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Robin Handy’s experience washing windows for his mother’s cleaning service was useful when he opted to become the master franchisor in the state for the cleaning business Heits Building Services.

David Joles, Star Tribune

Franchise offers a clean start to a hardworking entrepreneur

  • Article by: TODD NELSON
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • July 3, 2011 - 5:14 PM

Robin Handy is perhaps that rarest sort of executive -- one who does windows.

He's also an entrepreneur at heart, which is why he'd rather occasionally demonstrate window washing as president of his own company, Heits Building Services of Minnesota, than return to the corporate world that's twice shown him the door.

As the state's master franchisor for Heits Building Services, a New Jersey-based commercial building maintenance company, Handy plays a dual sales role.

His first priority is to develop accounts, signing up companies and building owners needing daily cleaning services as well as specialty services such as intensive floor cleaning, painting and carpet cleaning. At the same time, Handy also is busy lining up franchisees who will perform those services.

Building Heits' organization here, Handy said, takes advantage of the management skills he gained in 13 years in the pharmaceutical industry, in addition to seven years in the safety industry. He also relies on years of hands-on experience from helping his mother with her residential and commercial cleaning business.

With an MBA in marketing from the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, Handy began looking at his options after getting downsized twice in recent years from district manager positions, first with Pfizer, then with Schering-Plough.

"I'm done with the corporate experience," said Handy, who looked at both franchise and independent business opportunities. "It was time for me to follow my gut instinct and passion."

Handy has sold three franchises since opening in January. He's aiming to reach $50,000 in monthly revenue and projecting that the firm will end the year with $600,000 in sales.

Heits Building Services offers franchisees a relatively low-cost way to go into business, whether working a few nights a week to earn some extra money or going full time, Handy said. 

A franchise package that generates $1,000 in monthly revenue, he said, would cost the franchisee $8,250. Franchisees also pay a royalty -- 16 percent of revenue, Handy said -- for receiving a customer base, training, products, equipment, insurance and advice.

Heits founder David Heitner left his job as a retail broker at Merrill Lynch in 2002 to start the company, setting out to apply his management and other business expertise to the fragmented commercial building maintenance industry. Heitner began selling master franchises in 2005 and now has nine of those and 150 unit franchises across the country. His plan is to have 50 master franchises or more and to grow from revenue of nearly $12 million this year to more than $100 million.

Heits uses environmentally friendly "green" cleaning products when possible and microfiber cloths and mops, which the company says capture more dirt and are color-coded to avoid cross-contamination. The cost is slightly higher, but Heits doesn't charge a premium for its green approach to office cleaning, Heitner said.

Like Handy, Heits' other master franchisors are "all corporate America-type guys and gals" who wanted to run their own businesses, Heitner said.

"Robin has a tremendous amount of drive and motivation," Heitner said. "His background in the pharmaceutical industry lends him a much better understanding of the chemicals that are used .... and lends itself to him learning this business at a much faster pace.''

Tim Clark, sales coordinator at Sterilucent in Minneapolis, said he chose to hire Heits because of Handy's positive attitude. "You can see in his eyes that he's obsessed with doing good work," Clark said.

When deep-cleaning on a carpet, done by two people from Heits using an older machine, didn't meet expectations, Handy spent a Saturday redoing the job himself with a newer machine.

"That impressed me," said Clark.

Handy's experience helping his mother's cleaning business, which moved with her to Florida several years ago, proves particularly valuable.

"When I've gone down to visit her, I've gone out on job sites at night, emptied the trash, vacuumed, did windows and things like that," Handy said. "Yes, we do windows."

The expert says: Mark Spriggs, associate professor and chair of the entrepreneurship department at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business, said Handy's master franchisor role appears to be a good choice for him to pursue his goals.

"For somebody with an MBA who wants to build a business, it's a pretty good opportunity," Spriggs said.

One key to success for Handy and others in service-related businesses is finding "good franchisees who are dedicated to providing good service for the brand," he said. 

Recent years have been good times for franchises that are not capital-intensive, he said, with corporate downsizing or the threat of it prompting many to into such ventures.

"If you like running a business, you'll be a great franchisee," Spriggs said.

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.

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