By Caroline McMillan Portillo The Charlotte Observer.
Chris Souk's road to entrepreneurship took him from the U.S. Army to carpet cleaning.
Along the way he went to college, became a broker managing millions of dollars and got his master's degree. Five years ago, he switched gears once again to become the owner of three Oxi Fresh carpet-cleaning franchises.
Souk's varied experience has helped him perform quite well at his new gig. In 2013, the Charlotte, N.C., resident was the company's top-grossing franchisee of about 250 franchises nationwide.
Souk, 40, heard about Oxi Fresh when he visited his brother in Denver, where the company is based. His brother had bought the company's sixth franchise.
Souk accompanied his brother on a couple of jobs and was impressed with the green technology, which he said requires only two gallons of water versus the 40 to 50 gallons used by the average carpet cleaner. That makes the dry time about an hour.
Souk bought his own franchise in June 2009. He's since bought two more, and now has the exclusive right to all Oxi Fresh jobs in the greater Charlotte area.
The Charlotte Observer spoke with Souk to discuss how he made his way to the top. And the winner of his company's "Fresh Idea" award shared some of the unconventional principles he runs his business by:
1. Start early. Really early.
When Souk started his business, he encountered a problem: traffic. He was typically scheduling his first appointment of the day at 8:30 or 9 a.m., when roads were at their most clogged. "I'm thinking, 'I'm wasting so much time in the car,' " Souk said.
His solution: Get to the job before the traffic starts. Now, customers can schedule their appointments as early as 7 a.m., which is a popular option for people who work, Souk said. Plus, it naturally made for more business.
"If four of my six guys have 7 a.m. jobs, that's another 24 (jobs) a week, another 100 jobs a month," Souk said. "That's a no-brainer." He's also boosted efficiency by using Oxi Fresh's tracking software to segment his territory. Now an employee doing a 7 a.m. appointment in south Charlotte will do his next job of the day in the same vicinity.
Again, less time spent on the road means more jobs every day.
2. Keep a "war book" on your competition.
Souk's time in the military has been vital as an entrepreneur, he said. As a unit supply specialist, he learned discipline and resource management and, perhaps most importantly, how to study the enemy.
That's why he keeps what he calls a "war book," which holds every piece of information about his competitors that he can find _ whether it's mailers, advertisements or daily-deal specials, from the past four years. "Every major competitor in the Charlotte market has their own file," Souk said.
He studies patterns, pricing and advertising strategies.
Most people get a flier in the mail and throw it away, Souk said. "But I open every single one."
3. Prize personalization over price.
Souk learned early on that he couldn't win the price race to the bottom.
Souk charges $179 to clean five rooms, a hallway and a set of stairs. But he's seen some companies offer specials for just $120 for the same cleaning.
"I can't even afford to send someone out to do work for $120," he said. "You don't have to chase every low-ball person." Instead, he said, he offers the best deal he can while also giving strategic discounts. Veterans, police officers, firefighters _ they all get special deals. During back-to-school season, teachers get a 10 percent discount.
Another reason not to join in the price roller-coaster, Souk said, is that it gives customers mixed messages. "If your price is up and down, up and down, customers don't know who you're trying to be," Souk said. "Like if a BMW or luxury car was selling for dirt cheap. People would wonder, 'Is business down? Is there something wrong with it?' "
4. Approach marketing as a long-term investment.
The startup costs for Souk were minimal. He had to pay a one-time fee of $19,000 to get his first protected territory of 110,000 homes, and spent about $50,000 getting his business off the ground, Souk said.
His biggest financial commitment since has been marketing: "branding, branding, branding," Souk said. Trying to make Oxi Fresh a household name.
That's not something that a one-time mailing can accomplish, said Souk, whose undergraduate and graduate degrees were in marketing.
That's why he sends out thousands of pieces of direct mail a month. He calls it "the numbers game."
If even 100 of those recipients end up doing business with Souk, which leads to three or four future jobs, it was a worthwhile investment, he said.
But don't anticipate immediate results. When he did his first month of mailers, Souk said he got antsy. He wasn't getting much from his marketing investment.
So when the company asked him whether he wanted to re-sign for another month, he gave them a resounding "no."
Five or six months later, however, the calls started coming in.
"I had to call the mailer company back and basically get on my hands and knees to beg them to let me get back (on their list)," Souk said.
5. Hire people with "responsibilities in their life."
Though some employers find job candidates more attractive when they have fewer outside responsibilities, Souk takes a different view. He believes those outside commitments give the employee more drive because they need the job all the more, whether it's because of a newborn child, a sick mother, student loan payments or any number of concerns.
"They have to have something going on in their life," Souk said. "(That gives them) a stake in the game."
Because he can trust his employees, Souk is also flexible. One of his technicians is in school, so Souk agreed to let him start his day at 1 p.m., after his morning classes, and to work every Saturday.
"I want a guy who's motivated," Souk said. "This kid wants to get ahead and still wants to work and make money (as opposed to) some kid who comes in hung over from the night before."
And, Souk added, his tactic has worked: He hasn't had an employee leave in nearly a year.