, payroll, invoicing and bids), she washes mops and cloths, may substitute for an employee who is on vacation or ill or may attend a chamber of commerce function. She interviews potential employees and meets with potential customers to learn their needs before making a bid.
“We provide very detailed specification sheets for bids,” Johnson says. “One of our standard practices is to sanitize phones, which surprises many of our customers. Apparently, this is not a standard practice with cleaning companies. Customers are usually surprised with how thorough our bid sheets are. At times I will draw up to four plans with different options. Then I tell them, ‘This is the one you asked for, and this is the one you want.’ (Sometimes there are two additional options.) I usually suggest things they haven’t even thought of, and the plan I suggest may cost less than what they thought they wanted.
“When we get the bid, Dewy and I do the job quite a few times before hiring someone for the position,” Johnson says. “We train employees with a detailed checklist based on what we learned while doing the job. Our employees check off each item on the list each time. The list matches the contract. Each customer’s needs are unique to their business. Whatever they need, we will provide.”
Although both Johnsons train employees, Dewy takes the networking and public relations roles because he is out in the community more than his wife. She maintains frequent e-mail and telephone contact with customers.
“When a customer phones with an extra project, such as remodeling or an emergency situation such as water damage, we respond quickly,” Johnson says. “We are close with our customers and they know we are there for them when they need us. We want to get big enough to have a good business, but want to stay small enough to keep the one-on-one relationships. Our largest customer is a major manufacturing corporation with 700 employees, and our smallest is a local service business with ten employees. Our typical customers are municipalities and branches of major corporations, but our customers include manufacturers, libraries, offices, service companies, realtors and medical facilities. We handle any cleaning situation.”
As for marketing, although having never purchased advertising, Johnson has sent letters to some area businesses. She and Dewy are involved with chambers of commerce in Le Sueur, Le Center, and St. Peter. They plan to join chambers in Henderson, Mankato and Belle Plaine as well. The best promotion, however, is that when Johnson sends a bid to a potential customer, she encloses a list of current customers as references, with their permission.
“The most important thing is customer service and satisfaction,” Johnson says, making it sound like a mission statement. “We’re very professional in our dealings. We stand by our work. We provide quality service, and 100 percent customer satisfaction is a must. What could be better advertising?” She credits Dewy’s business experience and her various ventures in sales for their company philosophy.
Johnson acknowledges there’s a downside to sharing a business with her husband. It’s a situation familiar to most people who are part of a family business.
“It’s important to not have the business encompass your whole life,” Johnson says. “I would like to be able to keep a separation between our personal life and our business life, but that’s nearly impossible. We can be out for dinner, something comes to mind, and we start discussing the business. We really have to work at keeping personal time, with the business off limits. We have to make rules for ourselves not to talk about the business when we go on vacation. We have found that it’s easier to talk about other things when we’re with other people.”
A concern about living with their business 24/7 doesn’t interfere with the Johnsons’ focus. Their priorities support their goal of 100 percent customer satisfaction.
“Our customers come first,” Johnson says. “Our employees come next and we come last. I think there will always be a demand for our business. No matter what happens, someone has to clean the bathroom. That’s job security.”
It’s not as comprehensive as the list of tasks and procedures that employees of Professional Cleaning Services check off on the job, but a short list of Sherry Johnson’s personal data offers insight into this multi-talented, multi-tasking business owner.
Childhood: Sherry grew up in Chisholm, Minnesota, where she was raised as an only child, which contributed to her independence and self-reliance.
Education: Sherry’s favorite classes at Chisholm High School, art and English, offered creativity and self-expression. She attended a Hibbing, Minnesota, cosmetology school, specializing in creative hairdos for the long hair popular in that era. She never worked as a cosmetologist, but she says, “It sure has saved me a lot of money over the years, cutting hair for family members and taking care of my own hair needs.”
Love and marriage: Sherry Jones met David “Dewy” Johnson when she was fifteen and he was seventeen. They married in March 1966, during a classic northern Minnesota snowstorm, which they hoped would not cast a pall over their future. It apparently did not, as Johnson says, “Dewy is still my best friend.” They have three adult children and fourteen grandchildren, all in the Twin Cities.
When the mail arrived at Sherry Johnson’s Le Sueur home office in July 2006, her husband David (who answers to “Dewy”) thought the person on the cover of Connect Business Magazine looked familiar. Dewy knew he was right when he began to read the story about Dr. Bill Rupp, then CEO of ISJ Mayo Health System, who has since retired.
“I know Bill Rupp because he’s from Chisholm (Minnesota), and I am, too,” Dewy said. “Bill and I graduated from Chisholm High School in 1964. After I read the article, I called Bill up and we went to lunch. We talked about other people from Chisholm High School who had become very successful.
“There’s Roger Enrico, who was a few years ahead of us in school, who became chairman and CEO of Pepsico, and Joel Maturi, athletic director of the University of Minnesota, from the same class as Roger Enrico,” Dewy recalled. “I’m quite proud of the success and hard work of these people from Chisholm.”
David “Dewy” Johnson, another part of the Chisholm success story, retired from his position as a regional manager with Qwest in 2002 and is a significant part of Professional Cleaning Services.
“Ceramics was a creative interest of mine that eventually led into other things,” Johnson says. “For about five years I gave ceramic lessons, operated a kiln and sold greenware to other shops, all from my home. During that time, I had an opportunity to learn to make porcelain lace-draped Dresden figurines, which is an antique art. It takes ceramics many, many steps further.
“When I began making the figurines, I developed my own techniques and specialized in bridal reproductions and cake tops. I would get a photo of the bride and make a figurine to look like her. While ceramics is a craft, making lace-draped figurines is an art. (The porcelain is in the shape of the lace, which has been burned away.) I taught that art from my home, received awards in competitions and had a booth at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival in Shakopee for ten years.” There, she was inducted into the elite Master Artisan group.
Johnson’s current creative outlet is quilting, but she hasn’t given up her equipment and supplies for making lace-draped Dresden figurines.
“I want to make one for each grandchild,“ she explains. “I also want to make enough quilts so each grandchild can pick one for a wedding present. I would love, someday, to be an award-winning quilter. If I ever truly retire, I would love to develop and teach quilting techniques.”
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