Aardvark—A Customer’s Partner

Carl Barton left his secure, lucrative job as a general manager at Pepsi Cola to start a sweeping company from scratch. He had dinner with a colleague who was a having a rough day, when the guy announced, “I’ll grab a broom and sweep parking lots before I work here for the rest of my life.”

Barton pondered his friend’s declaration and thought that might not be a bad idea. He called on store mangers that he worked with regularly and found that none were happy with their sweeper company—many of them invited him to start that day. “The market was really hungry,” says Barton. “The Lord put me in the right place at the right time.”

Seeing a great business opportunity, Barton decided to see what his competition looked like. He got up at 2 a.m. and parked in a store parking lot. After waiting awhile and wondering what in the world he was doing out there when he should be home sleeping, a guy in a truck finally showed up. A kid exited the truck, grabbed his skateboard and road around the parking lot for about 10 minutes.

Barton thought, “Ha! I can do better than that.” After months of research, Barton started Aardvark. “One of the things I learned working in the cola business is that when you build something, you need to look 10 years down the road,” says Barton. “We built it and put processes in place as if we were building a medium-sized company. I saw the loss of time and money that happened in the cola industry when we tried to get the 24 franchises on the same page. They all had different software programs and processes in place. It’s better to implement those processes in the beginning.”

A Corporate Approach

Aardvark has a process and procedure for everything they do. He took a corporate approach to building the business, including branding. “Aardvark is from a kid show that I watched growing up in Kansas City,” says Barton. “The host would have a scavenger hunt and then ask if anyone found an aardvark. I wanted a brand for the company that could be grown on it’s own and not just tied to me—something that would be a good visual. The aardvark is a nocturnal creature and visually represents what we do. When we designed the logo, we have it sucking up things through its nose, including a soda can to pay homage to my background. Aardvark is also a great name because of it’s alphabetic placement in yellow page ads.”

Aardvark opened July 1, 1996 in Memphis, Tenn with one truck, one dumpster and one client—it has grown steadily since then. After six months, Barton added his buddy Ronnie Wynn, former general manager at RC Cola, as fleet and facility manager to help manage three trucks and several accounts. His management team has held high-level positions in other companies before coming to work at Aardvark, including Barton’s wife Connie who served as a vice president of human resources before joining Aardvark as vice president.

“This is a huge strength for us,” says Barton. “It means that I don’t have to do all things. The company doesn’t reside on my shoulders, and allows us to take on more things. All of us are a bunch of ex-corporate guys, and after you jump through all of the rules in corporate America, working here is like a kid in a candy store.”

One-Stop Shopping

Aardvark began as solely a sweeper company. However, they have expanded into other areas through customer requests. “We have a unique relationship with our customers—of all of their vendors, we are the only one that has high frequency visits year round,” says Barton. “At many of our properties, we are there as many as seven nights a week. It’s only natural that as our relationship with a property manager progresses, that they start calling us for any problem they have. We have reinvented ourselves to be that one-stop shop for our customers.”

Aardvark’s services including all sweeping (except street sweeping), portering, pressure washing, warehouse scrubbing, parking lot repair, landscaping, maintenance and repair and general contracting. “The majority of our business is done at night when the parking lots are empty,” says Barton. “However, we do have eight employees on our day crew because some of our customers want their work done during the day.”

Most of Aardvark’s 34 employees are cross-trained in various services. The crew relies on Schwarze’s 347 to do most of the parking lot sweeping, Tymco’s 435 for large construction and NiteHawk for ways to reduce cost but still provide the same quality job. They also use Tennant for scrubbing.

“We just bought a Cyclone pressure washer,” says Barton. “It’s a riding pressure washer that reclaims water as you go. It’s fantastic.”

One-stop shopping for property managers includes parking lot repair and Aardvark delivers. “Most of the property managers prefer us to use the temporary cold patch until they have several to patch because of the expense of hot patch equipment,” says Barton. “The cold patch takes a risk management problem and turns it into an asset management problem. They no longer have to worry about someone damaging their vehicle.”

Aardvark also provides general contracting work for property managers. “When a property loses a tenant, they want things cleaned up and returned to a vanilla box so that they can show it,” says Barton. “And, when a client moves in, they may want specific things done to the space. We manage that process. Here in Tennessee, you have to be licensed and send in your financials to be sure that you can pay your contractors so we are licensed to do that.”

Partnering with Clients

“We are our customers eyes and ears,” says Barton. “Most property managers are out-of-town, so we developed a program called Eyes. Every operator has a digital camera and is trained to take pictures of anything that we or a property manager might want to know. We also have a reward system in place for their pictures. At the end of their shift they return them to our customer service manager, Larry, and he emails them out to customers. We never aggressively try to sell that, we just provide it as another service to our customers. The majority of them ask us to take care of it, and are very appreciative of the photos. It’s funny really, because we can spend 1 ½ hours sweeping and 20 seconds taking the picture, and they are thrilled at the picture but may take the clean parking lot for granted.

“The Eyes program provides a service that is more than sweeping and separates us from our competitors. It allows the property managers to be proactive with their clients instead of reactive. It also changes our relationship with our customer from just another vendor to a partner.”

Processing Power

While some processes that are put in place in corporate America can be burdensome and tedious, many are put in place to streamline things or prevent something from falling through the cracks. In that vein, Barton has developed a process for every job at Aardvark.

“We have a roll call meeting every night at 9 p.m. sharp,” says Barton. “We have a simple business philosophy called SQp—Safety, Quality and productivity. We stress that one night doesn’t make you a hero or zero. We’re looking at averages. I run the roll call meeting each night and if I don’t say our mantra “Safety, Quality & productivity” in the first 5 minutes of the meeting, then everyone gets a $100. I know that in that first 5 minutes, I have everyone’s attention.

“Then, operators are given their routes, digital camera, and any instructions that are important for the night. Operators pre-trip their trucks to make sure everything is okay—like a flight check.

“We have GPS on every truck that shows us turns and speed. If the truck speeds, we get an email. We can also use it to send a satellite picture to the customer and it works great for training and quality checks. Operators check in with dispatch every two hours and a driver can call in at any time if there is a problem. When cell phones were banned, we installed digital 2-way radios to communicate.

“After operators finish their route, they come back to the facility where they check in their truck to the fleet manager. This is when the driver explains if there were any problems with the truck. All fluid levels are checked, repairs made and trucks washed by the fleet department so that they are ready to go that night.

“The driver then walks over to dispatch, usually around 6:45 a.m., where Larry is waiting to go over any issues—like one of our Walgreens got broke into last night. The police had it cordoned off so our driver couldn’t sweep. This is when they turn in the digital camera. Larry asks any questions that he has and emails the customer while the operator is still standing there.”

Growing with Pride

Aardvark and Barton have won several awards for their efforts. They’ve received Germantown Small Business of the Year, Memphis Business Journal Small Business of the Year, Memphis Business Journal Top 40 Executives Under 40 and the Building Owners and Managers Association Associate of the Year.

Barton has also been actively involved with NAPSA and 1-800-SWEEPER. “I’ve also personally visited three manufacturers and nine contractors so that I can understand our industry better,” says Barton. “I took away several nuggets of information after those visits and incorporated them into our new facility and operations.”

Aardvark has been at the new 8,000 square foot facility that sits on 3.5 acres for about a year. They operate a rolling stock of 28 units and employ 35 full time employees.

Going forward, Barton plans on continuing to grow as a full-service property maintenance company and expand into new territories. “Everyone knows that you need to recruit the right employee but you also have to recruit the right customers,” says Barton. “If a customer is solely interested in price and not quality, then they might not be the best customer for you. It’s the customer’s responsibility to get the biggest bang for their buck, but it’s your responsibility to know what your costs are and to not be afraid to say no. Most people chase revenue, but you need to focus on finding the right customers and not just saying yes to the money. If you know that it costs you $65 an hour to sweep, you can’t take a job making $65 an hour.”

Story by Jennifer Taylor


For more information:

■ Aardvark, visit www.aardvarkmemphis.com
■ Tymco, visit www.tymco.com
■ Schwarze, visit www.schwarze.com
■ NiteHawk, visit www.nitehawksweepers.com
■ Tennant, visit www.tennantco.com
■ Cyclone Pressure Washer, visit www.advance-cyclone.com