Sometimes the biggest obstacle to making a business comeback is a personal one. Salesman-turned-entrepreneur Wallace J. Light became all too familiar with this kind of struggle when he waged a battle against drug and alcohol abuse that threatened not only his business but his life.
Window Man, the residential window-cleaning business Light started in 1989, is expected to ring up $250,000 in sales this year, and its reputation for excellence has been lauded by local media. Window Man's client list of 2,000 crisscrosses California's Silicon Valley, leaving sparkling panes on the multimillion-dollar estates of some of the high-tech capital's richest and most famous residents.
When you talk to Light, 51, his enthusiasm threatens to overflow with every syllable. This is a man who definitely ate his Wheaties this morning. You sense that accounts of his accomplishments are not exaggerated. Yet how he revived the flagging business that flourishes today is nothing short of miraculous.
The place he occupies these days is a comfortable one, but it's not Light's first rendezvous with financial success. His circuitous route to the top began in the Air Force, where he served in Southeast Asia and gained a background in airborne electronics.
Upon leaving the military in 1970, he earned a degree in electronics and, for the next decade, worked around the world as a technical and logistical services advisor for an engineering contractor to NASA's Ames Research Center.
Surrounded by opportunities in the burgeoning technology industry of the early 1980s, Light made an easy transition from electronics engineering to electronics sales. Affable and people-oriented, Light was soon pulling in a six-figure income.
"When you're hot, you're hot," says Light of those glory days. But his enjoyment of the sales game was short-lived. "I could go out and book a million-dollar order, [and the response was] `What are you going to do next?' " he says. "I was making a lot of money, but after a while there was no satisfaction."
Zooming down the management fast lane as a regional and then national sales manager, a vicious cycle began. Increasing disenchantment with his career led to increased attention to his inner party animal; Light turned up his drinking a notch and added cocaine to the mix.
His judgment was becoming cloudier, and his career decisions showed it. In 1988, Light's sales career began a downward spiral, as he bounced from company to company. "On a typical day," Light recalls, "I'd go to lunch, drink brandy and a couple glasses of wine, come back, sit in the office comatose, and head home at 3:30--and then stop off and have drinks on the way home."
Summoning all his energy to make the break into another field, Light put the word out that he was using his sales experience to create a food distributorship, and W.J. Light Foods was born.
The fledgling enterprise brought new challenges. As Light's substance abuse intensified, he began relying on credit cards to finance everything from cars and mortgage payments to other credit cards, and the company's runaway debt reached $80,000. Light's foray into the food business lasted less than a year; in October 1989, he let his staff go and declared bankruptcy.
Down and out with nowhere to go but up, Light took a friend's advice and began cleaning windows to make some fast cash. He made a minimal investment in equipment and began posting fliers for his service. Receiving four calls that first day, he was off on another adventure.
Light started attending 12-step recovery meetings in 1989 but could never stay sober for more than 30 days. He knew he needed an in-house recovery program, but he couldn't find one that would take him. "People kept [turning me down] because I had no medical insurance," says Light. "I realize now that because I am a veteran, I could have gone to a VA hospital."
Two years into the window-cleaning business, Light lost hope. "I finally just said, `I give up. Alcohol, you win. I don't care.' [For the next six months,] it was almost like I had a death wish. I had to drink to stabilize the shakes. As the day wore on, I would keep drinking 'til I'd black out."
The Fat Lady Sings -- Almost
As with many a cautionary tale, Light's final date with destiny is unforgettable. Rock bottom came on December 5, 1991, the day he nearly died. After one of his routine afternoon bar stops, during which he drank a fifth of vodka, Light secured 3 1/2 grams of cocaine and then drove home, stopping on the way to pick up a bottle of rum. He drank the entire bottle, swallowed all the cocaine, and blacked out.
Amazingly, Light woke up the next day. But the picture wasn't a pretty one. He awoke in the fetal position with a pillow stuffed in his mouth to keep his teeth from breaking as they chattered and his body shook. His condition improved over the next few days, and, humbler but wiser, he made a beeline for a 12-step meeting. "[This time,] I finally sat down and listened," he says.
With Light on the mend--permanently, this time--could Window Man recover as well? "Because of the drinking, only a few customers were still around," he says. "Going out [to a job] with my breath smelling of alcohol hadn't enhanced my customer base."
He knew that on his good days, his window-cleaning methods had been meticulous, something he took pride in. With newfound sobriety and an increasingly clear outlook on life, Light was ready to try again.
"After I got sober, Window Man started to prosper, and I was able to make payments on the bankruptcy every month," says Light. "The whole business came together. I started applying everything I learned in sales management to the business."
Key to his strategy, says Light, was the "synergistic sale"--offering both window- and gutter-cleaning services to customers. Light noted that his customers often called a gutter-cleaning service after having their windows cleaned. "Cleaning the gutters gets debris all over the place, and then the clean windows get dirty again," Light explains. "It made sense for us to clean the gutters first, then wash the side of the house [and then do the windows]."
To keep customers coming back, Window Man began to emphasize some obvious but overlooked elements of the service sector, such as being on time for appointments. Looking for more ways to distinguish himself from the competition, Light worked on giving his customers a sense of comfort with the prospect of a stranger entering every room of their homes.
"When we go into a house, we won't go upstairs until we ask the customer [for permission]. They aren't used to this," Light says. "People [typically] come in and just start walking around. When we say we're professional window cleaners, `professional' is a big part of it."
Advertising in the Yellow Pages helped draw customers, and more of his business began to come from referrals. As the company grew, the phrase "just say no" took on new meaning: After a few bad experiences referring other window cleaners to handle Window Man's overflow, "I learned how to say no," says Light. "It's better to tell somebody, `We can't do your house; we just don't have time.' "
When Window Man started to average 50 phone calls a day, Light added an employee to his staff of eight whose sole responsibility is to drive around and do job estimates. "It's a major cost to me," says Light, "but I made a commitment that whoever calls and wants one gets a free quote."
Light's bankruptcies had forced him to rely solely on the cash-and-carry method, even when it came to purchasing company vehicles. The payoff? Today, Window Man is debt-free.
Recently, Light was able to secure a line of credit, which gives him some breathing room. Even so, "I still run Window Man the [cash-and-carry] way," says Light. "I build up cash, then buy this or that. By not having a high debt ratio, now when the wintertime comes [and business slows], I can survive."
The company that began with 5,000 fliers and a $30 investment--a bucket, squeegee and some window cleaner--swelled to sales of more than $169,000 in 1997.
For Light, it's as much about the joy of entrepreneurial pursuit as it is about cleaning the windows themselves. From engineering to food distribution to window-cleaning, he feels he's finally found his niche, using his talents to their full potential.
"I wouldn't trade my worst day in the window-cleaning business for my best day in electronics," says Light. "I'm excited when I get up, and I'm [still] excited when I get done. Every day is an adventure."
Light's son, Ryan, 21, is on Window Man's staff, and his father, Wallace H. Light, 76, runs the office. In a nod to old-fashioned service, Light's father is always there to answer the phone. "[The customers] like him," says Light, "and they've got a person to talk to instead of a recording."
Light has been clean and sober for almost seven years now. "I still fight it a little bit," he acknowledges. "On a hot day, a gin and tonic [sounds good]; even after six years, you have to be careful. Going to the 12-step program three times a week keeps me from getting into that situation again."
Light knows his story is an inspiration for others. The message? Don't give up. "Sometimes we throw in the towel too quickly," he says. "Don't give up before your dream comes true."
Window Man, (408) 739-5045, firstname.lastname@example.org