Sometimes you’re born to clean
Janitorial company’s owner literally grew up in the business Baltimore Business Journal
by Alan Zibel Staff
Ever since she was young, Lisa Bands knew she wanted to be a janitor. Not your typical adolescent dream, to be sure. But it made sense: Bands’ parents, Gerry and Margaret Rogers, ran their own cleaning company, starting it out of their Baltimore rowhouse in 1970.
Bands, 47, who lives in Parkville, started working in the family business as a teenager, answering phones in the evenings to receive reports from supervisors. While attending Loyola College, she supervised cleaning operations in six buildings, talking with customers and performing inspections in the afternoons when classes were over. By the time she graduated from college, she was the company’s director of operations.
So in 1993, as her father was gradually becoming less involved, she bought out her father and took control of the family’s business. Since then, Bands’ business, My Cleaning Service Inc., has grown from about $3 million in revenue when she purchased it to about $4.5 million today, according to her husband, Danny Bands, the company’s chief financial officer.
Lisa Bands, who declined to disclose profits, now has 300 employees, up from about 150 when she bought the company, she said. The company’s growth hasn’t been spectacular, but it’s been steady. The company’s janitorial services, in addition to cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting include event setup and cleanup throughout the Baltimore area and Prince George’s County.
The company’s special services division performs functions such as cleanup at construction sites, flood cleanup and upholstery cleaning. That division does work through Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia.
The cleaning business can be a stressful one, Bands said. It’s rare to hear a “thank you” from a client, and there’s not much quiet time. It’s also a competitive field, as contracts can be cancelled with 30 days notice. “You’re only as good as the janitor who’s cleaning that office at that moment,” she said.
Competition in the business is intense, Bands said. It comes from mom-and-pop companies, local companies and nationwide firms. For example, Bands said she lost a contract with Bank of America after the company gave its nationwide cleaning business to a national company.
Unions also have raised labor costs. Cleaning companies’ contract with the Service Employees International Union means that workers in Baltimore buildings larger than 75,000 square feet must pay janitors $7.50 an hour. That being said, Bands has built a successful business cleaning office buildings, and lately in public schools and private schools. The boom in residential and office construction also has brought with it a lot of construction cleanup work.
Bands said her managers are able to be firm about enforcing rules but supportive to employees. “You really have to know your building,” she said. “You really have to know how to deal with people.” She has long been involved in the National Association of Women Business Owners and, in that capacity, is often called upon to give business advice — even sometimes to competitors in the janitorial business. She said people should make sure they know about accounting, management and legal issues before they start their own companies.
“People decide that they’re going to go into a business, and they know a skill really well but they don’t’ know how to run a business,” she said. “There are so many people who will mentor people.” Bands’ husband Danny has been working with her for the past 17 years. A former chemist for Bethlehem Steel, he handles payroll, accounts receivable and insurance, among other things. She handles relationships with customers and oversees efforts to land new business.
Danny Bands said he enjoys working with his wife, though the two occasionally have to remind each other to stop talking about business at home. “You have to have a stable marriage in order to do it,” Danny Bands said. Bands said she is careful about who she hires. New employees are fingerprinted and have a criminal background check. Kent Digby, general manager of Baltimore’s Harborplace for General Growth Properties Inc., employs Bands’ company to clean the Gallery at Harborplace office tower — one of her longtime clients. “She sees it as her building and she wants it to be perfect,” Digby said. “We haven’t had a complaint about theft in over two years. We lose nothing”
The Conference Center at the Maritime Institute in Linthicum Heights is another longtime client of My Cleaning Service. Howard Van Kirk, the facility’s operations manager, who has been working there for 28 years, said Bands feels like family at this point, rather than an outside contractor. “A lot of people tell us how clean our facility is for being an older facility,” he said.
Lisa Bands believes janitors — she prefers the term to custodians — are not valued enough in American society. “The majority of them go to church,” she said. “The majority are working two jobs. The majority are some of the nicest people you’re going to meet.”