Hurricane Katrina left Jerome Boykin jobless and aimless. Now he runs a growing cleaning business. How visiting a shopping mall parking lot changed everything.
As told to Athena Schindelheim
Thrilling tales of entrepreneurs, in the Internet age, often sound similar: College kid concocts innovative idea. Pulls all-nighters to build a prototype. Writes business plan, begs and borrows for funding, eventually launches. The sequence of events has been a bit different for Jerome Boykin Jr., whose thriving company cleans parking lots outside big retail stores. Boykin, 23, was entering grad school--in New Orleans--when Hurricane Katrina sent him, jobless and aimless, to his parents' house in Houma, Louisiana. To get him off the couch, Jerome's father, Jerome Boykin Sr., a local NAACP president, took him to watch a mall parking lot being cleaned and suggested it might be a profitable business. Boykin now keeps lots tidy in eight parishes, and his company brings in half a million dollars a year. He does pull all-nighters; that's when the lots are swept. And--typical these days--he's got his own ideas for what might be big on the Web.
Hurricanes are nothing new to us down here. I went to my parents' home thinking it was going to be a couple of days. They didn't let us go back to New Orleans for a week or two. When I got to my apartment, I didn't have anything. All my clothes and shoes had mildew. The ceiling came down. The walls were purple and green. For two or three months after, I was at home not doing anything. I was down because all my friends were gone, out of town, or moved away. I was watching TV. I was reading magazines. I wasn't looking for a job.
My daddy knew where my mind was because of Katrina. He told me to meet him in the mall parking lot at midnight. It was November. My dad was, like, "You got a degree. You need to do something with yourself!" I was looking at this guy with this big sweeper truck sweeping up the parking lot. He asked me what I thought about the business, and I was, like, "I'm not doing that. Ain't no way!"
In Houma, there was only one guy cleaning parking lots, for 10, 15, 20 years. He had a monopoly. My daddy found out about it from a friend of his. He tried to bring me to the water but he couldn't make me drink. I had to talk to the store manager at Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), Victor Ladner. Victor told me that he was unsatisfied with the guy that was cleaning his parking lot and told me how much he was paying him. I couldn't believe it: It was between $3,200 and $3,800 a month for just that one store. The light bulb blew up in my head. I was, like, "I'm sold." He said, basically, "If you buy a sweeper truck, then I will give you the contract."
We didn't know how to operate a truck. We didn't know where to get the truck. We didn't know nothing. We just knew we had to get into the business. I got on the Internet and did some research on sweeper trucks. I found a dealer in Alabama and asked him a bunch of questions. Within 30 days, I got a truck. The truck cost about $75,000. My dad helped because I didn't have any credit.
When I was three, my father was hit by a drunk driver. He had surgery on his back and was forced to retire. With the money from the lawsuit, he made a lot of good investments in real estate. He knows a loan officer at the bank, and he put two of his rental properties up as collateral for my loan. It took two or three weeks for me to get my Wal-Mart vendor's number. I had to get $2 million insurance, a million-dollar liability, workers' comp. They asked for a lot.
I was kind of nervous because I was only used to driving a Chevy Malibu. I didn't know how to drive a stick. Once I got in, it got a lot easier. It's just like a regular car. You kick it in drive, and you go. You press a button to vacuum up the trash: Pampers, bottles, pieces of lumber.
The biggest problem out there is gum. I find money in the parking lot. I found a used 19-inch TV. I found a brand-new drum set. The store manager said I could keep it, so I gave it to the church. Earlier this year, I found a big bag of marijuana with $400 in it. I gave that to a cop. The cops always tell me I'm a good citizen.
I have nine Wal-Marts now. I do nine or 10 parking lots myself every night. I have two sweeper trucks. The first will be paid off by the end of this summer. I'm about to buy another truck next month. When I started cleaning for Victor, I cleaned that Wal-Mart so good that other people started noticing. And he started spreading the word. I don't have my company name on any of my trucks; I don't advertise. My company grows by word of mouth. Store managers tell other store managers--Target (NYSE:TGT), Home Depot (NYSE:HD), Lowe's (NYSE:LOW). Now I take their name and number and tell them I'll let them know when I get another truck.
I didn't expect this to blow up so fast. It just exploded. Maybe it's going too fast. When I first got into this business, I thought, "I'll be good with $10,000 a month," and my ultimate goal was $25,000 to $30,000. I reached my ultimate goal in four or five months.
People laugh and are, like, "Yo! You got a degree! And you're picking up trash?" They just don't know that my company makes $45,000 a month.
I've hired a few guys--eight--but it's a challenge training them. I have a routine, and it's hard to get those guys to understand the way that I want it done. I don't leave it up to them to make sure the lots are clean because that's how these other sweeping companies were losing contracts. They were hiring guys that would be there for 20 minutes, and then they'd be gone. One guy fell asleep in his truck and ran it into a restaurant!
I still go and check just about all 15 stores. New Orleans is an hour away and every night I go behind those guys and check my stores in Houma and drive to New Orleans and check all of those stores and come back home at 6, 7, 8 in the morning. Even if I get up to 20 Wal-Marts, I'll try to go to all 20.
My main goal is to make the store managers happy in the morning. They talk to each other. I am in about eight parishes now, and I'm ready to go into the Baton Rouge market. Within two years, I can see JB Sweeping in all the major cities of Louisiana. In five years, JB Sweeping will expand outside the state.
If you had asked me when I was in school what I thought I would be doing, I would have said getting a franchise, a Subway or something. I just wanted to work for myself and work my own hours. You know, do my own thing. I never thought in a million years I would be doing this.
The dot-com thing is totally different. It eases my mind. When I only had two or three stores, I bought a website for $1,000. Everyface.com. It's a social networking site--when a member joins, their face goes on the homepage. I was looking to set the record of one million faces on one homepage. Once I started to get more people, I had to update the server. I had to put more money into the project. I needed a person to stand by so if it crashed someone would be there to lift it up. I sold it for about $6,000. Right now I have a wedding website being built.
Going out--I never really think about it because this is my future. This is how I eat. This is something that could move into something big. Hanging out with my friends and going to the club, I'm not too worried about. My main focus is the business.
Ever since September, when this article came out about me in my hometown paper, they're starting to catch on. People shake my hand and try to hook me up with their daughters. "I have someone you should meet." I get a lot of that.