Small Market, Big Success

This is a classic—the American success story of a local boy. Jim Camp founded his sweeper business in Little Rock in 1979. He had graduated in 1970, and after his years of military service, he had gone to work for his oldest brother, who had started a sweeping business. Jim bought a little sweeper of his own that could be loaded onto a trailer, and set out to do some of his own sweeping jobs part time. In 1980, he bought his first truck-mounted sweeper. Today, Commercial Cleaner, Inc. is the largest sweeper company in state of Arkansas, and it has been for a long time.

Simplicity at its Finest
As Jim looks back on how it all began, it sounds like it was all so simple then, “I was just doing what you’re supposed to do, giving great customer service, communicating with customers—and it just grew and grew and grew.” Today, Commercial Cleaner, Inc. services about 300 accounts, including shopping malls, schools, hospitals, parking buildings, apartment communities, and office complexes, among other commercial properties throughout Arkansas’s major population centers.
He reminds newcomers to the industry of the oldest and best of all business wisdom to other service business owners, “If you do a good job for a fair price, you can have just about all the work you want.”
When he speaks of his impressive success, Jim Camp exudes a wholesome kind of genuine modesty that right away strikes you as the demeanor that people who know him well must characterize him by, “I know I’m not a genius.” He says he’s depended on his faith.

Surviving the Cycles
After Jim had took the business to a full time occupation for himself, he hired an employee, then added a second one. By 1985, he had grown the business to about 4 sweeper trucks, adding about one per year. But, Jim recalls, “I went through a rough spell. The economy used to be on cycles, up and then down. There was a down turn. Sweepers are one of the first things businesses cut back on in those times. I tightened my belt and stuck with, and today we have 18 sweeper trucks and 29 employees.”
In the beginning, Jim explains that he tried doing a little bit of everything. He did power washing, striped parking lots, started up a small groundskeeping business. “It all goes hand in hand,” as business owners learn after a short time in the sweeper industry. “Things got to the point where I needed to choose either to take care of the sweeping business or the other stuff. The sweeping business is what I like, so I stuck with it.”
And, just like that, Arkansas’s largest sweeper company was seriously in the making—because that’s the business Jim most liked doing. There’s a valuable lesson for everyone in his way of making career choices and other major life choices.

Pondering Diversification
Asked about any plans for diversification at this point, Jim muses, “We service several hundred sweeping customer accounts, across several cities. I’ve thought from time to time that I should take on other stuff. But, I haven’t taken on more. My wife and I are blessed to be looking at retirement in a five plus years from now, and I already have so much to do that I don’t really have in mind to take on more at this point.”
Talking to Jim about the idea of diversifying and about his way of thinking about his business altogether, one gets an inspirational sense of one of those rare, especially well balanced people who has figured it all out. He emanates that air of inner peace that is recognizable only in that individual who has been clear on what he’s wanted, loves his life, and is fully satisfied with the choices he’s made. You can imagine Sinatra playing softly in the background—Jim has simply done it his way.

How Did He Do It?
We moved on to talk about how Jim has secured new customers over the years, and how he has sustained the company’s success in its challenging Midwestern small market in the heart of Arkansas over the past nearly 40 years.
How have you built your company’s identity, Jim? “We have our business name on the trucks, and some employees have uniforms, some do not. It gets to be a problem when you have that many people. Uniforms cost about $16 to $18 per week. We share the cost with employees, and understand that not all of them want to pay for uniforms. We do buy tee shirts and hats with the company name on those from time to time”.
It quickly becomes clear in this part of the dialogue that the business has not been compelled by its market to focus much at all on physical branding efforts, “People have come to know that we’re out there over the years. We’re in a lot smaller market. Little Rock is not that big. So, it’s not like we’re competing with fifty sweeping contractors, as we would be in a larger area.”
Commercial Cleaner, Inc. also operates in Jonesboro. We challenged Jim’s advertising model. How did you branch into Jonesboro and develop your business there? That’s over two hours away from Little Rock? Jim explains that his son lives in Paragould, north of Jonesboro. Jim bought an existing sweeper business there from the family of a friend who died. And, Jim’s son started running the branch about five years ago. “He has doubled the size of the business since we took it over.”
Okay, but how did you also get operational in Hot Springs? I subcontract work to a friend there, and to another in Conway, and in Russellville. Customers in those areas call CC for service, and Jim subs the work to the satellites.
The subs have their own companies in those areas, though the Russellville operator uses a Commercial Cleaner-owned truck for the part-time operation servicing commercial properties owned by one of CC’s Little Rock customers there. This clever, simple, organic expansion model has led Commercial Cleaner to dominate the Arkansas sweeper market.

Arkansas Sweeping, Big Challenges and Solutions
To offer a word about obstacles to be overcome in today’s sweeper industry, based on his own experience, Jim discussed the same concern that we hear expressed by sweeper business owners across the industry as the top problem, getting employees who really want to work and become long-term team members.
Jim looks back to a time twenty years ago, “It wasn’t hard to find employees who would come on board and work for the business for many years. Today, it’s much harder to find people who want to work. It’s not uncommon to hire people who only stay for as little as six months.”
It’s easy to recognize the familiar bit of frustration that we hear in the voices of most business owners in the industry who are faced with the unique challenge of figuring out how to overcome this particularly perplexing and currently growing problem.
As for most business owners in the industry, Jim’s work ethic is profoundly deep, and as with all who have been so successful in growing and sustaining their businesses over decades in any industry in any market, he has made himself a premier expert in the industry.

Operations—How Does It All Work Now?
Camp explains that he has two people working in the CC office—a gentleman who works with customers, and a lady who has been with the company around 16 years, who manages accounts receivable and payable.
To manage his large field services staff of 29 drivers, he uses the modern technologies that have become essentials in today’s sweeper business across the industry. He has GPS units in the trucks and smart phones, to maintain tracking of where drivers are at any given moment, where they’ve been, and how fast they’re driving.
Commercial’s foreman comes in at 9:00 a.m., gets everybody started, does projects, and provides backup in cases of shorthanded schedules. Jim notes that adding this position has been something of a game-changer for his personal quality of life.
Having someone else sharing the management load means, “I can sleep at night. We provide 24-hour service. Until six or seven years ago, I was the one who got called at five in morning for a flat tire.” The foreman also shares in the hiring responsibilities. “We hire with his approval.” After the initial interview, and prior to drug testing and other pre-employment processes, candidates are interviewed by the foreman and receive his approval before moving on to become new hires.

Nice Guy Finishes First
After spending some time talking with Jim, what stands out for this interviewer about him is the sense that he’s the kind of service provider, employer, friend and family member that is rather a natural for the industry—likeable, genuine, committed, accommodating, easy to read as just very fair and reasonable and enjoyable to work with.
It makes sense that he’s been able to build a significant Midwest success on the couple of basic principles of quality service and personalized service. He’s been consistently reaching out from the very beginning, to cultivate strong relationships with his customers. And, he continues in that very personal mode of operating today. In his very natural way, Camp has isolated the very specific requirements for U.S. American small-market business growth and sustainability—good service and good personal relationships.
Asked for some parting words of general advice that Jim can offer from his own experience for new small-market entrants into the sweeping industry around the country, Jim’s answer was one that you can assume is a definitive Jim Camp response. In his kindly, thoughtful, confident manner, he offered the same simple formula from which he has built the most successful sweeper business in the great state of Arkansas, “Giving good service consistently and communicating well with customers and employees are really the most important things.”

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