When Greg Burton launched Burton Cleaning Services Inc. in Essex Junction, he turned a setback into accomplishment.
This ex-banker is cleaning up
by Keith Morrill
Greg Burton never really suspected that an offhand joke around the office would one day lead him to his career and his own business. While working at Chittenden Bank in the late ’80s, he says, everyone used to complain about the cleaning services. He and his co-workers joked that if they ever lost their jobs, they’d start their own company and show people how it was really done. Not long after, the banking industry hit a slump, and Burton was laid off. Banking jobs were few, and he and his wife, Beth, were looking for a way to stay in Vermont.
Suddenly that office joke seemed like a viable option. Burton began by consulting friend and businessman Bart Farley, the owner of S.B. Farley, a carpet-cleaning business. Farley’s advice was a simple, universal business truth, Burton says. “His word to me was: Provide excellent customer service, and if you provide good customer interaction, you’ll have more business than you know what to do with.”
This advice was inspiration enough for Burton. Confident he could provide both, he went into business for himself, starting Burton Cleaning Services Inc. in September 1990.
Fast forward 18 years, and the company has evolved into a commercial cleaning concern that keeps businesses throughout Chittenden County tidy. Burton has help from Beth, who keeps the books; Scott Wilson, the operations manager; and 28 more employees. The company provides routine cleaning for commercial businesses, primarily services such as dusting, vacuuming, and emptying the trash. Burton estimates he has 10 to 15 percent annual growth, with a client list that includes the likes of Lake Champlain Chocolates, Timberlane Dental Group, and Maple Tree Place.
Rick Golder, property manger at Maple Tree Place, elaborates on Burton’s role there. “Maple Tree is what they call a life-style center, which is made up of retail and offices,” he says. “They provide the cleaning for the common areas and the office spaces. They do a good portion of the cleaning for the shopping center.” Golder suggests that the center is quite pleased with the services it receives from Burton Cleaning, adding, “Some of the tenants that are responsible for their own cleaning have elected to hire the company privately.”
In the beginning, Burton worked alone, servicing residential accounts almost exclusively. His initial thoughts were to stay away from commercial accounts, which had to be done in the evening once businesses were closed and empty. Conversely, residential work was done while homeowners were at work for the day, which Burton thought would provide a schedule ideal for family life.
To land his first accounts, Burton and his wife went door-to-door and handed out business cards. From there, things grew, helped by Burton’s satisfied customers, and he was soon cleaning three houses a day, five days a week, plus a small amount of commercial work a few days each week. Despite his intentions to remain residential, the opportunities for commercial work continued to increase. It reached a point where it became a heavy load for just one person. “I started running out of juice,” Burton says.
Greg Burton estimates that his company experiences between 10 and 15 percent annual growth. His wife, Beth, keeps the company’s books.
Determined to meet the demand, he decided it was time to find help. “I hired a few buddies to work with me in the evenings.” It went so well, Burton started allowing those employees to clean accounts in the evening without direct supervision. This experience proved to be an eye opener.
“That was when we realized that was the way to grow the business,” he says, noting that Farley’s advice about the cleaning business had turned out to be true. Burton certainly had more work than he could handle, and he knew he could spread himself only so thin.
By 1995, he decided to make a major shift in the business’s operations. He shed the residential work to focus his energy on the ever-increasing influx of commercial work. It made more sense to switch to commercial cleaning, where there were more business opportunities, and take on a managerial role while hiring employees to do the actual cleaning.
Up until that point, Burton had been the company’s only employee — and thus its only cleaner — able to ensure everything was done to his standards. During the acquisition of new accounts, Burton moved cautiously in order to avoid possible pitfalls. His biggest concern was quality control. Though the transition was smooth enough, Burton adopted a few strategies to help the company run more effectively.
First, Beth took on the role of bookkeeper. Then, in 2005, Burton brought on Wilson as full-time operations manager to help meet the large number of accounts the company was accruing, and to help manage its growing employee base.
“I try to take some of the operational load off of Greg’s shoulders so he doesn’t have to worry about the day-to-day,” says Wilson. “I’m the one that gets the phone calls in the middle of the night — just basically being available for whatever employees need, however they need to be served.” He adds, “Then answering to Greg, of course.”
Wilson’s addition to the business has meant a more reasonable work week for Burton, who enjoys the extra time for numerous activities. He and Beth reside in Essex Junction with their four children, Rachel, 17; Heather, 15; Peter, 12; and Jon, 11. Burton likes to spend what free time he has with them. He also enjoys skiing and tennis, and does a bit of woodworking on the side. His creations, such as a kitchen table made from the trees in his back yard, an armoire/entertainment center, and occasional tables, finish his home
Additionally, Burton is on staff at Christ Memorial Church in Williston. “My love for the Lord has played an important part in my life,” he says.
A native New Yorker born on Long Island and raised in western New York, he studied Christian education at Nyack College in Nyack, N.Y., with the aim of becoming a youth pastor. The addition of Wilson to his staff, he says, has given him the time he needs to pursue that part of his life.
Burton applies the same logic when it comes to hiring cleaners, who are typically moonlighters looking to clean a few nights a week to earn extra income. “Our turnover is very low — for the cleaning industry, that is,” says Burton.
Paul Jankowski (left), one of the crew, and Scott Wilson, operations manager, get ready to use the automatic floor scrubber at Maple Tree Place in Williston.
The beauty of that, he continues, is that all of his employees hold down “meaningful full-time jobs. For example, one took a job with me to help pay for ballet school for his daughter. Sometimes it’s the extra car payment they’re picking up by working for me. It’s worked well as just a model for staffing, and consequently, I’ve been able to keep employees for 14 years, and a whole host around that four- to seven-year mark, which is unusual in the trade I’m in.”
Burton attributes that longevity to several factors. For starters, the scheduling is quite flexible, which greatly appeals to employees with family. Furthermore, says Burton, “We hire employees specifically with certain accounts in mind, and it becomes their account. One employee will work the same account for years, and what happens is they take ownership of it. My customers get to know my employees, and they’re on a first-name basis. It’s a nice little loop.”
More than just increasing work quality, Burton says, it puts his customers at ease. “If they can trust you, they’re very happy,” he explains.
Adds Wilson, “I think trust is an important word there. Because we’re in people’s businesses and offices after they’ve left, there’s a high degree of trust that when they come in the next morning, things are as they expect them to be.”
In the meantime, Burton continues to gain new accounts around Chittenden County. He says he has no plans to hit record-breaking numbers in terms of accounts, but that the company will continue to do what it’s always done — grow at a rate that allows him to maintain his standards on quality. “On that matter, I’m not willing to budge.”