How does one company handle shifts in customer demand over time, especially given the heavy effects of COVID-19? How changing needs of customers can force growth?
About This Guest:
CEO - TurfTecs
In this episode, we also dive into sanitation versus using an enzyme cleaner on high contact surfaces like turf and playground equipment.
Halie Morris 0:00
My name is Halie with The Business of Cleaning podcast. I am your podcast coordinator and host. Today we’re going to be talking about the changing needs of customers and we have Milo George here with us from TurfTecs to talk about his experience within the industry and how it’s shifted, especially with relation to COVID-19. So, if you don’t mind Milo, can you go ahead and introduce yourself and tell us more about TurfTecs?
Milo George 0:53
Sure. I’m Milo George, CEO of TurfTecs. Our primary business is cleaning, maintaining, repairing, and doing safety testing of artificial turf sports fields. I’ve been in the business for about 15 years now and we’re growing rapidly, but due to this moving fluidness of COVID-19, it’s been a challenge this year. It’s been a challenge.
You faced a bit of a roadblock in regards to business I bet. It’s kind of crazy, but obviously, with turf, it’s been a shifting market to start with. So over these last 15 years that you’ve been in this field, what have you seen starting out to now? What has that demand looked like and that shift with the customers over time?
When we originally got into the business, we had the companies that were selling turf basically telling their customers, “you don’t need to do maintenance on these fields.” That was part of their selling process. Literally had it in their documents, there are several sales brochures. “No maintenance required.”
Not a belief I’ve been in for. Anything of a capital purchase, hardscapes, you need to do maintenance. So we had some situations where some customers and prospects had some issues with their fields, and the company that installed them was no longer in business.
They called us to see if we could take care of them. We went in and started fixing the issues with them and the word got out to this. Hey, these guys can make these fields look good. They make them look like new again, they play well. They know what they’re doing. Over the years now maintenance of artificial turf sports fields is a mandatory invoke thing to be doing.
We have found we can extend the life of the fields by 20 to 25 percent and we can check yearly on the safety factor of it. It’s just a smart investment. I’ve had people ask me, do you have to do maintenance on artificial turf fields? And I’ll say no, but you don’t have to change the oil and filter in your car, either, but if you want to last longer, it’s a known fact we’ve got data to support it, it does make a difference. It’s a good investment.
and not just lasting longer right? It comes back to the reliability of that field, just like in your car. The reliability of your car comes back to its maintenance.
True and really our company’s objective is- the first one is safety. I mean, the field has to be safe. It can not necessarily look the greatest but if it’s still safe, then we’ve met that first goal. So safety is the first factor.
Playability. Some of these fields are designed with certain playing characteristics, and with proper maintenance, you can preserve those characteristics. So that’s our second objective.
Longevity Which is the dollar side of it. A lot of owners definitely have to look at that. That’s our third objective.
And of course presentation. It’s got to look good. That just falls in place if you’re addressing the other three issues.
You mentioned the playing characteristics. So what do you mean by that? I guess I’m not as familiar with that world of things.
Some fields, let’s say are strictly for playing football. That surface will have certain characteristics where it might be a little softer because there’s a lot of body to surface contact on it, where soccer they want a little faster field, a little harder field. So that might be a little different there.
There’s another sport field hockey, where that’s totally different and the maintenance on that is just totally separate from everything else. So when you start looking at fields that have multiple sports on them- we maintain several that have football, soccer, lacrosse, rugby- you have to kind of look at what’s the main focus is and address those in particular.
But yes, they’re designed in the characteristics of the companies that sell these fields. With proper maintenance, we can help keep those in tune with what the fields were purchased for.
Out of curiosity, what’s been the worst field that you’ve ever had to come on to? And you don’t have to name who it was, but What did it look like?
That’s a really good question. We’ve run into a number of fields where the fiber, the green material, has just completely released from the backing and it looks like cut grass laying all over the place and it’s kind of disgusting. We’ve run into a number of those fields.
If you could go to our website, we have pictures of some of the most disgusting fields we’ve run into. Some field owners do not do a good job of restricting what enters the field. We’ve been on fields where we’ve removed pizza, chicken bones, bolts, screws, all sorts of bottle caps, cigarettes. It’s pretty disgusting.
So certain fields would win on worst ever on certain aspects.I guess the ones that I get really concerned about are really hard, and those are not safe to play on. Those are the ones that concern me. The ones that we discussed (with fibers coming up), we can fix that pretty easy, but it’s the ones that have a compaction to them that present us with the biggest challenge. We can address it, but the owner should not let those fields get to those particular conditions.
I’m assuming then that you’ve had somewhere you’ve had to turn around and say, “Listen, this isn’t a maintenance issue. This is a you need a new field issue.” Have you had one of those moments or a couple of those moments?
Several and I understand the owner’s challenges because it’s financial. I can think of three or four fields right now that really do need replacing and they just do not have it in their budget to replace them. I’m concerned that there will be a day where the NCAA will step in and have requirements of these fields. If they don’t meet these minimum requirements, they will not be able to host home games.
I know of some DII and DIII colleges that will not go to certain competitors’ fields in their conference because the artificial turf is not safe to play on. It’s a problem and it comes down to financial. Most schools know that they have to replace them at one time and part of our process is making our customers or clients aware of future needs.
So after we do a complete maintenance process, we’ll go in and do a gmax test, which is a test of the hardness of the surface, how well absorbs any shock and impacts, and I’ll give that report to the customer with other impacts and other issues and concerns we have. Then we also say our expectations are that this field will last X number of years longer: two years, three years, whatever.
We found that they greatly appreciate that and if it gets to a point where it’s really a concern, I will make a strong emphasis that by 2021, you really do need to replace this field. Then they come back and say, well, we don’t, we don’t have that option right now. We do tests and give recommendations to give them an idea to stay ahead of it, and budget that money accordingly.
Kind of going off of the fact that you have to remind people, and obviously, you’re going to have a certain dynamic with customers at that point you’re returning to the same fields probably multiple times. How often do you perform the maintenance then?
Generally we do what we would classify as a deep annual cleaning. The owners are supposed to do cleaning and grooming on their own on a regular basis, which some do and with some, this does not happen. But the process we do, we come in with a very strong vacuum system. We make two passes over the field with a vacuum. There’s a magnet on that as well picking up any metal debris.
Then we come through with a decompaction device, the turf has rubber, and sand granules in it. They can get compacted over time. So our device does de-compact that and will brush it and that’s really needed once a year. Now if you’re in warmer climates, I would consider doing it twice a year.
We’re just there annually but we’re on call if somebody needs something. A question or concern, give us a call. We’ve had people call us or customers call us up and say we’ve had a tear on such and such, on the logo or whatever. We’ll pop in there and get it fixed.
I took a phone call Friday where one of our clients, the football stadium, about two hours before the game had a massive rain event. And the field started to float. There were air bubbles coming up and it was floating. It’s like, what do we do? I said, go get a cup of coffee and come back. It’ll be fine. Yeah, but they were tempted to go out. No, you don’t want to step on it, to push the air out of it. It’s just things like that. I’ve had clients call up and say, what’s this about lead interfiber? Is it safe or not?
We’ve stayed very highly aware of what’s going on with the industry and all the safety factors. Here’s what you need to do. Here’s where you go to search that data and confirm what we tell you. So we make ourselves available for technical support and repairs, whatever all year long. That’s part of our package.
Now, that’s amazing. Obviously, with starting this podcast, part of what we’re trying to do is provide information so seeing you guys doing the same helps people especially right now.
That’s where I’m going to kind of shift a little bit. Obviously the black sheep in the room is COVID-19 and you’ve had a natural shift over time with demand increasing and people becoming aware of, hey, we’ve put all this money into it. We want to keep this field longer. So how have things shifted since- what was it February or March- when we first got the issue to stay at home?
We were over in western Pennsylvania. I remember the dates very specifically, it was March 17, getting some fields ready to go for lacrosse crosses in early spring sports and college level, they want these fields to look nice for lacrosse and I agree. We were at a college and they had already sent the students home. Any of the administration that could work from home were already home.
We’re out on this field all by ourselves and one of the administrators says, this is your last day you’re done. We’re closing the campus down completely. Then we started getting calls from customers coming up the next few days. Yeah, we’re shut down. Nobody’s allowed on campus. We have no idea whether it’s one week, 30 days, or three months. We have no clue. Are you still interested in having our services? Yeah, but nobody’s allowed on campus period.
So it really put us into a quandary as to what to do. We’re not allowed, and we were told to leave on another field we tried to get on. So it really created a nightmare for us and did for the schools because we can’t do everybody’s field in the next two or three days. We have to have days scheduled out. It was really, really a challenge for a while and we just basically stayed in contact with our clients through email and phone calls, asking for updates or whatever. Everybody had the same answer: we don’t know.
So we respect that and we said, well, we’ll stay in contact. We’ll stay back until it’s ready to go. It took a while for everything to start opening up.
My dad’s birthday is around that time, St. Patty’s Day, but I remember for our campus, it was everybody went on spring break, and then during spring break, they’re said we’re not coming back yet. It’ll probably be a couple of weeks. Well, it took the entire rest of the semester and summer semesters.
Only now there are kids on campus. I drove past campus today and saw a class having a session outside because they could distance and things like that. So obviously, it’s months later, and we’re not back to normal. We’re talking six months later. So what does it look like today as we’re seeing school go start, shift back, and then decide to start again? Obviously, we’re hearing more about sports coming back, but they’re limited. What does that look for you now that it’s starting to sort of open up?
Back in June as we were reaching out to clients again, basically, I was asking the first question, are you still wanting us to provide maintenance because even this is like a car. I hate to use a car as an example, but even if you don’t drive the car over many miles, every so many months you do need to provide changes and things like that. So, you’re still going to need some annual maintenance on that field, especially if there’s a chance of opening up this fall.
Some clients said, yeah, let’s get this thing scheduled. COVID-19 helped us in some ways because a lot of schools will have summer camps in these fields and they’re just buried with activities. We have to squeeze in between those events. Well, those events weren’t happening.
So once a school, university, or college said, hey, let’s do it, I’d ask what dates are available. Well, pick one. Most of them are. So that was a blessing in disguise for us. But then there were a number of clients that felt like, we’re not sure we’re going to open up this fall. The state funding was cut dramatically and our needs for PPE and other things to provide safety due to COVID-19 have really dug into our budgets. So let’s put it on hold until we get a little better picture.
July 1st was the shift of the fiscal year for essentially all schools. Once we got into July 1st, they had a little better idea what their funding was, and a lot of them came back and said, let’s get in here and get this done. We still have had some that waited right up until the week before they’re going to have their game. Still got a chance to get it done? Yeah, but it made for some long days and long weeks, but we got them done.
It provided a lot of challenges with scheduling and I get it from the administrator side it is so fluid. You don’t know. Our maintenance service, we’re not a lot of money. It’s a very, very, very tiny percentage of their total budget, but the janitorial staff and such, their demands are so much higher now. Budgets are very, very tight, and I understand if it’s not there. Then let’s see what we can do to help you with your budget challenges.
Yeah, because you are working with the same people who are working with the cleaning staff in the building. We’re bringing kids back into school, not everybody is to the same degree. I mean, there’s actually parking on campuses now. But we are bringing kids back into the school.
So obviously, now there’s a higher demand than there’s ever been to keep those surfaces clean. Out of curiosity, we didn’t touch on this yet, when you go in for your yearly maintenance, how long are you on that field to get it cleaned?
Generally, it takes my team about six hours. The processes involved are double vacuuming and decompaction of brushing. Then we generally do an enzyme cleaner, which is a very unique cleaning process. The CDC even recommends that you do not put disinfectants on playgrounds, artificial turf, things like that.
We’ve taken a lot of time to study this whole thing and we’ve learned that just putting on disinfectants- you just can’t disinfect dirt, it’s just not possible. The chemicals in the disinfectants are consumed by the contamination on the surface and may not have much of an impact.
We are big believers in clean if you have a clean surface, it’s really hard for it to support microbes including bacterias and viruses and molds and such. So we have an enzyme cleaner. Ours is quite unique, it’s exclusive to us. It has a very high level of protease which attacks proteins, which basically anything living as a high consistency of proteins.
Also, a very unique attribute of our enzyme product is that it actually continues to work up to 170 degrees (Fareinheit). Most enzymes break down at 110 or 120. 170 is a big deal because fields will get up to 150 to 160 degrees in the middle of the day. Once we hit the enzymes, then we’ll do a Gmax test and that’s where I come up with my temperatures, because part of the G max test, we have to take the temperature of the turf.
I remember over in Cleveland, back in early July, the field in the middle afternoon was testing 158 degrees. So if you sprayed a regular enzyme on it, it would basically disintegrate in just a few seconds. Our product will continue to work. We’ve also done some testing with our luminometer. We’ve got a luminometer and that gives us an idea with relative light units. It’s a reflection of the contamination on the surface. We had one of the schools question if we can help them with their playground since we were using the enzymes on the turf.
A little history of how well the product works. Back in was it three years ago in Texas when Hurricane Harvey hit a lot of fields were flooded with a class three flood contamination, which means it’s everything, is chemical, fecal, petrol, it’s everything. Fields were deemed not safe to play. We sent down a lot of our enzyme products and had them applied and they all tested safe to play on.
So we took our luminometer and sampled the playground equipment and they had just washed it down with soap and water, scrubbed it down with soap and water. We sampled a couple different sets of equipment that came up with seven or eight thousand relative light units. Medical grade, the threshold is 30. If you have more than 30 relative light units, you have failed.
We hit it with the enzymes and we brought them down below 200 with one shot. We know from experience that multiple applications of our enzymes will continue to reduce the product. The difference was they were spending a couple of hours scrubbing down their playground equipment. We took 10 minutes. That’s all it took, just spray it. So we’ve had a lot of luck spraying these fields down with the enzymes, keeping bacterial growth of it.
Again, I have before and after pictures on our website that are pretty shocking. So there’s been a lot of interest in the product and it’s safe! Anybody can apply it. It is very safe. I wash my hands on this stuff. It’s that safe.
How often should somebody apply that enzyme then?
Pre-COVID. My recommendations were in the spring prior to track and field events. A lot of these particular high schools, there is a running track around the stadium field. We’ve seen the athletes will warm up on the turf before their event or they’ll lounge on the turf between events. I really think the enzymes ought to be there to get rid of all that contamination before track and field.
The second application I would recommend just right after the two-a-day practices in early August. So by the time they finish those up in mid-August I recommend that application then. Then about mid-season for the fall events. So about three applications a year. Post-COVID? Probably, look at 6 or 4 weeks of activities and probably ought to spray it good. Just just as a precautionary purpose.
About once a month then.
Once a month. Yeah, during January skip that time up here. Down south they use them all the time. So, once a month, it’d be good.
So, are you guys doing playgrounds then now?
We’ve had some calls, and yeah, we’re gonna start applying for playgrounds or we can sell it to the owners for them to apply for it. Because it’s simple to do, very easy. We’ve identified a very good fogging piece of equipment that you could walk up and just do a casual walk around the playground equipment and it’s clean.
If it’s a little damp when the kids come out, there’s nothing there to hurt them. It’s a natural product. I’ve had some questions about whether we should do it between classes? Well, maybe. I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know exactly how readily this virus is carried around from person to person. If you do need to do it between classes, it’s just a couple minutes and you’re done. Daily would be sufficient in my mind.
Yeah, with kids on the playground. Especially knowing kids. they’re sharing masks already. I think that’s good for anybody to know because that’s obviously a side that people are asking about. Well, how do you keep the playgrounds cleaned? Kids are back on them again. So now there’s a way and a safe way. How long have you carried that product?
It’s been 12 years now. Back then we worked with a very large company that made disinfectants. Their sales manager and I went to school together. I called him up and I said, we were getting a lot of calls about disinfectants back 12 to 13 years ago. MRSA was a big concern on these fields and my studies told me that MRSA couldn’t really survive all that long on a turf surface, just because of the dry and the heat on it.
So I visited with him and he said, Well, we’re developing a disinfectant for artificial turf. We need to test it and I said, we need to test it. We really do. So we found a couple of fields and we created some areas with masking tape that were like 40 feet long and 15 feet wide. They took their technicians and swabbed several areas within that section, and then grew those out into a petri dish.
Then we saw what kind of growth was in there. We went in and sprayed different products at different rates and different ways of doing it. Their technicians come in to swab it. We found in several places, 7 million colony-forming units of bacteria per gram, which means, microscopically it’s crawling.
We could reduce it down to less than six CF views, which means it’s not going to survive. So it was a good learning experience for us. My concern with the disinfectants is that the chemical can build up over time. I also knew that you can’t disinfect the dirty surface. How do we clean it? Well, soap and water is fine, but you know, soap needs to be rinsed off and rinsing a thousand square feet could be a challenge.
Just a small one.
Just a small challenge. We knew that wasn’t a solution. So we took a while to find out an enzyme that would work. And we found it. We found it.
and now you’ve been using it for a while so you know, it works.
We’ve got lots of demand for it. Dog kennels love it. They think that product is great.
Oh, man, my dad finds out about that he’ll set. That’s great because then when COVID-19 hit, you already had a guaranteed product. It’s safe. It’s not toxic, you can actually interact with it and it does what you’re seeking. It’s not your typical disinfectant, but look at what it does. You’ve already done the research.
One of the challenges we found on turf is that it develops a biofilm over time. I’m not going to get into the definition of a biofilm but there is a microscopic layer that can harbor all sorts of contaminants. There’s research that has proven that bacteria, viruses, and such can actually survive in that biofilm and protect it from disinfectants.
You really need to remove that biofilm before you even apply a disinfectant and the enzymes will do that. I’ve had more than one school step back and look at that field 20 to 30 minutes after we finished spraying it and it’s like, wow, this thing looks brand new again.
It’s got a deeper, more lush color to it and what had happened is the enzyme literally dissolved and ate off that biofilm. Now we’re seeing the turf fibers instead of the layer of biofilm on it. So that’s a challenge for all surfaces, the biofilm, and an enzyme is a great way to destroy a biofilm.
If you have a biofilm on the surface and you keep spraying with a disinfectant sanitizer, all you’re doing is just adding to the biofilm. You’re really not doing anything. So, we’ve been a big believer over the years clean, clean, clean.
So it sounds like with this enzyme no matter what side of the cleaning world, you’re coming from, what you’re looking at in cleaning, whether it’s commercial, in-house, or whatever, this enzyme is something they should be introduced. That it’s going to make their jobs easier.
Yeah and it’s very, very safe, and particularly on surfaces, high touch surfaces, or artificial turf fields. When you spray a disinfectant, the surface has to be totally dry, completely dry before you re-enter.
With these enzymes that’s not an issue. So, if it’s a little damp, it’s a naturally occurring biological product. It’s biology, it’s not chemistry. There’s really nothing there to hurt you. It’s easy to apply and safe to apply. You can’t really do it wrong. It’s really pretty amazing what a quality enzyme will do.
I think I use an enzyme scrub on my face when it’s broken out. So I mean, if you’re using it on the skin, obviously, it’s safe for skin.
I mean enzymes exist in our body for digestion, too. So, what the manufacturers have done is they’ve isolated a different type of enzymes to go after different challenges. It can be designed for particular situations. One of the things that pre-COVID I used to say, during a soccer game or a football event, if somebody gets a bloody nose or gets a cut- if you have blood on the surface, even artificial turf is considered a hard surface by the CDC, which means impermeable, it needs to be cleaned up by a certain process.
You wipe up the body fluid and then you clean the surface. Well, if you spray it with these chemicals, you have to wait until it’s dry before it’s safe to re-enter. I don’t know that you’re going to have everybody wait 10 minutes for that thing to dry. So with the enzymes, I qualified as long as the surface is not slippery, play ball.
I mean, I’ve played on slippery fields before too (rainy fields).
It’s kind of amazing how, you know. Again, if you have a clean surface, you’re going to be safe.
Yeah, I’m going to kind of start wrapping up. We’ve dove into exactly how your business has shifted, how your customer demand has shifted, and we’ve talked now about how COVID-19 has caused an even greater shift. Basically you have your services in general but you also have a specific product that’s allowed you to adapt to that situation. It’s made you versatile.
We really dove into the enzyme, which is very intriguing to me and I’m sure to our listeners as well. But with that, and with customer demand in general, do you have any advice on how to just help since you create a demand for your product, how to help create and maintain demand through these versatile situations?
Well, two things. One, we reach out to our customers while not being a pest., Drop them a phone call or drop them an email. Hey, do you need anything from us? I dropped an email out to one of my very first clients and it’s like, hey, Paul, you’re an athletic director for a rather large college or university.
What do you need from us? What do you need? What can we do? What can we provide? What do you anticipate in the future? What are you thinking here and then I’m going to survey three or four other people to start seeing if I can see some commonality of what the desires are so we can reach out to our clients. When we ask them, what do you need? What are you thinking here? How can we help?
And then the other thing is that we will jump in, and offer them ideas. It’s like, Hey, we saw this. We tried this. It may have some application in your situation, think about it. We listen to our customers, we listen, and just in conversations, they’ll mention things that it’s like, Milo, make a note to self. We’ll go back and think about that.
After about the third, fourth, or fifth person mentioned that over whatever period of time, there’s a need out here. So contact your customers, listen to them, listen to them and they’ll tell you what they need.
Yeah, so it boils down to that communication, that you’re accepting expertise from the people you’re servicing and then you’re sharing the knowledge that you have, so you’re coming to the board with something right off the bat.
If we don’t have the answer, we dig and we dig and we dig until we get good answers. We explain to the customer how we come about our answers. We asked them if they want to validate it, here are our services.
Awesome. Well, thank you, Milo. We’re gonna go ahead and wrap up here. So I appreciate you coming on and sharing your expertise and also telling us a bit more about yourself. Thank you everyone for tuning in to the Business of Cleaning Podcast and we’ll see you for the next episode!