Before they are anything to your business, your employees are first and foremost human beings. More than adapting systems that make you succeed, you have to keep in mind that without your people, you are doomed to fail. Taking this to heart with their amazing culture, Mary Miller, the CEO of JANCOA Janitorial Services, has devoted her company to enhance the experience of being a human being for their employees. In an industry where turnover averages 380% to 400% a year, JANCOA has reduced that to under 100% and grew from 65 employees to more than 550. In this episode, Mary shares with us how the key to employee retention rests on the effectiveness of a company in improving the quality of life for its people. Tune in to this great conversation that enriches not only your company but, more importantly, the lives of your employees.
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Enriching The Lives Of Your Employees With Mary Miller
My guest is Mary Miller, the CEO of JANCOA Janitorial Services. It’s a company that does cleaning services for office buildings and industrial sites, and is a good case study for love in business, more than you could ever imagine. The culture that they went out to create at JANCOA is so remarkable that it became the foundation for Matthew Kelly’s famous and wonderful book called The Dream Manager. This is not an easy industry. In the janitorial industry, employee turnover averages 380% to 400% a year. The Millers reduced that with their amazing JANCOA culture to under 100% and grew the company from 65 employees to more than 550. They discovered that the key to employee retention rested on how effective the company was in improving the quality of life for its people. Think about that, a company that’s devoted to enhancing the experience of being a human being for their employees. That’s the essence of what makes JANCOA an incredible company and what makes our conversation with Mary Miller so extraordinary. I know you’re going to love my conversation with Mary Miller, CEO of JANCOA Janitorial Services, Inc.
Mary, tell me a little bit about your story and the story of JANCOA.
I was not on anybody’s list of being most likely to succeed at anything. My path has been the less traditional path to where I’m at now. It was never intentional until later in life. I was in survival mode myself for a long time. When I turned 30 was the year that everything fell apart for me. From going through my second divorce, being single with three kids, the job was eliminated, bankrupt, and evicted. Everything was bad. I had to start by getting a new job and I ended up in a 100% sales position selling mobile homes. Before that, my previous sales history was Mary Kay cosmetics as wicker at home parties. I was in the corporate world before that and they downsized and eliminated the division.
During that time, the owner of that company introduced me to a program that helped me take a look at my life and what I wanted. It was called Life Success. Through that program, I met my husband, Tony Miller. We knew each other. We got married two years later after we had met. We were both on a path of wanting more than what we had and that what we had wasn’t the right path for either of us. We’re both on our third marriage. We got married in ‘91. I started working with him. I left my sales position in ‘93 and joined him. We decided that all our energy should be with the family business and that’s JANCOA, which he started when he was nineteen years old.
He was a student at the University of Cincinnati. His professor casually mentioned that outsourcing was going to be big in the future and mentioned janitorial services. Tony, being a very astute student, notice how dirty the bars were. He started cleaning the bars around campus to pay his bar tab. When his father died two years later, he left university and made JANCOA a real company to support his mom and three siblings at the time. We met twenty years later. I’m generation 1.5 and he’s generation 1. Working together we decided we needed to make JANCOA a valuable business like most entrepreneurs, “Let me start this business and build it to something that somebody might be willing to pay for it and buy it.” That was going to be our retirement fund.
We needed to take this little cleaning company that had 65 part-time employees doing $2 million to make it valuable that somebody would want to buy someday. Along the way, we hired a consultant who was going to solve all our problems, give us all the answers, and help us make our company values. When I met him at one of our industry conferences, it was for a five-day contract. He came in and on the second day, he fired us. He said, “I can’t help you. You’ve got a people problem. It’s not that your people are your problem, but you never have enough people.” He said, “Mary, did Tony tell you that we were both out vacuuming all night when we were supposed to be reviewing your systems in how you were doing things? I was pushing a vacuum and that’s not what you hired me for. You call me back someday when you get your people problem figured out.” That was in ‘94, ‘95.
After I put my tongue back in my mouth, Tony and I talked. We had to make it through the rest of that week. We didn’t have many weekends works at the time. That weekend, we bought every book we could find on how to find people and how to keep people. It was a crazy maker. We did one of those studies in comparing our best people. What did they have in common? The number one issue was transportation. Tony being a thorough entrepreneur went out Monday morning and bought a fifteen-passenger van. He had it painted on the side, “JANCOA Employee Shuttle.” He brought it to the office and announced that we’re going to start picking people up from their home, taking them to work, and take them home afterward.
Within the first hour, our general manager at the time asked who was going to drive the magic bus. We don’t have enough people to clean, let alone drive a shuttle to pick people up. Tony became our first shuttle driver and within two days he was invisible. Steve, if you ever drove public transportation, does anybody notice the driver of the vehicle? He became invisible but he also started seeing where our people lived. He started hearing them talking about what their obstacles were and the lack of opportunity that they saw in their life. Our people were full-time employees. That’s something we had already changed back then, which is different for our industry. They work pretty much from 6:00 PM to 2:30 AM.
He would get back after taking people home and he’s got this rule, “If I can’t sleep, you can’t sleep.” He would wake me up and we talked for hours about what he saw, what he heard, and what he couldn’t understand. We started looking for other programs that we could do to help improve their quality of life. Something shifted in us and it became less about what can we do to make JANCOA profitable for us, for our quality of life, to how can we help improve their quality of life. We’ve got a real responsibility as owners of this company that if we are hiring people, we can do the best we can to make their lives better.
If I’m hearing this right, you started listening to what your employees needed. Transportation is a basic and simple need that came out.
It wasn’t something they told us. It’s like when Steve Jobs held up the iPhone and said, “Nobody said this is what they want.” We started seeing the real dangers and problems that they were having. We were asking ourselves, what could we do to make their lives better?
You have that great idea for the magic bus as it were. Because that created that personal proximity by picking them up at their homes and disappearing, you got to see their lives up close and personal that then led you to the question, “What else can we do to improve their quality of life?”
Employees want to appear that they have everything together. They want their best selves to show forward. They’re not going to tell us all their problems. Every employee wants the most they can get financially. That doesn’t matter how much education you have, that’s humanity. We knew that transportation was an issue. We put it together and that immediately stopped the bleeding of the turnover that we had. It started tracking because nobody else was doing anything like that. Public transportation to the jobs we had and the locations was non-existent. This was very unique and different than anything else.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were a lot of first-time homeownership programs. We connected locally with that and we helped over twenty families buy homes. Many of them were first-generation homeowners. If you go to YouTube and type in JANCOA, a video will come up that was originally created for Compassion International. It was about creating conversations for the working poor. They used our story and interviewed Tony and I. They also interviewed a couple that’s worked for us for a long time and still do. They’ve owned their home for many years. They were both first-generation homeowners. They have eighth-grade educations.
We started doing English and Spanish programs to help people communicate better. We’re trying to create as much as we can to help with literacy, financial as well as reading. We had this thought that we wanted to reduce our turnover and we wanted to help improve their quality of life. The agreement that we proposed was, “Come work for us. Give us your best 3 to 5 years. We’ll help make the connections you need to improve your quality of life and make your life the way you want it to be.” What we’ve realized is nobody dreams of being a janitor. That’s a transitional job on the way to someplace, but a lot of times, people forget where they were on their way to. They don’t know what they don’t know.
Since The Dream Manager book was published, what we have found is it doesn’t matter what type of job people have or how much education or money even for that matter. People have stopped dreaming because of different disappointments and things that happen in life over the years, whether it’s death, divorce or losing their jobs. Many things keep people from dreaming big again as they used to when they were younger in high school and college. That’s been a great experience and realizing that this is a message that’s important to everybody, not just the janitors working in your building. A mutual friend who was the man I used to work for that introduced me to Tony, introduced us to Matthew Kelly.
They were doing a Men’s Weekend out in Colorado and they had invited Matthew to come along. Matthew was hearing all these stories of what we were doing. He kept telling Tony, “These are great stories. You should write a book.” At that point, Matthew had already written ten books. He thought anybody could write a book. We had him over at our house and Rediscover Catholicism had just come out. He had dinner at our home and Tony had to leave dinner to take care of one of our buildings because the supervisor got in a fight with another employee physically. He’s seeing these stories firsthand of what we had to deal with.
He came back and approached us a couple of years later and said, “I got back from walking the Camino Trail. It was very inspirational and spiritual for me. I need to write this book about what you guys are doing.” That was our first licensing agreement. We didn’t want the book to be about us because there are too many naysayers, haters, and everything else out there, with competition being the way it is. We wanted people to get the message about the program, which now I know it’s not just about the program, but also about the culture change and the shift that it makes when a company shows they care about their team members and what difference that can make.
You wanted to address employee turnover. It’s fascinating because what a lot of companies will do in the tech sector and the white-collar world is, “You stay here for X number of years and we’ll invest in whatever stock ownership there is.” What you’re saying is, “You stay here for 3 to 5 years and we’ll invest in the quality of your life.”
What’s been magical about that is people don’t want to leave. They want to grow with the company. We’ve had some people that have left and they come back. They said, “You don’t understand. They don’t treat me like JANCOA treats me.” People have grown into other positions to say, “What opportunities of growth can I do if I stayed with the company?” It reminds me of Maya Angelou’s poetry, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and too many companies brag about the golden handcuffs. If you don’t have people that are willingly working for you because they wanted to help you achieve your goals, it undermines the energy, culture, and everything about that business.
Have you ever had an instance where you helped somebody achieve their dreams to the point where they made a decision to leave?
Yeah, many times and that’s the hardest part. When I’m telling them The Dream Manager and telling people what a great program it is, I lose great key people. One of the team members that I had in our management team was a college graduate. He was doing amazing things. We helped him out with getting an additional degree in IT that he was passionate about. He left us to go work for Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. He’s still there in their IT department and he loves what he’s doing. He did great here but he was lacking that passion component that he has now.
I have this vision that the whole world in all of our lives is like this huge jigsaw puzzle and each one of us is a unique puzzle piece. Every puzzle piece is unique. When we’re not doing what we’re made to be, the whole world suffers because they’re missing that key component of putting that puzzle together. How many people probably are looking at you as a speaker, an author, and all this success? They want to model their life after yours rather than looking in the mirror and saying, “What do I love to do? What comes naturally? What am I passionate about that can make a difference in my life and the lives of the people around me?” To me, that’s what this is all about.
When you lose somebody talented, that you love and you want to stick around but yet they’re going to pursue their dream, is that a complex feeling for you or is it like, “That’s awesome. Go pursue your dream, even though we’re experiencing a loss of having you here.”
I don’t deny my humanity and I let them know, “I’m going to miss you and I’m sorry you’re moving forward, but I’m excited you’re going after what you’re passionate about. Make sure you stay connected so that we know what’s going on in your life.” It’s made a huge difference. I also see that you used to work with Tom Peters. A couple of years back, he found the book when he was traveling at an airport on the West Coast. He started doing video blogs about the book and how genius Matthew was with coming up with this concept. I reached out to him and we ended up speaking at the same conference.
He was the keynote and I was one of the educational sidebars. We got to talk before his keynote and he said, “You got to tell me, how did you come up with this concept?” I said, “You know the old saying, ‘Necessity is the mother of all invention?’” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “We were in desperation mode.” He said, “I love it.” You know how animated he gets. He said, “That’s the way life works at its best. When you’re in enough pain, you’re willing to do something different.” My goal is to get people to make those changes and that’s my new book that’s out called Changing Direction. Let’s make some changes before you’re in a lot of pain to be able to figure out what it is you want to do.
Wouldn’t it be better for all of us if we changed direction because we are pursuing our passion not because we were in pain? This is an area that Tom and I have always had a different approach to. Tom’s approach is if you piss people off enough, they’ll change. That’s true to a certain degree, but it’s not the greatest way to live. I would rather encourage people to pursue their hearts and make those decisions. It’s not to say that we can avoid pain in our experience as human beings, but that shouldn’t be the main driver. It’s interesting because when I left the Tom Peters Company, I was the Vice President of this company for 6.5 years. I left there to pursue my own thing and I transitioned out over six months. Given your experience as an entrepreneur and the way that you’ve addressed universal entrepreneurial challenges like reducing turnover and increasing profitability and all that stuff.
That’s the secret sauce. People will dismiss The Dream Manager because they feel like it’s too warm and fuzzy and not professional. Infusionsoft is using the program. Netsurit in South Africa is using the program. It shifts the culture in such a way that it increases efficiency. When you have the same people doing the same job that are working towards something and not going through the motion, your efficiency is increased. The profitability increases because of consistency and having the same people in the same position. Our customers love that they don’t have different people in their building every night cleaning because our retention is so much better. Even companies like Infusionsoft and Netsurit, an IT company in South Africa, they even changed the homepage of their website to say, “Supporting the dreams of the doers.” When people are working towards something and what happens often is people get a dream job, so they stopped dreaming.
That’s an interesting paradox because I wish that was the major challenge, that many of us were in our dream jobs and that’s why we stopped dreaming, but it’s not the major challenge. The major challenge is I feel like we’re compromising or settling to take a job because we need the money. Even if it’s a cool company and all that, it’s not what they “really want to do” and we give up on our dreams because we feel like pursuing our dreams and making a living are mutually exclusive ideas.
My passion is to get people excited. It doesn’t mean that you have to leave your job or your company. It can be other things in their life that are lacking the passion because they’re going through the motions of waking up each day, going to work, working all day, coming home, having dinner, be in front of the dead TV and having no passion, no activities. Some of the ones that are in activities are raising kids. They’re busy getting their kids involved in the right groups in the right schools. They’re no longer doing anything for themselves.
Correct me if I’m wrong on this. Our work is very simpatico. I don’t know how familiar you are with my body of work, but there’s a lot of resonance and harmony there, which I know doesn’t surprise you. It sounds like one of the things you’re saying is it’s not about the job that you do. You’re proving that with janitorial services. Nobody puts that down on their little third-grade worksheet that says, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” By giving people the opportunity to pursue their dreams, it brings fulfillment to their life, regardless of the job they’re doing. That’s one thing that I’m hearing. The other thing is it seems that you can’t pursue your dream until you’re very clear on who you are.
That’s an important factor. One of the most important things was when Socrates said, “The greatest gift we can give ourselves is to know thyself.” The important thing is to take that self-inventory about what it is that we love to do and what gives us energy. What is it we’re always trying to become better at and we’re always trying to be helpful at? Whenever we hear ourselves say, “Anybody could do that,” it’s a sign that you’re in the middle of your unique ability because it comes easily. People are caught up in trying to be what they think they should be because of the way that looks that they’re making their life more difficult than it needs to be.
It sounds like what you do is help people become more self-aware. You help people know who they are because that’s where their dream emerges. It strikes to me as similar to “chop wood, carry water” Zen approach. It’s not the work that you’re doing. It’s using the work that you’re doing to go deeper into who you are as a human being.
How clever was it of God to put me in a position where I’m at a janitorial business doing this with janitors? People could easily say, “That’s great. You do that for those people.” It’s so important for everybody. Everybody deserves or should be doing what they’re made to be. The whole world would be so much better off than everybody trying to fix everybody else that people are clearer on what it is they need to do for themselves, that they were born to do with these gifts and talents.
That affects your turnover, which is remarkable. How about the recruiting side of things? I assume that word has gotten out that you’re a great place to work.
We recruit internally by our employees. That’s wherein one year, I did this study that 57% of our current employees came from our current employees and 17% came from previous employees that were still referring people to work for us. The exterior works the same way. Because of what we do and how we do it with our team members, our revenues doubled in the past years and we don’t have a sales team.
It’s all through word of mouth.
We’re up to 550 full-time employees. That’s just in greater Cincinnati and that’s intentional. This is like our R&D. We do full-time employees still and we have benefits for them. We don’t do anything like the standard that people do in our industry anymore because we don’t want to be like everybody else. Our model works for us and a lot of people’s lives are changed. Seventy percent of our employees are immigrants and refugees that come here for a bigger dream. Their big dream was to come to this country to improve the quality of their life. We feel it’s a big responsibility to help them like, “Now you’d be willing to work this.” A lot of them are knowledgeable and were very successful in their home countries. It gives them time to connect with this new home and the culture and what they need to do to go after what’s next.
Do you have a presence outside of the Cincinnati area as well?
No. It’s just Cincinnati and most companies our size are in multiple cities and states. They’re spread out. It’s rare to see a company our size in just one location. That’s where our family business. Tony is the Founder, I’m 1.5. We have four members of the second generation in the business.
Let’s say, I’m an entrepreneur and I’m thinking in terms of the typical Inc. reader. Small to midsize business, entrepreneurial-bent, and always looking for new ideas. Let’s say I’m in a mode where I’ve got my team and I have that physical proximity day after day, but I want to expand and grow. I want to open up offices in different cities, countries, or whatever. What advice would you give to somebody like that about how to take this approach and make it systemic so that it doesn’t have to be driven by the actual leader being there in person?
The most important part is about culture. What is the culture of your business? Is it going to attract? The first question we asked when Bob fired us is, “What do we have to do to be the type of company that people would want to work for?” At the time there was this thing called the Yellow Pages where you could count all your competitors. At that time, there were 204 other cleaning companies in the greater Cincinnati area. Why would they choose us? What did we have to do that would attract them to want to work for us?
What did we have to do in that environment to do that? What value are we creating for them? A big part of our changing direction was embracing the change. We couldn’t just keep going. The turnover in our industry is 380% to 400% average. We were in 380% so we were an average business. We thought we were doing pretty well. We stopped accepting average as being acceptable. If you could be best at anything, what would that be? How are you creating value for your team members and your customers? It’s a tight wire all the time. You have to balance that out.
What’s your turnover rate right now?
We’re under 100%. We’ve tried some new and different things these past years. We’re doubling the size of our business. We took in a lot of influx. There have been a lot of changes that we’ve been putting in. It’s been a learning year for us. We are up to 550 and we’re still 200%, 300% better than the industry average.
Also, you’re going to lose people because you’ve helped them find something better as well.
We want a healthy turnover. That’s been an interesting conversation among our management team. What does a healthy turnover look like as we help people move forward? We release those that think we’re like any other cleaning company and aren’t willing to do the exceptional service that we require from our team members.
That’s always a great discussion to have no matter how good your numbers get. It’s the kind of discussion that keeps you on track no matter what. The thing is you’ve got people leaving the company and saying, “Friend and family member, I don’t work there anymore, but you should work there. If you’re looking for a job, go check them out.” Tom Peters was fond of saying, “You shall be known by your alumni.” When he was at his heyday, he was a pretty damn good billboard for McKinsey where he came from. It’s that idea of people being better by virtue of their experience with you.
Iron sharpens iron every time.
What a great story. This is terrific.
- JANCOA Janitorial Services
- Mary Miller
- Compassion International
- The Dream Manager
- Rediscover Catholicism
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
- Changing Direction
About Mary Miller
Mary Miller, the CEO, and owner of JANCOA, has lived through the process of building sustainable, systems for inspiring individuals to overcome obstacles and pursue their dreams. Through keynote speeches and focused workshops, Mary showcases her forward-thinking and caring, entrepreneurial spirit. She is known for her ability to motivate individuals to focus on life’s positive aspects—including each individual’s uniqueness and personal power.
Through the process of improving JANCOA’s culture and taking care of employees, Mary and her team implemented support systems and practices that:
• Dramatically reduced turnover at JANCOA
• Improved employee engagement, leading to increased efficiencies and profit
• Developed The Dream Manager program, popularized by Matthew Kelly’s book of the same name, alongside her husband, Tony.
• Released her own book, Changing Direction: 10 Choices That Impact Your Dreams, practical choices anyone can make to move from victim to victor to create the life of their dreams.
In addition to being JANCOA’s CEO, Mary is an associate coach for the Strategic Coach working with fellow entrepreneurs to balance their careers with life, while increasing income, working less, and enjoying the process.