Chem-Dry Carpet Cleaning Franchise Review: Tom Messina and Kristin Schenk of Riverside, Calif.

Successful Chem-Dry owner preps daughter to take over business when he retires

Tom Messina has owned Air Fresh Chem-Dry in Riverside, Calif., since 1999, when he bought the franchise company from its previous owners and eventually grew to six locations throughout southern California. Messina, 52, has been gradually setting up his 27-year-old daughter, Kristin Schenk, who manages the office and handles marketing, to take over the business when he retires ? which, thanks to his success, won?t be much longer. ?If I ask my wife, four years,? he says. ?I hope sooner, that?s all I?m saying,? his daughter responds. We caught up with both in Nashville in September during Chem-Dry?s leadership retreat.

What were you doing before Chem-Dry?
Tom Messina: I was in advertising. I?d developed a daily, a Penny Saver kind of thing. But three years before, I had worked as a carpet cleaner for a Chem-Dry franchise in Orange County … so in ?95 I became sort of the informal owner. Basically, all my family owned businesses in one way or another, so I kind of have this entrepreneurial character, and I always felt I could do things better than the people before me. These guys who were running the franchise here were always in Arizona or Colorado, and I said, ?Hey, guys, this isn’t going to last.? It took a few years, but I finally got it in ’99.
Kristin Schenk: What’s cool is that when he’s ready to retire, I’ll be taking over, and it’s good that someone like me can do this, too.

Tom Messina of Fresh Air Chem-Dry with his daughter, Kristin Schenk: “The opportunity is there for anybody.”

What sets Chem-Dry apart?
TM: The opportunity is there for anybody. You don’t have to have a large investment. With so many franchises, it’s out of reach, like so many franchise opportunities. The Chem-Dry opportunity is available for a lot of people, with the low startup costs. Another thing ? the skill sets required are inner: ambition, drive. You don’t need a doctorate in something.

What kind of person makes a good Chem-Dry franchisee?
TM: Somebody who?s committed to this business for the long haul. There?s no time clock for us; we just do the work until it’s done. If you know how to make money, you take that territory. You have to think long-term. This isn’t something you can just flip. You have to be service-oriented, about the other people, but with the end in mind: I expect to be compensated to the degree where I have an exit plan and I?m prepared to be comfortable.

Is there a misperception about the carpet cleaning industry?
TM: Yeah, as a whole, people think they’re renting a service, they don’t understand these techs are highly skilled and benefit customers in myriad ways. They do all kinds of things. Ninety percent of our industry is independents, some guy rolling out of his garage …
KS: With a buffer and bucket of shampoo.
TM: Yeah. The average independent guy can tell you he?s got 10 years’ experience, but what he means is one year of experience 10 times, because he’s not plugged into the pros who have the latest green products and equipment. Harris Research is a research company. I know Robert Harris quite well. His foundation was cutting-edge. Even his concept on carpet cleaning was cutting-edge.
KS: We have highest level of carpet cleaning in the industry.
TM: And it all goes back to innovations along the way.

How large is the opportunity?
TM: I?ll tell you, I started with one franchise and now I have six, and I could have as many as I want, but I’m fine where I am now. A guy who has an employee wage can go from there to a professional wage, then increase his professional wage 15 to 20 percent every year. Where else is that opportunity?

Who are your main customers?
TM: Usually the residential housewives, they run the show. Our business is probably 90 percent residential. When they?re being educated by our techs, customers learn to care for their carpets every six to 12 months, and we give them the incentive to do that. What’s changed is that a lot of people are coming to us for cleaning hard surfaces, and we?ve been smart enough to accommodate our clients and provide them with services like grout and tile cleaning, hardwood, ceramic. We were able to make the adjustment in months. It wasn’t that big a deal, and Harris Research did a good job with the training and support.

What does franchise ownership allow you to do that you couldn?t do before?
TM: Kristin was a competitive gymnast when she was in school, and I was spending six to seven hours a day helping her train at the Olympic Training Center in Huntington Beach. I couldn’t have done that if I was a 9-to-5 dad. I?ve been all over the place, Maui, Puerto Rico, Canada, that I wouldn’t have been able to experience with some corporate gig. The big thing is the flexibility, the lifestyle. I could be there or not be there. My job now is just to make sure the baby doesn’t hit the concrete.

Would you recommend this franchise? Why?
KS: I would highly recommend it if you have a drive for success. The right person is someone who’s going to work hard, values the network and wants to learn from Harris Research and others in the network. I personally think you have to have integrity to be a successful Chem-Dry franchise owner, because it’s a service industry, and if you’re an owner, you’re a leader. When you?re going in people’s homes and offices, you?ve got to make sure they feel comfortable.
TM: It’s a people business, which really kind of fulfills your life. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve taken from $8 an hour to a professional wage who never would have made that kind of money otherwise. From an ownership perspective, that’s very important in my life. Financial rewards come with that, but it’s important for the human psyche to help people, and it’s heartening to see how you’ve done better every year. That’s what’s meant most to me.

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