A Brooming Business

Wanting to leave the corporate retail world, Art and Sheila Seoane took a swipe at self-employment

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

For 23 years, Art and Sheila Seoane have run Northland Janitorial from their home in Williston. Their growing company has 30 employees and cleans for about 50 commercial customers a week plus a number of real estate and construction projects. They're pictured entering the offices of Burton Snowboards, one of their clients.

Art and Sheila Seoane might run a cleaning business from their home in Williston, but their company, North-land Janitorial, is anything but a typical mom-and-pop enterprise. In business for 23 years, Northland and its 30 employees clean for about 50 commercial customers weekly and a number of real estate and construction projects when needed.

"Weekly customers range from once a week to seven days a week," says Art, mentioning familiar client names such as Asten Johnson, a Williston manufacturer of monofilament; Burton Snowboards and City Market in Burlington; Resolution Inc. in South Burlington; and Best Buy and the Super Store in Williston.

Both Art and Sheila do the work, although not often together at the same place and time. When their children, Amy and Sean, were growing up, the couple took turns with home duties. "I would be home with them answering the phone, doing payroll and taking messages while Art was out working," says Sheila, "then he would come in, have dinner and put them to bed, and I would go out and work at the airport at night."

That's Burlington International Airport, the client Art credits with helping them start to grow their company. The opportunity to work at the airport came along in 1984, he says, "and we got the contract and stayed there for 15 and a half years. I guess the airport kind of catapulted us; it was a good reference."

That reference was like money in the bank for the fledgling company. "Once we had that good reference and good rapport with the airport, we were able to look at other jobs for bidding and use that reference. The longer we were there, the more it helped, and we ended up getting more and more recognition," says Art.

As a boy growing up in Rhode Island, Art certainly did not dream of owning a cleaning business. He didn't dream of doing anything in particular. "I had started working with Zayre Corp. as a stock boy when I was 16 years old, and I really liked it," he says. "I had no idea what I wanted to do for a living, so I went to school for retail management at Rhode Island Junior College. I ended up staying at Zayre for 13 and a half years."

He was appointed assistant manager, and when the company had an opening for assistant manager at the South Burlington store, he says, "I decided to spread my wings and leave Rhode Island and never looked back."

Well, almost never. Sheila, a Burlington native who grew up in Williston, was head cashier when Art arrived. Working together at the store gave them a chance to get to know each other well, says Art, "and we started to meet at get-togethers with people from the store and hit it off."

They married in 1978, the year Art was promoted to store manager. Unfortunately, the store Zayre wanted him to manage was in Providence, R.I. "I'm half Italian," says Art, "and they had a store in Providence that was primarily Italian employees. They talked me into going down there. My family's down there. I cleared it with Sheila and we thought we'd give it a shot."

A shot in the dark, literally, is what brought the Seoanes back to Vermont six months later. "With all the crime down there, we wanted to come back," Art says, and goes on to describe shoplifters with guns and a machete in their car. The final straw was a drive-through shooting that blew out the store windows just at closing one night. "The next day, I was making the phone call to get out of there. Fortunately, there was an opening in the Barre store."

Sheila went to work for Vermont National Bank for about a year, "until I got pregnant with our daughter, Amy."

Meanwhile, Art was tiring of the long hours required at the store, never getting to enjoy Christmas with the family. They started looking for a business he and Sheila could run for themselves. A couple of friends were opening an aftermarket auto parts business, and the Seoanes decided to give it a try.

"Unfortunately, interest rates were going up really fast, and we just couldn't make it work," says Art. They sold their home and, in late 1980, moved to Williston to be closer to Sheila's parents.

Art credits Sheila with the idea of starting a cleaning company. "She said, 'You've got experience overseeing the cleaning crews at Zayre.' I was a little apprehensive at the time, but we bought $1,000 in equipment and gave it a try."

Sheila suggested that they contact a friend of Art's who had operated a cleaning company in Rhode Island and ask him to work with them. "At the time, he was living up here and was unemployed," says Art.

Things started slowly, but work began coming in. After about nine months, Art's friend decided he'd had enough, and the Seoanes bought him out.

"I still thought it wasn't taking off," says Art with a chuckle, "and Sheila still thought we should do it. We did, and I'm glad we did."

Northland has a "near-zero turnover rate," according to Art Seoane. Emir Cicak, using a back-pack vacuum at Burton Snowboards, has been with the company for over seven years.

The company continued to grow. They hired a couple of high school boys who were neighbors of Sheila's parents. "We picked them up for work and took them with us, took them home, and started again," says Art.

Sheila's mother worked part time for the company on a regular basis, and when needed, they would call on family friends, nieces, nephews and their spouses. We grew to about 10 employees, and probably six or seven were family," says Art.

The airport contract began seriously opening doors, and the Seoanes knew they had to build their business to supplement the airport. "It was a year-to-year bid," says Art. "You no sooner got a new contract than you had to start over again."

A call from Carol Stone of Lang Associates helped drive them in a new direction. "Somebody was putting their home on the market," says Sheila. "Carol called and asked if we did that kind of work, to get a house ready to put on the market." Over the years, Stone has sent considerable business their way.

A call from Pizzagalli seeking a bid on construction cleanup opened another door. "We bid on it and got the job, then got hooked up with one of the project managers, and from there on they were happy," says Art.

"We've been using Art for a number of years on consttruction, preparing a building for turnover to the owner," says Andrew Martin, vice president of general services at Pizzagalli. "There isn't a large number of sizeable commercial construction cleaning firms to do what he does; he's very responsive and has the personnel to do it within the schedule, which is usually quite compressed."

John Wilking at the Neville Companies says he uses Northland to clean for "quite a few" of his properties including Burton. "We're very happy with him. His work is consistent, and he cares. That's really what it comes down to. We've had other guys who had bigger, fancier crews who couldn't get the job done, and he does."

Wilking calls the cleaning business "a very tough business, because obviously, Art's got a price sensitivity, and many of the people he hires, English is not their first language, and in many cases not their language at all. He treats them well and he sticks by them."

Art is quick to agree about the price sensitivity. "We try to put ourselves a cut above. Our prices are generally higher when people see three or four quotes. We pay better wages, we have health insurance, a Simple IRA with a company match, vacations and bonuses. We also have a near-zero turnover rate, which is unheard of in the industry. Over 50 percent of our people have been with us for six years or more, and we actually have some people with us for 10 to 12 years."

The Seoanes also value good equipment. "We go in to bid a job where a customer's not happy and getting prices to change companies, and we'll look into the supply closet and see the blackest, dirtiest mop bucket or a vacuum that looks like it ought to be in the dump. You'll never see that with our equipment," says Art.

"We pay $450 for our vacuum cleaners, and we wear them out at two years average and replace them. We probably own 20 of these. We have battery-operated floor scrubbers and propane burnishers, which put on a very high-gloss buff."

The Seoanes' daughter, Amy, works with them when she's not studying at Champlain College. She is particularly fond of construction cleanup projects and hopes someday to take over her parents' business.

The company owns a couple of vehicles and might add another one this year, says Art. "We have three main supervisors, and because we keep 95 percent of what we own at the customers' location, we haven't had the need for a fleet of vehicles or a commercial space outside the home. We're continuing that at the moment, but we may need to expand eventually the way things are going."

While their lives are filled with work, the Seoanes still make time for relaxation. Art plays golf "as much as possible" and tries to get in some fishing time with their son, Sean, who's a landscaper.

"We go snowshoeing in the winter, and we like to hike," adds Sheila, who is learning golf so she and Art can play together as well as work together.

Originally published in June 2005 Business People-Vermont