The ServiceMaster Company

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The ServiceMaster Company

3250 Lacey Road, Ste. 600
Downers Grove, Illinois 60515-1700
Telephone: (866) 663-2000
Toll Free: (888)937-3783
Fax: (630) 663-2001
Web site:

Public Company
Incorporated: 1947
Employees: 40,000
Sales: $3.63 billion (2004)
Stock Exchanges: New York
Ticker Symbol: SVM
NAIC: 561720 Janitorial Services; 561730 Landscaping Services; 561710 Exterminating and Pest Control Services

The ServiceMaster Company serves some 10 million households and businesses annually through 5,400 company-owned, franchised service centers overseeing Merry Maids housecleaning, Terminix pest control, and TruGreen and ChemLawn landscaping services. For many years the company's primary business was the cleaning of hospitals, but as growth in that field slowed in the 1980s, the company diversified its service offerings and geographic reach. By the late 1990s, however, the company was overextended and debt-laden. Efforts to streamline and refocus lead by CEO Jonathan Ward helped stabilize ServiceMaster in the early 2000s.

1930s Origins

ServiceMaster was founded by Marion Wade, who was born in 1898 and had worked as a minor league baseball player, a life insurance salesman, and a door-to-door peddler of pots and pans before getting into the business of cleaning and moth-proofing carpets in 1937. In 1942 Wade sold his first franchise license for his residential and commercial on-site carpet cleaning business.

Two years later Wade underwent an ordeal that would become a turning point in his personal life and in his business. After he was badly burned in an explosion of cleaning chemicals, Wade nearly lost his sight. While recovering from his accident, Wade experienced a religious conversion. "I closed my eyes and I prayed," he wrote in The Lord Is My Counsel, his autobiography. "I told the Lord I would turn everything over to Him. I said: "I don't expect any miracles. I don't intend to sit back and expect You to run everything, but I want You to tell me how to run things and send my way the men I will need to do the job.' "

Those men, it soon transpired, came from Wheaton College, a Bible college outside Chicago. Chief among them was Kenneth Hansen, a Wheaton graduate who was the acting rector of a small congregation in Chicago. Together, Wade and the bow-tied Hansen incorporated the company that would become ServiceMaster in 1947. In 1954 Hansen recruited a second Wheaton graduate, Kenneth T. Wessner, who had worked previously as an advertising salesman. In 1958 the three named their carpet-cleaning company ServiceMaster. The name they chose "struck us as perfect in every area. Masters of service, serving the Master," Wade explained in his autobiography. At that time ServiceMaster franchised residential and commercial cleaning businesses. The following year the company sold its first franchise license in Great Britain, an operation that would form the core of ServiceMaster International.

Postwar Expansion into Hospital Maintenance

The business in which ServiceMaster would become best known and which it would eventually come to dominate was an outgrowth of the company's commercial cleaning operations. ServiceMaster got its start in the hospital housekeeping business when Wade gave a speech in the Chicago area. After the speech, he was approached by a nun, who suggested that Wade's company should offer its services to health care facilities. Hansen and Wessner were enthusiastic about the idea; after some research they learned that there was a company in New Zealand that had a large hospital cleaning business in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. ServiceMaster formed a joint venture with Crothall, the firm from down under, to gain expertise in the field and help ServiceMaster break into the American market. Eventually, however, the joint venture fell apart. Crothall took away a share in the American company, and ServiceMaster took away enough information about hospital cleaning to strike out on its own.

The company got its first contract to clean hospitals in 1962, when the Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois signed on. With this move, ServiceMaster became a pioneer in the industry of contracting to clean institutions, also known as outsourcing. The company offered its clients lower costs, higher productivity, and better employee morale. In that same year ServiceMaster also sold stock to the public for the first time.

Rapid Growth in the 1970s

In 1970 ServiceMaster sold its first nonhospital cleaning franchise in Japan. Eventually, ServiceMaster would franchise operations in 30 countries around the world.

By 1971 ServiceMaster had contracts with more than half the hospitals that looked to outsiders for their cleaning and the company had notched record profits of $1.2 million. Its arena for growth looked unlimited, since nine-tenths of all U.S. hospitals still handled cleaning themselves and, indeed, throughout the decade of the 1970s ServiceMaster would average an increase in earnings of more than 25 percent a year.

ServiceMaster's founder Marion Wade died in 1973, and his two associates, Kenneth Hansen and Kenneth Wessner, moved up to chairman and president/chief executive officer, respectively. By the following year the company had sold more than 1,000 franchise licenses in its consumer cleaning division, and by 1975 ServiceMaster's health care division had signed contracts with 466 hospitals to clean their premises. The company added another 42 medical clients in the first six months of 1976.

By 1979 earnings had reached $11 million and ServiceMaster had developed a method of doing business that was sensitive to the special needs of hospitals and also worked to its own advantage. The company provided cleaning equipment and supplies, as well as management and supervision of a hospital's own workers. The ServiceMaster system meant that hospitals got more efficient labor from their employees and also did not have to replace their own worn-out or outdated janitorial equipment. ServiceMaster ensured that their facilities stayed spotless, thereby bolstering public confidence in their care and preventing infections caused by improper cleaning.

Long-Range Plan Guides the 1980s

In 1980 ServiceMaster began the process of planning for the future by initiating the formation of a long-range growth plan, called ServiceMaster Industries 20, abbreviated and pronounced "SMIXX." The company set up more than 50 committees of three to seven employees each to set goals for the next two decades. As one part of this process the company vowed to reach $2 billion in revenues by 1990, from just $400 million in 1980.

Also in that year ServiceMaster branched out from its franchising of commercial and residential cleaning services and its health care management activities to add management services to educational institutions such as universities and school districts to its roster. Within three years the company had 90 academic customers signed up. In 1981 ServiceMaster also began offering its services to industrial customers with more than 1,000 employees and factories larger than one million square feet. Its first customers in this division were Appleton Electric in Chicago and Motorola in Franklin Park, Illinois. Both of these moves helped to broaden the company's potential customer base and insulate it somewhat from factors that might affect the health care industry. By 1987 these two new areas were providing nearly a third of ServiceMaster's revenues, but a much smaller percentage of its profits, because high start-up costs, for things such as training and equipment, ate up excess revenue.

By 1983 ServiceMaster's health care management offerings included laundry and linen services, physical plant operations and maintenance, clinical equipment maintenance, materials maintenance, and a fledgling food services sector, in addition to its traditional housekeeping services. Of the six divisions, housekeeping, laundry, and plant operations provided the bulk of the company's revenues. Most of the company's clients contracted for one or two of the services offered, and initial contracts were set for two years, to make the company's initial investment in a project worthwhile.

In May 1983 ServiceMaster signed its first contract to supervise home health care, in which hospital patients were discharged before their care was entirely complete as a cost-reducing measure. Also in that month the company signed up a large hospital chain, Voluntary Hospitals of America, for its standard management and housekeeping services, adding 135 new locations to its tally. Fees from contracted services, primarily to hospitals, made up about 97 percent of the company's revenues, with the remainder being derived from franchisees, who paid the company a monthly fee and purchased equipment and supplies from ServiceMaster.

Company Perspectives:

The company's objectives are to honor God in all we do; to help people develop; to pursue excellence; and to grow profitably.

Acquisitions in the Late 1980s

ServiceMaster's leadership underwent a shift in 1983, as Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Wessner moved up to chairman and former Wheaton College 45-year-old administrator C. William Pollard took over the helm. Within several years of Pollard's move to the top spot, ServiceMaster found that its core business of hospital cleaning had started to suffer, as strict controls on health care costs, some federally mandated, were implemented. As overall tighter hospital budgets cut into profits, ServiceMaster's growth in earnings rate slowed from its accustomed 20 percent to around 5 percent. In an effort to rejuvenate itself and return to its previous high rate of growth, ServiceMaster looked to expand the scope of its operations through acquisitions. Although the company traditionally had hewed to extremely conservative financial policies, taking on no debt whatsoever, its managers now began to consider the use of borrowed capital to finance the purchase of other companies.

In April 1986 the company moved to acquire a one-third interest in American Physicians Service Group, Inc., which marketed office machines and financial services to doctors and dentists. ServiceMaster agreed to advertise and sell American's products to medical personnel. In November 1986 ServiceMaster announced an agreement to purchase Terminix International, the country's second largest pest control concern, with 164 company-owned outlets and 150 franchised branches nationwide. ServiceMaster paid $165 million for the business, which reported annual sales of about $150 million. ServiceMaster hoped that Terminix would prove a good match with its residential and commercial cleaning businesses, as both operations could be used to generate clients for the other.

Another way that the company looked to compensate for its slowing growth was through financial restructuring. To maximize its returns to investors, ServiceMaster reconfigured itself as a publicly traded master limited partnership. In addition to freeing up cash for the company's acquisitions activities, this allowed ServiceMaster to avoid paying federal taxes and made it possible for owners of the company's stock to avoid double taxation, paying only a lower personal tax rate on their earnings. On the last day of 1986 the business of ServiceMaster Industries, Inc. was transferred to ServiceMaster Limited Partnership. In response to this move, the company's stock made some of the largest gains in the market in the first days of 1987, when it first moved from over-the-counter trading to the Big Board of the New York Stock Exchange.

ServiceMaster made a second large acquisition when it spent $40 million on American Food Management, a company that ran cafeteria facilities in educational institutions. In an effort to make its hospital operations more profitable, ServiceMaster began to market compound contracts to its clients, in which they signed up for several of the company's services all at once, increasing efficiency. These "Support Service" contracts were slow to gain popularity, enticing just 12 of ServiceMaster's 1,300 hospital customers by early 1987, but the company remained confident that the program would eventually win converts. By the end of 1987 company revenues had reached $1.4 billion.

As the hospital services sector, which made up 60 percent of ServiceMaster's revenues, grew more competitive in the late 1980s, ServiceMaster's market share became more and more dependent on the company's ability to provide quality service at a low price. The company relied on its extensive employee training programs and ongoing product and equipment development to maintain its competitive edge. ServiceMaster used videotapes, audiotapes, and thick training manuals that broke tasks, such as washing a floor, down into detailed five-minute steps to assist its workers. To remind employees at all levels that the most humble tasks lay at the core of the company's success, each employee invested at least one day every year performing a company service. In addition, ServiceMaster worked to keep its equipment state-of-the-art, developing new and more effective germicides, a battery-powered vacuum cleaner, and a longer-lasting, easier-to-use fiberglass mop handle. Training and innovation were designed to keep productivity and profits high.

Despite these efforts, however, the amount of money generated by the company's hospital cleaning operations continued to drop and revenues crept up just 7 percent in the first nine months of 1988. At the end of that year ServiceMaster reported that changes in the ways medical services were provided and paid for had resulted in smaller markets for services at the company's existing clients and delays in signing contracts with new clients. In addition, for the first time ServiceMaster had to terminate some clients for failing to pay their bills. Given these factors, the company's food service, clinical equipment maintenance, and home health care contracting operations had stronger returns in 1988 than its housekeeping services.

Expansion into Residential Services in the Late 1980s

In response to this situation, ServiceMaster continued its policy of diversifying its operations to arenas other than health care facilities. Following its purchase of Terminix, which primarily handled residential pest control, the company acquired another home-based business, "Merry Maids," in 1988. Founded in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1980, Merry Maids had built up a franchise network that specialized in cleaning customers' homes once a week, twice a month, or for special occasions. The company hoped that this purchase would further cement its standing in the home services industry and increase the amount of synergy generated by its different parts.

In June 1988 the company took another step in this direction when it purchased a Memphis-area home appliance maintenance and plumbing service, with about 400 customers. ServiceMaster renamed the company the ServiceMaster Home Systems Service. For $500 a year, the company promised to unclog toilets, fix leaky faucets, and handle any other necessary home repairs. After a big marketing push, the company was able to sign up customers at the rate of 40 a month. ServiceMaster made a much larger commitment to this field in April 1989, when it purchased American Home Shield, a California company that had been providing home warranties since 1971. ServiceMaster paid $120 million for the company, which had 200,000 home service contracts to its credit by 1990.

Key Dates:

Co-founder Marion Wade begins franchising his carpet cleaning business.
ServiceMaster is incorporated by Wade and partner Kenneth Hansen.
The company wins its first contract for cleaning hospitals.
International expansion begins with franchise sold in Japan.
Terminix pest control business is acquired.
Merry Maids franchise is purchased.
Chem-Lawn is acquired.
ServiceMaster sells its management services division for $800 million.

In that year ServiceMaster's health care operations provided just 40 percent of the company's earnings, down from 90 percent a decade earlier. One aspect of the health care business that did show potential for growth was the home health care subsidiary. ServiceMaster had 60 programs in place by the end of the 1980s, many of them joint ventures with a number of hospitals. Since home health care was so different from normal hospital operations, administrators were more willing to bring in outside specialists to assist in managing their programs.

Early 1990s Acquisitions

Acquisitions paced ServiceMaster's annual growth in the early 1990s as the company sought profitable new service niches. As traditional sectors matured, they comprised an ever-smaller slice of ServiceMaster's operating income, shrinking to barely one-third by 1996. The company augmented its home services division with the November 1990 purchase of two divisions of Waste Management, Inc.: a pest control business, and TruGreen, a lawn care service with commercial and residential customers. TruGreen's lawn operations complemented ServiceMaster's own exclusively residential lawn care division, which it had inaugurated in 1984.

The company branched out into another field it considered ripe for significant growth when it entered the child care business in 1990 by purchasing the GreenTree Preschool in Wheaton, Illinois. Using this facility as a base, ServiceMaster then opened additional child care centers in corporate settings in the Chicago area, providing benefits to employers and their workers.

ServiceMaster also purchased a 22 percent interest in the privately held Norrell Corporation in December 1991. Norrell provided temporary office and light industrial employees through a network of 250 company owned and franchised temporary agencies and also augmented ServiceMaster's home health care operations with 95 agencies that provided medical workers for residential settings. By the end of 1996 ServiceMaster affiliates were providing management support to more than 2,500 clients.

The acquisition-hungry company purchased its largest lawn care rival, ChemLawn, from Ecolab for $104 million in 1992. The 1996 purchase of Barefoot Inc. for $232 million further solidified ServiceMaster's leading position in this market. The company also added an inspection service and an in-home furniture repair company to its roster of residential offerings in the 1990s.

International growth was achieved through joint ventures and subsidiary companies. In the 1990s ServiceMaster focused on penetration of Europe, forming operations in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The conglomerate also hoped to expand into Asian and Pacific Rim countries by the end of the decade.

In 1993 Carlos H. Cantu succeeded William Pollard as CEO. Pollard, who had transformed ServiceMaster from a maturing company into a fast-growing, highly profitable leader of the service industry, continued as chairman. By this time it had become clear that ServiceMaster's corporate structure, the limited partnership, which had provided marked tax benefits when it was instituted, subsequently had made the company unattractive to institutional investors. The company, therefore, began to search for a way to restructure itself that would eliminate the barriers to investment by other companies. The partnership's shareholders approved a plan of reorganization that would reincorporate ServiceMaster as a corporation in December 1997.

Returning its attention to the health care industry mid-decade, ServiceMaster purchased VHA Long Term Care, a nursing home management company, in 1993 and formed Diversified Health Services through the union of its hospital and home health divisions in 1994. This division enjoyed a comeback during the 1990s, chalking up seven consecutive years of 40 percent plus increases in profits.

Overall revenues increased from $1.8 billion in 1990 to nearly $3.5 billion in 1996, and net income more than doubled from $94.4 million to $245.1 million. ServiceMaster appeared poised to take advantage of several social, demographic, and economic trends in the late 1990s. As Cantu and Pollard wrote in their 1996 letter to shareholders, "The need for time-saving home services and the increase in the number of elderly Americans, coupled with fiscal pressures which are forcing institutions to 'do more with less,' create ongoing demand for our services."

Changes in the New Millennium

Despite their optimism, however, the end of the 20th century proved a difficult time for ServiceMaster. In 1999 Carlos Cantu developed cancer and stepped down, turning the reins over to his predecessor, C. William Pollard. Pollard continued to run the country until 2001, when he turned it over to Jonathan Ward, who came to the company from R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co. Ward confronted a significant challenge: how to integrate the different parts of the company and ensure their work smoothly together while helping the company get out from under debt.

Ward's difficulties were compounded by two acquisitions ServiceMaster had made in 1999. LandCare USA, a landscaping business, and American Residential Services (ARS), an amalgamation of heating, cooling, plumbing, and electrical services, initially boosted ServiceMaster's revenues by 20 percent. However, both businesses proved difficult to integrate into the ServiceMaster family of companies. They were both originally loose conglomerations of relatively independent firms whose central business functions needed to be brought together in a single system to eliminate inefficiencies. LandCare USA proved especially difficult because the hundred little independent landscaping businesses that comprised the organization had never been integrated in the first place. As a result of LandCare's chaotic organization, ServiceMaster had to dedicate a lot of resources to restructuring. Profits slipped as a result, and ServiceMaster's stock dropped precipitously for the first time in almost 30 years.

Between 1998 and 1999 the difficulties posed by LandCare and ARSas well as other problems experienced by the companycaused profits to slip. Wall Street responded by downgrading ServiceMaster's stock from buy to hold. Between 1999 and 2000 the company's stock dropped 50 percent in value. In the third quarter of 2000, ServiceMaster announced that its profits fell by 29 percent. In October of that year stock prices for the company were near a 12-month low; around $8 a share as opposed to $25.50 a share at its highest point in 1998. Sales for the year remained virtually flat.

As a result Ward began taking ServiceMaster in different directions. Instead of acquisitions, the new CEO turned toward e-commerce as a way to bring the company back to profitability. Early in 2001 he introduced, a way for customers to book ServiceMaster services online, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It also introduced customers to other corporate services; if a customer booked for pest control, for instance, the website could also introduce house-cleaning services or lawn care without high-pressure sales tactics. Company executives announced that over 90 percent of existing customers who used the website also signed up for additional services.

Ward also introduced other incentives to help attract both customers and investors. Customers received warrantees on work performed and better customer service. Investors received high dividend payments. Perhaps Ward's most important move, however, was in selling the company's Management Services division to Aramark in 2001 for $800 million. Funds from the sale could then be used to pay down debt.

One sign of ServiceMaster's continuing standard of performance lay in the fact that investor Warren Buffet bought up large quantities of ServiceMaster shares through his company Berkshire Hathaway between 2003 and 2004. Buffet was attracted to the stock, a spokesperson for his company explained, because of its high dividend yield. Despite the fact that profits remained relatively flat, ServiceMaster stock continued to trade at higher than the market average in comparison to its projected income.

Principal Operating Units

TruGreen ChemLawn; TruGreen LandCare; Terminix; American Mechanical Services; ARS Service Express/Rescue Rooter; American Home Shield; ServiceMaster Clean; Merry Maids; AmeriSpec; Furniture Medic.

Further Reading

"Aramark Buys ServiceMaster Unit," Plumbing & Mechanical, November 2001, p. 18.

Arndorfer, James B., "Eternal Rewards at ServiceMaster," Crain's Chicago Business, May 19, 2003, p. 1.

"As ServiceMaster's Chairman, Mr. Wessner Combined His Faith in God with a Strong Work Ethic," Modern Healthcare, September 14, 1992, pp. 3233.

Dubashi, Jonathan, "God Is My Reference Point," Financial World, August 16, 1994, pp. 3637.

Garza, Melita Marie, "Illinois-Based Building Maintenance, Services Firm's Income Plunges 29 Percent," Chicago Tribune, October 26, 2000.

Gelfand, M. Howard, "Growing ServiceMaster Industries, Inc. Thrives by Calling on God and Hospitals," Wall Street Journal, January 23, 1973.

Henkoff, Ronald, "Piety, Profits, and Productivity," Fortune, June 29, 1992, pp. 8485.

Murphy, H. Lee, "Trugreen's Poor Results Leave ServiceMaster Blue," Crain's Chicago Business, May 14, 2001.

Oneal, Michael, "ServiceMaster: Looking for New Worlds To Clean," Business Week, January 19, 1987.

Ozanian, Michael K., "ServiceMaster: Gearing Up For a New World," Financial World, November 27, 1990, p. 16.

Pollard, C. William, "The Leader Who Serves," Strategy & Leadership, SeptemberOctober 1997, pp. 4951.

Puente, "Against the Odds," Hispanic Business, September 1997, p. 16.

Rudnitsky, Howard, with Christine Miles, ". . . Who Help Themselves," Forbes, March 3, 1980.

"ServiceMaster: Focus on Employees Boosts Quality," Business Marketing, April 1988.

Siler, Charles, "Cleanliness, Godliness, and Business," Forbes, November 28, 1988.

Skolnik, Rayna, "Marketing Cleanliness with Godliness," Sales & Marketing Management, December 5, 1983.

Tice, Carol, "The Lean, Clean Service Machine," National Home Center News, August 10, 1998, p. 40.

Wade, Marion E., and Glenn D. Kittler, The Lord Is My Counsel: A Businessman's Personal Experiences with the Bible, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1988.

Wagner, Mary, "Surviving Through Diversity: C. William Pollard Won't Let ServiceMaster Become Extinct," Modern Healthcare, January 15, 1988, p. 64.

Elizabeth Rourke
updates: April D. Gasbarre; Kenneth R. Shepherd