Neatnik Diva

Posted on Nov 1, 2009 :: Cover Story
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Marie Krull, Pro One Janitorial

Marie Krull has no problem getting her hands dirty. That’s been good for her career. A native of South London, Krull began her recent career by cleaning buildings and offices in Northeast Wisconsin, a highly competitive market for janitorial services. She has never been afraid to pick up a mop and help out. Now, she is the co-owner of Pro One Janitorial. She may be higher up the ladder, but Krull would never consider it beneath her to pull on a pair of rubber gloves and get dirty in the effort to provide quality service to a client. She once considered it beneath her to cooperate with a former competitor, but after hearing her story, you might say she “cleaned up” in that regard.

“We participate and lead,” says Krull, who is chief information officer at Pro One. “We scrub the toilets that no one else wants to scrub.”

There would certainly seem to be plenty of scrubbing going on. Even in a recession, demand for the company’s services has been steady. Pro One now has 100 franchises – up from 45 in 2001 – and this year expanded into Indiana and Kentucky. Given the concerns over keeping buildings clean enough to prevent the spread of the H1N1 flu virus and the demands imposed by green building standards, Krull and her staff have kept themselves busy.

The company now sees about $10 million in annual revenue and recently landed a large contract for the new $34 million Encircle Health building that opened in Appleton. Other clients include Brillion Iron Works and almost all of Oshkosh Corporation.

Steve Jencks, ThedaCare construction manager for the Encircle Health project, says it became clear during the bidding process that Pro One was the best option for both the post-construction cleaning and the regular cleaning in a single contract for the building. Pro One was a critical part of the building being ready for patients Oct. 19, he adds.

“They had a lot of enthusiasm, plus they had prior experience working with larger medical facilities,” Jencks says. “Marie and her management team were really hands on.”

All Krull has to do is look to the company’s past to know she has the right approach.

TOUGH TIMES
Pro One Janitorial was founded in the Green Bay area in 1989 by Dean Race. The company started out managing in-house janitorial services for companies in the region. Pro One began to gradually move away from directly in-house services toward the franchise model it uses today.

In 1997, Race sold Pro One to a competing local company, which took it in a different direction. A year later, he bought the company back.

During this time, Krull was taking college business courses in London, selling carpet cleaner door-to-door part time and flying to the States occasionally to visit extended family in Massachusetts. She met and later married a Wisconsin native, moved to Green Bay in 1994 and eventually began working for another janitorial company in the area, K Maintenance. The marriage didn’t work out, but her passion for business blossomed. She saw opportunity in the janitorial industry.

“I liked it, more than anything,” says Krull, who began handling client accounts and office operations. “You can see that you’ve achieved something, your results are really visible. You make clients happy.”

She found the competition fierce. Open the phone book, she says, and “there are tons” of janitorial companies, many more per capita than major metro areas. One of the best, she soon learned, was Pro One.

FATEFUL MEETING
As a direct competitor, she loved nothing more than sticking it to Race.

“We used to be in bidding situations often together, and it would always be between Pro One and K Maintenance. Basically, if we knew Pro One was cleaning the building, we would do everything in our power to convert the company to our business.”

However, K Maintenance changed direction to specialize in restoring fire and water damage. The company disbanded its janitorial business. When Race learned this, he called Krull to see if she would send their old business his way. At first, she did not bother to take his calls. After all, he was her nemesis.

In her opinion at the time, “he didn’t have the best reputation. He was known as a ruthless, strong businessman. He held clients to their contracts” … to the letter.

But Race would not let up.

“I kept getting his voice mails and his messages, and I thought, ‘What have you got to lose? When our contracts were ending, we were just letting our accounts die. I thought, ‘It can’t hurt us.’” They met in 2001.

“I was very, very wary of him,” she says, laughing at the thought. But the ruthless, persistent businessman persuaded her to join Pro One. They worked side by side for a few months and, she says, “I got to know he has a hard shell and a soft interior.”

She would get a lot more out of the bargain than a check. In addition to moving to Pro One and eventually taking over as president, Krull married Race in 2005.

“Dean has mellowed a lot in the years,” she says. “He’s a businessman and complete entrepreneur like no other, he really is. … To this day he will tell you that I got more money out of him than anyone else ever did.”

Race is still around the company, though he leaves the management up to Krull and Vice President Jeff Griffin while he focuses on unrelated businesses.

“I still work with them on things, but I am pretty much hands off,” says Race, who runs a gold-prospecting tour company during the summer months in Alaska and a commercial real estate business. (See “Playing (in) Chicken,” page 33.) “Marie and Jeff really run the company now.”

Krull is not the only former competitor who would come to the company during this time period. Griffin was a sales rep for a line of cleaning products and also ran his own cleaning company before coming to Pro One.

He and Krull have been working together the past several years to build the company and position it for growth. Rather than focusing on short-term expansion, Pro One’s management team is positioning the company for the longer haul.

“We had to fix some policies and procedures,” Krull says. “We needed to make sure there were people in this building who believed in what we do.”

Griffin says the numbers during those years were pretty discouraging, as the company actually cut back and was not profitable. But in the end, Pro One was able to get its new management team in place and revamp its business model.

“To a lot of companies, the big numbers are alluring,” Griffin says. “Now we have it where we want it for a period of extended, well-thought-out growth.”

Of course, the recent recession has posed its own challenges. While many companies have scaled back the number of times cleaning crews come in, there are also the demands that come with the recent concerns regarding the H1N1 virus. It’s all part of the job, Griffin says.

“The things that are needed for germ fighting are the things we do as part of the routine cleaning, whether it’s every day or if the client has cut back to three days a week. We still disinfect and we pay attention to the public surfaces.”

TAKING OFF
Even with the desire to grow, Krull and Griffin say they will not abandon the model that has worked so well for them. That means relying on the franchise owners they have put in place during the past few years.

To Krull, that means finding more folks like Aurelio Linares Jr., who operates a small franchise that cleans the Aurora Medical building in Two Rivers.

Linares, known as JR, got into the business after a friend of his father bought a Pro One franchise several years ago. His father saw an opportunity, not just for his son to work, but to build his own business.

“He knew this was an opportunity for me,” Linares says now, nearly nine years later. “This was a great thing and I do not regret it for a minute.”

He likes helping people out.

“If I can get more business, then I can hire more people,” Linares says. “I like being able to help people out like that, to give them an opportunity.”

Linares’ approach is what has helped the company succeed, Krull says.

“They specialize in what they do,” she says of the franchise owners. “Our job is to meet and direct the clients to them. That’s what we specialize in.”

The results have been impressive. The company has seen growth of about 25 percent the past two years, growth both Krull and Griffin are quick to credit their franchise owners for.

Some, like Linares, are small operations. Other franchise owners may have as many as 40 people working for them, depending on the size and number of the buildings they clean. Pro One supports the franchise owners with an office staff of about 20 people.

Unlike other franchise operations – where in exchange for the name and a fee the owners are pretty much on their own to meet revenue targets – Pro One provides the marketing, helps with sales and even provides payroll support for its franchise owners.

Krull finds herself spending a lot of time these days researching green cleaning procedures for their clients who have green certified buildings. She wants to make sure her franchise owners can meet the demands – not that reading a thick manual full of government recommendations is the most fun she has ever had on the job.

On a recent September morning, Krull had marketing pieces taped to her wall that included donkeys and other comical characters. It was all part of a campaign for some of the newest franchises.

“We still get to have fun around here,” Krull says.

You can often find them on-site working with a franchise crew making sure that everything is done just right.

“I’m picky and I have high standards,” says Krull. “That’s what sets us apart. It’s pride. When I drive by a building that we service, I’m proud that we clean it.”

Playing (in) Chicken
Pro One founder DEAN RACE builds Alaska gold-prospecting tour company

It’s hard to imagine that Dean Race would enjoy retirement.

Given how much fun he has at work, why would he?

Race, who founded Pro One Janitorial, has kept a low profile at the janitorial services company since turning over the reins to his wife, Marie Krull, several years ago. While he also manages a commercial real estate venture, his real passion of late is a tourism venture he launched several years ago: Gold Fever Prospecting.

“It started out as a hobby, but now it is kind of a full-time thing,” Race says of the company, which offers folks the chance to prospect for gold along his gold claim in Chicken, Alaska.

“I’m always looking to dabble in something,” he says. “It’s pretty exciting for me to have people come up. They usually find gold the first day.”

Operating out of Seymour, Gold Fever Prospecting offers folks a chance to travel to the interior of Alaska and work a real gold claim. Race has claims stretching nearly 20 miles along the river running through the Fortymile Mining District.

Groups of six to eight usually spend a week along the claims, prospecting for gold, fishing, hiking and generally taking in the Alaska wilderness. A one-week trip costs $1,850 per person, and after receiving training from Race, travelers can work the various dredges and equipment in the claims looking for gold.

The accommodations are primitive – it’s a part of the state that does not have telephones or Internet access – but hot showers and meals are all part of the package, as well as equipment and transportation to and from Fairbanks, Alaska.

“The hardest part of the trip is getting people into camp,” Race says.

Krull once spent an entire summer at the camp before taking over full time at Pro One.

“It was very primitive – we had nothing,” she says. “Now, they have electricity and microwaves and some other amenities. It was a shock for a big city girl (from South London, England).”

Don’t forget the gold. While the gold claim is a working proposition for Race, those who take the prospecting tour get to keep whatever they find, he says. Those who have tried to prospect in other areas are often surprised at how much easier it is to extract gold in Alaska.

Race recalls that one tandem found nearly six ounces of gold on a recent trip. With gold at more than $1,000 an ounce, it became a profitable vacation for them.

“The most exciting thing for me is when they come up here and they find something,” he says. “We can’t get them out of the water once they get going.”