header services logo masthead
The Exclusive Magazine for the Building Service Contracting Industry Since 1981

Failure Is Not an Option: The Vought Aviation Project

A little more than four years ago when I was hired to start Gatekeeper Maintenance, a full-service commercial maintenance company, our president made a profound statement. He said something along the lines of, “A few years from now we may not be doing the same type of work that we are doing now, and it will be interesting to see what new doors open for us.”

How true this statement was. Shortly after we opened the doors for business, a coworker came into my office with a “job opportunity.” This coworker had a neighbor who was a vice president and senior project manager for a major construction company operating primarily in the Carolinas. This construction company was in the process of completing a new construction project in Charleston, SC. Before going any further, did I mention that my company is located in Greenville, SC, which is nearly 200 miles from Charleston?

As the project was described to me, it sounded as though it was a typical warehouse overhead clean. No muss, no fuss, get a few ladders, some rags, a few shop vacs, and start cleaning. The story was that the previous cleaning company had not performed up to expectations, had been asked to leave the property, and the construction company was in desperate need of some quick help. The picture drawn in my mind of this job as it was described was of a typical warehouse structure with metal walls, 20- to 25-foot ceilings and something that four to five people could easily clean in a few days. I gathered a crew of four general cleaners and one supervisor, the supplies and equipment we expected to need, and headed to Charleston on our white horse to save the day. I can still hear the bugles sounding as we headed to the low country. Lesson 1: Never assume anything.

Our team arrived in Charleston to discover that this “warehouse” was actually the new Vought Aviation complex, where the first carbon fiber aircraft was to be built. The nearly 900,000-square-foot facility had 60-foot-high ceilings and included a 200,000-square-foot clean room that had to be cleaned to operating-room standards. The clean room was where liquid carbon fiber was poured into molds, and no foreign matter could be present. What a wake-up call! I don’t know about you, but I am not a fan of showing up unprepared for the first time at a new customer’s location. I felt like I had shown up to a gun fight with a water pistol, and I didn’t even have any water. I quickly toured the facility with the project manager, got a dose of reality, caught my breath, recovered from my initial panic attack and met with my team to share the new strategy that I had developed while walking the facility.

Basically, I divided my plan into five steps. Step 1: Because the construction clean project was 200 miles away, the work had to be performed on third shift and the number of people needed to complete this project in the time frame allotted was larger than the work force I had available. I located and contacted a local labor company and quickly gathered a team of 40 to 45 workers, plus eight to 10 lift operators. When using local labor that is not your own, it is always necessary to have backup people in place because, believe it or not, there are always people who do not want to work. 

Step 2: I paid to have my entire crew, plus 10 lift operators that the local labor company supplied, go through a half-day training program at a local equipment rental location. All became certified to operate the appropriate lifts that were onsite as this was a job requirement (just another little bit of information that was left out of the initial explanation).

Step 3: I contacted our office in Greenville and ordered the necessary equipment and supplies to be delivered onsite for the next night.

Step 4: We organized eight teams of five people each. Each team had a supervisor (this person was an employee of my company and who was someone I trusted and had experience in cleaning to our specifications), a cleaner who was certified to operate a lift, two additional cleaners stationed in the lifts, two floor cleaners and a ground support person whose job it was to tie off supplies and equipment that could be lifted into the air so as to save time from lifts having to come down to get supplies and then go back up again.

Step 5: A plan of attack was developed so that each team knew what areas they were responsible to clean, areas that had been cleaned could be tracked and areas yet to be cleaned could be identified.

Step 6: We got after it!

For three solid months, we got after it. Every square inch of the 900,000-squarefoot facility had a rag put on it. Each day after we cleaned, a superintendent from the construction company would get in a lift and perform a white-glove inspection of the areas cleaned the night before. The project was nearly four hours away; the majority of the labor force had no experience in janitorial or cleaning, and we had to go through many local temps until we found the few that wanted to work, but we did it. Failure is not an option.

Sometimes the unexpected slaps you in the face, and when you open your eyes there is reality staring back at you. Those are pivotal moments. Those are moments that separate those who will do what it takes to get the job done from those who won’t. In our case, we had a few things in our favor. First, the family that started our mother company understood and was not afraid of hard work. They started the company 53 years ago, cleaning gas station restrooms and finally graduated to textile mills. Today, our mother company is in 20 states and a leader in the janitorial industry. One of the smartest things that I did personally early on in the process was admit that I did not have all the answers, so I recruited some key help. The gentleman who spearheaded this project and was on site on a daily basis was the brother of the gentleman who started our mother company. In 50 years of cleaning, there was not much he hadn’t seen and no obstacles that were insurmountable.

Second, I am personally allergic to failure. In this day and time, the companies that stand out from the crowd are the ones that do what they say they will do when they say they will do it, do their very best at what they do, and stand behind what they do.

The Vought Aviation project was several years ago, but it is a project that taught us, as a young company, many key lessons. I had a sense of pride when the first aircraft built in that facility carried our U.S. Women’s Volleyball Team to China for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Yes, we were just the janitors. Yes, we just cleaned the place. But we cleaned it in such a way that to this day our company maintains a relationship with that construction company. We have cleaned multiple hospitals and other projects as a result of proving that we will do what we say we will do and we will do it the right way.

David R. Bennett is general manager of Gatekeeper Maintenance Inc. in Greenville, SC. He can be reached at dbennett@gatekeeper maintenance.com.


Leave a comment

Make sure you enter all the required information, indicated by an asterisk (*). HTML code is not allowed.