Written by Paul Clark | Photos by Anthony Harden
Horace Adell has some big, expensive floor cleaning machines at his business, Clean Streak Inc. in Mills River. But he doesn’t hesitate to get down on his hands and knees to finish a floor so that the job is done right.
“Old school beats new school every time,”Adell said in his office recently, carving precious time out of a busy day for an interview for Capital at Play. Three job offers had come in during the time he’d allotted to talk. And there was much to be done—crews to check on, jobs to price—before his head would hit the pillow that night.
But Adell so believes in honoring his commitments and keeping his appointments that this perpetual motion machine stayed still long enough to talk about the hard work and personal integrity that have made his business a successful, growing enterprise, one that gets stellar results from people that others wouldn’t take a chance on. And it all started 20 years ago, him working alone out of an old Buick, cleaning businesses after his day job was done.
Clean Streak, a green- and biohazard-certified business that cleans offices, banks, clinics, new construction, and rental housing, has employees throughout Western North Carolina. Most of them head out to jobs around 5pm from company headquarters, located in the heart of Mills River farmland, just up the road from the farm where Horace and his wife, Susan Donoho Adell, live.
“When the rest of the world is closing up, we’re just taking off,” Susan, Clean Streak’s vice president, said. The business has 35 employees and could use more, business is so strong, she said. The Adells have plans to open a second Clean Streak business in Myrtle Beach, a city to which they hope to retire. “There’s a lot of work on the coast, and many of the banks we do have locations out there,” Susan said. The company gets a lot of job offers there already. As it is, they already have more than enough to do, something Susan attributes to her husband’s work ethic.
“Horace works 20-hour days, six days a week,” she said in the small break room in their business recently. “He’s a hands-on man. It’s his name that’s on the line.”
Horace Adell is a big guy. Six-foot-five, powerfully built, he looks far younger than 52, likely because of the heavy equipment he operates to strip, wax, and varnish floors with his crews. Adell expresses himself with his strong hands, and his large presence makes his office, filled with golf paraphernalia (his only hobby, his wife said) and photos of family and friends, seem small. Sitting there with him is to experience activity at rest, a force of nature about to unfurl. Energy seems to swirl around him.
“My wife will say, ‘You’re like a Tasmanian devil. You cannot stand a mess.’ I can’t,” he said. “Call it nervous energy. I’ve got to be doing something. If I don’t do it now, I’ll have to do it tomorrow. When I’m cooking, by the time I’m finished, there are no dirty dishes. It’s easier to do them as I go than to wait when it’s over and have a big pile of dishes.”
A lot of that sense of efficiency came from his upbringing. Adell grew up on a farm in Fairview, the oldest son among his parents’ six children. Every morning before light, he was carrying water from the spring so his sisters could bathe before school. He’d feed the cows, slop the hogs, gather the eggs, and carry the milk back to the house. Before bathing himself and walking to the school bus stop, he’d feed the dogs.
That’s a lot of work for a kid, he thought at the time. “I used to ask my dad, ‘Why me?’ And he’d say, ‘You’re the only one with the giddy-up-and-go to do it and not fuss,’” Adell said. One day you’ll thank me, Horace Sr. told him. “He told me, ‘You’re going to be the worker in this family,’” Horace Jr. said.
He learned a lot about attention to detail from his mother, Mabel Adell. “She used to always say, ‘If you want to catch a woman, you’ve got to be able to take care of yourself.’ That’s sewing a button on your britches, that’s ironing your clothes, keeping your body clean,” he said. “She taught me more than most kids got. When I went to the Army, I could do all of that stuff. The Army enhanced all of that.”
Adell enlisted the day after high school graduation, eschewing a promising basketball career because he believed he needed discipline. He became a paratrooper, jumping out of so many aircraft that his hips still bother him to this day. Six years after he enlisted, he got out and couldn’t believe how hard it was for him to find a job. No one would hire him. They said he’d been out of the workforce too long. That made him mad. He’d served his country. He’d gained a lot of skills. Where was the respect?
[quote float=”right”]For 10 years, he did both, working 16-hour days, driving around in an old Buick until midnight, taking care of 12 branch banks and other calls. [/quote]He decided his best opportunity was in creating his own. He started a landscaping business, working from dawn to dark, putting in so many hours cutting grass in Biltmore Forest that he was able to build his first house with what he made in one season. He finally landed a job driving a lumber truck, then started cleaning offices at night. For 10 years, he did both, working 16-hour days, driving around in an old Buick until midnight, taking care of 12 branch banks and other calls. He was working so much that he put himself in the hospital five times during those days. The last time was so bad that the doctor told him that his next stay would probably be his last.
So Adell had to rethink his business model. The cleaning business was finally bigger than his ability to do it alone. In 2006 he incorporated Clean Streak and began hiring. Remembering how he felt being shut out of the workforce, he was willing to take a chance on anyone eager to work. He hired people others wouldn’t consider, people who had made a mess of their lives. “Everybody deserves a second chance,” Adell said, tapping his desk with each word. “If it hadn’t been for that one person in our lives along the way that said ‘I’m going to give you another chance,’ where would we be?”
Adell strongly believes in the pay-it-forward principle, that if he helps someone, that person will help someone else. “The Lord is going to look back on that and say, Horace started that ball,” he said, tapping his desk again to emphasize his point. “It’s a circle, and they all have spin-offs. We all have to help each other, because if we don’t, it would be a sad, sad world.”
Faith and business are intertwined for Adell, whose mother made sure he was in church every Sunday growing up. When he started the business, “all I asked the Lord was, let me make $50 a day,” he said. “I said, ‘If you will allow me to make $50 a day, I will help everybody I come across. I’ll be at your beck and call.’ There are so many ways that we can help our fellow man and make life better for them.
“I am so…,” he said, pausing briefly to find the word, “driven to help others. It’s almost sickening. I will put my personal needs aside to help somebody. If you ask me for the shirt off my back—if you ask me for it—I’ll give it to you. Just don’t try to take it from me. We only have two rules here (at Clean Streak)—you don’t lie, you don’t steal. I’ve had those rules ever since this has been in existence. They’ve worked really well.”
[quote float=”right”]Adell smiles talking about all the people that he has helped through the business, people down on their luck, people who couldn’t get jobs anywhere else. “When you do right by folks, Lord knows, the payback is tenfold,” he said.[/quote]He smiles talking about all the people that he has helped through the business, people down on their luck, people who couldn’t get jobs anywhere else. Many worked there for awhile, then moved on to “bigger and better things,” Adell said, leaning back in his chair. He’s proud of that. He reminds himself of it, especially when he’s down. “I may not be getting rich, but I sure am able to sleep well,” he said. “When you do right by folks, Lord knows, the payback is tenfold,” he said.
That’s what he teaches his new employees. This isn’t just a job, he tells them. This is an opportunity, a path toward something. Being good employees, helping others, is a way of helping yourself. It’s a way of creating a sense of family. “If you want a home, it’s here,” he said. “If you want something that’s going to mean something to you, it’s here. If it’s just a stepping stone for you to go on somewhere else, we’re here for that too.” He hires veterans and works with vocational rehabilitation centers. “As long as you have all of your limbs and you can walk on your own, you can work here,” he said. “I’m big on the underdogs.”
He’s proud of his people, many of whom go above and beyond what he and his clients expect of them. Given the chance, they’ve excelled, possibly because they’ve been inspired by Adell’s example. They may not see him on a given day, but they can rest assured that he’s out hustling work for them. He certainly walks the walk, Susan Adell said. “He doesn’t ask anyone to do anything he won’t do himself,” she said. “He will man a floor machine at midnight if needed.”
When midnight is the end of his day, the beginning isn’t far away. Adell is up every morning around 4am. He reads his Bible, makes some coffee, and checks his day’s schedule on his iPad. He’ll fry up an egg sandwich, tidy the kitchen, vacuum the house, and clean whatever needs to be cleaned before heading out the door to be at work at 7:30am. Waiting for him will be a stack of clipboards for jobs he’ll be quoting that day. He maps his work out so that he moves in a straight line. Toward the end of it, he’ll call the office to find out where he needs to go for any follow-up. He travels about 200 miles a day.
Around 5pm, he heads back to the office to help get the cleaning teams out. By 6pm, he’ll start going around to inspect their work. “They never know when I’m coming. That’s a good thing,” he said, smiling broadly. “If they start scurrying like ants, I’ll say ‘Whoa, hold up guys, are you goofing off on me?’ They hate to see me come, because if I start working, that means they don’t get all their time that day on that job.”
The evening hours, during his inspections, are when he occasionally gets called away to banks or businesses whose alarms have been tripped by his crews. Regardless, each night there are reports to be filed. He’s got to do them then because he won’t remember all the details in the morning. “If it’s something where you’ve got second and third parties involved, information is critical. You’ve got to have good documentation,” he said. By now, it’s often 10pm. If he’s lucky, he can go home. If he gets called out on a job, it can be after midnight before he gets to bed. And before he knows it, it’s 4am once again.
“He has obsessive compulsive disorder or something,” his wife said, noting that his socks are folded and lined up in his sock drawer. “He’s just a very organized man,” she said. They met at Reynolds High School—she was a feature baton twirler and he was a star basketball player. They both had other lives before they married six years ago. Now they complement each other in several ways. He’s up early and knocks off about 10pm; she hits high gear about 1pm and stays on the job until about 1am, when the last crew is back. Co-founder of the Mills River Business Association (with her husband), she often sends emails out at 3am, helping Horace round up the food and household items for the local church and school pantries he stocks.
Adell loves the work he does but recognizes that he’s getting older. Susan has been trying to get him to do more in the office and less in the field. But she doesn’t think he’s too keen on the idea. He loves operating a floor machine. “I kid him about it,” she said. “I tell him he’s married to that machine.”
And if need be, he’s down on the floor, scraping gum or finishing a border by hand. “There are some things that a machine can’t do that good old-fashioned elbow grease can,” Adell said. Machines can’t get close to the walls like a worker can. Equipment fails.
“But when you put that manpower to it, that don’t break down,” he said. “If you want something that’s going to be just great, stick with the old school. What I sell is old school knowledge. And when people see what the results are, they say you’re right, this is the best way to do this.”