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An IBM physicist turned a way to earn extra money into a thriving, full-time business

by Rosalyn Graham

Eight years ago, when Anthony Zarriello, a 20-year veteran at IBM, needed extra income, he launched a part-time business, Anthony's Cleaning Service. By 2001, when he left Big Blue, his Essex Junction business was ready for a full-time commitment.

Picture walking into the store to buy a bag of cat food. While the conscious mind might be focused on brand names and nutritional contents, the subconscious is busy with its own assessment. Subliminal antennae are reacting to the shiny waxed floor, dust-free shelves and spotless carpets. They indicate this is a good place to do business, a store where people care, where customers can expect the service to reflect those high standards.

Anthony Zarriello not only understands the importance of those subliminal messages, he has also spent eight years making sure the message is delivered. He and the members of his work force at Anthony's Cleaning Service are responsible for keeping shiny, dust-free, spotless stores and offices at dozens of locations, large and small, throughout northwestern Vermont.

Clients range from big-box stores at Taft Corners and downtown Burlington shops to auto dealerships and real estate offices. Services run the gamut from daily janitorial work to semi-annual carpet cleaning and one-time, post-construction blitzes. Then there are Zarriello's personal favorites: big window jobs on multi-story stores and office buildings and the residential cleaning he often does himself.

Anthony's business was born of one need and flourished because of another. In 1995, Zarriello was a physicist working at IBM, where he had been employed for 20 years. Faced with the need for extra income to make ends meet after his divorce, he thought cleaning would be a good choice. "I knew how to clean I did a lot of that when I was in the military and I thought it would be an easy thing to start without a lot of capital."

Zarriello says he began going door to door, office to office trying to drum up business. He found there was a real need for the service he was offering. "I started to pick up accounts and started to grow," he remembers. "There were times when I was at IBM when I didn't push it, but it almost did its own thing. I got some bigger accounts and decided to start hiring people."

Having made that jump, it was logical that when he left IBM in 2001, the business was ready for his full-time commitment. "It was a great transition," he says.

Now, from his raised-ranch home on Pioneer Street in Essex Junction, Zarriello directs a core team of 12 employees, most of them half- to three-quarter-time, as they fan out to clean floors, carpets and windows; power wash, strip wax and rewax; and clean up after contractors. Typically, they begin work after stores and offices are closed for the night, moving in with their vacuums, buckets, mops, squeegees, carpet cleaning machine, buffer, high-speed burnisher the machine that gives floors that sparkle and cleaning solutions.

For Zarriello, with his scientific bent, finding the right chemicals to do the job is a fascinating part of his service. "A lot of the stuff we generally use is biodegradable or natural," he says. "We use beeswax, Trewax, citrus-based products, and we are constantly on the lookout for new and better products. We have found that a lot of natural stuff works as well as or better than the more caustic chemicals."

"We work with customers who have allergies or reactions and have done Web searches to find products to meet their needs," he says, adding that doctors and chiropractors are typically very particular about the kinds of chemicals Zarriello uses in their offices. "I can bring science to this research," he says. "I've actually called chemist friends at IBM to ask their advice on products to deal with special problems like scaling on windows. I've got Ph.D. chemists on my team."

Anthony's crews spend about 50 percent of their time on big, commercial cleaning contracts, many of them for the big retail stores at Taft Corners. Coordinating the cleaning for franchises like Bed Bath & Beyond and PetSmart is handled by a contractor, possibly with headquarters in Dallas or New Jersey, who might have responsibility for every store on the East Coast. That contractor hires a local cleaning service for each store.

"It's hard for someone in New Jersey or Dallas, Texas, to be that intimate with the customer to know their needs," Zarriello says, so he ensures that he has a good relationship with the local store managers. "We work really closely with them," he says, "making sure that we are doing what they really want done." For example the job description might not mention carpeting cleaning, but the manager would like the carpets cleaned; or the contract specifies cleaning the kitchen, but the store manager prefers to do that. "We work with them. We like to make them happy. We're all local."

Zarriello is involved in all aspects of his cleaning service. He bids for the jobs, he markets his service, he makes sure the equipment is at the business or on the truck to go to the job, he talks to customers about their satisfaction and the projects they might want to add to the to-do list, such as a bi-monthly rewaxing of their floors. He has what he calls "a high presence" on all the jobs. Often, that means stripping wax and cleaning carpets and windows himself.

Worker Edward Deloch uses a high-speed burnisher on a client's floor.

He says stripping and waxing is their most difficult, most labor-intensive project. "It's very difficult to remove wax," he says. "It's made to stay forever. That's why my motto is 'perfecting the science of cleaning.'" Again Anthony's education and previous work experience come into play. "I'm interested in the chemistry. I've learned what products really do a good job and save a lot of time." "The hardest part in rewaxing is getting the floor ready," Zarriello says. "You have to be perfect getting the old stuff off. If you are not very, very thorough, once you've finished and put your new wax down it won't look good and then you're in trouble because you have four or five coats of wax on top of it. It's a lot of work, but when it's done, it's very, very satisfying." Success is based on having the right machines and the right chemicals and the right techniques.

John Witherill of Dependable Repair of Williston, a friend and frequent co-contractor on cleaning and post-construction jobs, says there is more than good science in the service Zarriello provides. "He pays attention to distinctions most people miss," he says. "He is able to see what is missing and put it in. He looks to see how he can give you what you need to look better longer, and your payoff will be in the long term. He looks at the big picture instead of the short term."

Witherill and Zarriello have worked on the large post-construction jobs that Zarriello finds especially interesting. As the name implies, post-construction jobs come when a cleaning crew goes into a building to get it spick and span for the owner to begin moving in. Zarriello might have a crew of 15 or 20 people on big projects like the one at the Mormon Church in Essex Center last year, many of the new stores in the Burlington Town Center during their major remodeling project, or the current work on two National Guard buildings. "Usually we're the last contractors to come in," Zarriello says. "There'll be lots of Sheetrock dust, stickers on the windows, cement droppings, paint, and we go through from top to bottom. I tell my people, 'imagine you're going into a motel room; that's how I want it to look.'"

"Post-construction is interesting because inevitably there are still electricians and carpenters, and we're there cleaning and they're still working because they have their deadline for last-minute things," Zarriello says. "We do the job, get it all cleaned up and then an electrician will come in and drill some more holes and they'll call us back up to do a final cleanup before the owner takes over."

"I love the post-construction jobs," he says. "It's an empty space and everything's brand new."

Attention to detail might be one cornerstone of Zarriello's work, but the other is the people who work for him the crews with the vacuums and mops and buckets. "We have 12 people working at any given time, all part-time and many with other jobs. They really take a lot of pride in what they do," Zarriello says, illustrating his point with a story about one of his employees who had called to say he had to leave because it was 10 o'clock but there were a few additional things he really wanted to do. "I actually had to send him home. That's the kind of staff I have. They have a lot of ownership in accounts. It's taken me a while to put together a staff like that, but I'm very happy with the folks who are with me right now."

He points out that a lot of his employees are brothers or sisters or fathers of people who were already working for him. He has found that the people who have come here from Vietnam, Bosnia and the Congo are a great addition to his work force. Some of them don't speak English, but, he says, he has learned a few words in a lot of languages. "It is amazing how many educated people I have working for me: electricians, electrical engineers, economists. You never know who might be doing your cleaning for you a physicist or an electrical engineer."

The relationships with customers and employees are satisfying to Zarriello, who sees an interesting contrast between his earlier career and this business. "I had always been in the corporate world and the military and I'm well acquainted with that structure. What I like about this is it's different every day; in fact, usually it doesn't go the way I planned it.

"It's very satisfying to actually finish the job: do it today, finish it today, the customer is happy. That was very rare in my corporate career where I was in a very small part of a very big organization. You didn't get to see the work you did bear fruit directly. This is very direct, very immediate. You finish the windows and it's, like, 'Wow, look at that, I can see out my windows.' It's beautiful."

As a divorced dad, Zarriello has also enjoyed the flexibility of being his own boss. His three younger children, Emma Rose, 10, Steven, 13, and Kate, 15, who live with their mother in Montpelier, visit him often and frequently accompany him on visits to customers or on expeditions to pick up supplies. "We can see a customer and then have ice cream," he says. He is especially proud of the fact that Kate has been working with him on jobs. "She's a great worker, very dedicated," he says. His oldest daughter, Amy, 21, is beginning her senior year at St. Lawrence University, another cause for pride.

Anthony Zarriello has found that natural products work as well as or better than more caustic chemicals. He applies his scientific bent to finding new or better products.

Zarriello combines dual goals of keeping fit, for a business that demands lots of physical fitness, and spending quality time with his children by practicing the martial art of Moo Gong Do with the children at the studio on Susie Wilson Road. They are all first-degree red-black belts and he and his son are going to California to take the test in front of a grand master to become instructors. "It's a great family thing," he says. "It's a martial art you can practice for life, all about self-observation and growing individually, not fighting someone and winning a trophy."

Zarriello has traced an interesting path, from his childhood in the suburbs of New York City to four years in the Air Force as a nuclear weapons specialist, from his studies of physics that took him very close to a master's degree (minus the thesis he never wrote) to his two decades with IBM and now a business that uses his curiosity and energy and attention to detail in a service that seems ready to keep growing. He is optimistic about the future. "We haven't seen a down effect from the economy," he says. "Every time you turn around there's another building going up."

Originally published in September 2003 Business People-Vermont