People in Sweeping Making a Difference
Steve Young: Looking Back Over a Life in Sweepingby Ranger Kidwell-Ross
Steve Young was a fixture in the power sweeping industry for nearly 30 years. From his start as a contractor to selling Schwarze sweepers at the company's California office to founding Sweeper Parts Online, Young's story is one embedded within the power sweeping industry.
In the spring of 2017 I held a conversation with Steve Young. Sweeping industry old-timers will likely know about this retired industry veteran. Steve agreed to provide me with his recollections and insight about the power sweeping industry, so that the newer people in the industry could see what it was like in past decades.
Steve's introduction to sweeping came when he started working as a mechanic for a guy that happened to own a couple sweepers. He then ended up starting his own sweeping business in 1988, with a used low-dump "Mister Air" (now MASCO) machine. Awhile after that the course of his life in the industry changed somewhat dramatically as the result of a call he received from Bob Schwarze, founder of Schwarze Industries, Inc. As a result of that interaction, Steve went from mechanic/operator to sweeper salesperson and then on to become a sort of "jack of all trades" within the sweeping industry.
In 1994, Steve and I had the opportunity to accompany Mark Schwarze on an adventurous sweeping industry trip that included Japan, Hong Kong and China. Although we had been business acquaintances prior to that, as a result of the trip we became life-long friends. This article was taken from information in the audio podcast I conducted with Steve Young. If you are among the many who have worked with Steve or have interest in the roots of the power sweeping industry, I'm sure you will enjoy it.
WS: Let me get the ball rolling, Steve, by asking you to elaborate on how you first got into sweeping.
SY: Well, I started working as a mechanic for a sweeping company, and he and his brother decided to "split the sheets." I didn't agree with the breakup very much, so I decided to start my own business, which I called Day and Night Power Sweeping. I bought an old, used, no-dump "Mister Air" (now MASCO) that was mounted on an old Ford Courier truck. Frankly, it was a worn out piece of crap but I thought, well, it'll look good if I paint it and if it looks good everybody will think it sweeps good! And that's how I started. I'd been sweeping for only 3 or 4 months when I got a call out of the blue from Bob Schwarze, the founder of Schwarze Industries, Inc.
Bob said, "Why don't you come up and see us, we're in Orange county (California)." It wasn't that far to go and I said I would. So, I drove to his place and met him. By this time I was really stretching the limits of my one sweeper and he had a bunch of used sweepers. I ended up buying another old sweeper. It was a NiteHawk that was underpowered because the engine had been replaced at some point with one out of an old Chevy GMC truck. I liked the sweeper okay but told him I didn't think it had enough power. To my surprise, he then had his mechanic put a Volkswagen engine on it and also a curb broom, which the truck didn't have before. It then swept like a cat. Basically, I got into a relationship with Bob because he was willing to go the extra mile for me. Before long I ended up buying two more used Schwarze 222-A sweepers, which were mounted onto Toyota chassis.
WS: Incredibly, there are people still keeping those 222s going out there, even though they haven't been made for decades.
SY: They were bulletproof! Then one day Bob called and said, "C'mon see me, I've got this new SuperVac sweeper you've just got to see!" So I went to take a look at this parking lot sweeper that had a three-yard hopper and a diesel engine. I thought it was really a nice little sweeper. I had just gotten a Federal contract with Naval Housing in San Diego, so I bought it and, within two years, purchased three more.
[This was before GPS] and as I grew it became harder to track my sweepers. I was running 13 machines by then and started to lose track of what was going on. Once I started to dig into my operations a little more I started to come across things that were hilarious. One time when I filled in for one of my operators I was behind a Goodwill Store and there was a little, tiny 50cc scooter parked by the dumpster. So, I got out and walked over to look at it and about that time a midget, about 3-feet tall and wearing a motorcycle helmet, jumped out of the dumpster! He had been dumpster diving and before I could even say anything, he jumped onto his little scooter and took off.
Another time, I was blowing off debris in a shopping center in Oceanside and discovered a cardboard barrier in front of one of the doors. I couldn't figure out what was going on with it so I took hold of the cardboard and pulled it away, revealing a guy and gal who were having sex in front of the doorway. The guy got indignant with me, saying: "What the hell are you doing; this is where I sleep!"
Then, yet another good story occurred when I was in San Diego checking on my guy's work. I pulled my pickup into the parking lot of a 7/11 wearing our company uniform to get a cup of coffee. The clerk walked up and said: "Well, what do you want tonight? Cigarettes, or something else?" "What," I said, "are you talking about?" His answer: "Are you doing my lot tonight for cigarettes or for beer?"
That's when it dawned on me what this guy was talking about. Back in the day the 7/11 guys had to clean their own lots in their spare time, and this guy was giving away his owner's products for my product, sweeping their lot! I must say it didn't go well for either employee after that. Then there was the time I got a call around 7am from someone who demanded to know why I hadn't swept his lot the previous night. I told him, after checking, that he wasn't on my list of customers. "I pay you every week," he responded. "Why weren't you here today?" Come to find out, one of my drivers was moonlighting with my sweeper, not only sweeping this guy's lot but charging him a fortune for it, much more than I would have charged a 'real' customer!
Another incident made me start paying attention to my gas receipts. One Saturday I got a call from a gas station employee who told me that my driver had left the company's gas card at his station. Since my driver didn't work on Saturday I told him I'd be down to pick it up. What happened was that the guy was taking his wife and kids to the beach and he used my card to buy the gas. The station employee had mistakenly given him back the wrong card and the person who had ended up with my card had returned it to the station.
When I confronted the guy on Monday, I asked him why he used my card over the weekend, which he denied. At that point I asked him to give my card back to me. When he did, I pointed out it wasn't mine. However this one, I told him as I showed him the one I'd been given back, is. Unbelievably, he was indignant with me, saying "Aren't I allowed to take my wife to the beach?" Not on MY dime!
The moral, of course, is that if you don't keep on top of your business sooner or later you will get sleezed by sneaky employees. A number of times I also found an "other" charge on my gas receipts, which turned out to be cigarettes or drinks or food. Today, with GPS and gas cards, there are check-and-balances to keep from getting cheated so easily.
WS: Right! And you know, that's something that people should look at even today. GPS catches a lot of that these days, but your story shows the kind of things that can go on if you don't have GPS tracking. Even if you do have GPS, that's not going to show that on your gas cards, unless you look at more than the totals. That's a good reminder to contractors to look at those actual receipts, rather than just entering in the totals and taking it from there. Those are great reminder stories, Steve!
SY: Eventually I learned to set up gas stations along my routes where I gave them a card for use by my employees. Our system was that the station employee would take down the truck or sweeper number and the amount of the gas pumped. Then each week I would go to each station and pay my bills. Plus, they knew I wouldn't pay for anything other than gas or diesel and even then I wanted the truck number written on the card. That was the only way I could think of to stop the misuse.
If I had had the help in the beginning, with a good manager of some kind, they could stop that kind of stuff. But I was kind of just winging it. I was a retired marine who didn't really know how to run a business. Every day was a new learning situation.
WS: That's one of the reasons we have these podcasts, is to give the listeners different ideas about things to consider and ideas about how to run their business better. You ended up getting out of the contracting business, though. How did that happen?
SY: It just got to the point where there was too much for me to handle, I couldn't find a good second person to help me and I had a good offer from someone who bought my business. And then Bob Schwarze said, "What do you want to do now?" And I said: "I don't know, I'm guess I'm just going to take it easy." And he says, "Come down and sit with me for a couple of days and we'll just chat." The next thing I knew I was a salesman at Schwarze Industries. They had just gotten rid of the office in Orange, California and moved to nearby Rancho Cucamonga. I ended up working with David Cruz at the Cucamonga office as a salesman. It was an easy transition.
WS: Rancho Cucamonga is also in California, for those who might not know that.
SY: I stayed there for 11 years and then Schwarze Industries was sold (to its current owner, Alamo Group). I thought, "What do I do now?" I ended up selling sweepers for the new owners of Schwarze Industries for four years. [During that time] I heard all these questions asking where can I get flap rubber or drag shoes or parts for my sweeper, along with complaints about the current costs. So, I started a business called "Sweeper Parts Online." I had that for about 3 years and was able to save the contractors a lot of money. I was selling flap sets for $30. That's when contractors were used to paying a hundred and something dollars a set! However, I had gone to China and we bought container loads of rubber at a great price. We could sell rubber for 20 percent of what people were paying at the current time. That's what got me going. I was only going to sell rubber, and then I connected with a drag shoe guy who helped me out with drag shoe prices. Then I made contact with other parts people and it was on the run after that.
WS: You really had a going concern there. I remember we hosted your website back then, and I don't know if those were the American Sweeper magazine days or if we had moved over to WorldSweeper.com at that point. You really had a very viable business going, I know that. What happened, ultimately?
SY: Well, my mother got cancer. She lived in California and I was in Minnesota. So I was going back and forth and just using my laptop as a business tool. I wasn't able to go back to my so-called factory where I was cutting flaps and stuff and shipping them. It got to be such an inconvenience that I sold Sweeper Parts Online and retired.
WS: I will never forget the trip we had to Asia back when I was the editor of American Sweeper magazine. Essentially, Mark Schwarze took me along and you went with us. We went to a number of places, including Japan, Hong Kong and China, and then I went on to Australia. There were some wonderful events during the trip. In Hong Kong, I met with the managers responsible for sweeping in Hong Kong.
They picked me up from the hotel and someone from the Communist Party was in the vehicle to monitor what was said. When we got to the place where the sweeping was organized all the people that worked in the entire building were outside the building standing in a long line that stretched from the lowliest worker to the general manager, on the other end of the line. They were all standing out there for me to review if I were a general.
I believe they were organizing around 1,900 different people on a schedule every day. Their mandate was to clean every part of Hong Kong that might be seen by a tourist before 8 o'clock in the morning using a broom, a dustpan and a wheelbarrow. What are some of the highlights that you recall from traveling around, in terms of sweeping?
SY: A highlight for me was walking through Red Square, which I had only seen in a TV broadcast with a man standing from a tank defying somebody. Going to a Communist country that you've only seen on TV, it's really not what you see. As I was walking through Red Square I looked over to one of the sides of the Square, and I thought I saw sweepers! I actually walked over and started taking pictures of street sweepers behind this building. There were always guards and people walking around, but no one came around and said: "Oh, no, sir, you can't do this, you have to walk away!" There were no restrictions at all. I pretty much went where I wanted to. When we went out at night and visited the city, I had never felt safer in a country at night time than I did in China. That was just before the Olympics, too. It was a very safe city.
WS: What I remember about Red Square was I had the worst meal I've ever had in my life. It was after you guys convinced me that I shouldn't be eating any of the scorpions on a stick being sold at the outdoor market. So, we ended up in a restaurant down the street. I had no idea what I was ordering and pointed at something. It turned out to be some kind of organ-based soup.
SY: You and Mark were in better shape, because when we went to the Great Wall I was beat. You and Mark walked quite a ways up the Great Wall when we went out on that excursion. I stayed back with the taxi driver, and of course, we were both hungry. So he went off and got some barbecue—there are a lot of vendors around the Great Wall. He bought some kind of meat on a skewer that turned out to be beef organs on a stick, barbecued. When he finally told me what it was, I gave him the rest of my stick.
WS: I bet you did! But you had a very brave face when we went to the "Pig's Face Restaurant!" That was quite an event!
SY: I only ate as a guest. There were probably 10 or 12 of us there when they brought out that whole hog's head.
WS: A pig's face! It was half a pig's head sliced down the middle, and it was staring up at us from the plate.
SY: Right, you got the eyes on your side of the table!
WS: We were told that the first patented food of China was the patent on how they cooked up this "Pig Face."
SY: Because we were guests, they gave us first choice. The server gave us these little rice tortillas and then pointed at different parts to see what we wanted first. When he finally got to the cheeks, I said, "I'll take that!" There were also the ears, the lips and the brains. I thought the cheeks were the best choice.
WS: We had two of those dinners. They were hosted by the man that was looking to import Schwarze sweepers and the idea was to introduce us important Americans to a variety of government officials. This was in a very expensive place; however, all the guests wore little paper Pig Face hats. We sat around a table with a lazy susan in the middle. As they were served, each of the dishes was put onto the lazy susan, which was then rotated around for everybody to look at it. Our host would then taste it first and Mark probably tasted it second. When he approved, it went on. I was about third or fourth and some of the stuff was amazing!
I remember that one of the noodles was real chewy, but good. They had it with several different sauces on it. These are afternoon, luncheon-type dinners. At the second dinner I was trying to say something nice about my hosts and about the food. I said, "You know, these noodles are very good, but I can't place what they are. They are different from anything I've eaten before. What are they called?"
The attorney for Mr. Sun, the potential sweeper importer, then repeated my question to the government officials. They must have chatted among themselves for a couple minutes until finally one of them came up with what they could call the food in English. The translator then said, "Those are what's called 'deer-hide' noodles!" Only then did I realize the 'noodles' were actually thin strips of leather, cooked and cooked until you could finally eat them.
The other thing about those two meals: Do you remember that we had to drink beer? Protocol absolutely required we join in with all their toasts with juice-sized glasses of beer. When one or the other attendees drank to our health, which they all did multiple times because they were government officials and that's what enabled them to drink during the afternoon. At the end of each toast, which would be dutifully translated to us by Mr. Sun's attorney, they would say either "Bombay" or "Gonbay."
Gonbay" meant we had to all drink the contents of the entire glass. After the first few glasses we would plead for it to be "Bombay," but they would inevitably laugh at each other and say: "No, no, Gonbay!" I recall heading for the restroom, almost staggering from wall-to-wall down the hall, thinking: "Gee, it's 2 o'clock in the afternoon, I'm about as inebriated as I've ever been in my life and I'm in the middle of China! What an amazing adventure."
Click here to read WorldSweeper.com's award-winning coverage of sweeping in China.
SY: Yes! Very pleasant people who didn't speak a lot of English. I had met the person who had made our introductions because I spoke some Japanese, from having lived in Japan for so many years. I think they were using the Hako sweepers back then, which was a spin-off of an American sweeper, I believe the Wayne. Very knowledgable people. The problem with American sweepers was that the streets were so narrow; it just wasn't suitable for a Japanese street. So we weren't able to really do business with them.
WS: They did have one Schwarze sweeper, though, and I think that's what got us there was that they had the Schwarze EV series that they had bought to mitigate noise. The Schwarze EV was an environmental sweeper that many readers are not going to be familiar with. It was built on a John Deere, purpose-built chassis built to do mitigation for polluted areas. Tests showed the EV swept well over 99% of everything it went over, using no water, via a filtration system of filters that back-flushed automatically.
The EV's 'Achilles heel' was that it could only travel at 25 or 30 miles an hour. The Japanese contractor had bought one, which they were using to test how well it could clean porous pavement. The porous pavement was being used more and more extensively not to be environmentally correct, as is the case in the U.S., but because of all the high-rises in Tokyo's densely populated areas. Tenants didn't like the sound of the water when car tires would go over a wet pavement, so they put in porous pavement that would drain quickly. So, the contractor had purchased an EV to see if that would be the best way to keep the pores clean.
That was the first time I ever saw GPS, there in Japan in the contractor's Toyota, which was almost like a limousine. We just couldn't believe that he turned on a screen in the dash and we could hear a woman's voice telling him which way to go, in either English or Japanese. At one point, he was trying to take us to a festival in his part of the town, which he said was happening right then. Initially, the voice had told him he would be turning to the right in a couple of blocks.
Then, just before we got to the street, the voice coming from the dash said to NOT turn there, because there was a blockage. The contractor said: "Oh, that's probably the parade from this little festival that I wanted to show you. I'm going to turn down there anyway." And we went down a block, and the block wasn't a parade; rather, it was a car that was double-parked in front of a dry cleaner's.
As we arrived, a man was just coming out to put his dry cleaning into his car. As that car moved about 10 feet, the voice came onto the dash of the Toyota and said that the blockage was cleared up. I thought, "Boy, there's a miracle device, if I ever heard one!" GPS first started to come into the United States two or three years after that. People in the US think that we're on top of it, that we're the first to get new technology, but by no means is that true.
Click here to read WorldSweeper.com's award-winning coverage of sweeping in Japan.
WS: You're welcome to talk about any of the other events that we've had during that time frame that we traveled, but our readers will also be interested in knowing how you've seen the sweeping industry change over time.
SY: The industry is a lot less smooth than it used to be, I can tell you that! A lot of the smaller guys are having a hard time keeping in business with the price of new sweepers being so high now. Of course, the only used sweepers that are worth anything are sweepers in dry states out West, like in California or New Mexico. Most used sweepers [in other areas of the U.S.] aren't worth anything by the time they're 10 years old. Even used sweepers have gone up so much that a guy breaking into the business today would have to have a pocket full of money to get started. When I started, my first sweeper only cost $1,500. You couldn't even buy insurance for that now. Personally, I think it would be very difficult to try to start a business these days in sweeping.
WS: The contractors who are in the business will probably echo that, and the ones that haven't entered the business yet may have a second thought. What kind of money were you able to get for a medium-sized area let's say, something like a Target store?
SY: At the time, we were happy to get $35 an hour.
SY: I had a minimum head drop for $20. If it was a convenience store, it was going to cost you that much just to drop the head. But you have to think of the driving time. So, if I had a job that was 20 miles away on the interstate, I would make sure I had three or four stops on the way down and a couple of stops on the way back, because you couldn't afford to drive 20 miles to one job. I don't care if it paid $50; it just didn't equate by the time you paid labor and gas and wear and tear. Unless you concentrated on an area around you where you can do several jobs in a geographic area, you just can't afford to do it. It just costs too much.
WS: Was it a big deal when you got to an Isuzu cab-forward chassis and away from a conventional chassis? Did that change everything?
SY: You couldn't use cabovers on a small lot. It was only economical doing larger centers. Back then, you couldn't send a $40,000 cab (and now it's about $90,000) on a job where you are only paid $25 or $30. It just didn't make any sense. So, that was where the smaller MASCOs and Schwarzes came into play, because you're sending them to your little jobs. At the time, we sent a sweeper mounted onto a larger or conventional cab over only to do large shopping centers.
WS: How about advice for sweeping contractors today? Are there tips that you'd like to pass on along that are still applicable?
SY: If you can't make any money on it, don't take the job! If you just thought that a big center would give you a big name, because "I do the so-and-so center," think again. If you're not making any money, then it's not worth doing. Establish your prices based on your costs and do not deviate down from that figure. If you have decided that you're going to charge $XX an hour, then stick to your guns! Don't start taking less than that just because the job is next door.
If you're not making the money you've established that you need, don't take the account. Remember when you hire the guy to come and look at your broken washing machine -- even though he's going across the street, he's still charging the same $75 surcharge to come to your house. So, why shouldn't sweeping contractors do the same thing? I mean just because it is an adjoining center don't be dropping your price or you're not going to make any money. Those surcharge costs are what keeps you going. You can't make any money driving down the freeway.
WS: Good point! What was your experience when you got your flaps from China and other lower wage countries? I know you really shopped around to find quality products that cost you less. I know you've kept up a little bit in terms of information in the industry. Do you think it pays for contractors to look around for their parts, rather than go OEM?
SY: Yes, you always shop. Don't just buy from the guy you bought [the sweeper] from. Chances are, he's not giving you a deal 'cause he thinks you are a life-long customer. Just because you have a particular brand of sweeper, that doesn't mean you have to go back to the manufacturer to buy your rubber. If Schwarze buys drag shoes from a guy in Louisiana, they're marking it up to make a profit. Why not go straight to the guy that makes the drag shoe? It only makes sense.
WS: We try to help out our contractors in any way we can and I agree that's good advice. Anything else you'd like to talk about while we're on the topic? Weren't you at the first meeting for organizing a sweeping association?
SY: I recall going to an early show at the Pomona Fairgrounds and I believe a sweeping group was just trying to organize at that time. I don't think they had actually started membership, I think they were in the early days of it. Some of the contractors thought they needed an association they could go to for insurance and to buy parts for a better price. They would then have a group of guys that could be asked for assistance. You want it to be where it's all for one, though, not where the organizers are trying to make override money on the members for goods or services.
WS: I've always agreed with that as well. That's why, when I organized World Sweeping Association, instead of asking all the manufacturers to pay me $3,000 or $5,000 per year, just for the privilege of being on my website, I asked them instead to provide the best possible discount to my members. The only outlay that they would have is when they actually sold something. I think that's a better business model.'
SY: You look at your "struggling contractor" today; he might be a "major contractor" down the road. Why not take care of him now, so we can benefit the industry down the road? Don't try to fleece him now; he'll never grow if you don't give him a break. WS: Is there anything else you want to talk about, Steve?
SY: I'm glad that I got into the business. I learned a lot and matured over the years, having met all of these really neat people in the business. Sweeping contractors and drivers are a different group of people! I mean, we're people who are naturally up all night. Many of us are not as sociable as you'd like us to be and perhaps somewhat grouchy by day. However, if you meet us at 11 o'clock at night in the shopping center, we're probably a lot nicer!
WS: That's right. If you're talking to a sweeper by day, you're just talking to him at the wrong time. If you want to catch them in their best light, talk to them at night!
SY: That's right! Ha-ha-ha!
WS: Thanks a lot for that, Steve! I really appreciate your taking the time to reminisce about your years in the business. It was fun for me to be able to look back on some of the things that we shared on our trip to Asia and in helping see your alternative sweeper parts company grow and so forth! You were a very viable credit to the power sweeping industry and had a lot to contribute in its earlier years. I'm glad to archive this story on your behalf and know contractors and others in the industry will appreciate it. Thank you.
SY: I appreciate the heck out of it!
WorldSweeper is proud to add American sweeping industry veteran, Steve Young, to our Noteworthy in Sweeping database. If you have questions or comments, feel free to let us know.
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