Combating the Dirtiest Dirt and the Grimiest Grime
CleanTech cleans, restores New York City businesses
The phones at CleanTech began ringing soon after a deadly storm—a remnant of Hurricane Ida—ripped through New York, leaving homes and businesses flooded and without power. Within 12 hours of receiving the call, a cleaning and restoration crew was on its way to a municipal building in White Plains, New York. Its 35,000-square-foot basement was flooded with 4 feet of water. “The basement contained all of the building’s operations, including boilers and an HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] station,” says President Robert Kleber.
With a crew that grew to 45 employees, the team first pumped out floodwaters and removed debris, including mud, leaves and sticks. Working eight days straight, the team hand washed, mopped and pressure-washed grease and other contaminants that had leaked and climbed onto walls, pipes and other structures, using specialized drying equipment to prevent mold. At the same time, CleanTech crews were on-site at six different schools in Queens and the Bronx in New York City, pumping out floodwaters and deep cleaning contaminants from chairs, tables and other furniture and structures.
It’s all in a day’s work for the cleaning and restoration company that, as Kleber puts it, “will not say no. We do whatever customers need.” In addition to restoration cleaning after a flood, fire or other environmental or human tragedy, CleanTech offers janitorial maintenance services, post-construction cleaning and specialty services such as carpet and upholstery cleaning, window washing and cleaning of ductwork and ceilings. “I like to say that New York has the dirtiest dirt and the grimiest grime of anywhere,” he says. “It’s hard work, but we get the job done.”
Headquartered in New York City and on Long Island, the 47-year-old company serves commercial customers throughout the New York metropolitan area. “Though our focus is New York City, we go almost any place a customer needs help. We do quite a bit of work throughout the Hudson Valley, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. We were there after 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, completing over 500 restoration cleaning projects, and we’ve even traveled as far south as Florida to help with flood relief,” Kleber says.
With a staff of 150, CleanTech can easily double its resources when needed. “We have access to temporary help, and employees who are part time will put in extra hours on short-term notice,” Kleber says. And if customers require services not offered in-house, CleanTech has ready access to a host of subcontractors. “Through our subcontractors, we can provide clients with services like painting, HVAC cleaning and exterior cleaning, as well as services from a building hygienist,” he says.
Some of the company’s 200 commercial customers include general contractors who rely on CleanTech for ongoing cleaning during construction, as well as final post-construction cleaning. “We’ll come in behind the trades people to clean up debris in preparation for the next level of construction. Then at the end of a project, we’ll do a deep, ‘white glove’ cleaning right before the building is handed off to the owner,” he says.
Having done post-construction cleaning for 25 years, Kleber is well aware of the tight deadlines associated with these types of projects. “Construction projects always run a little behind schedule, and final cleaning is always a rush. We come in with experienced crews and get the cleaning done in a short period of time,” Kleber says.
He cites an example of two final cleaning jobs for Columbia University and The City College of New York. “Both universities had just built state-of-the-art science buildings,” he says. The LEED-certified buildings—each between 300,000 and 400,000 square feet—featured a great deal of energy-efficient windows. “There was a lot of detail work with these cleaning projects,” Kleber says. Crews of up to 25 employees worked floor by floor and removed construction debris on windows using special 100-foot lifts and scaffolding. “There were huge boiler rooms with a vast amount of ducting 25 to 30 feet high. All these pipes and catwalks had to be cleaned,” he says.
The fast-paced projects required a lot of overtime and weekend work, according to Kleber, but CleanTech completed both buildings within a month. “We’re an open shop, working on both union and non-union projects. These were both union jobs,” he adds.
In addition to post-construction work, CleanTech does specialty projects for over a dozen of New York City’s Broadway theaters. “We do steam extraction cleaning of the carpets and brush extraction cleaning of all the upholstery. In some theaters, that’s up to 2,000 seats.” For the 25-foot stage curtains, the company not only cleans the drapes, but also applies a flame-proofing chemical to the curtains. “We’ve done the same for conference rooms at the United Nations building,” Kleber says.
Business Takes Off
Kleber got his start in the industry working for American Airlines. “I managed service contracts, which included cleaning and maintenance contracts at American’s airport network,” he says. When the airline diversified its portfolio with the purchase of CleanTech, a carpet cleaning equipment company, Kleber found himself running one of the airline’s 100 franchises. “I ran American CleanTech. We sold carpet cleaning equipment to the other franchises and maintained the carpet for American Airlines at LaGuardia Airport, Kennedy Airport and its headquarters in New York City,” he says. In time, American CleanTech expanded beyond airport cleaning to include commercial clients across the city.
By the early 1970s, the airline made the decision to divest some of its subsidiaries, including American CleanTech, and offered Kleber and other employees the chance to purchase the business. “We bought the company at a decent rate, and in 1974 American CleanTech became CleanTech, an independent company,” he says. In time, Kleber became sole owner of the business, which still does carpet cleaning and janitorial maintenance for American Airlines, as well as other operations at LaGuardia Airport and Kennedy Airport.
CleanTech diversified its customer base, adding universities, colleges and building management companies to the mix in the 1980s. “Breaking into new markets can be hard, but we’ve had very good salespeople over the years who’ve helped us do that,” Kleber says. In the 1990s, in response to customer demand, the company began providing restoration services.
In addition to restoration and cleaning, the company provides escort security and fire guard services at both LaGuardia Airport and Kennedy Airport. “This was a service that our clients needed, and we stepped up,” he says. Kleber explains that when an outside contractor or other person requires access to a secure area, a CleanTech employee, certified by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, acts as a security escort. And when a fire sprinkler system or fire alarm is out of service, CleanTech employees provide watch over the area until the fire prevention equipment is back online, a service sanctioned by the New York City Fire Department.
Kleber says that beyond the addition of specific services in response to customer demand, CleanTech has also grown through acquisition. “We’ve purchased five companies over the years, adding to our portfolio of services,” he says. “Sales, installation and maintenance of carpeting, drapes and blinds are now part of our service program.”
Caring, Dedicated Employees
Kleber attributes the company’s success to employees’ hard work. “CleanTech could not have grown and matured without the commitment of our caring, dedicated staff,” he says, adding that the company is proud of its female management team. “President’s Assistant Elizabeth Rockelein, who has retired after 35 years, was with us from our airline start. Contracts Manager Gwen Bennett has been the voice on the phone for 30 years, while Operations Manager Veronica Macias has run our operations for 25 years. And Comptroller and CFO Linda Ayala has managed our finances through good and bad economies and has made sure all our workers have access to 401(k) profit sharing,” Kleber says.
He adds that this team has been supported for 20 years by Customer Relations Specialist Terry Medina and Accounting Specialist Mercy Smith, and in the field, clients are assured quality work by the management efforts of Environmental Manager Alan Goldberg, Field Manager David Leitner, Quality Assurance Superintendent Jaime Pinto and Airline Specialist Pat Brazill, who spent 30 years with American Airlines before joining CleanTech.
During the pandemic, employees have shown their true colors, according to Kleber. He explains that not only are employees called on to deep clean facilities with a COVID-19 exposure, but also his purchasing staff worked long hours for months at the start of the pandemic to secure personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies. “When the pandemic hit, it was hard to find masks, gloves, paper products and the cleaners and chemicals we needed,” Kleber says. “Staff members spent almost 24 hours a day working the phones to secure supplies and get them shipped in for ourselves and for some of our customers.” To show appreciation to the entire cleaning and administrative staffs, CleanTech provided emergency bonuses during the height of the pandemic.
Kleber says at the heart of the company is a caring spirit and a desire to always be there for customers. “When you face a problem—whether it’s an emergency like a flood or fire or a newly constructed 20-story building that needs to be cleaned from top to bottom—we turn that problem into a manageable situation, and we work to provide the right outcome,” he says. “And when we’ve reached the end of a job, we can look on that project with the client and say, ‘Hey that came out pretty damn good.’ ”