Minority-owned firm sweeps to $22 million

The president of one of Atlanta’s fastest-growing janitorial and facility maintenance companies hopes that one day his employees will leave him for a better life. He’s even helping them save money to start their own businesses.

When General Building Maintenance Inc. (GBM) President Sunny Park realized that high turnover was an inevitable part of his business, he decided to help people on their way by paying cash bonuses to cleaners and other low-wage employees who open savings accounts.

“These people never had a savings account. And I thought about their future. I didn’t have money once before,” he said.

Park came to the United States from Korea in 1967 to attend Indiana University. Five years after he moved to Atlanta, he started GBM because so many people in Atlanta’s Korean community asked him for help finding a job.

“I found out I can create a business and utilize that as the job provider for those people,” said Park.

At the time, he was an insurance agent. He started GBM in 1983 with a contract to clean the Presidential Office Park complex near Doraville. Today, the company owns the complex and is headquartered in 8,800 square feet there. GBM also has 12 branch offices from Baltimore to Dallas.

Employment has doubled and revenues have nearly tripled since 1991, when the company had 250 workers and $7.6 million in revenues. In 1997, Park said he expects GBM to reach $22 million in revenues.

When Park started GBM, most facility maintenance companies used part-time labor. However, part-time employees work with a specific goal in mind: paying off a car, buying a TV, paying a bill.

So Park hired full-time employees, who he said focus more on quality and are more loyal. Hiring for full-time jobs prevented some turnover, but, he added, “As we grow, we are finding a problem keeping good people. We train people and then people leave. So we’re losing a lot of investment.”

In addition to offering full-time work, the promise of advancement in the company and other benefits, Park made it a policy to pay a little more than the competition.

The payoff has been a 38 percent turnover rate. “That’s still a lot, but it’s very low compared to the industry average,” Park said.

The average turnover rate for part-time employees in the business is 77 percent, according to Don Tepper, director of publications at Building Service Contractors Association International in Fairfax, Va. In metropolitan areas with more competition, turnover is even higher.

“A number that’s tossed around an awful lot is a turnover rate exceeding 100 percent,” Tepper said. “One of the major continuing problems in the industry is a jointly linked problem of recruitment and retention. . . . You run into a double-bind when you’re growing,” he said.

David Bennett, GBM’s controller, said the company’s turnover rate is better than the industry average because GBM focuses on full-time employment, provides health insurance benefits and has plans to offer a 401(k) plan soon.

“It gives [employees] some type of stability. . . . Part time, the guys could be there tonight and not tomorrow.”

But, management at GBM realizes that even full-time employees will one day leave. “[We] don’t expect people to be cleaners the rest of their lives,” Bennett said.

That’s where the savings plan comes in.

Saving for a sunny day

Park started the savings plan four years ago after he realized his employees were not leaving for better jobs.

When an employee opens a savings account, he or she receives a bonus of $20 for the first $50 they save. If they save $50 every two weeks, GBM pays a $200 bonus after six months, and $500 after the employee saves $3,000. At $10,000 in savings, GBM will help the employee obtain a loan to start his own business. No employees have made it to the final bonus, but Park said he has paid some $500 bonuses.

“Sunny would say he doesn’t want anybody to be a cleaner for the rest of their lives,” said Jim Milling, vice president of operations at GBM. “He wants them to focus not just on today.”

Personal involvement

“That [program] came out from the heart,” said Park. He added that he has tried to provide help to employees and their families when they need it. “I still do that. I actually spend half of my time on social-committee work these days,” Park said.

On his office bookshelves, among volumes on OSHA regulations and building maintenance texts, Park keeps books on housing the homeless and on Korean reunification.

He has erected a memorial to Georgians who were killed in the Korean conflict and hosts dinners for Korean War veterans. GBM’s office walls are crowded with letters of appreciation and plaques from community organizations and customers. The biggest statue in the company’s trophy case is Park’s award, the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce Small Business Person of the Year for 1990.

Not all of Park’s social efforts are organized. He has pulled off the road to scold children for smoking and hanging out on a street corner instead of doing something productive. When he speaks at area high schools, he picks the kids with “attitude” out of the audience and sends them out of the room if they don’t respond.

“A lot of high-school kids think they don’t have enough to stand up. I try to [show them] they have more than enough. I’m still speaking broken English, but I’m making it,” he said.

He talks a lot about actions that come from the heart, but he’s no pushover. Park fired seven quality managers because they didn’t buy into his goal of zero defects. In the end, he recruited a previous customer for the job.

“I hired him because he gave me a hard time so much. He called us and pointed out all the mistakes we made. And I had to agree with him because he had good eyes,” Park said.

His involvement and directness has helped him build the business, said Milling.

“Sunny will tell us frequently that the customer is king, and he makes sure we remain focused on that. . . . He is still very much involved in the day-to-day operations. He is there assessing where we are and where we’re going,” said Milling, a retired Army colonel.

“The issue is maintaining consistency. That’s the greatest challenge as the business grows.”