The Janitors Supply Company Continues 90-Year Tradition Of Fine Service, Expertise
By Harrell Kerkhoff, Maintenance Sales News Editor
Although not entirely recession proof, one of the nice things about selling cleaning supplies and services is that the “need to clean” is always present. Even an empty building gets dirty — as demonstrated most recently during the recent pandemic. There is much more, however, than simply supplying a case of toilet paper or can liners to away-from-home customers. Keeping buildings properly disinfected, cleaned, and “sparkly” is hard work — and help is often needed in the form of expertise and experience.
Providing such capabilities has helped The Janitors Supply Co., Inc., of Fort Wayne and Anderson, IN, prosper for 90 years. Today, the company serves as a full-service jan/san supply house, and operates a manufacturing division under the name Wayne Concepts Mfg., Inc.
“We carry a full line of core jan/san products and offer onsite equipment repair and laundry & warewash services. We also manufacture well over 200 products — from floor finish and gym seals to acid bowl cleaners, degreasers and disinfectants. We produce a full line of jan/san products,” The Janitors Supply Company President Mark Sholl said. “We service a multitude of markets such as schools, industry, health care, automotive, government, and BSC’s. Our business also conducts training seminars involving various topics. That includes effective restroom cleaning and disinfection as well as hardwood, terrazzo, marble, and polished concrete floor maintenance.
“Janitors Supply continues to remain true to its core principles, while many of our employees have been with the company for more than 20 years. They know our customers, our business model, and our products.”
The Janitors Supply Company was founded by Paul and Mary Jayne Gast, who moved from Grand Rapids, MI, and opened the company’s first location in October 1933, in downtown Fort Wayne. The couple lived in an apartment above the business until 1938 with their two children, Ken and Jim.
Although a distributorship by trade, the Gasts had a tank farm built in 1963 consisting of five, 1,000-gallon tanks, with the objective of producing the company’s own chemicals. In 1967, Ken and Jim Gast took over management of the business and further grew the company by adding locations. More expansion took place in 1980 with a new facility, added warehouse space and a storage tank farm consisting of nine, 5,000-gallon tanks and six mixers — ranging in size between 500 and 2,000 gallons.
Today, Janitors Supply Company’s headquarters remains in Fort Wayne, a city in northeastern Indiana of approximately 343,000 residents, the second-most populous city in Indiana after Indianapolis. The company also has a facility in Anderson, located 12 miles north of the I-465 loop that surrounds Indianapolis. Anderson has a population of approximately 54,788.
“Our locations are situated in, or near, the two largest population zones in the state — Indianapolis and Fort Wayne. There is another benefit to having a location in Fort Wayne as this part of northeastern Indiana is the second fastest growing metropolitan area in the Great Lakes region. $3.4 billion in private capital investments have also been made in the Fort Wayne area since 2014, and it’s ranked No. 1 as the city with the lowest cost of living relative to income in the country. There are a lot of good things going on in the Fort Wayne area,” Sholl said. “One of the benefits to having two locations is that it allows us to cover our delivery area more efficiently.”
Janitors Supply Company operates its own fleet of 20-foot trucks, along with Sprinter-style vehicles for smaller and special deliveries. The distributorship’s service area encompasses approximately two-thirds of the state — apart from the southwestern tip around Evansville, IN, and far western Terra Haute, IN. The company’s total warehouse and manufacturing space is 82,000 square feet.
“We routinely run a vendor inventory spot check, usually when we are low on inventory and are waiting for an order to arrive. That gives us the best chance to count and correct inventory, when the levels are at their lowest,” Sholl said. “Coordinating efforts between our two warehouses is key to being efficient. We offer next-day delivery in our home cities, while deliveries in surrounding communities are scheduled weekly.”
He added it takes a team effort to properly load the distributorship’s delivery vehicles.
“We have found it’s a lot easier to catch a mistake when multiple people are helping,” Sholl said. “One challenge for our industry, as well as other business sectors, continues to surround a shortage of drivers. We are trying to fill a driving position at the current time. The shortage seemed to start for us during the second year of the pandemic, when a greater number of people left the workforce. At the same time, there were real issues with freight. Everything was backed up, which caused supply chain shortages. That totally disrupted logistics and the availability of drivers.
“I feel labor, overall, will continue to be an issue as the baby boomer generation leaves the workforce. There isn’t a flood of talent rushing out to be chemical and toilet paper salespeople. That is a shame, because you can make a very nice living in this business. It is our mission to find good people and then make sure we take care of them, treat them with respect and provide them with a safe, honest, and fun, but professional, work environment so that they can thrive.”
Sholl added the supply chain situation has greatly improved for his business, compared to the throes of the pandemic.
“The only issue we still have involves the availability of equipment and parts. However, it’s become much better within the past few months,” he said. “Lead times on certain equipment had been as much as 14 months — from the day the order was placed to the day it arrived. Parts were also an issue, which we needed so that we could properly service equipment.”
Stability Among Change
Janitors Supply Company has remained a family-owned and -operated business throughout its 90-year history. Sholl credited Ken and Jim Gast for having established a strong foundation years ago — based on hard work and loyalty.
“Both brothers were innovative in their thinking and surrounded themselves with good people. They were also loyal to their vendors and developed long-lasting friendships, many of which are still in place today,” Sholl said. “Like all entrepreneurs, they worked tirelessly to build a business that has remained successful.”
Jim Gast passed away in 2019, while brother Ken Gast is semi-retired.
Sholl has been with Janitors Supply Company for a long time as well, having started as a salesperson in 1984. Through the nearly four past decades, he has held a variety of positions, including sales manager, and now serves as president. He reflected on all the changes that have taken place during his time with the company, and within the cleaning industry as a whole — particularly at it relates to sales.
“Technology has improved so much, helping salespeople become much more efficient. I remember using a bag phone while on sales calls. It was the size of a shoebox. Now, people can talk into their watches,” Sholl said, with a laugh. “When it comes to how our company is operated, however, we still follow the same core business model as before, but have made adjustments allowing us to branch out into new markets. That has added to our company’s growth.”
Other changes Sholl has seen during his nearly 40 years at Janitors Supply Company revolve around products. That includes robotics and better cleaning chemicals.
“Improved product technology continues to help custodians become more efficient. Products featuring microfiber and hydrogen peroxide are good examples,” Sholl said. “There is also more of a focus on natural products, including safer chemicals, which is a real positive for everybody. A balance has been sought for years as it pertains to developing ingredients that are both natural and still work well. The process, and resulting products, have become much better. ‘Green’ is becoming more of an option for end-users as technology in chemical manufacturing has vastly improved.”
He added it sometimes feels change takes place at a snail’s pace within the jan/san industry.
“I kept seeing robotic scrubbers, for example, being demonstrated for years at trade shows, going around a boxed-in-area on the show floor. Now, six to seven years later, they seem to have finally caught on as major equipment companies are pushing the idea,” Sholl said.
One part of business that seems to have picked up at breakneck speed involves company acquisitions, often involving jan/san distributorships. Sholl feels such acquisitions can have both a positive and negative influence on the overall industry.
“For strong independent jan/san houses, business should improve (during an era of consolidation) as such distributors can provide consistent products and services. Strong independents are invested in their communities and care about what happens in their markets,” Sholl said. “Many customers still want to be called on by a local salesperson to help solve current issues that come up while maintaining a facility. Problems can arise at a distributorship that is bought out and eventually operated by order takers, rather than cleaning experts who, for example, can help a customer properly strip a floor and operate a swing machine.”
Business In A Post-Pandemic World
For all intents and purposes, the global COVID pandemic appears to be over. It was an event that greatly changed how many people viewed cleaning, the importance of hygiene, and the value of having good suppliers at hand when certain products and services are absolutely necessary.
“Everyone was operating in uncharted waters when the pandemic hit, not really knowing how it would change their businesses,” Sholl said. “We (Janitors Supply Company) were considered an essential business early on, due to our capability of supplying PPEs, hand sanitizers and disinfectants. We remained open throughout the entire pandemic, and quickly adopted safety measures that kept our employees safe. We couldn’t risk shutting down as local businesses were counting on us. We kept customers outside of our buildings, as they called in orders and picked them up at the curb. The manufacturing side of our business was extremely busy, producing disinfectants and hand sanitizers. Looking back, we are proud to say, ‘Good Job’ and ‘Thank You’ to our outstanding staff.
“The customer base quickly realized, during the pandemic, the benefit of our chemical manufacturing capabilities, as we were able to control the entire process — from manufacturing to shipping — cutting out several layers of added cost while delivering first-class products. We have since continued to work with many customers who started doing business with us during the pandemic.”
Along with providing a custom line of chemicals that is formulated, mixed, packaged and labeled on property, Sholl said Janitors Supply Company greatly benefits from its strong employee base and low turnover rate. He added the sales team and support staff work well together — and it shows.
“It makes me smile every time I hear them laughing and enjoying the day. That helps release some of the stress that comes with customer service. The sales team meets in-person monthly, allowing them to stay connected and on the same page,” Sholl said. “They can share success stories and it allows the rookies to learn from the veterans. I think it says a lot for our company that we have salespeople who are in their 50s and have been here for 20-plus years. They have learned a lot over the years. With that comes industry knowledge that is passed on to our customers.”
Continual education and training are provided for the benefit of the distributorship’s sales staff. Employees take part in a series of training classes during their first year of employment, and then receive continuing education from specialists on staff at The Janitors Supply Company.
“Again, the fact we manufacture our own chemicals and have a chemist on staff are huge advantages for our salespeople, helping them quickly solve problems,” Sholl said. “We also provide topic-specific classes for our customers, which are often held in our seminar room. We find that if we can get customers to our place, their ability to pay attention and learn increases as we are able to control the distractions.”
Along with its customer training program, Janitors Supply Company also provides a fully equipped and maintained equipment service department, in both Anderson and Fort Wayne. Included is a service truck at each location for onsite work.
“Our customers know that when they purchase a machine from us, they will also have our full support after the sale. Many of our customers participate in a preventative maintenance program, involving three to four onsite visits per year,” Sholl said. “Having a strong service department is key to our equipment sales growth — they feed off each other. If you can’t fix what you sell, eventually customers find other places to purchase their equipment.”
Sholl reiterated that the jan/san industry depends on quality customer service, something that will never fully be replaced by the internet.
“Customers will use the internet to negotiate price or buy various items, but when they need to properly maintain a facility, there is nothing that can replace an experienced distributor,” he said. “It’s all about receiving value and properly being served. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Many customers still seek that personal touch. That is what we strive for every day. It includes helping walk-ins who visit our showroom for the first time. They may be seeking a product for their business or home. It doesn’t matter to us. We will take good care of them and make them feel welcomed. Providing that level of service is how our company has stayed in business for 90 years.”
Recognition And Optimism
The Janitors Supply Company was recently presented with the DPA (Distributor Partners Of America) Buying Group’s 2022 Jan/San Distributor of the Year award. It’s an honor that means a lot to Sholl and his team.
“Being a member of DPA has given our business a boost by allowing us to work with other member distributors and a myriad of DPA suppliers. That involves not only jan/san, but also the safety and industrial sectors of business,” Sholl said. “Overall, when looking for a supplier, we want someone whose values line up with ours. We want to establish a strong working relationship. There are a multitude of suppliers within the jan/san industry for any one given item. However, when the supply chain fails, like it did during COVID, having solid relationships in place can pay off. We always strive to be a good partner and give vendors enough business to make it worth their time and want to help us grow our business. Cherry-picking a vendor’s line usually doesn’t end well. If you are not showing commitment to them, why should they commit to you?
“Everyone within DPA is helpful. That includes other jan/san houses that are also members. It’s very beneficial to have conversations with distributors from various parts of the country. It allows us to see how they handle different challenges.”
Sholl said he is very optimistic about Janitors Supply Company’s future, as it moves beyond its first 90 years.
“I feel we are set up well for the next decade of business. That is due, in part, to our talented team of people in all six company segments: sales, customer service, equipment service, manufacturing, warehouse staff and drivers. I also love the geography we are in and the diversified markets we support. The opportunity for growth, involving new business development, is substantial,” Sholl said. “I am also very optimistic about the future of the industries that we serve. From an industry standpoint, the world is always going to need the products we supply. That includes the basics such as toilet paper, trash bags and hand soap, to the more complicated items such as processed chemicals and floor equipment.
“It’s a fantastic business to be in. It’s not recession proof, but there is always demand. We don’t have to go very far to find somebody who needs our products. We sell products that are used every single day, and we provide good service to properly support those products and customers.”