The Biz: WNC business notes

Starting a business in the past few months has proved to be tricky business for many who have braved the down economy. But one new local cleaning company might have found a way to make things work—and it has done so by following an unusual model.

Doing it for themselves: Members of the Home Cleaning Professionals co-op, from left to right, Mini Solis, Betty Garcia, Olga Jimenez, Isabel Montiel, Julia Bocarando, Adrea Arias of the Center for Participatory Change, and Mere Sanchez. Photo by Jonathan Welch

The idea “came from several places” explains Andrea Arias, an Asheville-based organizer for the Center for Participatory Change, a nonprofit that forges grassroots projects and is key supporter of the cleaning-company project. Along with her organization, the West Asheville Latino-support center Nuestro Centro helped set up Home Cleaning Professionals.

“Some women were looking [at Nuestro Centro] for job ideas,” Arias says. They were either underemployed or unsatisfied with their jobs, and eventually they hatched a plan to start a cleaning cooperative where the workers were owners and a strategic plan guided their work.

Last fall, the six women who staff HCP, all local Latinas originally from Mexico, took classes at Mountain BizWorks, the Asheville nonprofit that helps incubate businesses with training and loans. Along the way, they left their previous jobs—in fields like manufacturing, housekeeping and fast-food service—and launched the company.

At first, HCP had only four clients, but then a profile in the Asheville Citizen-Times gave the business a bump, Arias says, generating more than 20 additional clients.

The service comes relatively cheap: For most jobs, HCP employees charge $15 per hour. Ten dollars goes to the workers in direct income, and $2 goes into a savings fund for each of them. The remaining $3 goes back into the cooperative, paying for the classes and for a secretary to coordinate the work assignments.

It’s a simple model up against complex hurdles, Arias says. “The goal is to empower the women, to help them gain economic security themselves, instead of depending on someone else. One of the main challenges is getting the women to see themselves as owners rather than employees. None of them has experience owning a business and making decisions in the workplace.”

Until now, that is. “We now work for ourselves—we’re not working for other people,” says Mere Sanchez, one of the co-op members.

What’s more, the co-op model has put all the members on an equal footing, answerable to the group but not to any hierarchy. “One of the good things is that we’re co-workers and true colleagues—not just people working at the same place,” says member Betty Garcia.

However egalitarian the setup, like any small startup, HCP has hit some bumps in the road. To begin with, the planning stages tested some of the members’ patience. “For me, the most difficult part was the beginning,” says member Mini Solis. “We spent a lot of time—too many hours, too many meetings—just to begin the project. And we weren’t getting paid yet, just planning and planning.” Still, she adds, “The experience has been very good, because I have learned about how to manage a business and also how to interact with the clients.”

The worsening economy has winnowed down HCP’s client base, with the co-op’s business now at about 60 percent of what it was in December, the members say. Part of that drop, Arias notes, can be attributed to a spike in work in December, when clients were intent on getting their homes clean for the holidays.

In an effort to attract new clients, members are now learning marketing techniques from Mountain BizWorks consultants. And they’re beginning a shift to using (mostly) eco-friendly cleaning products, as costs allow, to suit a potential eco-conscious customer base. “It’s a very good niche for Asheville,” Arias says of the turn toward green cleaning.

Whatever the state of the economy, the members say they’re in this venture for the long haul. “For me, the cooperative is presenting a way for us to overcome the economic crisis—having our own business and a way to help each other as [fellow] Latinas,” Garcia says. And member Olga Jimenez points out that the group knew it wasn’t going to be easy: “At the beginning, when we started creating a business plan, we realized that it was going to be a difficult, long process. And then once we started, we found out how hard it is to grow the business. But little by little, we are doing it.”

Contact Home Cleaning Professionals at 702-3216.

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About Jon Elliston
An Asheville-based mountain journalist: Former Mountain Xpress managing editor. Investigations and open government editor at Carolina Public Press. Senior contributing editor at WNC magazine.

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