Here’s an extraordinarily unlikely story of a young woman, Cheryl Meyer, who came to own a thriving enterprise in commercial pavement maintenance. She did it on her own — not by inheriting the family business. It’s not like any other history of company leadership we’ve heard in this rugged field. We couldn’t wait to hear how on earth she ended up owning her company in sweeping services industry.
Sweep Masters, started out in the familiar way businesses start in a virtually all-male industry — with a highly capable man looking to go his own way, you know, working outdoors, driving heavy equipment, and so on. Enter, Don Odom. Odom founded the company back in 1998. It wasn’t until some four years later that Meyer, an unassuming young waitress, got a typical job working as a secretary in Don’s office at Sweep Masters.
Cheryl tells the story:
An Even Higher Call than the One from her Boss
I came to work for Don as a secretary in 2003. About six months into my employment, he called me in the middle of the night. A lot of employees had quit all at once. He said, “I need your help.” I started learning to drive a sweeper truck that night, and I’ve been in the sweeper business now since I was 23 years old; I’m now 41. I met Don when I was in college, when I was working as a waitress at Cracker Barrel.
Wait! What? We asked Cheryl to go back to what happened that night when Don called in need of her help: I got up in the middle of the night, left my boyfriend and daughter (who was a baby, just born in August 2002. She’s now 17 years old). Don trained me on the spot at the shopping center that night. He set the controls. He blew off the parking lot, and I drove the sweeper to suck it all up. We did about 20 jobs the same way that night and got done at about 7:00 in the morning.
I continued doing the sweeping for a while. Don eventually got more employees, and I went back to my secretarial job in the office. He’d call me occasionally and say, “Do you want to learn to do some construction stuff?” Or, he’d teach me other stuff sweeper truck drivers need to learn. Eventually, I learned it all.
For a lot of people, it’s hard to figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives. (Cheryl noted that her daughter is now a high school senior, and she’s being pressured to decide what she wants to do with her life. Reflecting on her own experience, she says she understands that situation.) I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. When I came to work at Sweep Masters, it was a time in my life when I was at a crossroads. Now, it looks like it was a calling, because the business is still here and successful.
Wait. Hang on again. We’re still stuck on: Young mother goes to work as a secretary. Boss calls her in the middle of the night to come and learn to drive heavy equipment to sweep parking lots. She answers that call. And, from that point forward, a business partnership was in the making that would ultimately lead to that young woman owning the company!
Big Organizational Changes at Sweep Masters
So, I bought into the business in 2005, became president in 2015, and in August of this year became sole owner, because Don had to retire early due to illness.
Today, we have 10 employees, plus myself. We have two porter people and seven sweeper truck operators. I’m the only office person managing in the day now. Don used to do all the night-shift stuff, before he retired this year in August. I now have a night-shift supervisor who does all the route stuff and the night paperwork. I just promoted him into that position a week or so ago. He was an operator before that. So, now I can sleep at night.
We had been operating two offices, one in Biloxi (MS) and the other in Theodore, Alabama. We purchased a building in Moss Point (MS) that’s much bigger and is in the middle of our service area, and we’ve streamlined operations by moving everything into the one larger location.
We serve a 65-mile radius. That may seem like a big distance to cover, but our area is not very dense with shopping centers. They’re more sparsely located. We are on the Coastline, so we actually go 65 miles east and west, but only 10 miles north (and south, in Alabama).
Marketing and Branding in the Moss Point, MS Region
We don’t really do much for marketing or sales. Mostly, our new business comes from word of mouth and Google searches. People find us. I still do a little cold calling, and I’ll drop a business card off at new businesses, etc. But, if people are unhappy with their current service, or if they need to start having service, they search us out. We have tried to do marketing in the past, and cold calling for sales, and that didn’t work as well. This works better. We just focus on service, and that helps with word of mouth. On our business card, it says “Maintenance matters.”
The website helps in marketing. Don used to do Yellow Pages ads, and he’d go out and talk to property managers. When Yellow Pages more or less went down, dropping so far in usage, we stopped that advertising. Currently, Google accounts for about 60% of our new business, and word-of-mouth leads are about 40%. I would say that that entire 40% is actually referrals from current customers.
Like a number of other pavement sweeping services around the country, Sweep Masters under Don Odom and Cheryl Meyer has built a reputation in their market that has made the business thrive from word-of-mouth and referrals — no marketing or active branding needed. For example, the company is one of the few NSA-associated certified contractors in their entire area.
Recovery from Katrina, Sweep Masters Today
Sweep Masters had about four or five employees in 2005. Cheryl says that after Katrina, they had zero. The company lost everything, and Don and Cheryl had to build it all back up. Now in 2019, 14 years after Katrina, they’ve recovered all they lost, plus they’ve expanded beyond what the company had at the time of that devastating hurricane.
I became an owner in July 2005, and then Katrina hit. We had about five parking lots left. We had only about three hours of work per night. We’ve expanded, gotten bigger, gotten more municipal work, industrial work, a bunch of subdivisions, shopping centers, etc. All the customers who had canceled services after Katrina started calling and saying we need you to come back and start services again.
We just base our future projections on what’s happened since 2005. In 2005, we probably did $300K worth of business. In 2019, we’re about to cross the $1million mark. It’s been a steady uptick from year to year. We added a truck last year, and we’re getting another one delivered this Friday. With that one, we’ll have seven sweepers.
In response to a comment about how exhilarating it must be to have that new truck coming, Cheryl said simply, “God has blessed me in more ways than I could imagine.” It’s clear that she’s taking it all in, all the time. It’s not surprising that, like all the great entrepreneurs in the industry we’ve talked to, she expresses a sense of gratitude for her success.
Revenue Channels and Future Plans for Sweep Masters
We haven’t seriously considered diversifying our services, though we may in the future. We focus on sweeping. Our site actually says, “All We Do is Sweep.” We do have a couple of customers who need to have the backs of their business maintained, so we provide portering for them during the day, and we do trash cans on a lot of properties at night. I have one DOT truck. It goes to Alabama a lot. We also do pressure washing. I sub that out to someone.
If we get phone calls for striping, I just pass those along and don’t even get in the middle of it. For pothole repair, signage repair, I just say I can’t handle it, because I can’t, and it doesn’t come along often enough to make it worthwhile for us. We may look at adding revenue channels at some point, but we’ve been steadily growing using the business model we have.
Primary Challenges for Sweep Masters
Keeping good employees is always our biggest challenge. Our number 2 challenge is pricing by third-party vendors. For example, a common occurrence is that a big box store chain will award all their locations in the entire state to one “contractor.” That “contractor” then has the job of finding actual sweeping contractors to do the work, while cutting the prices. They will want our company to work for an hour, but only get paid for 30 minutes. In other words, they want A quality service for a D pay rate. There are about 30 different third-party vendors out there.
Lots of sweeping companies in the U.S. will not deal with third-party vendors. But, in our area, there are so many big box chains, that if we didn’t deal with them, we wouldn’t have any lots to sweep. I am fortunate to be able to tell them no, if the price isn’t right, and typically they will raise their rates when they realize that cheaper is not always better.
Cheryl briefly mentions the more general challenges of managing a commercial sweeping business as a solo entrepreneur. I’m pretty much a one-woman show around here right now. But I would like to give some accolades to my sweet husband. We’ve been married two years, and he has supported me in every way. He has his own career, and his job is so demanding that it’s amazing that he can find a way to come here and give his support.
He’s even been out driving a truck at some points. We live 45 minutes from our offices. He goes west and I go east in the mornings. At one time, he came and helped until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, and only got a few hours of sleep for a few weeks. I don’t even know how we did that without losing a customer.
Sweep Masters Company Culture
Asked what her average day is like, Cheryl reflects on this day, so far. Well, this morning, I had a meeting before I got to work, and two trucks had already gone out to do jobs before I got to work. There’s day stuff and night stuff scheduled. I just put TBD, and fill in spots as we go along, because it’s pretty fluid right now, with Don having to retire unexpectedly.
Trying to get a routine scheduled for the whole month is challenging. We’ve had a great system, but right now we’re having to pull night people to work day spots and having to hire in order to fill in spots that that leaves open. We’re working through it.
Cheryl actually mentioned company culture, in passing, at one point during the interview. She simply said, “We have a company culture of do the job right.” The concept of company culture is something we normally only hear about during interviews when we ask about it. We asked her to elaborate on what the Sweep Masters’ company culture is like.
We have, for many years, had little dinners every month or two for the employees. I’ll cater in food, we all sit and talk, have a safety meeting. Everyone can air any grievances. It’s an opportunity for everyone to be heard. I think owner engagement is important. If I’m in an area where one of our trucks is on a site, I stop and talk to our driver. I want every person in the company to know that even though you don’t see me, I’m here and I care.
For a business owner to just say, outright, that she cares about employees is a sentiment we also rarely hear expressed plainly that way. This is through all the great business leaders in the industry we’ve talked to do have programs and policies to benefit employees in ways and to extents that make it clear that they do, in fact, care about their employees. It’s just refreshing to hear it said so deliberately.
The simple approach to culture at Sweep Masters, as developed by Don Odom and Cheryl Meyer, is just the kind we’d expect from a great management team. Those catered meetings offer employees something fun and easily accessible, give them their regular opportunity to be heard, to bond with management and their peers. The activity is consistent, giving employees something to look forward to, something personal, yet productive, and very positive.
Quality and Safety Systems
We do quality spot checks. We bring the same operator back onto a site if there is a problem. If they don’t know what they did wrong, they can’t learn to improve. I’m very safety-focused. We do drug testing, check licenses, etc. We use Fleetmatics, which has GPS and dash-cam. If the driver is breaking hard, driving fast, or having near-misses of accidents, we know about it. There have been many episodes of people cutting them off, so we can see that too.
The App version (of the Fleetmatics software) is really nice. I can look on my phone, and it gives me a lot of information. It will even tell me if their back engine is on. I can pull a report, if think an operator is having a problem, and it will tell me, for example, how long he was at a stop.
Future Risks for Sweep Masters
Asked about possible unforeseen risks to the company in the future, Cheryl is pragmatic and positive. The only thing I see at this point would be if the economy takes a nose dive, since people don’t like to spend money if they don’t know what to expect. But I’m not letting that affect decisions I make or how I do business.
Of course, there’s also always the possibility that somebody could get in a wreck, damage equipment, or get hurt outside work and not be able to be here. These are all risks that every single business on the planet has in common. We just went through that kind of serious problem, because Don was a vital part of this business. Every business has the potential for having to face the same kind of problem.
Learning from Cheryl Meyer, Sweep Masters, Moss Point, MS
We asked Cheryl what words of advice she would offer to newcomers in the industry. She kept it short, sweet, and profound, “Don’t’ be afraid to trust yourself; if you have that gut instinct, use it. Use common sense, and surround yourself with positive people.”
As for all we learned today from Sweep Master, the image that still sticks in the mind for us is one of a young secretary answering that phone call and going out into the depth of night to help her boss out on a parking lot, climbing into a piece of heavy equipment, and throwing herself into a very long night of trial-by-fire, do-or-die field services. Indelible is the image of her, then and there, earning an invaluable mentorship with a winning entrepreneur, Don Odom, and unknowingly launching herself into a long and successful career as a business owner in a difficult, predominately male industry.
This is a story of an utterly dedicated employee, a young secretary, who might stop short of saying, even today, that she helped save her boss’s small company from ruin back then. But, clearly enough, she did just that. And, a man like Don Odom recognized it, relied on it, and rewarded it.
Under the guidance of a leader who wisely cultivated her talent, she proved to be the kind of individual we could have predicted might actually forge on to learn all there is to know about sweeper truck operation and eventually own the entire company, in this staggeringly expensive and risk-ridden industry. And, she did just that.
Of course, like all great leaders we’ve talked to in the industry about the start and growth of their companies, Cheryl Meyer turns now to credit Don Odom, her long-time mentor and business partner, and to thank her husband for his help and being so supportive.
For aspiring commercial sweeper business owners, there’s everything to learn from Cheryl Meyer. In a nutshell, learn the business, be dedicated enough to do whatever it takes at any time, and earn the faith and trust of a great mentor, if you can. Above all, when your future calls, no matter what the hour, answer the call.