Organic Housekeepers, cleaning with a conscience, saving the earth one tub at a time.

Captain Vacuum & Organic Housekeepers growing by leaps and bounds
Winner of last year's green business award, OH is now up for VVP's Business of the Year

By Tara Flanagan/Vail Business Journal – January 16, 2012

VAIL, Colo.—It’s the story that most business schools wish they could teach: find your niche, work like crazy, employee others in meaningful, productive ways and watch the bottom line grow.

And somewhere in all that, there’s a piece about marrying your middle school sweetheart. Tim and Cassie Szurgot started dating on and off, and eventually on again, when they were 12. They both went to Indiana University. Tim arrived in the valley with a need to deal with his ski habit, and worked hotel jobs to support it. Cassie worked as a journalist for seven years at The Vail Daily.

Tim, an admitted, non-recovering anal-retentive clean freak, gave birth to Organic Housekeepers in 2005. Although he majored in sociology, it doesn’t surprise him whatsoever that he has excelled in the cleaning business. Hailing from a line of very clean people, he earned the name Captain Vacuum when he was seven years old. He loathes germs and has an abiding hatred for sponges. He voices similar disdain for the synthetic, petroleum-based chemistry that comprises most commercial cleaners.

Cassie joined the business when it became clear they needed a dedicated marketing and human relations person. In a relatively short time, Organic Housekeepers has gained some large clients, among them Hyatt Mountain Lodge, Exclusive Resorts, East West Resorts, some penthouses at the Ritz-Carlton, and private homes.

The company has seen its business nearly double in the past two years, and it now employs 50 workers. For 2011 they won Vail Valley Partnership’s Green Business of the Year. This year they are on the short list for Business of the Year – with Vail Dermatology and  R.A. Nelson & Associates as company.

The latter is kind of a big deal; Tim says his parents are coming out for the Success Awards ceremony Feb. 10.

VBJ: So tell us how Organic Housekeepers came about?
TS: Initially my friend came to me and said we should start a green cleaning company. I had a really clean house in college. I was actually in a fraternity and moved out because it was so dirty. I’m just kind of a clean freak, and I’m good at it. When I was seven years old I was connecting the vacuum to my nose and saying, “I’mmm Captain Vacuum.”

It started with just one house. I did some basic marketing – flyers. And then we started cleaning the Ski Museum and got a little notoriety with that, then we started working for the Gilletts and cleaning their offices and got some more notoriety with that... And at that time I still wasn’t serious. I was writing things on three-by-five note cards. I was too cheap to buy QuickBooks. It didn’t seem like it was meant to be, even though it was.

But, after three years it was 20 employees. It was out of my garage for the first three years. Then we got a big contract with Exclusive Resorts. They helped us turn the business so we were geared more toward the high end and, more toward that vacation-rental, short-term hotel business. And then we got into laundry at that time because they had a lot of laundry, so instead of paying someone else to do it, we bought machines. And that’s when Cassie came on board.

VBJ: And by then you were based out of…?
TS: In Eagle-Vail, by the Route 6 Café. And then a few other big clients came in line, and Cassie was more on board doing human resources and taking in all these protocols and methods that we had but were sort of up in the air. We had a good team that knew how to do it, but she put it in writing – and created a full-fledged training manual. And we got a general manager, supervisors and started getting hierarchy. Now we’ve got 13 Blackberries in our company, and there’s something like a half million dollars worth of laundry at our facility right now.

VBJ: So tell us about growth.
CS: In the last two years we’ve almost doubled. In 2010 we did close to a million in sales. In 2011 we did $1.4.

TS: The direction it’s heading, this year we’re forecasting to grow another 40 percent. And the whole business end of it has been kind of the School of Hard Knocks. I have a sociology degree with a Spanish minor, so…

CS (laughing): But Tim does know how to clean, which helps…

TS: You work with the Hyatt. The Hyatt tells the Ritz, and that’s how it works. That’s how you grow.

VBJ: What are you working on now?
TS: We’re working with the Hyatt Mountain Lodge. It’s a 50-unit property. East-West Resorts, Ritz-Carlton penthouses – some, not all of them… About 30 percent is commercial.

CS: And that’s our niche – high-end homes, condos.

VBJ: Tell us about how you approach tasks differently.
TS: We have really good methods that allow us to do the job well. From the team setup to the order of operations to the supplies they bring. I think our record was 53 different homes in a day. Plus all of the Hyatt. So you’re looking at 400 bathrooms or something close to that.

CS: Our cleaning methods are really efficient and we train all year round. We’re big on training. So they use our methods of cleaning every single time they’re in a home. It’s always the same.

TS: We have one person who’s on full-time training. Our business model — well, a lot of people see housekeeping as a dead-end job. But we’ve proven, and our whole model and idea, is to allow people to move up. The women who are supervisors or GM were originally cleaners. We love to see people grow with us. We give our supervisors Blackberries. We do that because it means good communication and a sense of pride and ownership. We have people who are constantly moving up and who want to learn.

CS: We’re a sustainable company throughout. Our products are green. We recycle soaps. All of our laundry facility is non-toxic. It’s all part of the Three P’s – Profitability, Planet and People. We treat our people really well, and that’s part of being a sustainable company. You’ve got to treat your people well. It’s the only way the system works. It’s so important.

TS: And we pay well. Anywhere from $13 to $17 an hour for housekeepers.

CS: And supervisors are on salary. And we do things that other cleaning companies don’t do – like pay for drive time.

TS: We’re finding that our employees take a lot of pride in their work. We have original employees still working for us. And we do very little subcontracting. We spend more time on training and labor.

CS: In all the homes that have amenities – soaps, shampoo, lotions – we recycle that and send it off to a place in Florida that recycles it to lesser developed countries. And that takes more time. The employees have to sort things. It takes more time, but it’s the right thing to do. We’re saving so much trash by recycling all the little bottles.

TS: We have campaigns against plastic bags. And my anti-sponge campaign. They teem with bacteria, so we have banned sponges. We spend more money on supplies because we want to be sustainable. We care. That’s our M.O. Our employees really appreciate what we use.

VBJ: A few more words about success…
TS: We stay competitive with our prices. We have not raised our rates – maybe very minimally in the last four years. We’re also very, very good communicators, and I think that housekeeping departments in general are not good communicators. We have consistency. People are happy with our quality, happy with us coming into their homes.

VBJ: How about a couple helpful housekeeping hints for homeowners?
TS (laughing): Well, first, you need to hire it out. But seriously, you need a good vacuum. Floors are the backbone of a cleaning job, we always say. If you’re working with a $90 vacuum, that’s not going to do it, and it’s probably going to break. We’ve had one particular vacuum and we’ve estimated we’ve put 6,000 hours on it.

CS: And keep rags underneath your sink. If you have all your tools available to you, you’ll clean more often. It’s really easy to make your own green cleaning products at home. You can use vegetable-based dish soap, vinegar, hot water, baking soda. If you don’t like the smell of vinegar you can add essential oil. But it’s easy. Shake it in a spray bottle. We use a ton of vinegar at the commercial level.

VBJ: And the best marketing is...?
TS: Doing a great job.

VBJ: And what about the awards?
CS: It feels good. It feels awesome. We’ve worked hard and it’s great to be acknowledged.

 

 


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