Serving in the U.S. Navy aboard a submarine and deploying to hot spots around the globe had its own unique challenges for Hank Sizemore. There were weeks spent under the ocean patrolling the Middle East in particular, simply wondering if a routine day might erupt into something more dramatic and dangerous.
There was also plenty of interesting moments, with Sizemore visiting 16 countries, a couple of U.S. territories and all but a handful of the states across America. There was even a memorable trip to the top of the world — the North Pole.
For more than 20 years, that was the life of the Columbus native, who retired from the Navy in 2006 as a chief petty officer, then worked for a defense contractor before jumping into the cleaning business with an ex-girlfriend. That relationship didn’t work out, but Sizemore came away with the feeling that keeping things clean was the direction in which he should go career-wise.
Sizemore, 51, decided a couple of years ago to launch a residential and commercial cleaning venture. Called “A Better Clean,” it has been up and running more than a year and growing steadily, with nearly 50 clients thus far.
The Ledger-Enquirer sat down and talked recently with the Shaw High School graduate about his job, the pressures of cleaning homes versus cleaning submarines, and the worst thing he has encountered in the cleaning world. This interview has been edited a bit for length and clarity.
So things are picking up for you?
I’m now up over 46 customers. We just picked up Lee’s Crossing Apartments in LaGrange, and two other properties owned by the same company as Lee’s Crossing. We’ve got all of those apartments, which total 632, and with a 58 percent turnover every year. As people exit, we come in and clean the apartment, get it ready for people to move in. We just started them this week and I’ve got four apartments to do tomorrow.
That’s a lot of work and a lot of responsibility?
It is. I’m operating with two part-time employees, which means I’m going to have to increase my staff because business is growing. I went and bid yesterday at the college apartments out there on Gentian. And I’ve got a good feeling from them that we’ll be doing the 116 apartments out there.
You do residential but commercial is something you really obviously want more of?
We want to expand. On our resume right now we’ve got a dance studio, a mixed martial arts studio. I’ve got a lawyer’s office. We’ve got a place called Volunteers of America, which helps vets. We also clean Columbus Life, which is a forklift sales and repair shop, and we also do the Nestle distribution center. We also have a credit union. So we have those commercial accounts and over 40 residentials now.
But we don’t limit ourselves to homes or offices. If somebody has a church or nail salon or whatever — every place of business has floors, bathrooms and windows that need cleaning. We also provide our own worker’s comp, which a lot of the companies around don’t. We’re licensed, bonded and insured, and a member of the Better Business Bureau.
Your military service led to your cleaning skills?
I spent 20-plus years in the Navy. I was on (smaller fast-attack) submarines, so if we weren’t on a mission or training or not conducting maintenance or whatever, we were continuously cleaning. That’s because we never knew when we were going to have VIPs step on board, congressmen or just guests. Whether we were at sea or in port, if we weren’t actively engaged in something involving the ship, we were cleaning.
One time, we were in Puerto Rico and (rock star) Meat Loaf and his entourage came onboard. Maybe this won’t get printed, but Meat Loaf is an ugly person, but his wife was absolutely drop-dead gorgeous. This was back in about 1996 or 1997. They were just down in Puerto Rico and had never been on a submarine and wanted a tour. And they’re celebrities, so our captain is like, get the boat cleaned up so we can have them on board.
So you perfected your cleaning skills at that time?
Oh, yeah, and when I got some seniority on me, we would have to go back to another department or division, their space, and do what we called a zone inspection. It was an unbiased inspection on somebody else’s space. You know where to look for the dirt, even though they said it was clean. The more senior you got, the more dirt you could find.
Where was the dirt?
Mostly in the outboard pipes and stuff, running along the submarine. Nobody wants to get out there. But I was small enough back then that I could get back in there, and I would call somebody back and say, hey, what about all of this dirt back here? But that’s how the military career tied into the cleaning business.
That’s the way it goes in the military, maintenance and war fighting?
I have been to the Persian Gulf four times, twice with a mission and twice just for presence. The first one was when the first Desert Storm broke out back in ’91, I think. After that, when Iraq and all of that stuff broke out, I went back three other times. But it was an interesting career. I tell people the military is not for everyone, but it did me a lot of good. A small town boy from here, I was raised in north Columbus when it nothing much but woods. We had our own post office, which was Fortson.
So the business with your ex-girlfriend gave you confidence?
I gained a lot of confidence when I went to work with my ex-girlfriend. I saw what I was capable of doing with her business and was able to grow it. So I got the confidence, and it took me a year to get everything going. It was a lot of out-of-pocket expenses to start with.
With this job, there’s the actual task of cleaning, but more to it than that?
There is paperwork. It’s like any other job. No job is complete until the paperwork is done. I document everything, all of my customers, if they ever have complaints. My customers (hardly) ever have complaints, and that’s something that we pride ourself on. We guarantee all of our work. If they call me and say (something was not done right) I personally go back because it’s my reputation and my company. I fix it on the spot myself. It’s obviously a training issue if something was missed. Seldom do we have call backs.
How do you go about pricing your work?
Actually, it depends on the house. I go out and do a consultation. You can have two identical homes sitting next to each other and two different lifestyles. If these people over here are cleaner than those people over there, they shouldn’t have to pay the same price as those people. So I don’t have any kind of (pricing) range. I just base it on a consultation with the people in their home or their office, seeing what that home or office needs. It’s based on what the labor costs me, how much supplies it costs me, and how much it takes for me to make a little money as well.
Have you ever come across a home or business that makes you go gee whiz, holy cow, this is going to take a bunch of extra work?
I certainly have. The credit union asked me to go bid on a foreclosure home. Everybody knows that when a house is foreclosed on, people that are being evicted don’t care about them and they destroy them.
I went to bid one out in Talbotton. Someone had broke into the house. There was food in the refrigerator that had been running. They stole the refrigerator, but when they did they took it and leaned it over and dumped the food in the floor.
When I opened the door of the house, I wasn’t inside two minutes until I had tears in my eyes because it smelled so bad. It just smelled so bad. There was dried dog poop all over the place. There was garbage strewn all over the house.And it was a nicer, older historic home. The lady who had owned it passed away and the kids didn’t want it or anything in it. So whoever broke into destroyed it and it was pretty bad. It was one of the worst ones I’ve seen.
Did you get that cleaned up?
We didn’t actually end up cleaning it. We just got rid of some of the stuff for them, because they finally decided it just wasn’t worth cleaning. They were going to sell it as is. We got it to where people could at least walk in it.
But we run into things like that. I had a client one time. He had a stroke and his colleagues that worked with him got together (to help him). He had been in this apartment for 25 years and when they called me they said, ‘Before you go in, we’re going to tell you this guy is a hoarder.’ I said, well, that’s fine. We went in and when we opened the door there wasn’t even a pathway. There were books, and VCR tapes; he was a movie buff, trying to take all of his VHS tapes and convert them to DVDs. But he wasn’t ever throwing any of the VHS tapes away. Every room in the apartment was full of boxes of VHS tapes. And we threw away three dumpsters of stuff from his apartment. It took us 2½ days to do it.
When he came home, we had his apartment cleaned and he could move around it much easier. He called me and said you don’t know how much I appreciate what y’all did. He was so thankful and so appreciative because he could never throw anything away. He said his place looks great and we appreciate it very much.
Is it hard to find good cleaning people you can train and trust?
Right now on Facebook, through Muscogee County Jobs, there’s a post on there that I’m going to be accepting applications because I’m going to start needing help. Of course, my insurance has got to change. My worker’s comp has to change. Everything has to change. That’s how I found some of my employees.
Most of my employees are family members or friends or friends of the family. That’s how I know I can trust them. The future people that I hire there’s going to have to be background checks on them because they’re in people’s homes.
Because you don’t need thefts or anything else?
Absolutely. All of my customers that have cameras in their homes or listening devices in their homes, I know about every one of them. But not my employees. They don’t need to know. They just need to go in and do their job and not bother anything except their work.
What are the skills needed for cleaning things well? I take it you do cleaning yourself at times?
I do. I do every new start. Every time we have a new customer start, I go and do it, because I bid the jobs based on certain criteria, such as how long it should take me and two other people, or me and three people. That way, I’ll know if I need to send two or three people to do that job. I know how long it should take them so that my company will make money.
The only thing I ask from my people is look professional, act professional and be willing to learn. Because if you’ll learn to do it my way — it’s obviously gotten me to where I’m at — then you can have a job. That’s all I ask, and like I said, be presentable. When you go to someone’s house, don’t look like you’re going to a party or going to the beach. There is a certain dress code. They wear a company shirt, no holes in their jeans. In the summertime they can wear shorts, but no flip flops, but I don’t want somebody in there with Daisy Duke shorts.
Even upon request?
Yeah, even upon request, it’s not allowed. (laughs)
Is it difficult to train people for the proper skills to find and clean things like they should?
It’s not because I’ve got two part-time employees and one of them is what I call the team leader. I have taken her and shown her how I do things, where to look. A lot of (competitor) cleaning teams — and I’ve noticed this because a lot of my customers have said it — they say the first time they came, it was great, the cleaned area was this big (stretches his arms out). But the more they came, the (cleaned) area got smaller and smaller.Some customers will leave a penny sitting behind a door just to see if you closed that door and cleaned behind it. We don’t wipe around things on counters. If there’s something on the counter, we move it off and clean behind it and put it back. And we wipe down the small appliances as well.
I’ve had customers with things (such as small appliances) on their counter and they’ll leave a little folded piece of paper sitting under it. And you know that piece of paper didn’t fall there because it’s folded. It’s just to see if you’re moving the stuff and doing what you’re supposed to do. That’s how I train my people. Do everything the same way every time and you won’t have no problems.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
The ride time. Like this afternoon, I’ve got to go all the way to Fort Mitchell to give a lady a quote. But that’s the hardest thing, is making sure I’ve got people on the jobs in between all of my ride time. And it’s getting the right fit of people, and that’s going to be challenge with all of the things we’ve got coming up.
What’s the most rewarding thing about your job?
The comments that I get from the customers. I get texts, I get email, I get phone calls, and comments when I pay visits to them. I was always taught in the Navy that you praise in public and criticize behind closed doors. When they call me and tell me the girls did a great job, or they text me and say that, I bring my girls in and say, look, I want y’all to read this text. Or I want you to see this email. I think people who do a good job should be rewarded and they should be recognized.
Going forward, do you have a five-year plan or will you just see how things go?
I’ve got a two-year plan. (laughs)
What are your current goals?
Honestly, just to grow the company in a way that I can stay affordable and competitive with the franchises.
How competitive are the chain franchises for an independent business like yours?
I’m not going to name names, but there’s two of them in town, and I am probably their biggest threat right now, and it’s because of our name and reputation. I’ve gotten two customers from each of them already that have said, ‘How can you do it for that price when they can’t, and the quality of work that you do.’
They likely have to pay royalties or other fees to the franchisor company?
Exactly. We don’t report to any corporate. We report to me. Any issues come up, they come to me. If a job comes up, I bid them.
So you don’t view them as a serious threat?
I think I’m a bigger threat to them right now than they are to me.
Is that the Navy submariner coming out of you?
Oh, definitely. It’s the competitiveness and the drive and everything. I push my company. As you can tell, I am not afraid to talk to anyone. I am my best salesman.
Is this your long-term calling at this point?
It’s my legacy. It’s what I’m going to leave to my kids and my family. It’s what I want to build for my family.
I have to ask you about traveling to the North Pole on a submarine. What was it like?
That was awesome. We went under the ice for 2½ months doing some scientific research and stuff. But we broke through the ice five times. One of the times we were less than one mile from the exact North Pole. It was getting close to Christmas when we up there, and one of the guys took a Santa Claus suit and we made up a candy-striped pole and put North Pole on it.
We weren’t allowed to be on the ice, off the ship, for more than 20 minutes at a time, no matter how much clothing you had on. That’s because it didn’t feel as cold as it was. So you had to come back on board the ship for an hour at least to let your body reheat and then go back out.
How long did the submarine stay jutting out of the ice each time you broke through?
I think the longest that we were out was about 12 to 14 hours. It allowed everybody to get out. People took their hockey sticks up there and played hockey at the North Pole and stuff like that. It was really interesting. That’s one of the things that I’m proudest of because, in the history of the North Pole, not many people have been there.
Everybody’s heard of it, though. Yeah, but I’m one of the actual people that has been to the North Pole and that was one of the greatest things that I ever did. I was very happy about doing that.
Name: Hanson “Hank” Sizemore
Current residence: Just moved to nearby West Point, Ga., but his business is located in Columbus
Education: 1981 graduate of Shaw High School
Previous jobs: Retired U.S. Navy chief petty officer
Family: Mother, Faye Sizemore, sister, Renee Demery, brother, Adam Sizemore, and four children — Lania, Christopher, Justin and Kayla