Scrub Me Tender
A chance encounter led to a lifetime career
by Roberta Nubile
John and Karen Barry are the owners of Sunrise Cleaning Service in Burlington, launched in 1982 when John, who was unemployed, agreed to clean the three businesses owned by Karen’s boss. Karen joined him in the business in 1984. Max is their cockapoo.
Since its inception in the early ’80s, John and Karen Barry’s family-owned and -operated business, Sunrise Cleaning Service, has mastered the art of responding to market demands. The business started out in response to “a need that needed to be filled,” says John, and has enjoyed a steady income by staying open to opportunities.
The Barrys, who met through mutual friends in 1980 when John was a resource economics major at the University of Vermont, married in 1982 — shortly before he entered the cleaning business by chance.
Karen, a Burlingtonian, worked at Ken’s Pub on Church Street in Burlington. John, originally from New Jersey, was on a job search.
Karen’s boss, the late Ken Miller, needed someone to clean his three businesses. The professional company he’d hired was a no-show, and he appealed to John for help. Although John had no cleaning experience and was unemployed from his Interstate paving job due to a healing knee injury from skiing, he agreed to help. “I didn’t see it as a business right away,” he says, “but it escalated quickly into other bars and restaurants.”
The money proved to be too good to turn away, and John realized he could work as much as he wanted, with no limit on what he could earn, “but I kept expecting it to end anytime,” he says. “It wasn’t until a couple of years into it, when I needed to hire people, that I considered it my business.”
The name Sunrise was chosen, says Karen, because of the time the workday began back then. Now, however, she exclaims, “the name doesn’t apply as much because this is usually when John is coming home!”
In 1984, Karen quit the pub to help John with the cleaning, which she says she did “literally until my first child was born in 1990. I became the office manager and the ‘everything-else’ person. I taught myself how to use a computer and QuickBooks, all at once and from scratch, which made life interesting.
“I was a stay-at-home mom and John was sleeping a good part of the day, so I enjoyed having an engaging project. I made a lot of mistakes along the way, but I can honestly say that I enjoyed doing it — still do. It was very gratifying.”
The Barrys had no business plan, and the business, says John, just evolved to where the work was: commercial spaces such as offices, small grocery stores, and restaurants. Both worked seven days a week, including nights and holidays.
It wasn’t until after the children were born that they fully appreciated the benefits of their home business. “We were able to work, be at home, and still be with the kids,” says Karen. Although this left Karen home with the children alone at night, their schedule allowed John to be with them during the day.
Son Kevin, 21, is a full-time film student at UVM and works four nights a week for Sunrise. He recently signed on to a television production internship in New York City. Christopher, born in 1993, is a senior in high school. Both have put in many hours at Sunrise, working their way through high school and college. “It has worked out nicely that they were part of the family company,” says Karen mischievously, “where we can keep an eye on them.”
The business took a fortuitous turn in the early ’90s when John agreed to take on a much larger cleaning job. He was approached by the district manager of the regional supermarket chain Grand Union to clean its commercial tile floors. “No one in the area was doing this, so we could see what a great opportunity it was,” he says.
The Barrys invested in an Autoscrubber and burnisher, no small-ticket items, and this started a new facet of their business: the cleaning and polishing of commercial tile resilient floors. Their first contract led to several more supermarket and industrial facilities. They found a niche with this service.
“It was a great period because they were such large jobs, we didn’t have to go and out and seek the smaller businesses or offices,” says John. The $15,000 machines were so large, that they had to buy one for each store. “That kept a lot of people out of that business around here,” says John. At our height, we had 28 people working and a fleet of machines. They incorporated in 1999.
“John is an amazing floor guy,” says Steve Clayton, the owner of Shelburne Supermarket. “They have cleaned for us for years. Our tiles were supposed to last for 10 years but instead, with their maintenance, we are going on the 15th year and they still look like brand-new. It’s great to come in in the morning and see a whole new store after John has worked at night.”
The night work is by design, not choice, for liability reasons. “There is a lot of risk inherent in buffing and waxing floors with customers walking about,” John explains.
An economic downturn in early 2001 caused their business to change gears once again. Many groceries started contracting with the lowest bidders, meaning an influx of larger, national companies. “The grocery stores couldn’t afford the cost of local labor,” says John. Sunrise had to downsize.
“We made a shift to floor work that wasn’t daily, and narrowed it down to a couple of large jobs, with fewer employees and subs as needed.”
The company went back to diversifying, and revisited smaller commercial spaces. Every client required exacting specifications, John says. “If it’s a chain store, there are company standards; if it’s a restaurant, there are federal standards — every contract is unique.”
The most recent shift at Sunrise was not predicated on economic reasons, but more personal ones. Recognizing their desire for more flexibility in their lives — to take vacations or pursue hobbies — and because they still own the equipment to clean large areas in a short amount of time, the Barrys decided to specialize in post-construction cleaning of renovated or new construction. This includes detail work such as cleaning, refinishing, and removing post-construction dust and dirt from all surfaces. “We expect to have weekend and after-work hours for this,” says John.
Although the company will continue to service smaller-square-footage commercial accounts, the intention is that the floor maintenance will be aimed at periodic commercial vinyl stripping and refinishing — “people who call once or twice a year,” says John. “Because we are specializing, we will expand our geographical area and travel farther.”
Mark Sammut, project manager with the construction company Wright & Morrissey Inc., has worked with Sunrise on several jobs, most recently at the Bariatrix Nutrition Facility in Georgia. “We are very satisfied with Sunrise,” he says. “They work with our schedules and are extremely dependable, doing jobs for us ranging from 1,500 to 54,000 square feet.”
Karen has recently challenged herself to learn website design and work though the intricacies of bidding software, while identifying and marketing to new construction customers.
With the shift in the company and the potential of more time, she looks forward to having more time to pursue her longtime passion of photography — “ever since I got my first Kodak Instamatic,” she says. Her photos, which she hopes to turn into a business, have sold to a few customers and include landscapes, architecture, and animals. She’s taking more architectural photos, several of which are framed in their home.
John wants to spend more time doing yard work, fishing, and hunting — “hanging out in the woods.”
One thing they say is as clear as the shine on the floors they service: Through their company, they have learned that by going with the fluctuations of market demand and riding out the economic waves, they’ve gathered a wealth of on-the-job experience, which has served them well. •