Virgil Richardson graciously let me shadow him for an hour via phone while he conducted his business in New York City, his headset transmitting sounds all the way to California where I furiously typed up notes. As co-owner of NYC-based cleaning service Faith Enterprises, his day is unpredictable and varied, and when I called him, he was at the hardware store buying a silicon sealant for a client. Over the course of an hour, he met up with his cleaning crew, handled scheduling and payroll questions, bantered with his nephew, helped fix a cracked area that needed the sealant he purchased, chatted happily with two clients, and fielded questions from me.
The business is named after Virgil’s co-owner, Faith, who is a cleaning superstar. The pair grew up together in Harlem before Faith moved away and raised a family in South Carolina. She returned to the NYC area in 2000 and after she cleaned Virgil’s apartment, he was obsessed with the idea of getting her to run her own cleaning company. “She cleaned my place and when I came home I was like ‘Oh my god, people are going to love your cleaning!’ I sent her to work for a cleaning company in the city and she worked for them for nine months. I kept pushing her to do it herself, to start her own business.”
Working with family
Virgil focuses on the business aspect, handling the bookings and staff schedules, while Faith takes charge of the cleaning team and training new team members. Of the eight cleaners on staff, most are family members and I heard Virgil teasing them gently while we were on the phone. “I deal with all the kids and grandkids myself. I’ve got most of them working for me, my two sons, my nephew, my daughters. They are the best people to hang out with. It’s fun, and you get to know them a little better. My daughter and I did a job on Sunday morning for a few hours and when we were done we sat out on the balcony having coffee and donuts.”
Listening to clients
Twenty years of sales experience helped Virgil when he transitioned to running his own business. “I know you have to stop selling and start helping. You have to learn to listen to your clients, and they’ll tell you exactly what they want, how to clean their house.” This is something I’ve heard over and over from successful owners— listen to your clients. With Virgil focused full-time on the business over the last year, they went from $500 to $10,000 in bookings per month.
Virgil says he’s made a lot of friends in the year that he’s focused on the business. “Some cleaning companies come over to your house and do what they want, don’t even socialize with the client. I like to make it personable and make friends. It’s funny to have someone in your house and not speak two words to them.” So he talks to clients and makes friends along the way. Whenever he gets to a house, he asks the client “What are we doing here today?” Cleaning is a project that he gets clients invested in, discerning exactly what they want done and then delivering it to their satisfaction.
Tackling hard jobs
One thing that gets the family into cleaning is an element of competition. They take before and after photos of some of the places they clean, and have pride in tackling tough jobs well. He revealed one of his magic tricks to me–using oven cleaner to get rid of a thick black ring around a bathtub. “It’s a degreaser, it gets the oil out. I’ve cleaned floors and walls with oven cleaner, too.” He withheld his surprise that someone was still taking baths in the tub with a ring around it, and got to work scrubbing with the oven cleaner. Occasionally, he finds that he has to instruct clients on problems they don’t realize they have, like mildew in the bathroom that they’ve mistaken for dirt. “This black stuff is not dirt, it’s mildew. You’ve got to get it taken care of, get it taken out.”
Dead cat in the freezer, chicken feathers everywhere
His best story was about a cleaning gig in Scarsdale, a swanky town in the northern suburbs. “Just the name—Scarsdale—you think money. But this lady was a chef, and her house was so nasty you could barely get in the house. When my son walked into the kitchen, he announced that it was picture time (for the before and after photos). The place was so bad, you couldn’t see the counter. And she’s a chef. There was one room she wouldn’t let us go into, and we wondered why.” They would find out a few days later after they came back for a final clean after her move out.
During that first clean, Virgil noticed a lot of pet hair but no animal was running around. The chef revealed to him that her cat had died and she put it in the freezer in order to take it home to Oklahoma and bury it. When the movers got around to the kitchen, Virgil started kidding them that they were pallbearers. “Wait a minute, we got a funeral going on. There’s four of ya’ll, picking up a freezer, and there’s dead cat inside.”
That secret room that the chef wouldn’t let Virgil’s team into the first visit? Apparently she had used the room as a place to pluck chickens that were later cooked. “There were feathers everywhere, with the door closed.” Virgil was anxious to know what restaurant she worked at so that he could avoid it at all costs. Luckily and not surprisingly, the restaurant had gone out of business.
All about time
Virgil has been called a drill sergeant because of his strictness with time. “I’m into time management, it’s my thing. If clients say three hours, try to get it done in three hours. People have things to do and don’t want to wait around,” he said. It’s one of his biggest challenges with his partner. “She’s a detailed cleaner, she does the same thing wherever she goes. Faith cleans everything, even the door jams. You have to stop her. She doesn’t know how to differentiate between a move-out and a move-in clean. That’s what brought me into the business. She can turn a four hour job into nine hours, which is exhausting.”
Working for yourself
The best part of working for himself? “You control your life. You dictate what your life is going to be. You are the boss and make decisions. If you make a mistake, you make a mistake and move on.” He also loves meeting new people and networking, which helps to turn first time clients into repeat customers.
I asked Virgil how he dealt with the problem of finding good people he could trust to work for him. He pinpointed the issue as universal to every industry. “You will always have a problem with people in any field who do the work just because they need a check. I make sure to tell people that they don’t work for me, they work for themselves. It’s all about the attitude.”
Setting the proper perspective for his employees, he has faith in their abilities, saying:
Everybody is quality people, you just have to help them along. We find out what they’re good at and help them along. That’s what we do everyday—we interact with each other and help each other through life. Nobody’s perfect, you have to look at both good and bad and show people what’s good in them.