By Doris Rubenstein
When most Americans think of people in high-security jobs, they seldom think of someone like Marie Bak. But the 4’11” tall grandmother and owner of SDQ Ltd. and her crack team of cleaning professionals all need top-security clearances to be able to do the job at companies like defense contractor General Dynamics in Bloomington.
Bak and some twenty of her 250+ employees had to go through extensive background checks by the police departments in the entire seven-county metro area to get this certification. And all of her on-site staff must be American citizens. This isn’t easy for a workforce that is 99% immigrants. But Bak is a force to be reckoned with. Her life experience helps her understand the lengths to which companies must go for national security. No bugs – living or electric – can trip up this cleaning professional. Where did this experience come from?
Marie Bak’s company, SDQ (Service, Dependability, Quality) Janitorial Services, didn’t always have these complex challenges. Before Bak’s company reached the Number Three point on the Twin Cities Business Journal list of Top 25 Janitorial Service Companies, she put in hundreds of hours on her own hands and knees, cleaning homes for corporate executives. This was a real turnaround for Bak who had lived the life a wife of a DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) counter-intelligence agent turned international corporate executive.
“Our home in Poland was bugged!” she recalls. And she doesn’t mean with cockroaches. They lived a privileged life in European capitals, always aware of the high-security nature of her husband’s work.
“When our family decided to return to the U.S. and my husband became International Treasurer of Medtronic in Minnesota, I decided to follow my own dream and start a business,” Bak recalls. “I did over 130 hours of research at the SBA offices and chose cleaning. The idea was consistent with advice from my customers and my husband Edmund’s colleagues at Medtronic.”
Rather than take loans for seed capital, Bak did the dirty work in private homes herself for six months to raise the $10,000 she needed to get SDQ off the ground. One of her first customers was Curt Carlson. For someone used to socializing with corporate executives like Carlson or international diplomats rather than scrubbing their kitchen sinks, Bak didn’t find this to be a problem.
“In Europe, every worker is respected, no matter what the job is. I try to treat my employees as professionals and as special individuals: remembering birthdays, anniversaries – even a favorite restaurant,” she says with pride.
In a business noted for hiring workers with minimal skills, Bak has a unique approach to personnel recruitment and hiring. While her first workers were farm wives who needed jobs during a depressed economy in 1983 (one of whom is still working for her at age 72), nearly all of her cleaning employees are now immigrants and second-generation workers from Korea, Ecuador, and Guyana.
“Many of my Korean employees, in particular, are highly educated, but lack language skills at first. Their past experiences in high-tech fields in Korea allow them to move easily into some of the more sophisticated work we do for biomedical companies that require clean room certification,” Bak observes. “They must attend classes and take training in procedures for protective clothing. Federal regulators very strict about this certification process.”
But Bak doesn’t just hire individual workers: she hires families.
Bak was introduced to her first Korean workers by her Korean dressmaker. She moved the families lock-stock-and barrel from both the east and west coasts to Minnesota and provided them with housing and resettlement support outside of a union structure. She has used the same model to recruit from other immigrant communities.
Bak feels that by hiring families and providing salaries and support for “…a roof over their heads and bread on the table, it keeps them honest and they will give customers outstanding service; and they will be loyal to me.”
She’s right. Her average employee has more than 17 years of service to SDQ.
SDQ’s family of employees includes Bak’s own two sons, Scott and Dirk. In addition to their work with at SDQ, upon their mother’s insistence and under her tutelage, the brothers have formed their own company, CFM (Corporate Facilities Management). The company now claims over $3 million in annual revenue.
SDQ’s client companies, both large and small, recognize that Bak and her families of employees have a unique attitude toward their job.
Tim Dailey, Operations Manager for Jones, Lang, LaSalle Property Management has worked with SDQ for nearly three years. “SDQ is always been very responsive when we really need to put a shine on for a special customer,” he says. “Marie pays personal attention to our requests.”
With confidence that her sons are competent to take over the business when she is ready to retire, Bak still can’t see that day in the near future. SDQ’s business growth in the past year has outstripped that of most others in the janitorial services industry. She enjoys the challenge of competing with the large national companies that hold the two places above her on the Business Journal Top 25 list.
Marie Bak leads the SDQ cleaning team with an attitude that won’t rub off, no matter how hard they scrub. As she says with pride, “I bring class to cleaning.”