Success in Sweeping Means You Stay the Course

Cantel believes in the mantra of, "stay in your lane," and it has paid off for them year-after-year. As the winner of the 2024 Sweeper of the Year award, they see the pathway forward as the same that lead them here.

Provided by Cantel

Time and time again, the story of the pavement maintenance industry is rooted in one core concept more than any other. People want to be able to make a good living, and to experience the freedom that comes from being your own boss. The true entrepreneurial spirit of America, to start your own business, and work for yourself. Thirty years ago that was what drove Michael Wagoner, the now mostly retired owner of Cantel Sweeping, to leave behind a career in the corporate ranks of business in Portland, OR, and break out on his own. 

"At the time I started in, we had six trucks and just seven employees," said Wagoner.

He bought the company from a previous owner, but the growth that followed afterwards was one hundred percent driven by Wagoner's vision for what the company should be and how it should operate. 

"What I discovered in the first fifteen to twenty years, across the nineties and early two-thousands, was that there were an increasing number of sweeping business owners who were reaching the age of retirement," Wagoner said. "They wanted to retire but didn't know how. Many thought the only value they had was their truck. What they didn't appreciate was the value of their customer base. We paid them a fair price for those customer relationships so they benefited. Those customers became even more valuable to us because we were able to easily and profitably fold them into our existing routes."

The Seeds of Success at the Start

While the company's current iteration began thirty years ago, one of the company's most influential decisions was made just one year later. That was the hiring of it's current general manager Dustin Moist, and he's been with Cantel ever since. He was just nineteen years old when Wagoner brought him on, put him in a sweeper, and set him out to work. However, that humble start was only the beginning for Moist.

"I'm basically retired," Wagoner explained. "Dustin runs the company now, better than I ever could. Over the years, he's developed this Cantel into a truly well-oiled machine." 

The question is, did Moist ever consider that one day he'd be in the role he is now, when he came on at such an early age.

"Not exactly when I first started, no," Moist replied. "But, honestly, it wasn't too long afterwards that we actually did talk about it." Wagoner saw the potential in Moist to succeed him, that they shared a common understanding and vision for the business. Their early discussions focused on the goals and benchmarks that they wanted to hit personally, and professionally. Even early on, they were able to be honest with each other, and that collaborative partnership was essential to their success.

"Those open conversations made this whole thing work," said Moist. "Without those, we never would've made it to where we are today."

"We aren't related," Moist chuckled. "But I think that has been in our favor, because I can disconnect in certain ways. I can see things from a certain perspective which has been a large facet of our success in working together."

"I'd agree with that," Wagoner added. "It gives it a different dynamic, one where you can compliment each other in a unique way."

The Straight and Narrow Path

At the start, Wagoner learned another important lesson, and one that would be a guide-post for its business model to this day. Some might view it as slightly unconventional, but for Cantel it was the right choice.

"When I took over, we had contracts with the largest shopping centers in the Portland area," Wagoner said. "At first, I was so concerned with losing that single customer, that I put it ahead of everything else." Over time, it became clear that devoting the amount of time and energy to this single client was a detriment to the business, as a whole. Things had to change.

"We decided to end things with that customer," Wagoner said. "It was a hard choice, at the time, but it turned out to be one of the best things for us. It allowed us to branch out, grow, and expand our customer base in ways we weren't able to before." Where, previously, they'd been operating with too narrow of focus, and now they had the freedom and the flexibility to build something consistent, sustainable, and more profitable.

"We focus on the smaller strip malls, shops and stores, corporate parks, they're wonderful for us," Wagoner continued. "I think a lot of the industry has relied too much on the big box stores, the Wal-Marts, and the Home Depots, but we aren't heavily dependent on them." That diversity of portfolio has turned out to be a singularly smart play as, across the country, many such stores have slashed their sweeping and maintenance budgets for their super-sized parking lots. 

While diversifying their clientele was the plan at one end, at the other end, they decided to keep things as simple as possible on the other. It's not uncommon for companies to slowly branch out into other areas of pavement maintenance to grow their business offerings, and hopefully, to grow their bottom line. This is another area where Cantel chooses to take a route that might, at first, seem unconventional. 

"Over the last ten years, we've really made an effort to streamline the business, to make it as consistent as possible," said Moist. "We call it, 'stay in your lane,' which basically means that we don't do anything that we don't do. We clean parking lots, but we don't want to clean streets. We restripe parking lots, but we don't do new layouts. We stay very much in our lane, and that makes our employees jobs and life much easier, we believe, because we're not throwing curveballs at them." 

Their staff seems to largely agree with the, "stay in your lane," approach.

"I've had many conversations with a lot of our key employees," Moist continued. "They appreciate the fact that we're not doing everything under the sun. We're doing what we do and we do it really well. It makes our profitability so much higher and we don't feel like we have to chase everything. Before, the stress level was off the charts, compared to how things are now."

When Size Matters...Bigger is Actually Better

Their employees stay in their lanes while operating either Schwarze or Tymco brand of sweeper, and, once again, Cantel takes a view to their machine selection that could be considered a different approach. However, like so many of their unique decisions, it has proven a smart and beneficial choice. 

"In the last few years, we made the active decision to transition the type of trucks we buy into a slightly bigger size than what would be considered the standard for what we use them for," said Moist. "We spend a little more, yes, but this has significantly reduced our overall downtime. Rather than maximizing our usage, pushing them to their limits, this gives our workers a piece of equipment that breaks far less often while operating far superior compared to the job."

This translates into a much smaller maintenance burden while juggling twenty-six pieces of rolling stock. While they have two yards, they are able to to maintain all their trucks with only a single mechanic, and they have zero backlog for repairs. That's while serving an approximate customer base of between eight hundred fifty and nine hundred, serviced by a current staff of twenty-seven. 

The Cantel Difference

Between Wagoner and Moist, the biggest factor they keep in the forefront of their employees and the customers is this: professionalism. 

"From the very beginning I wanted to be the most professional parking lot sweeping company in the industry," Wagoner explained his vision. "To me, that means you do things correctly, you do things right, you show up if you say you're gonna show up. If you have an issue, you tell the boss or you tell the customer about it, and you don't hide behind excuses. I think that's served us well." 

"To add to that," interjected Moist. "The one thing that I think really sets us apart is our work environment and what it's become. Even when things go wrong, or something happens, I don't deal with things in an big emotional way. I try to stay removed from things in that way, and that keeps the overall stress levels down for all of our employees."

Wagoner agreed. "Our job is to set our employees up for success. I see Dustin doing that every single day, and I, also, want to set him up for success in the future."

"When he sees a problem," Wagoner added. "He attacks it from a systems perspective and not from an emotional one. He looks at how we can set things up so that it doesn't happen again or that it's avoided or it's minimized. It's been pretty successful, and someday, I'm not going to be here," Wagoner paused for a moment.

"I'm seventy years old," he said." This business has been successful not just because of me. It has been a team effort. My wife, Diona, has supported me throughout. My son, Travis, also works for the company. He and our daughter, Tracy, are going to own it someday and they will need Dustin and the entire team for it to continue being successful. Dustin and I have had conversations about it. I want to make sure that it is set up for continued success."

The duo have a strong connection, and Moist capped everything off poignantly.

"If I had to sum it up in one phrase," Moist concluded. "It's to stay the course. So many people we talk to, their goal is to expand into this market or that market or this service or that service. We've had so much success with staying in our lane, and we will continue to do that refining those systems into the future. Being  able to continue to stay the course we're on is what I really see for the future."