(Courtesy photo by Alyssa Andres)
This article appears in a series on Black and Latinx entrepreneurship in Philadelphia and is underwritten by PIDC and Ben Franklin Technology Partners. It was independently reported and not reviewed by these partners before publication.
Growing up in Bryn Mawr, Team Clean owner Donna L. Allie never thought about being an entrepreneur.
Her mother was a hairdresser and her father owned a bar. Her aunts and other relatives were also self-employed, but none of that appealed to her. She was set on finding a 9-to-5 job.
As a student at Wilberforce University, an Ohio HBCU, Allie thought she had her entire future planned. She was in a dual degree program with majors in vocational rehabilitation and sociology. After graduation, she was going to enroll in a graduate program for engineering and learn how to make prostheses. During the ’80s, then-President Ronald Reagan made significant changes to social programs and Allie was preparing for career to help paraplegic people no longer eligible for those programs find jobs.
Life had different plans for her.
“I was down on my luck,” she said. “Sometimes we have these pitfalls and I had a daughter right after college. I was a single parent and I couldn’t find a job in my vocation at all. I ended up on public assistance meandering around looking for work. I did what my grandmother and great-grandmother did and cleaned.”
Since being in business over the past 40 years, Allie has turned the Navy Yard-based Team Clean into a multi-million dollar enterprise with hundreds of employees. But earlier this year, she was prepared for COVID-19 to end her journey with the commercial cleaning and janitorial services company.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Allie was concerned when Team Clean lost much of its daily business. She was prepared to shut it down. But an investment she made in 2017 to equip her employees with a new cleaning tool during the burgeoning opioid epidemic gave the business a heightened importance in the fight against COVID-19.
Team Clean’s employees were already certified in infectious disease cleaning and at the time became certified in biohazard cleaning in case they were asked to do fentanyl cleaning for spaces used to illegally create methamphetamine. Allie invested in a Clorox 360 machine to allow her employees to better sanitize spaces and reached out to approximately 1,500 daycares in the area to pitch monthly sanitization services. At the time, none of them agreed to the new service.
Three years later, Team Clean was almost overwhelmed with inquiries to clean new spaces during the pandemic.
“We got calls on top of calls to do COVID cleaning,” she said. “We had the right product, certification and until now, we were the only ones investing in the sprayers. We had to add more staff to our disinfectant team.”
Since then, Team Clean has cleaned spaces for the Philadelphia Police Department, Philadelphia City Hall, nursing homes, gyms and churches. They also did COVID cleaning for all locations and actors locally filming “Hustle,” the upcoming Netflix movie starring Adam Sandler.
Allie said Team Clean applied for and received a first-round Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan. She said many other Black businesses didn’t receive PPP loans and attributed Team Clean’s loan to her strong relationship with her banker and having a solid team that manages “excellent record keeping.”
Because of the PPP loan, Team Clean was able to keep people on payroll even during a brief slowdown in business. The loan also allowed Team Clean to provide free services to businesses that couldn’t afford professional cleaning services.
Michael Brown is the CEO of Environmental Construction Services, Inc. and collaborated with Allie and Team Clean and other local Black-owned businesses during the pandemic. As a member of the COVID-19 Small Diverse Business and Community Task Force, Brown worked with local business leaders including Kerry Kirkland, the state deputy secretary for diversity, inclusion and small business opportunities.
The task force worked together to launch initiatives that would support businesses around the CARES Act while also fostering collaboration between businesses so that they could could actively earn revenue instead of waiting for money to trickle down.
“My company has a background in emergency response and facility management, but the hottest thing right now is sterilization,” Brown said. “We have tech that’s second to none and from there we needed a company with a cleaning background. We reached out to Donna and her team and brought in [West Philadelphia business resource organization] The Enterprise Center to come up with ways to launch a sterilization initiative statewide.”
According to Brown, part of the plan was to create jobs with double the minimum wage for people who wanted them, and to ensure small businesses had good payment terms and good margins. Over a month, Allie put together a training for four other cleaning companies and helped them develop sterilization services — a project Brown said Allie could have done alone, and an example of her goodwill toward her peers.
Brown said that collaboration is especially significant for Black and Latinx business owners. He believes that Black and Latinx businesses are often pitted against each other when it comes to accessing resources.
“If a job requires 25% minority participation, [organizations] can get it from us and not others,” he said. But “when we come together and form a consortium, it’s hard to break us up. You share resources, success stories and more. We have to start doing that or we’re going to fail.”
Even with her success as a Black business owner in the cleaning service industry, Allie often feels that her business is slighted compared to her white counterparts. She said that her white competitors average $50 million to $60 million for the same services that see her business averaging $17 million annually, and end up selling their companies for $100 million. Like many other Black business owners, Allie also said the lack of access to capital needed to upscale is a problem she and other peers are still trying to solve.
“I feel so bad about the struggle we have to go through,” she said. “I feel other business owners’ pain. We’re at a three-year average of $17 million in sales. We can’t get out of that average and go to the next level. It’s not only me — I hear this from other friends in business. Here in Philadelphia we want to put capital into building capacity.”
Greater capacity, Allie said, would allow her business to compete for larger contracts and better opportunities. Even with 40 years in business and a proven track record, Allie still feels excluded from gaining opportunities in the private sector with companies like Comcast or the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia because of a lack of capacity.
(One program that could help: the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia’s forthcoming PAGE Procurement Prep, which will aim to help local Black and brown entrepreneurs build their businesses’ capacity to work with institutional supply chains that are usually controlled by anchor institutions and larger corporations.)
Allie believes organizations could also support Black business owners by providing information on maximizing their financial resources after making profits. Understanding how to invest and better manager cash flow is something she believes could help many Black business owners succeed.
“I just learned in the last four years how important cash flow is,” she said; the liquidity that comes with cash flow can help small businesses preserve their future. “Cash flow is equally important as profit. It’s unbelievable what we can do now.”
- U.S. Small Business Administration COVID-19 funding
- COVID-19 Small Diverse Business and Community Task Force
- The Enterprise Center
- Economy League of Greater Philadelphia’s PAGE Procurement Prep
Michael Butler is a 2020-2021 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
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