Sunday 20 March 2011

Meet Two Very Different Window Cleaning Business Owners

Meet Michael Gaynor: The 2011 Australasian Safari looks to have more American participation and interest than in years past. One of the men putting his bike and body on the line for the seven-day rally race is Bass Lake, California’s Michael Gaynor. The 46-year-old is leading Team USA’s B-Team with a lifetime of motorcycle riding and BMX racing under his belt. Despite his considerable two-wheeled experience, Gaynor is relatively new to off-road racing. In 2008 he started competing in rally races with results that stretched from painful DNFs to overall victories. Next he took it to the desert and last year was his first full season of racing the Best in the Desert series as an ironman. The self-employed residential window cleaner has been using these events as preparation for his first Dakar Rally. But before he takes on the giant, Gaynor will try his hand at something that bridges the gap between a desert race and the world’s most grueling motorsports competition. This will be his first trip to the Aussie Safari held in Perth, Western Australia.

MotoUSA: So Michael, you have been tearing it up in some local desert races, but this Australasian Safari is a totally different beast. What made you want to take this thing on?

MG: That is exactly why I have been doing races like the Best in the Desert series - Parker 250, Vegas to Reno and Silver State 300, plus a few others. I have been preparing for this for the last five or six years with long-distance ironman desert racing, competing in single day stage rallies with RallyMoto, and on top of all that I am riding dirt bikes weekly here in the Sierra’s near Yosemite. Since I returned to riding this has been my goal - to compete and complete a multi-day marathon rally. Plus, I’m too old to start Supercross (laughs)!

MotoUSA: What do you plan on doing to prepare for the full seven days of racing? Is there something special or do you think it will just be all about time on the bike?

MG: On top of some big desert races and my usual 100+ mile weekly rides around our family’s cabin, I plan on some high altitude road and mountain biking along with my very aerobic job in my business of high rise and residential window cleaning. I also hope to do some navigation training during the summer as well.

MotoUSA: As captain of the USA's "B Team" what do you think you will have to offer or what do you see your role as being while you are Down Under?

MG: Being a small business owner I have found that personality, preparation and persistence is key in succeeding. At the same time, you also need to know how to navigate red tape, overcome personal conflicts and put people at ease in any situation. All of these things that I have had to deal with in my business life will also come into play in Australia in September, and hopefully preparation and persistence will pay off. Really if you really think about it, life is a giant rally.


Meet Neal Zucker: You see the photos, too many to count. Beautifully framed photos line every horizontal surface; digital displays change faces every few minutes. This is the office of Neal Zucker, a 45-year-old businessman and philanthropist who has hundreds, if not thousands, of friends, and at first glance it seems the room might hold a picture of everyone he knows. Some of the faces are immediately recognizable: Michelle Obama, Richard and Maggie Daley, Desirée Rogers, Valerie Jarrett. And some of the pictures tell a story: a summer party at the 230-acre Wisconsin horse farm of the venture capitalists M. K. and J. B. Pritzker; a dinner at the Palm Springs winter home of Johnson Publishing’s chairwoman, Linda Johnson Rice; the British-style wedding of the Chicago printing heiress Shawn Donnelley to the English author Christopher Kelly. “I know, there are a lot of pictures,” Zucker says in his signature slightly overcaffeinated style. “But what can I do? People keep giving me photos.” And it just wouldn’t be friendly not to display them.

The room is homey, anyway, more like a man’s study or a parlor in a traditional English country house than an office. It is a tailored and tweedy place, where tattersall wool chesterfield sofas flank the big-screen TV, the leather is burnished, and the floor-to-ceiling drapes are tied back by golden ropes with oversize tassels. No shabby, all chic. This is where Zucker works as president and CEO of Corporate Cleaning Services, Chicago’s largest all-union window-washing company.

Zucker started the business in 1994, when he opened a small first-floor office on Elm Street in the Gold Coast neighborhood. Now the company commands the whole building, including the warehouse section in back. Trucks and crews venture out from there to wash the windows of some of the finest residential and commercial properties in the city: the John Hancock Center, the Willis Tower, the Four Seasons, the United Center, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, most of the condo buildings along Lake Shore Drive—1,200 buildings in all.

He built this business himself (along with a partner for the first ten years), although he does get support from his friends. And while the photographic images are stunning, all the details—and Zucker is totally about details - can be found on his Microsoft Outlook calendar. “I refused to give up my Filofax until about a year ago,” he says, moving to a large computer monitor. “I just didn’t think I wanted to go electronic, you know what I mean? But now I can keep track of everything.” When he says “everything,” he means it. A knife-thin man overflowing with energy, he brings up a color-coded screen of weeks, with every day action packed and coordinated down to the minute. It is the hyperannotated calendar of a dashing bachelor about town who has never been married, eats 21 meals a week at restaurants, attends almost every party, remembers everyone’s birthday (and mails a card), and always picks out the perfect hostess gift.

Left to right: Mayor Daley, Zucker, Desirée Rogers, and Marko Iglendza at Steppenwolf’s 2010 gala.
Zucker has become a go-to guy in Chicago’s social and business worlds, a highly praised entrepreneur as well as a sought-after dinner party guest or travel companion. He is best friends with a number of prominent women in town, including two who have spent a lot of time recently at the Obama White House. In the local philanthropic world, he is a quiet leader, particularly when it comes to mobilizing the talents and the wallets of the 40-something crowd. He has fashioned a life for himself that is almost a throwback to another time, a time when everyone had polished manners, dashed off handwritten notes on real stationery, and imbued the simplest acts of bonhomie with a certain elegance.

His own story is often lost in the klieg-light glow of those around him. But the answers to who he is and why he is so popular can be discovered. It helps that there are less than six degrees between Zucker and everyone else. The most popular words used to describe Zucker by those who know him are “loyal” and “discreet.” Often he is called “the best listener.” He also has an engaging way of talking, ending his sentences with the questions “right?” or “don’t you think?”—thus throwing the conversational ball back to someone else. “I can’t think of anyone in town who is better connected who isn’t an elected politician,” says Bill Zwecker.

He was on the prowl for an enterprise he could call his own. One day in the nineties, Zucker looked out of his high-rise apartment and thought, Wouldn’t this be much nicer if the windows were cleaned regularly? “From then on, everywhere I looked, I saw windows. I mean, every place has windows: hotels, hospitals, condo buildings.” With research, Zucker discovered that the window-washing business was complicated: It was dangerous; it needed a constant inflow of money for newer, safer equipment; and there was a workers’ union to deal with. Nonetheless, he approached his friend Elizabeth Alkon, whom he had first met in college, about starting the business. With backing from Alkon’s boyfriend at the time, the Lakeshore Entertainment producer Tom Rosenberg, Zucker and Alkon created Corporate Cleaning Services in 1994. Rosenberg owned several condo buildings, so the two partners started with a small but ready-made customer base. They both had connections and organizational minds, and, slowly, they built a business. In 2004, when Alkon and Rosenberg - by then married - moved to Beverly Hills, Zucker bought out Alkon’s share. (The two remain friends.)

Since then, Zucker has concentrated on promoting the latest safety techniques for his crews while achieving a clockwork precision in the management of the business. “Basically, it’s a service business, and he gives very, very good service,” says one real-estate insider. If you want a dead bird off your 36th-floor windowsill or remedial caulking around your 15th-level window frame, Corporate Cleaning will do it. They put methanol in the water so they can clean windows even in winter; they are also the only Chicago window-cleaning company certified by the state for spider abatement. “You don’t want to hear the stories I know about monster spiders around some of these buildings,” Zucker says. His company once washed all 54 stories at Harbor Point Tower in one day, so residents could enjoy clear views of the Fourth of July fireworks.

He has turned down offers to expand the business into other areas. “I’d rather stick with what we know,” he says. Still, he has these thoughts running through his head: How can we grow? What can I do better? and—the big one—What’s the right thing to do? The questions race through his mind so frequently that they form a rhythm to his days and nights until, like yoga poses, they sync up with his breathing.


Commercial window cleaning said...

Thats funny. Before I started my own window cleaning business I never knew how much money a window cleaner could make while at the same time live a very comfortable life style. For this guy it was dirt biking. Props to my fellow window cleaner, the American dream..

Michael Gaynor said...

very nice.. thank you.. very creative to use my facebook photos of cleaning... Maybe you can help me fund raise for my rally ?? I hope to meet you one day!!

Michael Gaynor
Apex Window Cleaning

Karl Robinson said...

Hi Michael - flickr, not facebook. Send me your rally funding details!

MIchael Gaynor said...

Thanks again Carl!

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