by Mark Schwarze
From the time when my Dad built his first parking lot sweeper in 1973, it was less than 20 years until our family business, Schwarze Industries, Inc., had become one of the largest sweeper manufacturers in the world. It's a company I'm proud to say I grew up in and which I ran for many years, as Chief Operating Officer and President. Unfortunately, due to Dad's failing health and the fact the company had grown so large that U.S. tax laws severely restricted the efficient transfer of it from father to son, in 2000 we sold our family company to the public company, Alamo Group, Inc. (NYSE:ALG).
As industry old-timers will recall, the original Schwarze company was a huge success with contractors and property managers throughout the U.S. At one time, because of our high quality sweeper designs and uncompromising level of customer service, we had gained the loyalty of over 60% of the entire U.S. market for parking lot sweepers. Today, with Victory Sweepers, I am in the process of re-creating that atmosphere of offering simple, powerful designs for the sweepers and industry-leading customer service programs. For those of you interested in how our family initially got into business, though, here's the story.
Dad's entrance into sweeping was an example of attaining the great American Dream, gained through a combination of recognizing a need and finding a way to fill it. It all started in 1965, when Dad was working for the Boeing Company in Huntsville, Alabama. One day, while at a fast food restaurant, he noticed some employees picking up trash by hand in the parking lot. It made him wonder how owners of large lots dealt with this problem. A man of immense follow-through, he contacted the owner of the largest shopping center in the city, who told him that keeping his parking area clean was one of his biggest problems. He almost begged Dad to give him a price for cleaning it.
Encouraged, and somewhat surprised by this one answer, Dad surveyed other parking lot owners and managers and got similarly encouraging responses. From this, he determined there was definitely an opportunity in the asphalt cleaning business -- if a person had some equipment to do the job. So, he set out to see what was on the market to sweep parking lots. Back in those days, the only dealer of sweeping equipment in the area handled just large, mechanical broom sweepers actually designed for rock and gravel street sweeping. Not knowing it would be an inefficient and expensive way to sweep parking lots, Dad made the largest purchase in his life and bought one.
For five years he made it work. However, not only was the machine inefficient and prone to breakdown, but he found himself paying top retail prices for dealer-supplied parts even on sweeper specific chassis' items. Then he heard about the newly-developed concept of an air sweeper, and so took a look at what was available.
Although there were a couple of companies manufacturing air vacuum units, he found their machines to be nearly as complicated as the expensive brush-type machine he already owned. What impressed him, though, was the basic air flow system that did the litter pickup. The air pickup system obviously made the machines a better design for parking lot work. Since nothing on the market had more than average performance and all were much more complex than necessary, he decided to make his own.
That decision became a pivotal one for the fledgling parking lot sweeping industry. Setting his sights on coming up with a simpler sweeper with a more powerful vacuum, Dad assembled his own design using off-the-shelf parts and a standard pickup chassis.
The first machine was made of parts assembled from all over the place. For example, the first hopper was a 750-gallon, skid-mounted agricultural spray tank. Most other components came from a hardware surplus catalog. The result was an ugly machine that he mounted onto a pick-up truck, and it worked great!
When he started the small gasoline engine that powered the sweeper, and lowered the little sweeping head, you could hear rocks bouncing up the intake tube. And, because it was on a pick-up chassis, the sweeper proved to be maneuverable, comfortable and economical. While I was president of Schwarze Industries, Inc., we re-purchased this first sweeper from its owner and restored it. The unit was in surprisingly good shape for its age and hours.
The ability to see design improvements runs in the family, though, and it wasn't long before Bob came up with an even better design. He made a second unit with new features, though he remained determined not to get drawn toward the over-complexity he'd seen with all the other manufacturers.
The second version sported an attractive, custom-built oval hopper made by a local fabrication shop. Like the first one, it was built to be non-dumping. This meant the operator, Dad (and later me), had to use a shovel to manually unload everything the machines picked up. The automatic dumps on the broom sweepers had broken so often that he used to joke that he was used to it, though. At the time, Dad considered it a big deal that at least his sweeper was designed for easy shoveling!
As Dad started fabrication of a third machine, the higher level of efficiency also allowed him to expand our family's sweeping business to surrounding cities. It was one night while sweeping a parking lot in Birmingham, AL, a couple of hours from home, that his sweeper design first came to the attention of another contractor.
A sweeper operator in an adjoining lot couldn't recognize the machine, so came over for a look. He couldn't believe the performance and simplicity of design, as compared to anything else he'd ever seen. Within thirty days he had placed an order for the first Schwarze Supervac, and Dad suddenly found himself in the manufacturing business. It was in 1974 that Schwarze Industries was incorporated.
The simplicity of our Supervac design made it an immediate success. Orders mounted steadily on the strength of word-of-mouth advertising alone, and soon Dad sold our lot cleaning service in order to concentrate on developing new models. This was fine by me, since by now I was in high school and yet all my weekends since I'd gotten a driver's license had been taken up with running or cleaning our route sweepers. I was happy to get involved in the manufacturing end of things, where I got a weekend free now and again.
As in many family businesses, we all had to get involved. My brother Rick shot our videos and Mom was the company bookkeeper and receptionist, a job she was to keep for many years after she could have retired. I had started out washing sweepers, then driving them on our route once I turned 16. Once we quit doing sweeping, Dad worked me in all phases of production. He was determined that I know every facet of the sweeper manufacturing business before I became a part of our management team. Although frustrating at the time, now looking back I realize this is one of the best things he could have done for me.
At the time, parking lot sweeping was largely an unknown service, and from the beginning customer support was huge to Dad. Realizing that the market for sweeper services was expanding as rapidly as the building of commercial property, we set our sights on educating the general public about the opportunities available as a sweeping contractor.
At the same time, Dad was determined to do everything he could think of to assist the people who owned his machines, especially first-time buyers. Recalling his own difficulties starting out as a sweeping service owner, Dad was determined that other startups into sweeping wouldn't have to make the same mistakes he had. Under his direction, I developed material on equipment maintenance and troubleshooting, techniques for sweeping and factors to consider in costing and bidding a job.
People looking at entering the field of sweeping appreciated this customer-oriented approach, and it wasn't long before the Schwarze customer base surpassed that of our largest competitor. In less than 10 years we had captured sixty percent of the contract parking lot sweeping market and over seventy percent of the larger shopping centers that owned their own machines used our sweepers.
In 1982, now Chief Operating Officer, I decided to diversify Schwarze Industries, Inc. into the municipal street cleaning market. Because few vacuum machines existed with enough suction to clean curbs and gutters effectively, this was an area still monopolized mainly by the broom sweeper manufacturers. We felt that if we could design a sweeper powerful enough to enter this growing market that the gains we would make in manufacturing economies would help keep the costs down on our Supervacs, too.
We began design work on the largest machine ever built at Schwarze Industries, the Supervac Six. Our tiny in-house design staff put together a machine with a larger capacity, higher suction power, beefier hydraulic components and more auxiliary engine horsepower than anything we'd ever built.
In 1983, a little over a year later, we introduced a working prototype that outperformed the industry leader's best municipal machine. This was quickly discovered, and by 1985 our list of happy users included such prestigious names as Boeing Military Airplane Company, the United States Marine Corps, the Republic of Taiwan and a long list of cities and airports.
Then, in 1988, we took another big step when we acquired Aaplex, Inc., a diverse but municipal-oriented air sweeper company previously headquartered in Little Rock, Arkansas. We continued to manufacture and market our municipal line under the Aaplex trade name, although later turned these into the 'A-series' line of sweepers.
Unlike our direct sales force that we maintained to provide one-on-one contact to contractors and malls, we set up a nationwide dealer network to sell and service our A-series machines. By splitting our product line, we found that we were better able to give both our groups of customers what they need.
In 1992 a further expansion was undertaken in the municipal arena: Schwarze Industries purchased the production rights for the Murphy municipal broom sweeper (now the Schwarze M-series line). The purchase of Murphy gave us a product we could sell to all segments of the sweeping industry. At that point, no matter what type of power sweeper was needed, we could provide a sweeper to fit the need.
Since the company's incorporation in 1974, our family's industry-leading design and customer service philosophy grew Schwarze Industries from our initial six family members to a firm employing well over 180 people. Because that was our founding philosophy, the result was a success story both for our family and for our customers. In addition to offering the widest selection of sweepers, and being known as America's innovation leader when it came to sweeper design, our abiding goal was to continually find ways to give back to our customers.
When our family owned Schwarze Industries, Inc., we offered more customer assistance programs than any sweeper manufacturer in the history of the industry, before or since. Starting in 1994, we began the long-term sponsorship of American Sweeper magazine and the AmericanSweeper.com website.
In addition, our family pioneered many other firsts for the sweeping industry. For example, we were the first sweeper manufacturer to consistently take used sweepers in trade, to sell direct as well as through a dealer sales and service network, to offer service loaners to customers, or to host a 'sweepers only' get-together (what we named the Schwarze Roundup). Under my direction we also became naPSa's biggest supporting member, at one time signing up and paying for over 100 new naPSa members in just a few months time.
My goal for Victory Sweepers is not just to build the best sweepers in the marketplace. Rather, it is to re-form the special bonds our family once had with those in the sweeping community. When you buy a sweeper from Victory Sweepers, you will have an opportunity to learn first-hand what we mean by our slogan of 'Winning Together.'
I believe the sweeping industry is poised on the brink of its best days ever, ready to take our rightful place as one of the leading environmental industries in America. The demand for sweeping, in these times of continued business expansion coupled with rising stormwater runoff pollution and air quality degradation, is increasing by leaps and bounds. You will find Victory Sweepers at the forefront of developing the technology required as this new chapter in sweeping unfolds over time.
Thanks again for your interest in Victory Sweepers. Please let us know how we might assist you in any facet of your sweeping business. I'll see you on the lot.