2022 Carpet Cleaning Industry Leaders Review: Clean Zone
By Amy Hughes
Ronnie and Anita Brown, co-owners of Clean Zone in Gainesville, Fla., began their carpet cleaning company with a clear mission: focus on cleaning for health and safety. While planning to start the company, their son, Austin, was born with a life-threatening case of infectious pneumonia. After 10 days in the NICU, Austin was able to come home, but this experience shaped the future of Clean Zone. “We had begun to study the industry and were aware of Kawasaki Syndrome and other issues related to the overuse of chemicals in the home,” explains Ronnie. “We wanted to create a cleaning company that focused on cleaning for health, and the situation with our son hardened our resolve.” Clean Zone opened six months later with a guarantee to use only the safest cleaning agents.
A business is born
Clean Zone began with Ronnie’s desire to be an entrepreneur—something that runs in his family. “Growing up, my father was a professional rodeo cowboy, and to supplement his income, he operated a flooring installation business.” Ronnie worked with his father from the time he was young, putting in hours during the summer and on school breaks. He continued this work during college, but after he graduated with a degree in information technology, Ronnie moved on to work for a large corporation for 10 years. “I was never content with my job,” Ronnie explains. “I had a strong desire to own my own business.”
After talking about starting his own company for a couple of years, Anita told him, “Ronnie, if you want to start your own business, I’m behind you 100%. But, please, let’s do it or stop talking about it!” So, Clean Zone was born. Ronnie had held various sales positions—selling everything from prearranged funerals to vacuums—which helped prepare him for the sales and customer relations aspects of running a business. And his experience with flooring installation, coupled with a stint at a large carpet cleaning company, made the industry a natural fit.
In business since 1997, Clean Zone operates two trucks with three full-time employees and two part-time ones. It offers a full range of carpet and floor cleaning services, including in-shop rug cleaning; tile and grout cleaning; LVP and laminate cleaning; wood cleaning and polishing; stone cleaning, polishing, and restoration; upholstery cleaning; and, of course, green carpet cleaning.
One early challenge Ronnie and Anita faced was earning enough to support their family. When Clean Zone launched, they had two young daughters and a six-month-old son. “To help pay the bills, I worked both full-time with my existing job, and worked with our new business,” Ronnie says. After 14 months, the Browns had enough money saved and enough business coming in for Ronnie to finally leave his old job and focus solely on their company.
Another early challenge was finding balance and focus and not spreading themselves too thin. Ronnie and Anita were both IICRC-certified technicians with one additional full-time employee. Ronnie went on to get certified in textile cleaning, water damage restoration, and applied structural drying, and they started doing water damage restoration in addition to carpet cleaning.
“We became frustrated with going to restoration jobs in the middle of the night and then having a full day of cleaning,” Ronnie explains. “Couple that with employee issues, and we made a big decision. We felt that if we continued to focus on high-quality cleaning and provide great customer service, we could have all the work that we needed.” The Browns stopped offering restoration services, putting all their energy instead into carpet cleaning. As their business grew, they eventually added various hard surface care services, keeping their focus on floors and cleaning.
Ups, downs, and learning curves
Clean Zone started strong with steady growth of about 10-15% per year, but the housing market collapse and recession of 2008 hit the business hard. “This was about the same time that we decided to really focus on cleaning exclusively,” notes Ronnie. In 2014, they merged with a larger cleaning and restoration company with Ronnie overseeing the cleaning side of the business. After a year and a half, Ronnie and Anita decided to strike out on their own again, unmerging and rebranding Clean Zone. “It was like a fresh start and breathed new life into our business. Since then, we have had steady growth of 10-20% per year,” Ronnie says.
Clean Zone saw another downturn when the pandemic hit. “The early months of the lockdown caused about a 50% drop in our business,” Ronnie states. However, true to their mission of cleaning for health and safety, the Browns began learning as much as possible about COVID-19 and took all available precautions. “We started implementing stringent use of virucides to clean our equipment between clients,” he explains. “We let our clients know about the changes we implemented through social media and email campaigns.” As a result of their quick adaptation and marketing, clients began reaching out asking for cleaning services with virucides added as a post-cleaning application, and business picked back up.
Throughout the company’s ups and downs, one thing Ronnie has learned is just how crucial marketing is. In the early days of the business, his focus was on the technical aspects and certifications. “I wanted to know EVERTHING about our industry and studied very hard to accomplish this,” he reflects. But in hindsight, Ronnie says he should have made marketing a higher priority from the start. “No matter how fantastic you are at cleaning, people must find you,” Ronnie says. “Word of mouth has been great, but marketing makes you grow much faster.”
The Browns started out marketing Clean Zone almost exclusively through the Yellow Pages. “We would pack our ad with so much text it used to drive our YP rep crazy,” he recalls. “We wanted to give potential clients lots of information instead of big logos.” More recently, the Browns have shifted to online marketing, doing a little work with AdWords and hiring various companies to help improve the SEO of their website. “I am a member of ‘Results on Fire’ a local chapter of BNI (Business Networks International) and this has been great for us,” Ronnie adds.
Family business, full circle
Despite the challenges they’ve faced, the Browns know starting their business was the right choice. For one, the freedom of being their own bosses and the ability to prioritize family time when needed has been important to them. And when it comes to the business itself, the Browns enjoy serving their clients. “We find great satisfaction when we are helping people salvage an heirloom rug or saving their carpet from a pet disaster,” Ronnie reflects. “We have been blessed with so many great clients and have literally watched their kids grow up.” In addition to cleaning and running the business, Ronnie enjoys educational aspects of the industry, such as helping his clients learn how to care for their furnishings between professional cleanings. “I have always enjoyed attending IICRC classes and am planning on becoming an IICRC instructor,” he notes.
As the company that began with baby Austin’s illness at the heart of its mission moves into its next stage, the Browns’ family business is coming full circle. Austin has been working full time for some time for Clean Zone, and in 2022, he will be brought into ownership of the company. “We have enjoyed being a small company but realize we need to become scalable and more turnkey,” Ronnie explains. “We are working to complete our systemization with a goal of Austin assuming a greater role in ownership and management in the next few years.” Learning from past experience, the Browns are already making plans for additional marketing to achieve these goals.
When it comes to advice for those just starting out, Ronnie says to educate yourself on the industry, including obtaining IICRC certifications for any service you plan to offer—but don’t forget about marketing. “Having great equipment and technical proficiency is necessary, but it will not bring clients to your door.”
Amy Hughes is a freelance writer who has worked with Cleanfax for three years and has worked as a writer and editor for nine years. Reach out to her at [email protected].