Washing windows with Steve Barber
It’s probably one of the better cases of taking lemons and making lemonade, then putting a whole new perspective on your world just as if you were looking through a nice clean window.
That would appear to apply to Steve Barber, an Air Force-trained aircraft mechanic who worked for Delta Air Lines for seven years before relocating to the Columbus area to take a job with Pratt & Whitney. That position would last nearly five years, until just before the world was stunned by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., when the Columbus company laid off the military veteran.
“With the shockwave that resulted from that, the airline industry had difficulty and so we were casualties, I guess you could say, of that incident,” Barber said of the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in the nation’s capital.
After a brief stint at an Aerotron facility in nearby, LaGrange, Ga., Barber found himself in the unemployment line looking for a paycheck at area Walmart distribution centers, simply anywhere to pay the bills. Nothing materialized.
It was then that fate stepped in, with an acquaintance suggesting the New York native try his own window washing service. At first, it didn’t sound like a great fit, but through some cold calling on customers and trial and error with the actual window washing, Barber and his wife, Algeria, started A&S Cleaning Service about 15 years ago. They haven’t really looked back, using the window washing trade as a means to fund their love for ministry and mission work with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The Ledger-Enquirer spoke recently with Barber, 55, about his view of the window-washing world. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
Q. So Pratt & Whitney is responsible for you choosing Columbus as your home?
A. My wife and I moved from Atlanta to here for a noble cause. We wanted to help out a congregation that was in Cusseta, Ga. So the fact that Pratt & Whitney was here made it more convenient, because now we could carry out our purpose of helping out this congregation.
Q. That has carried over to your window washing job and business?
A: Yes it has. Window cleaning helps us do that, and we can set our schedule. We do it to support our ministry really, so that when we need to take a break, we call our clients and tell them we’re going to be gone for so much time and that we hope you liked our work and we’ll be back. And most of them say, not a problem.
Q. Do you miss the old aircraft industry life?
A. I do in a way, but now I enjoy this more because I can see where I didn’t have the convenience to be off and things like that. Now we can basically set our own schedule.
Q. So how did you pick window washing in the first place?
A. There was an older gentleman here in Columbus. He’s been washing windows probably about 30 years, and I know him from one of the local congregations that we attend. I told him my plight and he said, ‘why don’t you try washing windows?’ At first I said, ‘I appreciate that suggestion, but I’m going to keep looking for a job.’ So I kept looking and kept looking, and the longer I was out of work, that idea just kept coming back into my mind — maybe I should try window washing.
Q. So the window washing trade was planted in your mind?
A. Yeah, and the longer I was out of work, I thought that maybe I could make this work. The older gentleman told me, you’ll be able to do it (and Barber agreed to try it for six months).
Q. How did you launch everything?
A. The first thing we did was get some business cards just to see if there was some potential, and passed those out. On the first day I was able to get two accounts. That was encouraging to me. So I said, OK, maybe this will work. At the time, my wife was taking some (medical coding) classes in LaGrange and working here at the hospital. I would accompany her to LaGrange and while she was in class, I would go around with business cards, and I was able to get about four or five accounts, things like restaurants, Subways. I was just going in and passing out a card, and most of the businesses would be like, yeah, come on in, that will be fine.
Q. That gave you confidence?
A. I started getting excited and said, baby, it looks like this is going to work. So we did that in LaGrange up until she finished school. Then I started looking for business here in Columbus, since this is where we lived, and gave up the accounts in LaGrange. We just kept going from there.
Q. Who are some of your commercial clientele?
A. I do Columbus State University, I do the Trade Center, I do a lot of car dealerships such as Acura and BMW of Columbus. I used to do the Columbus Airport tower. And I’ve done some work out of town.
Q. So you can make a good living washing windows?
A. Absolutely, with the right accounts. I do make more now than what I made at my previous aircraft mechanic job.
Q. Is there competition for you?
A. Oh, yeah. When I started, there were probably about five or six window washers in Columbus, maybe more. Now it seems like there’s 20 or 25 window washers here.
Q. So it’s important to keep customers?
A. I just try to treat them the way I like to be treated. It’s a Bible principle. Most of my customers pretty much stick with me and I depend on that to keep me going.
Q. Did you know how to wash windows properly at first?
A. No, it was trial and error. (The man who suggested it) gave me tips. He showed me what I needed to do, and I followed him around. The rest of it was getting a technique down. I knew what to do, I just had to learn how to do it, like avoiding the sun (which causes spots on windows). All of that was trial and error.
Q. What’s the key to cleaning a window right?
A. Straight pulls. In other words, when you look at a wide window, a lot of people have a fanning technique where they fan back and forth. But for anybody who wants to try to attempt it, the best way is to straight pull, where you pull (a squeegee) straight down, then go across the bottom. You have less mistakes when you do it that way.
Q. So use a squeegee and not rags or paper towels?
A. I wouldn’t recommend rags or paper towels. For what it’s worth, a $15 squeegee from Home Depot or Lowe’s will probably last a homeowner a long time. If they just get one of those and learn how to use it, it would be very good for them.
Q. You said earlier that you tackle up to five stories?
A. That’s the highest I like to do. I know a lot of people who do much higher than that.
Q. Have you ever washed windows higher than five stories?
A. No, and I don’t care to … I’m 55 and I feel comfortable sticking with three to five stories. I don’t want to go up any higher than that. (laughs)
Q. What’s the most unique job you’ve had?
A. The airport tower was unique. And the Sibley Center at Callaway. (At one point he had to get in the water to clean windows above him). I had a wetsuit on up to here (abdomen) and I’m washing windows. Oh, man, that was a lot of windows there. That took us a good week or so to finish.
Q. Did you wash the butterfly center windows?
A. We worked on a lot of buildings at Callaway. That one was unique. It was neat to be in the butterfly center. We had to use a special solution because I couldn’t just use ammonia do to it affecting the butterflies. We had to use something eco-friendly.
Q. Part of your job is taking care of equipment such as poles and scaffolding?
A. I do most of the maintenance myself. I’ve got a little place set up in my garage where I can cut poles and mend them.
Q. Is this a physical job?
A. Oh yeah, it’s physical. When I first started the business, I used the scaffolding more than anything. But now that I’m getting older it tires me out a lot faster to have to climb up and down it. … I also sweat profusely outside. In fact, I find myself deficient in salt so much. It causes cramping.
Q. What’s the most challenging aspect of your work?
A. The hardest part of my job is using the poles, because I’m constantly doing this (pulling up and down). My shoulders, my neck, that gets sore. A lot of times what I do to relax is take a bath, and that relaxes the muscles and takes all the tension off of it. It really helps me sleep, too.
Q. Finally, I have to ask, when you see a window that’s dirty, does it bother you?
A. All the time. If we go out of town, that’s one thing I’m looking at. (laughs) She (his wife) is looking at something of interest and I’m looking at windows and thinking this would be interesting to do. I do that quite a bit.
Hometown: Westbury, N.Y.
Current residence: Columbus
Education: 1981 graduate of Westbury High School; completed aircraft maintenance school with the U.S. Air Force in 1985
Previous jobs: Aircraft mechanic and maintenance work with the U.S. Air Force from 1985 to 1989, with Delta Air Lines in Atlanta from 1989 to 1996, with Pratt & Whitney in Columbus from 1996 to 2000, and with Aerotron in LaGrange, Ga., in 2001
Family: Wife, Algeria
Leisure time: Enjoys listening to trio jazz, bicycling, hiking and working in his yard
Note of interest: He and his wife regularly take part in Bible education work through the Jehovah’s Witnesses that they truly enjoy; the couple will be traveling to Bluefields, Nicaragua, this month on a worship mission