Built with Family

The foundations of Katsam Enterprises were built with family ties, family sweat, and family values. Jim Larko, owner of Katsam Enterprises and president of NAPSA, named his business for his children, Katie and Sam. “After all, we don’t work for ourselves, we work for our kids,” says Larko.

Larko began as a lawn service. “It wasn’t very hard to find customers,” says Larko. “I had a family member that walked me into it. She was just starting property management for section 8 housing and gave me some information on what is necessary and what to do. Within two months, I had eight commercial accounts. I was paying bills and had money. Six months later, I bought another lawn service and went from one crew to three.”

Customers kept asking for more. Word spread, and Larko was able to go full time into his side business. “I did some cold calling,” says Larko. “Back then, we left brochures, but I didn’t do any advertising.”

Within three years, he began adding services based on requests. His first venture was into pressure washing for a few shopping centers, then he added day porter services. “About three years after that, I sold the lawn service and kept the pressure washing and day porter services,” says Larko. “My wife was ready to go back to work, so I stayed home with the kids and worked 9 pm to 4 am pressure washing from spring through fall.”

Within another few years, two property managers approached Larko and told him that he should consider parking lot sweeping. By the end of 1996, he bought his first sweeper. Larko soon had eight properties to sweep seven nights a week. He hired personnel to do the sweeping.

Then came an accident. “In 1999, our truck was upside down on the highway,” says Larko. “It wasn’t our fault, but in the beginning we weren’t sure. It was a headache because the truck was totaled. We bought a piece of junk to replace the damaged truck so that we could fulfill our contracts. Now we had time to run the numbers, and decided that sweeping was making money and decided to grow it. My wife’s career was also taking off, so she decided to step out of the day to day.”

The other driver’s insurance company bought them another sweeper to replace the damaged one and they quickly had two sweepers. Katsam now has 10 sweepers, six pressure washers, and one full-time and one part-time day porter, with a total of 26 employees.

Networking

Larko learned that building a business wasn’t going to happen on its own. “One of the best things that happened to me was when another sweeper invited me to Nashville right after I got into sweeping. The social networking is so valuable. I always take someone that I don’t know to lunch or dinner. It’s amazing what I learn from other people every year.”

When he started sweeping, he didn’t have a big demand, but once he told people what he was doing, his business began to grow. “I joined the Institute of Real Estate Management and became a friend of IREM. They do an annual cocktail function. At first, I went in and acted like a used car salesman and didn’t have any fun. But, then I learned to enjoy the functions and get to know other people. I would offer to help them on their committees or functions. In the long run, it pays back. Sometimes, it takes longer, but they remember you when they can.”

Larko belongs to a couple of different associations including NAPSA and goes to trade shows to network with people in his industry. “A lot of it pays for itself,” says Larko. “For example, to be a NAPSA member, it’s a $300 annual membership, but you get more than that back through what you learn networking and in classes as well as savings. I really like NAPSA—it’s one of the reasons I volunteered to be on the board.”

Sharing

“I’ve been sweeping for 16 years, and still learn something new,” says Larko. “Other tricks that people do can save you. I’ve borrowed from others and others have borrowed from me.”

Larko learned that one guy would check on his crews at 3 am. “I have a lead person, but he doesn’t hire or fire. So, I started coming in and checking on them. I’ll go to one or two sites on my way into the office. At 3 am is when they get sluggish. I also get to see them if I’m out late for volunteer work and can see them at the beginning of their shift. There is only so much you can do with a GPS. It can’t show you how well they swept, and I haven’t found a way to attach one to the seat of their pants.”

Larko decided long ago that if he was going to build his business, he couldn’t work the night shift. “You aren’t going to see too many property managers at night. So, I make sales and maintain the trucks during the day. You can’t buy parts at night either. If I was going to sweep, it would limit my business.”
At one of the trade shows, Larko found a guy from Texas that developed a company handbook. Larko changed the book to meet his company’s needs and has since shared it with others.

Equipment

Choosing the right equipment is another one of those big decisions that owners make. Larko’s typical truck replacement schedule is coming up. “I need to make a commitment within the next 60 days on what I want to buy. I’m not sure which way I’m going to go. When gas prices went to $4 gallon, I bought a little tow-behind. It paid for itself within a year, but it doesn’t get much use, because it just doesn’t sweep as well.”

Right now, Larko has Tymco, NiteHawk, and Victory trucks. “One of the biggest challenges facing our industry is which sweeper to use because of diesel and EPA regulations. Because of those regulations, diesel engines aren’t performing as well as they have historically, and gas engine sweepers are few and far between. Plus, with gas engines, gas mileage is extremely low. I’d like to see better performance.”

For now, Larko has taken to throwing darts. “Every day, I come into my office and throw a dart to see where it lands: gas truck single-engine; composite; diesel; diesel single-engine. My fleet is getting old and ugly so I’ll need to make a decision soon.”

For replacement parts, Larko tries to take advantage of deals through NAPSA and 1-800-Sweeper to keep costs down. “I use Rubber-Cal for curtains and tubes and United Rotary for brooms.”

For pressure washing, Larko came up with a pressure washer that reclaims the water. “We revamped this thing and it’s a pretty neat system. I’m thinking about going to market with it, but right now I’m not seeing a lot of people who want to pay extra for green. Right now, we have this big brown river that people don’t seem to care about.

Larko used Stihl blowers in the past, but will buy Redmax next because of the deal they can get through 1-800-Sweeper. “I prefer backpack blowers to handheld, because we were constantly pitching a $200 item. Backpacks tend to last longer and handle a little better.”

Hiring

“Hiring the right people is key and has always been a challenge,” says Larko. “I’ve learned that when hiring a sweeper, a non-sociable person works best. Someone who doesn’t need the water cooler gossip. They need to be able to work solo and sleep during the day. I’ve had guys quit because they just couldn’t sleep during the day. They can’t be afraid of the dark or shadows. You also need someone you can trust, because you’re giving them an $80,000 truck to go sweep and they have to dodge drunks.”

Motivating employees is always a management dilemma too. Larko has tried bonus incentives from other companies and has found that cash usually works up to a point.

Larko, a long-time Boy Scout and volunteer, is known for hiring fellow scouters as his managers. “It’s certainly not a prerequisite, but someone made a joke about it at a district event. But, you find someone you feel comfortable with and can trust to do what you need them to do within the time frame you need them to do it. It’s a challenge sometimes and can be an obstacle to growth.”

Family isn’t always defined by blood. Sometimes, it’s what you make it and Larko has created an extended family at Katsam.

Story by Jennifer Taylor

Resources

For More Information:

Katsam, visit www.katsam.com
Tymco, visit www.tymco.com
NiteHawk, visit www.nitehawksweepers.com
Victory, visit www.victorysweepers.com
Rubber-Cal, visit www.rubbercal.com
United Rotary, visit www.united-rotary.com
Stihl, visit www.stihlusa.com
Redmax, visit www.redmax.com

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