Small Business: What lockdown meant for cleaning franchise Kiwi Commercial Cleaning

Aston Wells, co-founder and general manager of cleaning franchise Kiwi Commercial Cleaning, talks humble beginnings with his late brother, morphing into a franchise and why the company has recently hired a microbiologist.

What does your business do?

Kiwi Commercial Cleaning is a Takapuna-based commercial cleaning franchise business. We get cleaning contracts and sell them on to franchisees who execute the work, and we basically partner with them to do a good job and create and nurture a good relationship with them and their clients. We come in with a bunch of backing support, handling all of their invoicing, collections, pay them out each month and provide them with all of the training and support if they need it, as well as upskill them to the commercial cleaning verticals, such as carpet cleaning, and to help them grow their business.

What was the motivation for starting it?

The franchise portion evolved over time, originally the business was started by me and my brother Sean going back about 12-15 years ago when we were at university, where we basically did it for pocket money. We ended up doing odd jobs here and there for our Mum’s friends, whether it was painting or garden makeovers, and built up a bit of a reputation, and then landed our first commercial cleaning contract, which was four restaurants located in Ponsonby, Takapuna, Albany and Remuera, which we used to clean every morning before going to university and finishing our degrees.

We were fortunate to have the support of our university, AUT, that allowed us to apply all of the theory we were learning there to our actual business. In all honesty, I went from a C to low B student in my first couple of years to finishing in the top 4 per cent at AUT – it was a pretty interesting ride, one that I was incredibly grateful for, and that set up me and my brother in terms of running the business. Unfortunately he passed away young, he was 22, when we were only a few years into the business, and I’ve taken it from there.

Our first employee was a gentleman called Rihan, and he was the first guy that walked into our Mum’s garage for an interview and he’s now my right-hand man operations manager, he’s been with the business a very long time.

The evolution of the business into what it is now today with my business partner Kevin has been the best thing for my career. Having Kevin come on board has transformed the business from a cleaning company to a franchise business in 2019, which I know my brother would have been incredibly proud of.

How big is your team?

We have 15 franchisees, and with all of their employees and our management team included collectively we are an organisation of about 75 to 80 staff in total. Separately though, we’re a small management team of seven.

What’s been the biggest challenge running this kind of business?

The way to get bigger is claiming more contracts, which means you are dealing with more people, and the more franchisees you onboard the more people are involved in the machine. The toughest thing really is trying to keep everybody happy and making sure the value that is being created is shared and respected. Cleaners turn up after-hours so I think a lot of the work goes unappreciated and I think Covid has given that a massive nudge, and brought it to the forefront because it is now on everybody’s mind. It’s odd to say it has been a good thing for our industry, but it has.

How has Covid-19 impacted your business?

Our primary clients are offices so when the city goes into lockdown we don’t clean, and are at the mercy of when workers are re-entering their offices. We were fortunate enough to have 11 of the 15 franchisees all supported essential services in some manner, and so for some businesses cleaning was ramped up and for others became less frequent.

Revenue was down about 72 per cent during the lockdown period and we decided not to bill our clients for the cleaning that wasn’t being done. We felt the impacts of Covid, but as soon as lockdown was lifted and people went back to work there was a resurgence and we were the first people to be called for deep cleans. We have had some clients cancel contracts indefinitely as businesses closed down. It’s been a real mixed bag between clients.

Why did the business recently hire a microbiologist?

We’re the first commercial cleaning company to onboard a microbiologist as someone who is part of their team and actively out there in the field and carry out swab tests for bacterial or viral counts, and provide a level of reporting that is very exciting and something that we push as a value-add to our service. We initially hired her to test our products, we were recommended a product by Auckland District Health Board to use in the instant kill to fight Covid so we onboarded that immediately, and we had her test that product as well as the products we use for regular routines.

What are your long-term plans?

In the past six months we have popped up in Hamilton, Whakatane, Rotorua, Taupo and Tauranga, and we have a franchisee in Wellington too. In 10 years’ time I would expect us to be a nationwide organisation and up there with the big players Crest and Paramount that have been around for 30-odd years – that’s where I want to take it. We operate on a simple formula; we take a 10 per cent royalty and a 5 per cent management fee from the revenue that is billed. But it is a billion-dollar industry, there’s definitely money to be made in it.

What advice do you give to others who want to start their own business?

Go for it. This country is incredibly supportive and there is an easy ability to do it. If you have an idea or a belief or a passion and you want to start something for yourself there is very little stopping you – reserving a company name is $15, registering a company is another $140 – go open a bank account and get to work.

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