The Development of the Building Service Contracting Industry

The contract cleaning industry evolved from the late 1880s with individuals who rode trains to trim wicks and clean lamps in depots across the country. Around the same time, immigrants who were unfamiliar with the land and language of their new homes, and who possessed limited skills, began to take on cleaning tasks. The industry started from a primitive, grassroots execution to what is now a global, multi-million dollar, technologically-savvy, essential need to successful business operations.
The newly-arrived immigrants brought with them very little skill, but they had the desire and drive to provide for themselves and their families. Although the cleaning industry was initially represented by window washers and cleaners, it became apparent that the need for internal maintenance was becoming the sought after the signature of prosperity and success. Many of Canada’s oldest contract cleaning companies started out by washing windows, yet today, window cleaning represents only a small percentage of their business. Manufacturers and suppliers of cleaning materials and equipment became involved in contract cleaning when they were asked by building owners and managers to train their in-house cleaners to use the suppliers’ products. Continuous labor turnover and training caused some building owners and managers to ask their suppliers to take on the responsibility for cleaning. From there, new cleaning firms were formed. The industry continued in an unsophisticated, mop-and-bucket manner with little progress until about the time of World War II. The onset of the war brought about an immediate demand for internal building maintenance services.

Low-income labor became more difficult to get during the war, and industrial clients found that contract cleaners could provide maintenance services more cheaply than they could themselves. Post World War II growth in the building of hospitals and schools and the increased population helped the industry’s development. In the early days of the industry, progress was hampered by many factors. There were no systems or techniques; it was not simply a matter of getting the job done, and low-income labor became difficult to obtain in many regions resulting in newly-arrived immigrants filling the need. The 1950s and 1960s saw the industry move towards improvement and progress. Contract cleaning owners began to recognize the need for separation of ownership and management. In addition, more competent people were hired and contract cleaners began to see the advantage of having a definite managed plan of direction. The companies that survived during this time were those who could manage their cash flow on a daily basis. Building service contractors’ attitude towards business was of great importance in whether they were there simply to make a profit or to provide a service that would result in profit. The growth of high-rise buildings and the increase in construction greatly influenced the growth of the industry. The need for more professional cleaning skills emerged. The wide use of carpeting rather than tile floors enabled contractors to produce a clean building at a lower cost per square foot. New government wage and hour legislation obligated building owners to pay higher wages and benefits, which made contracting for maintenance services more desirable. Building owners’ use of building service contractors increased as their requirements and standards were being satisfied by contractors. Contractors were now forced to become more professional and efficient in order to stay competitive and make a profit.

The 1970s brought about another era in the industry. In the early stages of cleaning product development, products were introduced by one source and generally copied by everyone else. Due to the growth of the building services contracting industry, manufacturers rushed out to sell them new products. Suppliers realized that by educating and interesting contractors in the best use of their products, they sold more product. Areas overlooked in the infancy of the industry continued to cause problems for contractors in the 1970s. In the past architects, interior designers and decorators had not considered building maintenance when designing various structures. Many building owners used incorrect colors and wrong types of carpeting in entry-ways; hard-to-clean wall areas and windows; inadequate janitor closets, etc. The cleaning contractors of today are interested in coordination with clients who are building new structures or renovating to ensure the use of easier-to-clean materials. The end result is a more satisfied building tenant and cost-effective cleaning operation. The 1980s brought more change which once again saw some contractors adapt while others were already ahead of the curve. There were a few innovations in the equipment industry, more maneuverable machines, longer-lasting batteries, dependability, and wider cleaning paths. While in the chemical manufacturing industry, the focus was on portability of the chemicals and dispensing systems with a focus on reducing the number of products required to perform various duties. Equipment technology is a driving force for innovation in the cleaning industry. The 20th Century brought the first commercial vacuum while the 21st Century brought us autonomous robotic cleaning. The key areas of focus in both centuries are • Productivity and performance (sweeping, scrubber drying). • Durability and reliability. • Cleaning versatility and safety. • Demand for specialist machinery. • Expansion of daytime cleaning.


• Reliance on one machine. • Reliable and user friendly. • Low cost and easy maintenance.


• Versatility for all areas. • One hundred per cent water pick-up. • Versatility equals productivity.


• Escalator and moving sidewalks. • Delivery vehicles. • Steam cleaning units. • Ride-on sweepers.


• Cordless vacuums. • Quick change battery pods and built-ins. • HEPA filtration and low decibels. The cleaning machinery market is and will be driven in the future by the need to have durable, highly productive, and flexible machinery that can be used safely anywhere, at any time. The early 21st Century saw “the new CEO” evolve into a major financier, amalgamation took hold of the industry creating buying groups, expanded regional, national and international business entities. This landscape has been further complicated with the evolution of property management firms into major financial powerhouses, REITS where individual decision makers/managers have been replaced with financial spreadsheets/forecasts and matrix-based decision making based on objective aspects of a subjective industry.


As an industry grows and matures, so does the Chief Executive of a contract cleaning company. Today, they are more competent, informed, and willing to improve. They have management skills, financial strength, and diversification of services. Today’s CEOs also have a much higher degree of professionalism compared to any other time in the history of the industry. Contracting companies continue to grow and competition is strong. Today’s company representatives are typically entrepreneurs, owners, partners, or chief executives who have 25 years of experience in the business, and at least 15 in their present position. Generally, they have a university education and come from a variety of previous occupations. The management team is formed, for the most part, from the companies’ own labor force. Newspaper advertising ranks second as a tool for recruitment.

With market competition being stronger than ever, each company must ensure that the levels of service they provide meet their client’s expectations. Building services contracting companies have come a long way since the early days. The industry has gained a lot and its image is at an all-time high.


• 2005 – 239,700 • 2006 – 243,900 • 2007 – 253,900
Source: Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey – Special Tabulation.


The individuals in the building services contracting industry will not sit back and lull themselves into a false sense of security. The next decade will constitute years of challenge, and all their skills, ingenuity, creativity, and capabilities will be called upon to cope with the demands made by various changes. The contracted cleaning industry is in an ever-changing state of flux. The successful contractor cannot depend on reputation and adequate service alone. Today’s needs are becoming less about the act of cleaning, and more about what methodology and process is in place to ensure that the customer has complete control and awareness of when and how the property is being maintained. Technology is almost commonplace in every aspect of daily living. Contracted cleaning is not an exception. “Real-Time” reporting and instantaneous updates are key in the successful operation of any facility. The salesperson of today in this industry is prepared and ready to position solutions that are larger in complexity and scope, contracted cleaners are no longer hired for cleaning duties, they are incumbents for customized facility solutions. In addition to the technology aspect of today’s solutions, more and more companies are concerned about the effect their suppliers and their products have on the environment. Buildings today are making it very difficult for contractors to provide solutions that are not in accordance with a ‘Green’ methodology. Although newly implemented criteria, by most standards, this is one area where the demand will get much more detailed and granular. Environmentally- friendly solutions are no longer nice to have, but an indisputable requirement. The demands on the industry over the next decade will be far more rapid. Training and technical information will be a “must.” Other requirements for the future include: • Increased need for the use of computerization, training and industry-wide sharing of information will occur. • More preparation will be needed to professionalize sales calls. • Increased use of telephone and mail marketing will become common practice. • Printed material – catalogs, flyers, advertisements – used by companies will have to be more skillfully prepared in order to attract the buyer’s interest. • Much more attention will have to be devoted to all building service contract employees because this is very much a “people” business. • Trade shows.

Cleaning represents one-fourth to one-third of the operating cost of an office building. This highly-specialized field needs to be performed as efficiently and economically as the latest technology will allow. Negotiated cleaning contractors are on the increase, particularly when it involves servicing a large property and when an existing contract is being renewed. When a building owner or manager has identified a successful contractor with a proven track record, it is in their mutual best interest to negotiate a contract, which will permit the contractor to provide the quality of service desired, and still make a reasonable profit. Unlike the early years of contract cleaning, the expertise in negotiating and working with unions is an important function in today’s management of a medium- to large-size contract cleaning organization. Property managers consider this expertise as one of the most important factors when selecting a contract cleaner. Managers of cleaning labor will have to provide staff with a sense of ownership and motivate and train them in order to provide value-added service in the competing labour markets of the future. It is important to remember that every contractor wants to please their client, but clients and contractors are different. For the best working relationship, it is not enough to just have a mutual understanding at the signing of the contract. The more the client communicates with the contractor about things that are going well or going wrong, the quicker the contractor becomes part of the client’s team and gains the important “feel” which is vital to a good and lasting working relationship. A responsible contractor wants to prospecial vide service and to deliver top cleaning value. The building owner or manager can obtain greater value for their dollar invested by working with the contractor as a “partner” to achieve the service desired.

Today, the magic word “motivation” is an important tool in the larger- and medium-sized companies. If you told a North American automobile plant manager that one day he would have a plant floor staffed by team leaders and that his production hourly employees would be actively involved and contributing in decision circles, he or she would probably think you were way off track. Now, more and more progressive contract cleaning companies use this form of management style in their day-to-day operations. Building owners and managers are gradually moving away from buying the lowest price. They are seeking out contractors who have a strongly motivated management team, that use the latest cleaning technology and given them the best value for their cleaning dollar. The delicate balance between accepting a reduction in the cost of cleaning and maintaining reputable building cleaning standards is a challenge to building owners and managers. Good value for their cleaning dollar and happy tenants  is what building owners are looking for in a contract cleaner. The trend to use contract cleaners to provide cleaning service in the future is going to continue to rise and that buildings cleaned by their own staff will be the exception. Managers and supervisors will have a more direct influence on worker productivity, absenteeism, and quality of work, morale, labour relations and cost reduction than any other measure. Supervisors have to become an integral part of the management team, they will have top management support to achieve the results building service contractors, and clients demand. The advantages of contracting out are substantial. Building services contractors are specialized. They are professionals with the proper tools and equipment to do the job well. They have well-trained personnel and capable managers. In closing it is apparent that the industry that went from soapy water window washing to technology-driven facility solutions has come a very long way. Contracted cleaning providers are now considered essential services, providing what is needed throughout the day with limited effects on our environment.