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Servicon’s Strategy of Building a World Class Cleaning Company

Written by  Shannon J. Winslow Claunch

 

work force

Servicon’s leadership team: Back, left to right: Clyde Tate, Enio Martinez, Rick Tate, Lady Stynett, Itzel Molina, Johanna Harrison, Julio Portillo, Neil Bernstein, Stacey Wong, Michael Mahdesian, and front row, left to right: Nereyda Garbay, Susan Matt, Laurie Sewell, and Stephanie Trujillo

Examining business  leadership, planning, people and growth

Servicon was founded by Richard Mahdesian, a USAF personnel officer who moonlighted for his squadron’s cleaning company while he was off duty. During his military career, Mahdesian learned the ins and outs of the cleaning industry and what made specific contractors successful on Air Force bases. He watched and listened to industry trends and realized an opportunity to start his own commercial cleaning business upon retirement in 1973. That model of listening and rising to meet the expectations of his customers has been repeated again and again over the past forty-three years. Mahdesian’s formula has been capitalized on to grow Servicon Systems as an undisputed leader in the commercial cleaning industry. Through strategic leadership, careful planning, personnel management and judicious growth, Servicon now employees over twelve-hundred, and cleans more than one-hundred-million square feet of facilities with a ninety-eight percent retention rate.

Leadership

Because Mahdesian had established relationships, a security clearance and most of all because he was accustomed to military structure and protocol, Servicon quickly earned a solid reputation for quality commercial cleaning service. He started Servicon in California and the company grew where his clients’ requests for service in other states took them. The history and success of the Servicon business model can best be summed up by Mahdesian’s ability to recognize and capitalize on niches within the aeronautic sector. But, over and above military contracts, now Servicon specializes in laboratory settings, clean rooms and refineries. And because Servicon fully embraced detail oriented process and the safety culture of the military, the company has flourished in the commercial, industrial, pharmaceutical, biotech, and healthcare industries as well.

“We are a service based provider, so we are only as good as the customer experience we are able to provide— through our people—and our ability to deliver on our promise, consistently.” ~ Laurie Sewell, CEO

People working together

 Servicon’s leadership team: Back, left to right: Clyde Tate, Enio Martinez, Rick Tate, Lady Stynett, Itzel Molina, Johanna Harrison, Julio Portillo, Neil Bernstein, Stacey Wong, Michael Mahdesian, and front row, left to right: Nereyda Garbay, Susan Matt, Laurie Sewell, and Stephanie Trujillo

In 1985, Servicon founded their own supply distribution division, Servicon Supplies, and a major turning point was realized. Through this strategic planning and growth, Servicon became more financially competitive because they could buy directly from manufactures and have more control over the cleaning products their crews used in the field. Then in 1986, Richard’s son, Michael Mahdesian founded Pacifica Consulting Services, which became Servicon’s Supply and Equipment Division. The Mahdesians opted to go green in 2004—earlier than most companies—and converted their entire product inventory to green cleaning products. By putting sustainable procedures in place, they standardized training and capitalized on a marketable trend, earlier than most of their competitors.

Laurie Sewell was hired as a college intern to work the supply division at Servicon and rose through the ranks of payroll, supplies, inventory control and distribution. Sewell recognized the savings made possible by starting the supply division and listened to the overwhelmingly positive reaction customers had to the unique green cleaning products that were being used at their facilities. She saw an opportunity in the supply division and began urging the Mahdesians to sell those products to other commercial janitorial service providers. The management team listened, and they began marketing to other companies, creating new streams of revenue. That type of innovative collaboration has defined Sewell’s career at Servicon and led to her being appointed as president of Servicon in 2008, and then CEO in 2015. Michael Mahdesian became Chairman, taking over his father’s role, and Sewell has earned the reputation of a proven industry leader amongst her peers, largely by championing sustainable practices. She headed the committee that authored the GS-42 Green Seal’s Environmental Standard for Cleaning Services, and the ISSA group that wrote the Cleaning Industry Management Standard.

Sewell is proud of her contributions to Servicon’s success and the accomplishments of the Servicon team. She isn’t afraid to tell others about her company and she jokes that when she talks about Servicon to friends outside of work, her friends say, ‘It sounds like you work at ‘Disneyland.’ While Servicon’s corporate culture has been heralded as exemplary, the company is by no means a theme park. Earning and customizing contracts for their discerning clientele requires a highly trained workforce and a highly effective flow of communication where people always come first.

As a marketing and psychology major from The Phillips Graduate Institute, Sewell says she uses her master’s degree in organizational behavior every minute, of every day. “Ninety percent of business is communication and interaction and it makes business go. That’s why I am such a fanatic about people.” Sewell’s master’s thesis was written at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains in the shadow of the Hollywood sign and so she chose to illustrate of her own career and how Servicon’s employees could find satisfaction in the commercial janitorial service industry. The contrast between actors and janitors; one of the most unglamorous service professions was too apparent for her not to embrace. In her theses study, Sewell says, “I found that longevity and loyalty to a company like ours happens because people are recognized as individuals, and leaders take notice of their needs. And while this isn’t the sexiest or coolest industry, it is fun, and it is cool what we do.” Her thesis was substantiated, when the Los Angeles Business Journal named Servicon one of the “Best Places to Work.”

Emeritus Richard Mahdesian

Servicon Founder and Chairman Emeritus Richard Mahdesian, 1956, Captain, USAF, Edwards Air Force Base, California. Courtesy Servicon Archives

Servicon stands committed to green cleaning practices and that commitment is one reason they are a stand out in the industry. But, when it came time to convince her crews that the new, green cleaning products worked as well as traditional chemicals getting that message across was not always easy. Sewell says, “It was tough converting the floor guys to a sustainable brand of floor stripper. The guys would say, the stripper can’t work because it’s not strong enough to knock me out.” Training for green cleaning—and why and how it works—was a shift in beliefs, like breaking the mindset involving chemicals that color and scent don’t necessarily translate into cleaning efficacy.

Cultural changes regarding sustainable standards for the commercial janitorial service industry have gotten easier over the years as more and more of their clients have also adopted these standards and have come to expect green cleaning practices. Neil Bernstein, Director of Strategic Accounts keeps a pulse on market trends in regards to the demand of sustainable offerings. He says that all of Servicon’s customers are involved with sustainable practices—to some degree—whether they recycle or are LEED platinum certified or somewhere in-between. Bernstein says, that in today’s market, it is expected that commercial cleaning companies embrace green innovations. Last year, Servicon transitioned one million pounds of virgin paper products to products that meet Green Seal & EPA standards for recycled content, and reduced the use of more than thirty-thousand pounds of cloth rags by replacing them with cleaner and healthier micro-fiber cleaning products. In 2015 alone, Servicon’s sustainable practices replaced more than ten-thousand pounds of potentially hazardous cleaning chemicals with greener alternatives.

“That input allowed us to immediately raise the bar and standardize how we deal with our clients, companywide” ~ Ittzel Molina, training specialist

Planning

A workforce of highly trained and engaged employees is Servicon’s most valuable asset. With a focus on employee training and advancement, Servicon has earned a reputation for collaborative learning and innovation. The Servicon Academy is a comprehensive set of employee training programs all designed to improve the performance of their workforce, and in turn maximize their return on investment for clients. The employee training environment varies from live classroom courses to online videos or webinars with an emphasis placed on collaboration and discussion. The company’s professional certification program, is designed to raise the bar for the custodial industry.

The Mahdesian Learning Center and Client Innovation Hub is housed in the company’s Platinum LEED certified laboratory for field-testing new practices. The employee training facility provides Servicon with a sterile, modern backdrop by which to optimize business strategy and bring ideas to fruition. The complex is also home to the Servicon Academy and Servicon’s proprietary Certification Programs. On the topic of training, Sewell expounds, “We are a service based provider, so we are only as good as the customer experience we are able to provide— through our people—and our ability to deliver on our promise, consistently.” To that end, one of the top priorities of Servicon’s training staff is developing management communication and leadership skills. Sewell understands that education is the most important investment Servicon can make.

The erection of this high tech, modern facility has created an unexpected secondary benefit too. “Whenever our staff enters the training hub, they have a sense of pride that their company built a really cool building and that concrete commitment to personnel development goes a long way in loyalty and creating a positive culture,” says Sewell. It is more than cool. In fact, Servicon’s Mahdesian Learning Center and Client Innovation Hub was awarded Culver City’s first ever LEED certified platinum project status, and has a smaller carbon footprint than that of a Toyota Prius.

Entrance

Front entrance of the award-winning Mahdesian Learning Center and Client Innovation Hub at headquarters in Culver City, California. Courtesy ImageActive

Ultimately, the learning academy is a way to grow their diverse workforce with a specific strategic plan. By design, Servicon supervisory training is taken in twelve modules that lays the foundation for building a successful and professional company. Team collaboration defines the Servicon business model and through targeted and tracked employee training they are finding new ways to deliver value to their clients. All workers in the field have input. “We are breaking down silos and creating fundamental change by capitalizing on all the innovative ideas from shared departments,” says Sewell. In this highly engaged atmosphere, Sewell says ideas spring up from unlikely places. Supervisor training is at the core of maintaining a healthy organizational culture, and sometimes meeting that goal means trainers are nimble enough to recognize issues in the field and then quickly incorporate those lessons into the curriculum. Itzel Molina Training and Development, explains, “Stacy Wong, our VP of Sales, recently had a specific interaction with a client and identified a need to develop better communication. That input allowed us to immediately raise the bar and standardize how we deal with our clients, companywide.” Molina says that this type of company responsiveness is the differentiator that enhances the Servicon client experience and differentiates them from the competition.

Classroom

Itzel Molina, Training and Development Specialist and Servicon discusses a lesson with employees from all departments attending Servicon value training. Courtesy ImageActive

Sewell’s commitment to providing exemplary service through employee training and support has also led to the development of the company’s quality assurance program, and their sustainable cleaning and green cleaning policies. According to Sewell, the four optimizing strategies that the Servicon culture is built upon are “attract, develop, and engage employees, do good work, keep good work and, if all goes well, have financial stability.” Sewell believes that the Servicon brand rises to the top because managers are trained to listen to individual client concerns and measure Servicon’s effect on their clients’ bottom line as it relates to cleanliness and health. Sewell says, “This disciplined approach is our priority, and we continue to improve by focusing on what our clients truly value through innovation, collaboration, and the development of our employees.”

People

One key strategy in retaining a solid organizational culture that enables growth has been by hiring only those who fit the Servicon mold. Sewell says that when you join the team at Servicon, there is a harsh ninety day culture fit where personality traits and compatibility are measured. Molina goes onto explain what the cultural looks like at Servicon. “This strong foundation of values means employees are loyal, and can thrive when given clear goals and accountability.” Molina says most supervisors come from within the organization but that the company also recognizes the importance of recruiting new talent from outside the organization to bring a new perspective. Stacey Wong, Vice President of Sales says she looks for candidates who ask as many questions as she does in the interview process. Wong says, the search for a fit should be a two way street, and that she always looks for confidence and mental clearness in her new hires. “I really want to find out how that person can uniquely help with meeting our specific needs,” says Wong. Sewell says that corporate engagement is the primary lever for any worker.

“I really want to find out how that person can uniquely help with meeting our specific needs.” ~ Stacey Wong, VP of Sales

 

Director of Operations

Chris McKee, Director of Client Experiences, Francisco Mancia, Director of Operations, Commercial Division discuss procedure with an employee. Courtesy ImageActive

How an employee sees their contributions fit and make a difference in the overall mission is the most relevant determining factor of an employee’s attitude and productivity level. So, in communicating that to the employee, the direct line of supervisory interaction makes all the difference. To that end, ongoing management training is a required part of being a supervisor at Servicon. “Serious issues can arise in morale when a manager who wants to do the right thing doesn’t have the skills to communicate this message to employees” Sewell points out. She expounds that being a good leader is not just about expecting employees to do what they should do, because you are the boss.

Professional Women

Maritza Aguilar, Chief Financial Officer and Stacey Wong, Vice President of Sales discuss training curriculum. Courtesy ImageActive

By committing to employee training and employee development, Servicon has defined a consistently high customer service experience and earned a reputation as a commercial janitorial service company that supports their employees. Sebastian Ridley-Thomas of the California State Assembly District Five was recently quoted regarding his knowledge of the Servicon business model. “I’m heartened by the Mahdesian family and the people that are the fabric of this organization and the relationships that they maintain with clients, because some businesses don’t appreciate their employees, or try to cut corners and not provide quality services, but in Servicon Systems, you see quality.”

Supporting employees comes in many forms at Servicon. Managers hand out on the spot recognition gift cards for things done right, like safety or teamwork. When Richard Mahdesian’s wife passed away several years ago, Servicon’s corporate staff set up a scholarship fund that is annually matched by employees and awarded to a deserving student in the Servicon family. An annual values award program is rolling out later this year to honor six of Servicon’s commercial janitorial service employees who best exemplify their strong corporate values. Sewell goes onto explain that Servicon is also known as an organization that gives back to their local community and there are noticeable links between being a good citizen and being profitable in business. Employees living in the local communities they serve form the basis of Servicon’s success. So giving back is important.

Growth

Bernstein has long known about Servicon as a leader in the commercial janitorial service industry. As a longtime colleague of Sewell’s, when the opportunity to join her team was presented to him, he jumped at the chance. Bernstein became the new Director of Strategic Accounts last October and says that his background in the sales, manufacturing and food services sectors gives him a keen understanding of market strategic planning. In finding new business, in 2016 and beyond, Bernstein’s goal is to penetrate deeper into the aerospace industry while also keeping his eye on emerging opportunity targets. So far, he has made some headway to increase Servicon’s breadth in the aerospace sector, securing three contracts totaling over two million dollars. Bernstein says, “The ideal Servicon client is not a specific industry type, but instead a company type that really values the Servicon business model.” Bernstein goes onto say, “There are two types of customers; the ones who care and the ones who don’t. Those who care, want their facilities clean and people healthy…and that’s our type of client.”

In Bernstein’s eyes, providing superior commercial janitorial service means listening to the clients’ needs and oftentimes understanding budgetary constraints and becoming an extra set of eyes and ears to help clients come up with cost saving solutions to their problems. Servicon’s value is really defined in cleaning for health, preventing absenteeism, and increasing productivity. Bernstein takes that responsibility seriously and says, “At the end of the day, commercial janitorial service providers keep all the people who enter the facility from getting sick. Remember when you were young and Mom said, ‘if you can’t see it, it won’t hurt you?’” “But,” he says, “Today we know better, and the germs we are exposed to are more potent than ever before, like the Zika virus. Our crews are on the front lines of fighting serious health concerns.”

Bernstein’s recipe to success as the director of strategic accounts includes industry research and networking. Comparing his job to a multi-level Star Trek version of chess, Bernstein says that every client has different needs and cleaning situations—and those needs evolve—so his job is to come up with a plan through collaboration that meets their budgetary limitations and keeps them happy. In staying connected, he says, “I really do read SERVICES Magazine—from cover to cover—as well as any other trade magazines I can get my hands on. I’ve been a member of BSCAI, ISSA and BOMA, and attended trade shows and association events. And you can’t discredit the value of happy hour to just get out and meet people in the industry.” He goes onto say that the best strategists are hungry to learn about other commercial janitorial service companies to find out about their experiences, more about their accounts, get inside information, and to talk shop while socializing and making bonds in the same, or supporting industries.

The focus is always on finding the right client, and then delivering the best experience. To that end, Servicon utilizes job tracking software designed to be more client-centric. In this way, Servicon managers can take a consultative approach with each of their clients. Instead of mandating the client use a specific platform, they look for ways to adapt to and merge with the systems already in use. They can then gather the information that is important to clients, instead of instituting procedures that the clients must adapt.

 Battery Powered Vaccum

A Servicon field employee uses a ProTeam Backpack Vacuum Cleaner to clean a stairwell. Courtesy ImageActive

“I really do read SERVICES Magazine—from cover to cover…and you can’t discredit the value of happy hour, to just get out and meet people in the industry” ~ Neil Bernstein, Director of Strategic Accounts

One of Bernstein’s primary roles as director of strategy is finding new products that allow cleaning crews to be more efficient. Servicon’s strategic planning has allowed them to rise to the top, consistently assuming a leadership role in changing the face of the commercial janitorial service industry. Bernstein says, “Servicon has always been one of the first adapters to new product and performance oriented innovations. I say this with a great deal of confidence, because when I was in sales for the top innovators in technology, Servicon was always the first to buy them.”

Products like backpack vacuums, engineered water, and robotic cleaning equipment have all proved to be a good fit for Servicon’s customers, when the efficiency metrics make sense for individual accounts. One recent addition to Servicon’s equipment arsenal was the Unger window cleaning carbon water fed extendible poles. Bernstein says his crews have remarked about the poles being so light weight and easy to use to clean exterior windows. “The clients get better service, our crews are safe and we are able to offer this service instead of them bringing in another vendor,” he says. Servicon offers exterior window services when this equipment—which extends up to two stories—can be used to create a profitable return. Bernstein says, “It goes back to the client relationship. Being able to present something to the client and show them the most advanced ways to get the job done. This is purchasing 101. We all want options.” The Unger window cleaning water fed poles and HydroPower are just two examples of how Servicon’s investment in strategy and planning set them apart.

The growth that can happen by mastering strategic planning and fulfilling a unique need for clients has been epitomized by Servicon’s Epoxy Flooring Division. Back in 1995, the company’s unique platform of servicing cleaning contracts on Air Force bases led to this new opportunity. Rick Harrington, VP of Servicon Floor Coatings since 2001 explains; “Servicon had the facility contract with McDonell Douglas and Raytheon in 1993 at Huntington Beach. The cleaning crews were doing low tech scrubbing and mopping on the hangar floors and the manager at McDonnell Douglas asked Servicon if they could resurface their cement floors with polyurethane.” Servicon rose to the challenge and came up with the best solution for their clients. This unique niche was discovered early on, which enabled Servicon to raise expectations for their clients and entrench themselves as the preferred provider for the aeronautical industry because of this diversification.

By opening the epoxy flooring division, Richard Mahdesian defined his company as that full service Air Force facility service provider. Servicon recruited the best experts, made investments in equipment and grew their epoxy flooring department from scratch. Now, the Servicon’s epoxy flooring specialists are the preferred provider for Air Force bases in California, Nevada and Oregon.

While glazed and shiny floors may seem only aesthetically different, for most clients who opt for this upgrade, Harrington says that epoxy flooring is all around a better surface for aircraft maintainers and warehouse personnel. Based on the work that is done and the scope of aircraft maintenance, polyurethane just makes sense. Reflective light increases by four hundred percent with epoxy flooring and makes workers more efficient. The hangar floors become easier to clean and safer for those who work there because they can see slip and fall hazards. The epoxy coating also serves as corrosion control so that harsh chemicals don’t leach into the concrete. Harrington also points out that in the aviation industry, foreign object damage is a real concern for safety. But, he says, epoxy flooring allows mechanics to see rivets or screws on the floor, before they pick them up their boot tread and track potential hazards onto the tarmac where it can get stuck in an engine and ruin equipment. Another huge benefit; due to the increased visibility, maintainers working in these improved environment hangars notice hydraulic leaks from the aircraft in the hangar before they can become catastrophic issues in the air.

Harrington goes onto say that the aesthetic difference between an untreated floor and an epoxy treated floor makes a difference in the moral of an organization although they really might not be able to discern why the space is so much better to work in every day. And he says, ultimately, epoxy flooring creates tremendous opportunity for Servicon, who has essentially monopolized epoxy flooring applications across the South Western US. He explains, “When high ranking officials visit the hangars that have been treated by Servicon, they may not know all the details of the more ambiguous aspects of the cleaning contract, but when they walk into thirty-thousand square feet of flooring and that thing looks like a million bucks, they ask, ‘who did that’?” Through high visibility dignitary visits, epoxy flooring upgrades oftentimes became the catalyst for Servicon to gain referrals for other facility management contracts. “Our reputation is very good,” he says.

Harrington says most of their new business leads came from seeing the work his team has done at other bases. “Differentiating into epoxy flooring so long ago was a smart and strategic move. That decision has set Servicon up as a higher level provider and we are known for our hangar floors,” Harrington says. The reason he has stayed in the epoxy flooring industry for so long is due in part to the short, three-day epoxy application process that transforms the facility. “We walk into places that are very dark, dingy and dirty— like a cave—and then in three days’ time, we turn them into a showpiece. I get a lot of positive feedback from our customers and that is very satisfying to hear.”


Rick Harrington VP

Rick Harrington, VP, Servicon Floor Coatings

The people centric business model at Servicon is one of their defining principles and has not changed since Servicon was founded. Despite the company’s steady strategic growth over the years, Sewell says the way people are treated —the core spirit of the company—has not changed since the 70’s. “The Mahdesians have incredible integrity in the way they treat the client and the workforce. Although it has not been articulated recently, it hasn’t changed with putting people first.”

Through making smart and strategic changes in regards to leadership, plans, people and growth, Servicon has created a new sort of business model that exemplifies customer service. Customer, Steve Pavlovski, Senior Property Manager at Howard Hughes Center says, “To date, our interaction with Servicon’s area manager and staff has been refreshingly different. They understand not only the bigger picture of our business objectives, but also the importance of the detailed work that moves the dial on tenant satisfaction.”

In an effort to fully shift expectations, Sewell gives the following example about customer service, “Think about when you’re at home as a consumer and logging onto FedEx or Amazon and working on their highly responsive platform, with the expectation of fast and efficient service. It is how business just gets done. Then you go to work, in the business to business world and those expectations are completely different…and disappointing. I ask, why can’t we get that same level of service in our business life? There is a definite disconnect in standards and expectations. We can do better.” This is the paradigm shift that Servicon continually strives to deliver in their high performing business model that elates the customer. A recent comment from Mark Ridley-Thomas who is on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors sums up the high caliber Servicon value system. He says, the values shown by Servicon, “are reflected in their good work, and made known through the County of Los Angeles. They understand fair jobs, they understand fair wages, and they understand what it means to keep our hospitals and facilities clean.”

Air Plane Hanger

Servicon’s propriety epoxy flooring process increases light, visibility and safety in an aeronautic setting. Servicon recognized early on that adding epoxy floor application to their service offerings would set them apart from other facility management companies, and this service has secured them as the preferred provider for Air Force bases throughout the South Western US. Courtesy Servicon

Old Air Plane

3 comments

  • Comment Link Ward Prine Wednesday, 20 July 2016 16:30 posted by Ward Prine

    Fantastic article on one of the great leaders in the industry. Their sustainable cleaning practices and business philosophy is a model for us all in the JanSan world. I will look to Servicon Systems for inspiring ideas for my company.

  • Comment Link Services Wednesday, 13 April 2016 08:58 posted by Services

    Jennie,
    I am glad you enjoyed reading about Servicon. It truly is a great company and we were pleased to bring you this story.

    Best,
    The Editor

  • Comment Link Jennie Wong Wednesday, 13 April 2016 02:01 posted by Jennie Wong

    It's great to see this innovation and thought leadership! Thanks for the inspiring story.

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