Cleaning Up

Power Washing

Rick Christian always liked to keep things clean, including the frozen food trucks he drove for a living. When he suggested washing his employer's fleet for extra cash, he didn't realize the sideline activity would eventually become Power Washing Services of Livermore, California, a business which now grosses almost $600,000 annually.

"We started washing the trucks with a bucket, a brush and a hose," says his wife and business partner, Lori. The two were paid $820 a weekend, twice a month, for cleaning 40 trucks. Within five years, they were earning $1,300 a weekend for cleaning 75 trucks. "With more volume, we could give a better price," she adds, noting that the price per truck dropped from just over $20 to around $17 as their business grew. "We were no longer just using a brush and a bucket. We had perfected our system."

In 1982, as their truck-washing business was growing, a chance encounter altered their destiny. Rick was taking a lunch break in a parking lot when a pressure washer salesman, carrying a demo machine in his pick-up, pulled into the same lot. Rick stopped the driver, asked for a demonstration and, impressed with what he saw, purchased the machine for $6,000. Soon after, armed with his new gadget, Rick accepted a job cleaning the sidewalks of a local movie theater for $90.

From there, Rick approached other local shop owners and managers, adding clients to his roster of regularly scheduled services. The Christians now have an ad in the local Yellow Pages and participate in direct-mail coupon campaigns, but most of their business comes from taking the initiative to go out and ask for it.

"Base your business on repeat kinds of work," advises Rick, who has since replaced his pressure washer with 10 power washers--truck-mounted machines which hook up to an on-site water source (such as an outdoor faucet) and use pressure and temperature to clean, usually without soap. If there is no water available at the location, the Christians also have a couple of trucks which can carry up to 500 gallons. Repeat business from regular customers keeps the cash flow coming. In fact, Lori says, they still clean those same theater sidewalks.

By 1987, their cleaning business was grossing $96,000 a year, allowing Rick to jump into cleaning full-time. The business remained homebased until 1990, when the Christians moved to Sonora, California, about 1 1/2 hours away from Livermore. Wanting to retain their business location, they opened a shop in Liver-more, which is now run by an operations manager. Rick works from his Sonora home most of the time, going to the Livermore location a couple of days each week.

The Christians advise start-up entrepreneurs not to subcontract their services to a larger company. "We like to have a direct relationship with the people we're working with," says Lori. "We like the clients to know we're here to make sure it gets done right."

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This article was originally published in the October 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Cleaning Up.

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