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Outshining the competition Featured

4:54am EDT November 23, 2005
Alex Fortunati, CEO of Support Services of America, knows the value of a little elbow grease.

He and his wife, Susana, were able to transition their home-based office cleaning business into a booming company that now also offers maintenance, landscaping, security guard and food services. The key, Fortunati says, was never straying from their core values of speedy and superior customer service.

“Our company does a lot of business, and we have a 98 percent retention rate,” Fortunati says. “If we lose a customer, usually it’s because there’s a competitive bid. But we haven’t lost customers based on quality.”

Support Services of America has been on a solid track of double-digit growth since it was founded in 1996. Fortunati expects the company to log between $16 million and $18 million in revenue this year after raking in $12 million last year.

If Support Services continues on its current growth track, it should see $24 million in revenue by the end of 2006.

Smart Business spoke with Fortunati about how he’s grown his company and how he finds the right employees to help him do it.

How did you transition your company from a one-man side business to a multimillion-dollar company?
When we first started, we operated out of our house. We started with only one account cleaning a medical building. My wife and I, from 6 p.m. until 1 a.m., would clean this medical building by ourselves.

We got lucky. We basically did a great job, and by word of mouth, that particular customer started referring us to other accounts and other clinics and other buildings.

Little by little, a year later, we had 10 or 12 accounts and I was able to quit my day job and basically start growing the company. After three years, we were able to open a professional office.

Once we opened up the office, we were able to hire people to answer the phones, and we got a professional accountant to help us. Today, we are in 23 states.

How are you able to outdo your competitors?
We created a model to duplicate. And the model was based on two or three very basic premises. One, to always go the extra mile. You never say no. If (the customer) gives you a lot more work that is not in the contract, you show them good faith and willingness. I think the customer appreciates that kind of attitude.

The second thing is we have predicated our company to be very fast. Speed has to do with everything you do. You take care of an issue, whether it’s a request or a complaint, and you take care of it fast. If you can turn around that request or complaint within 30 minutes — 60 minutes at the most — that shows the customer that you are on top of it.

Then you start to build your reputation around those two issues. We duplicated that every single time with every customer.

How do you find employees dedicated to your mission of customer service?
That’s always a challenge because our industry is a low-wage (industry). Obviously, we have turnover and we try to manage [that] as closely as we can.

The way we hire people mostly is by word of mouth. Our own employees bring us friends and family. They recommend people and ... there is a little bit more of a commitment when we hire that way.

We try to inspire them to do a good job and to be proud of what they do. If you manage that process well, then you have a happy customer and happy employees. And that makes a good company.

What has been the biggest challenge of growth, and how have you managed it?
We find it difficult to manage at a distance, and we’re trying to use all of the technology to be in constant contact with our supervisors and managers and work force. Finding competent management is an issue for a smaller company.

Competent management ... from larger companies still think that we are a small company, and obviously when you are a smaller company, [you] have more risk. That translates into difficulty in hiring good, competent management.

As we keep on growing and building our brand recognition of our name and our reputation, hopefully every year it breaks a little bit of that barrier in the eyes of outsiders. And I think every year we have been capable of recruiting better talent.

How did you penetrate the market for government contracts?
It took us a couple of years to penetrate the federal government contracting. We actually have a vice president of federal procurement, and he has been very capable in gaining market share.

It took us some time because the federal government is highly competitive, very regulated, and people that participate in that need to have a lot of technical skills. There’s a lot of performance reviews. It’s a lengthy process.

I think we got much better at the game, and finally we’re seeing the results. We persisted, and because of that persistence ... here we are. We’re gaining contracts almost every month.

HOW TO REACH: Support Services of America, (562) 868-3550