ESS: Serving up Solutions

Categories: Member Profiles

By Graeme Golucki | January 8, 2019 << Back to Articles ESS: Serving up Solutions

When Edgar Ruth first started working for a local cleaning company in the early 1980s, he had no idea a part-time job would lead to a lifelong career—one that would eventually see him founding and leading his own building service contractor firm. “Back when I was in college in Columbia, SC, I was looking for a way to offset the cost of tuition,” Ruth says. “So, I took what I figured would be a temporary job with a local janitorial firm, cleaning retail stores during the day and office buildings at night. I never anticipated it being anything more than a short-term gig, but now years later, here I am.”

Ruth graduated with a business management degree in 1984 and was offered a branch manager’s position with a contract cleaner based in Atlanta, GA. He spent the next 10 years serving in various leadership positions with cleaning companies throughout the Southeastern United States. But Ruth had grander ambitions. “Through all these years of working for other people, I always dreamed of owning my own company,” Ruth says. “And I constantly heard from my customers ‘Edgar, you’re so good at what you do. When are you going to do your own thing?’” In 1998, Ruth answered that question. That was the year Ruth established Environmental Service Systems, LLC (ESS) in Charlotte, NC.

Opening Doors

A burgeoning entrepreneur, Ruth knew that financing a company from scratch would be a tough go, so he shrewdly teamed up with a larger firm located in Birmingham, AL. “ESS initially started out as a partnership with a bigger, more established cleaning company,” he says. “Our partner was expanding into the Southeast and saw an opportunity to lock arms with a certified minority business to satisfy their clients’ diversity spend goals. We fulfilled that need and, in turn, leveraged the partnership to enhance our capacity, creating a win-win solution that continues to this day. The partnership also allowed ESS to pick up additional contracts in the educational, industrial, and health care markets.”

While a supportive partner was one key to ESS’ early success, another plus was the connections Ruth had made during the previous decade. “Right out of the gate, I had a portfolio of customers lined up knocking on my door,” Ruth says. “These were clients I had worked with for years. I was very careful never to violate any sort of noncompete clause, but once those terms were up, I was quick to bid jobs and bring my old clients into the fold.”

As the years went by, ESS continued to grow its client base and today maintains a presence in all 48 contiguous United States. “Our company has always grown organically,” Ruth says. “From the beginning, I always wanted to provide the best service possible because I realized if ESS was able to do that, then our customers would be our best sales people. We always stand by what we promise, and if a client feels something is wrong, we go above and beyond to make it right. That dedication has raised ESS to the level we’re at today.”

Knowing the Unknown

In addition to ESS’ dedication to its clients, Ruth credits ISSA with helping his company thrive. ESS joined ISSA in 2010, and Ruth cannot speak highly enough about how important membership is to him. “We work with a lot of smaller companies in the industry,” Ruth says. “I am constantly advising them to stay up with the times. Our industry is forever changing, and you need to change with it to be successful. I feel ISSA is the organization that can take your business to a whole other level with its industry knowledge and educational offerings. ISSA has helped ESS to stay up-to-date on the latest trends by letting us know what our peers are doing. The association also has been priceless in helping us promote our business.”

As an ISSA member, ESS has leveraged ISSA’s Cleaning Industry Management Standard (CIMS) to improve its internal processes. “When you’re running a company, you tend to be biased and believe you’re the best at what you do,” Ruth says. “That first time going through the CIMS-certification process was a real eye-opener. We thought we were doing all the right things and had all the correct processes in place, but the standard showed us there was a lot we really did not know. We’ve now gone through the certification process three times and are extremely proud to have achieved not only CIMS Certification with Honors but also CIMS-Green Building [CIMS-GB] certification. I tell any other cleaning company I come in contact with—CIMS is worth the investment.”

ESS’ investment in CIMS has not only bettered the company’s internal processes, but it also has served to improve its bottom line by increasing its customer portfolio. “These days, sustainability is a huge concern, Ruth says. “A lot of corporations specifically stipulate in their RFPs that they will only deal will CIMS-certified organizations. Being certified has allowed ESS to separate itself from the competition. Plus, as a CIMS-GB certified firm, we can help our customers achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, a designation more and more companies are aspiring to achieve these days, of which CIMS is a component.”

Time for Tech

The rising interest in sustainability is just one of the trends Ruth has seen during his decades in the industry. Another shift has been the way business is done. “One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in the past 15-20 years has been how you communicate with customers,” he says. “When I was first starting out, pagers were considered high-tech. Try explaining a beeper to a millennial today! Back in the day, if a client had an issue with your contract, it couldn’t be resolved by simply clicking ‘send’ on an email. You had to personally call the client and set up a meeting, then travel to there to discuss the issue in person. Now, with video conferencing, you can meet virtually.”

Ruth sees this rise in technology as an excellent recruiting tool to attract the next generation of cleaning professionals. “Most of the millennials are looking for new ideas and technology,” he says. “For example, look at how labor-tracking systems have changed from traditional pen and paper to software. Who better to know and embrace that software then the younger generation? We’re hiring people right out of college who might not know the ins-and-outs of the cleaning industry, but are attracted to all of the technological advancements we’ve had, from time-keeping software to robotic floor machines.”

Attention to Retention

Hiring new employees is one aspect, but keeping them around is even more crucial for ESS. “One of the biggest challenges our company has faced isn’t necessarily finding good people, but retaining them,” Ruth says. “I feel throughout the years, we’ve been pretty successful with our retention efforts, though. There are employees who have been with us from the start, and I’m quite proud of that. I’ve found if you train your people and make them aware of their expectations, they stay focused and engaged.” Ruth also offers this advice: “Don’t let training be a one-time thing, continue to enhance your staff’s knowledge. Our incentive programs have also been an important factor in staff retention. I’m constantly asking what else we can do to keep my employees happy. And that extends outside of the basic job requirements. For example, ESS recently began offering English-as-a-second-language classes for our non-native speakers. I’ve found that people will stick with you if you support them both in and out of the workplace.”

Twenty years after ESS first was established, Ruth sees no signs of slowdown for his company. In fact, ESS has been working hard to diversify its offerings. “We might be in 48 states right now, but there’s always room to expand, both in the number of clients and the services we offer,” Ruth says. “We’re finding more and more that our customers have other needs that may not necessarily be janitorial but are closely related to what we provide. We might start out cleaning a facility’s floors, but that could lead to other offerings—waste management, landscaping, mail room operations—you name it. We’re all about delivering solutions. Our dedication to diversified yet quality service is going to continue to fuel our growth.” 

About the Author.

Graeme Golucki is ISSA's digital strategy editor and can be reached at [email protected]; phone, 800-225-4772 (North America) and 847-982-0800.