In 2008 during the economic recession, photographer and graphic designer Martin Jongejan entered the toughest period of his life.
His marriage had fallen apart, and he was in a serious car accident that left him with a head injury. His business and clients faded away as he struggled to recover, and he was left with next to nothing.
Down and out, Jongejan was living in a rooming house, broke and deeply in debt. Everything he owned could be crammed into his 1999 Ford Taurus. But looking back on that seemingly dark period of his life, Jongejan has a different perspective.
“It was unequivocally the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said.
His outlook starts to make sense when you follow his story after he hit rock bottom.
Jongejan took two years to recover from the injuries he suffered in the car accident, and then he started putting his professional life back together. But he was pushing 50 and had little to go on.
“I came to a bit of a crossroads, and I was kind of looking for something to turn my fortunes around,” he said. “I knew I wanted to do something different than what I’d been doing with the camera.”
His idea came in the form of a franchise industry magazine that caught his attention one day in 2010. One article noted that six of the 10 fastest-growing small-business franchises in North America were cleaning companies. Jongejan had no money, so starting a business or taking over a franchise that required capital was out of the question.
“I wanted something that didn’t have any geographical boundaries, was relatively recession-proof, and I wouldn’t have to re-educate myself,” he said. “And the cleaning business just kind of checked each one of those.”
He borrowed a small amount of cash from a friend, bought a mop, a bucket and a backpack vacuum cleaner and got to work, cleaning his first house in Langley in 2011. Jongejan also started going to business networking sessions and getting leads. Customers slowly added up.
He would show up in a suit and tie, do an estimate, then come back a few days later and get to work.
Six years later, Jongejan’s company, ZOOM! The Home Cleaning Experts, has close to 20 employees and approximately 500 clients across Metro Vancouver, primarily operating in Langley, Surrey and White Rock.
When Jongejan was starting out in his new business, he said he was committed to running it differently. He knew the cleaning industry had a bad reputation and was known for low pay and high levels of turnover (a recent survey done by U.S.-based cleaning industry information resource CleanLink estimates the sector has a yearly turnover rate of 73 per cent), so he wanted to make sure he didn’t just start up another cookie-cutter company.
The residential and commercial cleaning industry is highly unregulated, and there is no provincial or federal oversight organization. According to federal statistics, in 2015 there were 27,988 janitorial services companies in Canada, but there is no data for average wages and no federal or provincial database for companies. The federal government does, however, estimate that 90.7 per cent of small or medium-sized janitorial services companies are profitable.
Jongejan said the most important part in creating a “new type” of cleaning company has been in the hiring process.
“We don’t hire off a resumé; a resumé is pretty much meaningless to us,” he said, noting he hires on “character and attitude,” which can take multiple meetings to discern. Jongejan said he also took to heart business mogul Richard Branson’s view that employee satisfaction needs to come before clients.
“The last thing you want to do is send a grumpy person to clean a house,” Jongejan said.
Calvin Warneke, a financial adviser who’s known Jongejan since 2012, when he met him at a business networking meeting, said Jongejan is backing up his words with action.
“We’re working together right now to set up health and dental plans for his employees,” Warneke said. “And they’re part-time employees, so he doesn’t have to do this. He’s also sacrificed his own ability to draw income from the company to pay his employees more. So he’s willing to self-sacrifice. And that’s part of his rags-to-riches story. He’s been down and out, he knows what it’s like and he wants to do what he can to help others. So he has a very altruistic spirit.”
Jongejan has also set up a program, aimed at giving back without “strings attached,” in which once a month his company performs a free cleaning for a family experiencing hardship.
Jongejan said his goals for the company are to keep turnover low, make sure he’s offering leadership positions to his employees who want to move up the ladder, and get on British Columbia’s top 100 employers list.
“I really believe we can change the industry,” he said. “And it starts from the top and trickles down.”