What started as an after-school job to pay for tuition became a business for Buck Services' John Buchholz
John Buchholz sits behind his desk at Buck Services and considers how he got there. A small, satisfied smile creases his face, the pride in what he's accomplished evident.
"This has been my love," Buchholz says of his building maintenance business.
He is 62 years old now. It's nearly five decades since he unknowingly took the first steps on his career path as a freshman at St. Francis High School in Wheaton. The seventh of 11 children, Buchholz needed assistance to pay private-school tuition, so he'd help clean the school after classes.
He never saw any money from his efforts. It went straight back to the school.
Following graduation from St. Francis, after a year spent working at a company that rehabbed houses and condos, Buchholz went to Illinois Benedictine College, now Benedictine University. He then became an elementary-school teacher at St. Michael's in Wheaton, then St. Isadore and St. Irene's. All the while he earned extra money by cleaning the schools at night or on weekends after teaching weekdays.
"I was single, so what else was I going to do besides play baseball, volleyball, whatever?" he asks rhetorically.
In 1988 he left teaching and founded Buck Services. He was ready to make his second job into his career.
Today he's the president and CEO of a company with about 250 employees and about 125 clients that might just reach $9 million in revenue this year the way things are going. And he's one of 20 winners of the Daily Herald Business Ledger's annual C-Suite Awards.
Picking up a broom
Buchholz is a long way from the 13-year-old -- and later teacher -- who cleaned the gymnasium and classrooms after school.
"I'd never thought of doing something like this. I was a teacher and I was trying to figure out extra income," he says. Now teaching is a distant memory. Cleaning is not.
"As of last year I was out in the field," he says. "Very little but just to get to know the people still. I was out there cleaning and scrubbing."
Going out into the field helps Buchholz run Buck Services. He learns what works, what doesn't. If the company is pricing its services right. If the company is getting the right staffing to jobs. Which mop and bucket employees prefer.
Not much has changed since he founded Buck Services. There are some new machines -- he proudly points to one of four $7,500 floor scrubbers that he says does the job more efficiently -- but there's only so much technology can alter the building maintenance business in the field.
It's an old-school service business with clients that are, well, almost all schools and churches. Buck Services clients are located throughout the Chicago area, even out to Rockford and Sycamore. The company also works with a handful of park districts.
Like so many businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown hit Buck Services hard. At first school and church closures allowed Buck Services to do a deep clean in those facilities. But work quickly dried up from April into June 2020.
"Financially, it crushed us during those three months," Buchholz says.
A PPP loan from the federal government got Buck Services and its employees through those hard months.
"It got us right to June 15. It was like a lifesaver, for (Buck Services employees) and us," he says.
Since they've been allowed to reopen, schools and churches need more and deeper cleanings than ever because of the coronavirus. Some large manufacturers also have signed up to have their facilities disinfected by Buck Services.
The Buchholz family's familiarity around Wheaton helped out when DuPage County needed help during the 2020 election. The county election commission turned to Buck Services, whose employees went to early voting sites throughout DuPage County to disinfect voting booths. It was a "big boost" to the company's bottom line, Buchholz says.
On Election Day Buck Services had 20 two-person teams going around to each voting site, hitting each two or three times a day. The company put together a route designed for each two-person team for maximum efficiency. The company also had to recruit and train people especially for that assignment.
"We have a very good relationship with DuPage County now. Now will they need us? Who knows? But they know that we can do the job," Buchholz says.
In it for the long haul
Buck Services has three employees approaching 30 years with company, and many others have been with the company several years.
"When it comes to our industry, turnover is very high. But when it comes to the average, we are much better than the average," Buchholz says.
So the company is always looking for new employees, holding job fairs and offering referral bonuses to current employees. The current labor shortage makes recruiting more difficult than ever.
Increasing wages, including the minimum wage, also is a problem for Buchholz. When 90% of your clientele are churches and schools, it's hard to pass along the cost of labor. Churches and schools can't absorb those increased costs easily.
"You can't just continue to ask your customers to pay us more," Buchholz says. "They can't do it."
Buck Services offers employees a 401(K) but still struggles with staffing.
"Getting them in the door is one thing. To try to keep them is twice as hard," he says.
"That's putting a huge burden on our staff that we have because not only do they have to put in 40 hours a week, they're putting in 50-60 hours a week to make up for the people we don't have," Buchholz says.
For some employees, the extra hours are no problem. For others, they are.
"It kills the bottom line, believe me, when we don't have the amount of staff members to do it," Buchholz says.
One longtime employee left because his second job at a restaurant increased his hours and offered him $2.50 an hour more. Buck Service couldn't match that.
"He said, 'I don't want to leave, but it's my family.' And that's a second job," Buchholz says.
A family business
He's not the only Buchholz working at Buck Services. Brother Joe, a company veteran of 33 years, is in charge of sales and marketing. Brother Bill is in charge of human resources. Brother Rob oversees operations. Four nephews also work for the company.
As John Buchholz talks, the 12,000-square-foot warehouse at his 17,000-square-foot company headquarters is being set up for a weekend family wedding reception, with the ceremony to be held out back on the company's 3 acres.
"It has been rewarding and a challenge to work with family. But it's very rewarding. It's not just our four families. It's all the families that we affect. It's a close-knit team."
Over the last 33 years Buchholz has built Buck Services just that way.