Not many executives can say they started from the ground up and mean it literally, but Rob Gingras of Bee-Clean Building Maintenance in Edmonton is one of them. “I started mopping floors as a custodian in junior high wherever they could find a spot for me,” he says of the janitorial service company co-founded by his father, Brian. “Those summer gigs ended up being a huge asset for me.”
His route to becoming Bee-Clean’s president of Western Canada wasn’t a straight line. Instead, Gingras zigzagged from a veterinary degree to a small equine practice in Saskatoon. Then, seeking a break from the round-the-clock demands of veterinary medicine, he returned to Bee-Clean in a “get your feet wet” position that would allow him to contemplate his next move. That was 2003. Gingras stayed on and worked his way up—and at Bee-Clean, Canada’s largest janitorial service provider, that’s the norm. “Many of our employees have been here since the beginning,” he says. “It’s amazing how many people have moved up the ranks, starting out as cleaners and now working as supervisors or directors. We believe in promoting from within.”
Building maintenance and cleaning is a tough, physical business. Equipment breaks down. Government regulations change. Clients’ economic downturns mean layoffs. So having executives who understand employees’ potential pressures and roadblocks is key—and Gingras believes it’s a big part of Bee-Clean’s ability to attract and keep staff. “When we ask our people to clean a building during a storm in minus 40 degrees, we understand the challenge because many of us have done it ourselves,” he says.
But Edmonton’s extreme cold weather isn’t the only kind of storm Bee-Clean has weathered. The company started out as a franchise model more than 45 years ago. Under the leadership of Rob’s father, Brian, the business soon moved to a corporate structure; today, it’s a custodial empire with services that range from cleaning and maintenance to restoring properties after fires, floods or vandalism. With 30 locations across the country, from St. John’s to Victoria, Bee-Clean counts airports, hospitals and universities among its biggest contracts—and that can be both a blessing and a curse, depending on what’s happening in each region.
Changes to provincial models often force Bee-Clean to search for creative solutions. While business in Ontario and British Columbia may be booming, government cuts to infrastructure and funding in Alberta and Saskatchewan mean vacancies in office towers and cutbacks for post-secondary schools and oil sands companies. “Our labour in the oil sands industry was scaled back by about 20 per cent,” says Gingras. “It was ugly for a while there, and we had to look at layoffs on the front lines, but it’s starting to level off. We had good-faith dialogues and found ways to make things work within our clients’ budgets.”
Keeping ears and minds open has allowed Bee-Clean to adapt to fluctuating markets. In 2007, it became the first cleaning company in Canada to receive the Cleaning Industry Management Standard Green Building certification. Bee-Clean also introduced a “Bee-Green” program, helping clients achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification and reduce chemical use, relying on ionized water instead. “We were very early adopters of green chemistry,” says Gingras. “It was the right thing to do and it really moved the dial for us; most of our clients were receptive.”
The company has also forged partnerships with First Nations communities in areas like Fort McMurray, Cold Lake and Thunder Bay, expanding its reach while creating jobs. “If we’re involved in an area, we want to invest in the people. That’s very important to us. As second-generation management, my mission is to continue that direction.”
On the subject of new directions, Bee-Clean seeks to expand beyond Canada, exploring U.S. and Asian markets. “We’ve been working on China for the last three or four years and landed a contract for a significant building tower that began in January of this year,” Gingras explains. “You’re either green and growing, or ripe and rotting. We’re not content with just coasting.”