John Downey – An Intimate Interview with a Cleaning Industry “Original”: The Life and Times of John Downey, A Trailblazer, Troublemaker and Buckeye!

Air Date: 5-3-2019|Episode 545

This week Iaqradio will have another one of their signature “Fireside Chat” shows with an industry pioneer and iconic personality. John Downey is well known to our listeners from his appearances on the show over the years in his former role as the former editor of the IICRC Journal and more recently in his new role as the Executive Director of CIRI.

This week’s show will be more personal and share John’s “story” from his family’s roots in the carpet cleaning industry that spans 5 generations over a century! John’s activism is legendary from his days of helping organize his local carpet cleaning association in Ohio to the story behind Cleanfax which he founded and sold in the 1990’s. His various dalliances in related segments of the cleaning, restoration and Jan San industries have given John some hard lessons learned he will share with our growing audience of loyal listeners.

This week IAQradio’s Restoration Global Watchdog will be joining the show to share some of his insights gleaned from knowing John for over 3 decades. Downey, Consigli and the Z-man share a common interest as industry observers, watchdogs and activists in their mission to advance the profession for the betterment of those who derive their livelihood from cleaning, restoration and remediation. Please join us this week as the “boys” have a chat with John Downey and share their heartwarming anecdotes which will make you smile, laugh and maybe along the way pick up a few tips that can be applied to your own professional and personal life journey!

Z-Man’s Blog:

It’s Genetic
It’s in his genes. Like the John M Downeys who preceded him, John M Downey IV we know is a smart, hardworking man. A man who is innovative, persuasive with a knack with words. A man unafraid to speak out about rights and wrongs. An entrepreneur who has made both good and bad business decisions. An honest man willing to admit mistakes. A man of family and of faith.
Nuggets mined from today’s‘ episode:
According to the John M Downey that we know, he always felt that someday he would run the family carpet cleaning business
Longevity. It’s a testament that both the original business Martin’s Rug Cleaning for whom his great, great grandfather worked for and the one started when his ancestor went out on his own are both still in business and run by descendants of the founders over 120 years later.
Marketer. Heard stories of how his grandfather would drive a flatbed truck through the affluent areas of Columbus during the depression. Over the loudspeaker he would say in his persuasive voice and a way with words “It’s Downey’s! Bring out your rugs!
Wider appeal. At a time when carpet cleaning was considered a luxury (1960s) which was sold door-to-door by salesmen there was an instinctive middle-class fear of being sold something they couldn’t afford. To demystify pricing and overcome fear, John’s father invented a “flat rate” pricing model, $19.95 for living room and hall, $29.95 for living room, dining room and hall, and advertised on radio. The innovative flat pricing model was very controversial and upset competitors.
Division of talent model. Procurement and service delivery. To staff his growing business, and seeking labor cost consistency, his father partnered with workmen. The company would procure the jobs to subcontracted workmen who would do the work and split the proceeds 50%/50%. The result was a responsible and reliable long-term work force.
Pair of Jacks. John’s dad had a drinking buddy, whose name was Jack Bates. Jack Bates coincidentally was also in the carpet cleaning business. One day in the late 1960s, while John Downey was doing a cleaning demo and giving an estimate, Jack Bates showed up. John Downey invited Jack to check out his new steam cleaner. Jack made a derogatory comment about the machine’s cleaning capability and left. Soon Jack had a steam machine of own. Jack started building his own steam machines soon thereafter.
Fork in the road. John Downey continued down the road of partnering with his subcontractors. Jack Bates decided to take another route: The yellow brick road (read: truck) franchise: Stanley Steamer.
Associator. In times of industry turmoil, industry trade associations prosper. The battle between “foam and steam” when foam cleaners claimed use of the word “steam” in yellow page ads was false advertising and when Stanley Steamer was awarded the contract for maintaining Dupont Stainmaster carpet were emotional and financial rallying issues for regional carpet cleaning associations.
The United Carpet Cleaners Institute (UCCI) was formed as the result of the dissatisfaction and anger of independent carpet cleaners over the Stainmaster issue. The UCCI used the Carpet Cleaners Institute of California (CCI) bylaws. The vice president was responsible for publishing the newsletter. The responsibility fell onto John, the founding vice president. He enjoyed publishing the newsletter and was given a larger budget to expand it. After several names, they settled on naming the publication Cleanfax because fax machines were new and it sounded edgy. John asked UCCI if they wanted to take the publication national and when the group declined he asked for and received permission to do it.
Activism- placed in a position of responsibility. Awareness of what is going on. Belief in right and wrong. Manning-up and speaking-up about wrongdoing.
Learning and borrowing from National Review. The idea for a Great Debate column in which important issues would be debated. Business guidance, a magazine should have a life of its own or it gets stale. Needs a blood transfusion every seven years.
Entrepreneurial Omnipotence- Foolhardiness, rash or reckless. Business success is not transferable; the fact that an entrepreneur built and profitably sold a business doesn’t mean that he has the Midas Touch and every later business venture will be successful.
“I’m killing my wife.” After selling Cleanfax, one of John’s business ventures was working with his brother in the cleaning equipment business. John’s brother was responsible from manufacturing the machines and John was responsible for selling them. After John’s brother suffered a heart attack, John assumed more responsibilities which keep him away from his wife and 9 children for weeks at a time. The added burden falling upon his wife put her in the hospital. In the hospital room John realizes that he had to make changes. He got out of the equipment business. Started a small owner operator carpet cleaning business which keeps him close to home.
Pete Consigli- Restoration Global Watchdog
  • Dan Sullivan, Strategic Coach advises: entrepreneurs to spend their time doing what they are good at and hiring for their weaknesses. True entrepreneurs get paid last.
  • Ed York had a 3 part Marketing and Management Bulletin called the “Associates” Program, that described the role of work procurement and the subcontracting model which worked successfully in carpet cleaning and disaster restoration.
  • When a new carpet cleaner with a $19.95 price on his truck showed up in Carmel, Indiana. Second generation Bob Keller didn’t take it kindly and showed up at their home with a shotgun.
  • The well-established cleaners who catered to the carriage-trade like Schaefer’s and Triple S did know many things that upstart cleaners didn’t.
  • Many firemen had second jobs/businesses as carpet cleaners and disaster restorers. These “old-timers” mentored many younger generation cleaners and fledgling restorers back in the early days of the industry in the 1960’s-80’s
  • Remembers being warmly welcomed by Armen Dohanian, Sr. (1999 ASCR/RIA President “BuzzDohanian, Jr’s Dad”) when Pete attended his first RIA convention in 1977.
  • John is too humble, saying, “I don’t really consider myself an activist”; bringing to mind a scene in the Steven Seagal movie “On Deadly Ground” when the medicine man thinks the ailing Seagal is the incarnation of a bear’s spirit, Seagal at first resists telling the medicine man that he’s only “a mouse hiding from hawks in the house of the raven.” Inevitably, the medicine man replies that this is exactly what a bear would say.
  • Ed York, wrote a hysterical tongue-in-cheek article about the Stainmaster issue, in which there was a place called Carpetland that was disrupted by a Magic Coat. To this day it is “folklore” in the annals of cleaning and restoration history since the sarcastic article never got formally published in the trade journals!
  • The Great Debate features discussing controversial subjects such as IICRC S-500 was the precursor to Pete’s role as the Commish and RIA Donnybrooks. The rebuttal segment of the Great Debate was a unique feature that enhanced the reader’s experience. Pete was the only author who debated himself taking two opposing sides of an issue. So who was crazy then, Consigli or Downey who Pete convinced to let him do it? LOL!
  • Feels a loyalty to Cleanfax as his original “dance partner”, while asked to write for competitors: Pete has resisted over the years.
  • According to Humphrey Tyler, the man who bought Cleanfax, magazine editors and publishers should sit on the fence and not take sides. Pete never wrote for Cleanfax under Humphrey’s watch. World order was restored though as, he notes, when Jeff Cross became editor.
  • Pete received an honorable mention as Cleanfax person of the year for his work on industry unification.
  • Pete’s and Tom Yacobellis’ work on industry unification was later recognized with an Industry Service Award presented by Susan Valenti at the 1990’s annual Healthy Indoor Environments (HIE) Conference.
  • You should only ride 1 horse, if you try to ride 2 at the same time, you’ll eventually get pulled apart. Choose your horse carefully. Pete says, Ride the horse in the race you choose, but work with other horses in their race to seek mutual benefit and Win-Win where and when possible! This is especially true when engaging in the not-for-profit arena and the political world of association affairs and volunteer activities.
  • RIA and IICRC signed a Memorandum of Understanding, time will tell if how successful it will be. An analogy is drawn from Ronald Regan’s posture to detente with the Russians comes to mind when he said “Trust but Verify”. RIA and IICRC should be cautiously optimistic and take the advice Stephen Covey espouses, ” Seek Win-Win…or No Deal!”
  • My mom taught me that: Age is a function of time. Youth is a state of mind. Pete wishes his friends and colleagues to remain forever young in heart and spirit!
John’s closing comments:
  • The Great Debate idea was borrowed from the National Review.
  • The IICRC / RIA MOU is a welcome development, which he hopes will bear fruit over time.
  • If he were giving the Person of the Year Award, he would give it to Mark Springer for his determination in getting the IICRC to engage. He knows Mark’s heart is in the right place, both groups need to give it a chance. John hopes its just the start.
Johns’ Final Word:
Workaholic is not a badge of honor, it’s an addiction to the business process. If our work is #1, we are missing the truly important things.
Today’s discussion was based in great part upon a document that John Downey provided. For those who know John or are interested in learning more about him, it’s an honest and great read. LEARN MORE
Z-Man signing off
Name the former Ohio State football coach who also coached two NFL teams?
Answer: Paul Brown
Mike Miles, ServiceMaster Restore of Newark, Wilmington, DE