Queen of clean

Laura Huthwaite doesn’t mind rolling up her sleeves and getting her hands dirty.

As CEO of Giant Janitorial Services, she is actively involved with a staff of 100 employees who have been keeping commercial properties sparkling clean for more than 30 years.

The business started as a part-time job when Huthwaite was working for Merrill Lynch while her husband, now Giant Janitorial’s president, was in school. They needed extra income and found a way to make it by cleaning a small insurance office. The business quickly expanded, and Huthwaite decided to devote herself full time to managing its growth.

Huthwaite credits her father, an Italian immigrant, for her strong work ethic.

“He was a Detroit bus driver who came to the U.S. when he was 14 and supported his mother and two brothers for years,” she says. “Although I have met many admirable people in my business, my father instilled the qualities in me which have contributed to Giant’s success.”

Smart Business spoke with Huthwaite about how she finds great employees and how she balances quality and price at her business.

How do you stay involved with your customers?
The personal touch we offer makes a big difference. I prefer to go see the customer myself so that I am familiar with the property.

I circulate among the jobs and am very involved with the day-to-day operations. It helps that I am truly a people person.

Working with customers gives me energy, and that shows in how I handle the business today.

What changes have you seen in the industry since Sept. 11, 2001, and how have you handled them?
I have noticed a real difference. People are looking at the lowest bid more closely. The competition is fierce.

We work on a bid process, and I am surprised at some of the quotes I see. There are costs that have to be covered such as payroll, equipment, insurance and supplies. Taking shortcuts on any of them will show up in the workmanship provided.

We want to be as price-sensitive as possible but never at the expense of offering a consistent, quality result. It’s a tough balancing act.

I think one of the keys to success is expense management. I buy supplies in bulk and carefully monitor their use.

We train our staff on the proper use of cleaning agents. More is not always better.

How do you find great employees?
A number of ways: ads, word of mouth and referrals. We have stringent requirements that must be met before we bring someone on board.

Many of our clients are police offices and government agencies, so we have to be extra careful. Background checks are conducted and references are thoroughly checked.

This is a difficult business — people think anyone can clean, but that is simply not true. The work can be rewarding.

But honestly, it gets boring, not to mention that it is strenuous, so lazy people do not last long. Turnover is typically in the 50 percent or over range in the cleaning business. Thankfully, ours is lower than that, but it takes effort on the front end during the hiring process.”

How would you describe yourself as a leader?
I’m a good listener, strive to maintain a positive attitude at all times and give employees the benefit of the doubt. Our business presents a communication challenge since we have people working at different places and different shifts all the time.

Although I have job supervisors, I want to hear from the employees myself. I’ve always felt two heads are better than one, so if there is a suggestion from an employee, I explore it.

I want to know their concerns. I am a careful listener, but I expect it to go both ways when I offer constructive criticism. For example, when I notice a floor is not being cleaned properly, I will provide the feedback to the employee.

He or she needs to accept it without a debate.

How do you see the future of your company?
I’d like to expand the business. I am pleased with Giant’s success, but I’m looking for a larger client base.

We rely on our current customers to get the word out, but I also spend time reaching out to companies by phone and mail, requesting that we be out on their bid list.

How to reach: Giant Janitorial Services, (313) 886-7797