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Carpet-cleaning Venture Advances HRU’s Mission

Zerorez’s Luis Cerrano (center) demonstrates the company’s equipment

Zerorez’s Luis Cerrano (center) demonstrates the company’s equipment for Sue Mastroianni, board member of the Gray House in Springfield, and HRU president Don Kozera.

When Human Resources Unlimited (HRU) decided that its core mission — training and placing people with disabilities in meaningful jobs — would benefit from partnering with a national franchise, carpet cleaning didn’t seem like the most exciting option.

“We looked around the country and found there were few not-for-profits owning franchises, and then we set up specific criteria around what we hope to achieve, how much revenue we need, how much risk we’re willing to accept, and what the tradeoff is between profits and mission,” said Don Kozera, HRU’s long-time president.

The agency wound up looking at 600 chains, then took a harder look at 60 of them, before narrowing its search to three that fit the organization’s criteria. One of those was Zerorez, a carpet-surface cleaning company based in Salt Lake City with a national presence — except in New England.

“What attracted us was its patented ‘green’ approach to cleaning,” he said of Zerorez’s innovative use of what it calls “empowered water” (more on that later). “And if you can innovate in carpet cleaning, you can probably innovate the world. It’s also a technology-based company. With this phone in my hand, I know where all the vehicles are, if their machines are on, how much we booked today, where those leads came from … I know exactly what’s going on.”

But there was some hesitancy based on the perceived lack of a ‘wow’ factor. “People said, ‘really? Carpet cleaning? Don’t we want to do something more exciting?’ But the more we investigated it, the more we talked to franchises across the country and sat down with the owners and looked at their technology, looked at the environmentally friendly detergents being used, that there was a social cause, it made sense.”

So HRU opened its first Zerorez franchise in Holyoke in March, with more likely to follow. “We have a bigger strategy,” Kozera said. “We have the rights to the Hartford and Boston markets. We didn’t do this to own one franchise; we did it as a strategy of revenue generation and job development. It’s solely owned by HRU, but it might not be solely owned in the future; it depends on how much capital we need for expansion plans.”

None of this, of course, answers the question of why Human Resources Unlimited, which trains and places clients in some 120 area businesses and has started and closed myriad businesses of its own to achieve the same goals, embraced the franchise model. Simply put, Kozera said, it’s because HRU eventually wants to do some franchising of its own.

Active Intent

It starts with a program HRU created called Move to Work.

“It’s a platform designed to help people who have been out of the workforce — chronically unemployed people, not just people with disabilities. It’s a unique approach that uses physical health, emotional health, and financial health to create a healthy, productive worker.”

The concept is explained by the program’s original title, the admittedly clunkier Changing Habits and Transforming Lives. It takes principles not typically applied to job training, including exercise and physical fitness, and meshes them with conventional job training and the ‘soft skills’ — communication skills, personal work habits, etc. — so in demand by companies.

“With most people who are chronically unemployed, the data will show they’re physically not healthy, emotionally not healthy,” Kozera said. “Of course, being unemployed for a long time can lead to bad habits and losing self-esteem.”

Move to Work, he went on, “was originally to better our services. If people exercise for 20 to 40 minutes at 60% to 80% of their maximum heart rate, their ability to learn and retain information is greatly increased for up to four hours. That’s a scientific fact. So every one of our sessions starts with that.

“But, really, the foundation is our soft-skills training program,” Kozera explained. “Employers in this area are saying, ‘we cannot find qualified workers — at any level.’ The Federal Reserve did a report on Springfield five years ago that really outlined those issues. Companies said, ‘what do we need? People who come to work on time, with a good social skill set. We’ll train them on what we do technically. But we need those types of people.’”

So Move to Work was developed as an eight- or 16-week course to build those skills while incorporating the benefits of exercise for greater mental focus. Recently, HRU applied the program at Tech Foundry, a nonprofit that trains high-school students for information-technology jobs.

Having demonstrated its value, Human Resources Unlimited would like to turn Move to Work into a national model. And that’s something the agency has never before attempted.

“Our goal is to bring this new model into the marketplace as both an innovative program and something that can earn money,” Kozera told BusinessWest. “But it’s not easy to do. How can we raise enough revenue to support the expansion of that model?”

The answer was another question. “It’s taking a self-replicating model to the marketplace, and who does that? Franchises. They take a brand and replicate the brand. Through this confluence of activities, we said, ‘well, if we’re going to learn more about the replication and expansion of a brand into a national model, where else to learn from than franchises?’ So we started looking around, saying, ‘maybe we can start a franchise and look at owning franchises as a way to support ourselves and learn how to be a franchisor of Move to Work.’”

Workplace Legacy

A company like Zerorez is certainly new terrain for HRU. But doing things a little differently has long been the agency’s bread and butter.

Realizing that many employers didn’t believe people with developmental disabilities could work in complicated job environments, Human Resources Unlimited — then knwn as the Carval Workshop — was created in 1970 to be the vocational training center for Belchertown State School residents and provide employment opportunities for residents of the facility.

Zerorez

Zerorez recently donated its services to clean high-traffic areas of the Gray House to demonstrate its work and help another mission-driven organization.

It has expanded and evolved over the years, now offering a broad range of services, from assistance for individuals moving from public assistance to the workplace to a ‘day habilitation’ program called Pyramid for people with developmental disabilities; from commercial endeavors, of which Zerorez is the latest, to a series of so-called ‘clubhouses’ that provide members with a supportive environment where they can get specialized assistance with vocational skills and transition into good jobs at area companies, as well as increasing their participation in the community.

Kozera, who joined the organization in 1980 as fiscal director before moving into the president’s chair, said Zerorez is a good match for HRU because of it’s mission-driven approach to cleaning.

“Zerorez uses technology that was borrowed from the oil-cleanup industry,” he explained. What the national company calls ‘empowered water’ is actually electrolyzed and oxidized to create an environmentally friendly cleaning solution.

Traditional steam cleaning, the company notes, uses heated water mixed with soaps, detergents, and toxic chemicals that are injected into the carpet under pressure, which soak the carpets, pads and backing. Even though some of the soap, dirt, and water are removed, a considerable portion of this mixture remains embedded in the carpet. As the carpet dries, the detergent attaches to the carpet fibers and acts as a magnet for dirt and other substances. Empowered water, on the other hand, is applied to carpet fibers by a patented high-pressure spray system that loosens embedded dirt and removes it.

Zerorez cleans rugs, tiles, wood floors, furniture, counters … basically anything that people walk on, sit on, or work on, Kozera said. The primary market is residential, although it has commercial clients as well.

“We haven’t burst on the market,” he added, noting that the Holyoke franchise, which boasts three trucks and four employees to start, had 37 clients in May and is on track for 50 in June. But in the long run, Zerorez’s established structure and recognized name will help the local office succeed and, importantly, grow its roster of employees and fleet of trucks.

“What has a higher rate of success in business, Joe’s Burger Shop or McDonald’s? With a franchise, there’s a system, a proven model, there’s support. Other franchisees are amazing about sharing everything they know. They help each other. I don’t know how many networks are like that. They tell us what’s successful, what’s not successful. It’s a nice family created by the franchisors.”

Kozera said franchisors wanted HRU to commit to more than one market, adding that, overall, franchised businesses are more often sold to corporations than individuals these days. “You can’t buy just one; you have to buy three, so you have to have $2 million just to enter the market.”

At the same time, national networks have become more willing to sell franchises to nonprofits, while nonprofit boards, which tend to be conservative in their risk taking, like the security of partnering with a known commodity.

Furthermore, “Zerorez has a 90% retention rate in an industry that probably has a 10% retention rate,” Kozera said. “The other appealing part of this is that every customer has to rate us … and if they don’t rate us at least 9 out of 10, we fail.” The idea, he added, is to leverage great customer service into customers for life, one floor at a time.

Destination Unknown

Kozera knows that nothing is a given in any industry. “Any time you open a business,” he said, “the reality is, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

But if it succeeds, the Holyoke Zerorez office — the first of what might be several across the region — will benefit HRU in three ways, by generating revenue, providing an education in franchising the agency can apply to Move to Work, and, of course, providing jobs for clients.

“It has a call center, and we place a lot of people in call centers at multiple locations; that’s a skill base many of our members have, and they’ve been very successful at that job,” he said, adding quickly, “we’re not creating jobs that don’t exist. We have one technician for one van; we’re not going to put two people there just to create a job.”

As for Human Resources Unlimited in general — which recently moved to a larger headquarters in Springfield — a (slowly) strengthening economy is ramping up demand for qualified workers at all kinds of companies, which can only benefit clients.

“We want to use these franchise concepts throughout the whole business, not just Zerorez,” Kozera said, referring mainly to the key factors of consistency and trust that drive consumers to known brands.

“We want to apply that to everything we do. We don’t have a whole lot of experience in business to business. But the sales process and the marketing process are things that will help us organizationally because human services — in particular placement organizations — don’t invest a lot in marketing and sales. We invest a lot in human capital; we just don’t measure it well.”

HRU’s first franchise business could help change that, while creating cross-learning opportunities across the organization that, hopefully, help more individuals find work.

And that, more than anything, is what makes carpet cleaning exciting.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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