James Lee Senter, best known as Lee, is among the most recognizable figures in the professional cleaning industry. A well-known public speaker, inspector for all the major carpet manufacturers across southern Ontario and an Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification approved instructor who also presently serves as president of the Canadian Flooring, Cleaning and Restoration Association, Senter has made a name for himself as the go-to guy when something needs to be fixed.
“I’m an education hog,” laughs the owner of both Fresh and Clean and DryIt. “Because of my never-ending thirst for knowledge and honest passion for the business, I get a lot of referrals from many of the large janitorial companies when they’re faced with troublesome tasks like stubborn stains. I’ve become a handy person to have on my competitors’ side.”
Senter’s focus on offering premium or, what he calls, “problem-solving services” has really taken off in the last few years thanks to the reputation he’s garnered.
A fixture in the industry for four decades now, Senter is also known for being green before his time – a pathway he took out of necessity. In 1979, one year after he landed his first job as a carpet cleaning technician at Ottawa-based Dominion Carpet Cleaning, Senter was diagnosed with hepatitis C, which was then called non-A, non-B hepatitis. The news was unexpected – 95 per cent of people with the potentially lethal virus are unaware they have it, according to the World Health Organization, likely because it often doesn’t trigger any symptoms.
“The doctors determined the cleaning chemicals I was using were attacking my internal organs and I was told I either had to get out of the business or change what I was doing,” he says matter-of-factly.
Having found his calling, Senter chose to find a way to do his job using chemicals that were less hazardous to his liver, such as powdered enzymes as a cleaning pre-spray (though his sinuses have paid the price of daily use), and non-toxic household items like peanut butter to tackle chewing gum and other sticky residue in carpet, egg whites to get rid of coffee splotches, sour milk to eliminate ink and lemon juice as an all-purpose stain remover.
With a new lease on life, Senter uprooted and moved to Toronto in the late ‘80s, where he was employed as an early morning newspaper delivery man while, at the same time, working in the marketing department of a local cleaning company. Looking to grow his savings, Senter squirreled away his cleaning-related paycheques to avoid spending his hard-earned cash only to find out it was all for naught.
“One day, an employee came in and told me his cheque didn’t clear and it soon dawned on me that I had a wallet full of cheques that were worthless,” Senter recalls. “I immediately went to the owner to air my grievances and quit but instead of giving me my money and sending me on my way, he offered me 50 per cent of the business.”
This second life-changing event marked the beginning of Fresh and Clean in 1988, the name purposefully chosen to signify a fresh start for Senter. But despite his optimistic outlook and best efforts to grow the business, his new partner failed to change his precarious ways and Senter sold his share after just two years. Shortly thereafter, the company went under.
“My partner was no good with money, so I guess it was doomed for disaster from the get-go,” he says.
But in 1993, Senter resurrected the company name as Fresh and Clean’s sole proprietor and moved it in the direction he originally intended. At first, carpet cleaning was the main source of business but as the textile floor covering lost market share to hard surface flooring in the ‘90s, Senter diversified – a strategy that has proven successful time and again. First, Fresh and Clean offered hardwood sanding and then gradually moved into laminate floor maintenance, but the payday never fully materialized as he had hoped. That’s when Senter decided to adopt a green marketing strategy.
“It made perfect sense,” he says. “Not only was I committed to using products that would reduce the risks of adverse health effects but I had become a carpet and upholstery cleaning instructor for Chemspec, a growing specialty chemical distribution company that was the leader in green cleaning products.”
Fresh and Clean soon became known for using eco-friendly cleaning solutions and was the first building service contractor certified under the Canadian Sanitation Supply Association’s green sustainability program. Its primary cleaner is a 100 per cent food-based, scent-free product that has achieved the prestigious Carpet and Rug Institute Seal of Approval.
At the forefront of adopting the best products and practices, newer tools in the company’s green cleaning arsenal include a proprietary cleaning pre-treatment for heavily soiled carpets — a plant-based micelle surfactant – which, again, is safe to use and has no significant odour, HEPA vacuums that filter the air and microfiber cloths that trap the dust particles, resulting in not only a cleaner environment but a healthier one, too.
Around the time that Fresh and Clean began to gain more market share because of its green cleaning policy, the company branched out into water damage restoration as another road to growth. But in 2006, Senter suffered a setback, albeit a temporary one.
“My insurance company told me I had to divest Fresh and Clean of its disaster restoration services or it would cease coverage,” he explains. “Instead of dwelling on this, I saw it as another opportunity to move ahead.”
So, that same year, Senter established DryIt, whose mission is to dry flooded facilities “in place,” wherever practical, instead of removing building components, remediating and rebuilding. This strategy minimizes downtime, is less costly for clients and leads to a more sustainable business, he says.
Today, DryIt provides a variety of emergency services beyond water damage restoration, including mould remediation, asbestos testing and removal, fire and smoke damage cleanup, trauma scene cleanup and specialty drying.
In addition to expanding its service offerings, Senter’s two companies have increased their geographic reach beyond Toronto to serve more than 5,000 residential and commercial spaces across the entire GTA, as well as in Hamilton and Barrie, Ont. He expects Fresh and Clean’s customer base will further grow because of its new partnership with the world’s second largest retailer, Costco, which Senter forged in June.
“After Sears shuttered its doors in Canada earlier this year, the people behind the retail chain’s carpet cleaning launched Costco carpet cleaning in which we’ve been hired to do the jobs,” he explains excitedly.
Though looking forward to what the future holds, Senter is still very much grounded in the present, which involves overseeing the rollout of an online review system. A significant investment, it will provide Fresh and Clean customers the opportunity to rate their service. Clients that score lower than a five will automatically receive a return visit to address outstanding issues.
“We’re taking a very proactive approach to make sure the job is done to our customers’ satisfaction,” says Senter, adding he intends to personally train one person with his skill set to remove stains at no charge upon such follow-up calls. “We are in the people-pleasing business and this will set us apart from others in the marketplace.”
As for DryIt, Senter is in the final stages of perfecting a second online system. Three years in the making, it will enable clients to track their insurance claims in real-time when it launches in November.
“Unlike the cleaning industry, quality of work is not the top priority in the disaster restoration business,” he explains. “What’s important to these customers is that workers are on time and the project is finished promptly, followed by professionalism and then work quality.”
When ranking what matters most to him, Senter says he hopes to leave a legacy for raising the bar of health and safety in the cleaning industry.
“I want people to realize through my education efforts that there are great repercussions if we don’t respect what we do,” he says. “I’m a perfect example: I’m allergic to mould, I suffered liver disease as a result of the chemicals used in the cleaning industry and have full flown DDD (degenerative disc disease) from performing repetitive movements with incorrect posture, or poor ergonomics. Despite the sector’s progress, it’s important not to ignore that the cleaning industry still consists of a lot of chemistries and practices that can cause severe harm to human beings.”
Clare Tattersall is the editor of Facility Cleaning & Maintenance.
Photos by Robyn Russell.