As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Gill.
Jeff Gill is the CEO and Founder of Germinator Mobile Sanitizing and Disinfecting. He founded the company in 2015 after recognizing there was an underserved market for disinfection and sanitizing services for both the residential and commercial sectors. He wanted to provide a safe, effective and non-toxic method of proper sanitizing and disinfecting for businesses and households. Germinator is now a growing franchise brand and an emerging service and product provider in the fight against COVID-19.
In addition, Jeff is the Founder and acting Co-President of Sir Grout Franchising, a national franchise company founded in 2004 that specializes in unique methods for restoring hard surfaces such as tile, grout, stone and wood without replacing them. In 2005, Jeff helped pioneer a process for restoring tile grout called “colorsealing.” Sir Grout is now one of the leading providers of grout restoration services in the world and has been recognized by Entrepreneur Magazine as one of the top 500 franchises in North America 10 times in the past 12 years.
In 1993, Jeff founded JGA Consulting, a national recruiting firm specializing in recruiting high-tech executives and salespeople. JGA Consulting maintained relationships with fortune 500 companies such as Oracle, Cisco and Microsoft.
In 1987 at the age of 25, Jeff co-founded CIS Recruiters, which is still recognized as one of the leading high-tech recruiting firms in the country. While at CIS, Jeff worked with Steve Jobs on his second company called Next Computer and assisted him in building a national sales force. He also worked with John Chambers, then CEO and founder of Cisco, assisting them in building a national sales force.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I founded Germinator Mobile Sanitizing and Disinfecting in 2015 after recognizing there was an underserved market for disinfection and sanitizing services for both the residential and commercial sectors. I wanted to provide a safe, effective and non-toxic method of proper sanitizing and disinfecting for businesses and households. After researching several methods for disinfection, I developed a two-step sanitizing and disinfecting process utilizing hypochlorous acid (HOCl), a non-toxic, near-neutral pH, hospital-grade sanitizer and disinfectant. It is naturally produced in the human body by white blood cells, and it is often used for wound care as well as in eye-care products.
In addition to Germinator, I am the Founder and acting Co-President of Sir Grout Franchising, a national franchise company founded in 2004 that specializes in unique methods for restoring hard surfaces such as tile, grout, stone and wood without replacing them. In 2005, I helped pioneer a process for restoring tile grout called “colorsealing.” Sir Grout is now one of the leading providers of grout restoration services in the world and has been recognized by Entrepreneur Magazine as one of the top 500 franchises in North America 10 times in the past 12 years.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I first started Germinator, I wanted to prove how effective it was on destroying odors, so I decided to deodorize one of my dog’s poops. I recorded it and posted it on the internet with me smelling it after we treated it. I was really just wanting to show how effective we were in an extreme situation. The result was customers calling us for really disgusting jobs as opposed to the types of jobs that we really wanted to attract. My lesson was, if you want to attract a certain customer, address what is important to them, don’t try to think past it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are actually three people that I am grateful for, and I could not have succeeded without them. The first person is my wife Francine, who has helped run the finances for my companies and is the best at keeping me grounded and being my in-house therapist. The second person is Tom Lindberg, my friend and business partner, who has been by my side every step of the way with all of my businesses. Tom is a trusted advisor and often keeps me from straying too far off the rails with ideas. The third person is Mel Maxwell, my friend and business partner. Mel has always believed in me and has invested heavily to make this dream possible.
I have one story in particular that sticks out to me. I had been a successful executive recruiter for 20 years. After 9/11, the recruiting business took a nose dive along with the stock market. Things for me had changed in a negative direction very quickly. I decided to start a new business fixing paint on high-end automobiles. In order to do this, my wife had to stop being a full-time mom to our three kids and go back to work as an accountant so we could pay our bills while we tried to build the new business. As part of the paint repair business, I began offering steam cleaning services for the high-end cars that I was repairing paint on. Then I got the idea to offer the steam-cleaning service to a major rental car company who loved the idea. I went ahead and spent money that I really did not have on equipment and people. The rental car deal never materialized and I was in debt and stuck with machines and people that I now could no longer employ. Just to take my mind off of my circumstances, I decided to use of the steam cleaners to clean the grout in my entry way in my home. The results were shockingly good. A lightbulb went on and realized that cleaning grout could be a business. As the business grew, my wife, while still working her accounting job, helped handle all of the financials (something I deeply dislike doing). My other idea was to franchise the business nationally. I realized that was something that would be hard to do on my own in my current circumstance. That is when I asked Tom, a friend of 20 years, to be my business partner and help me develop what is now Sir Grout, a 13-year-old national franchise brand with locations throughout the U.S. It was my experience with Sir Grout that triggered my idea for Germinator.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Our vision is focused on both the customer and the business owner. For the customer, I wanted to create a service that made people feel more confident and comfortable in their spaces. I wanted people to feel that when they were home or at work that there was a feeling beyond clean. It is a feeling that their home or office would smell fresher, their allergies would bother them less, if at all, and that there were less germs that could make them sick. It’s intended to be a feel-good service that gives people confidence that something is being done to protect them and the people they care about.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Leading well is as much about sharing the burden as it is about directing the flock. My other company Sir Grout hit a business standstill with the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of my franchise owners were deeply concerned about the inability to perform jobs and sustain their businesses and their families. I could hear and feel their pain on our national Zoom call. The first thing was to empathize with their situation. I stated that although things were appearing to bottom out, we would survive this and actually come out stronger from it. I focused them on when this would be over as opposed to what was happening at the moment. The key was to focus on the cure and not the disease. At no time did Tom or I show any concern or panic — nor would we ever — we only showed empathy. We announced that we would be sharing the burden by cutting franchise fees and in some cases delaying other payments to us. We were going to do everything possible to stem the tide. There has to be a beacon for hard times. As a leader, you must be the beacon.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
It never entered my mind to give up. I actually love a challenge. I don’t look at challenges as a road block, I look at them as a chance to do something great when people don’t expect it. I think my drive comes from where I grew up and from my parents. I grew up in the Bronx in a tough neighborhood. Staying out of and away from trouble was a full-time job as a kid in the Bronx. My parents always encouraged me to fight for myself. My mother always said go forward, never back. I hear it in my head every day.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Listen to your people. Hear what they are saying and feel what they are feeling. Empathize, empathize, empathize so they know you are listening. Understand the issues and show them there are always solutions. Actions speak louder than words.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
A day does not go by where I don’t laugh, even if it is to find humor in something most people find no humor in. Laughter calms people. It is a huge confidence builder mentally that things will be ok if you can show humor. If you can help people understand that nothing is really that horrible outside of serious illness or a tragic death, you can boost morale pretty easily. If you can make people visualize a worse situation than what they are in, it tends to trivialize their worries.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I believe in delivering the news quickly and calmly. Don’t show panic or that you are overly concerned. It helps to let them know you have seen something like this before and tell them a story that compares to this circumstance so they do not feel alone or that this challenge is exclusive to them.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
First, understand what you can and cannot control. Second, be ready to pivot. Planting your feet in cement always gets you in trouble. Stay ready and stay nimble. Last, trust your instincts.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Yes. There is not calm without turbulence. There is no winning without losing. You need turbulence to measure your success against yourself and your competition. Everyone looks like a winner when things are easy. Embrace the hard times to expose the weak from the strong.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The first is sharing your concern with your people. If they feel you are defeated, all is lost. Don’t make hasty, drastic changes to fix problems. People view that as panic. Don’t make excuses. Leaders are always accountable. What should one keep in mind to avoid that? Have a plan for when (not if) things get difficult. If you do not plan to succeed, you plan to fail.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
One strategy if you are the creator of the business, pick a sector that is not as vulnerable in economic times as most businesses are. Pick a business that people depend on in hard economic times. Become a student of your business. Know what the causes and effects of your business are. Know why things happen. Don’t put blinders on and just accept what is. Again, know “the why.” Have a plan in place that you can enact quickly when the storm hits. For example, if you know that increasing your sales force and advertising during harder times helps offset lower lead production, you should have an emergency fund or enough funds always available to hire sales people and advertise when lead flow decreases. Punch, counter punch. Know your opponent. In this case, it’s the economy.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Don’t live in denial — When COVID-19 hit and the phones stopped ringing at Sir Grout, we did not hesitate to acknowledge the circumstances and allow people’s imaginations to run away with them. We brought everyone together and enacted a plan.
2. Communicate with your people early on in the relationship so they feel you are approachable when they need you. Employees and franchise owners need to feel they can depend on you for solutions and that they have you as their own personal coach when they need you.
3. Show that you are willing to get your hands dirty and that no job is beneath you. This way everyone sees value in what they do and everyone’s contribution is equally important. I would often visit jobs and work with the technicians so that they knew I wasn’t working from an ivory tower.
4. Don’t forget to thank your people for what they do. People need recognition as much as they do financial reward, especially during hard times. Not everyone’s number one motivation is money. That is a common misconception. Many people need money. They don’t necessarily want money. There is a big difference. Many people thrive on security and recognition. Like a good basketball coach, know what motivates each player.
5. Maintain a sense of humor. “Laughter is the best medicine” is not just a metaphor. One of my franchisees and his wife became seriously ill at the same time. Their business was in trouble with nobody to run it. We would talk regularly and I would joke about how much business they were building up while they were out as opposed to how much they were missing. We talked more about and planned for their return to the business instead of what was going on presently.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes is actually my own. It is “be patiently impatient,” which means always try to make things happen as fast as possible with the knowledge that they will likely take longer than you expect. Coming from a great family, but of simple means, I had a lot of dreams like owning a beautiful home, driving a fine automobile, staying in the finest hotels, eating in the best restaurants and owning my own company. I worked toward each dream and thought about it all of the time and how I could barely stand that it would take time to reach these goals and used this as a driving force. Yet, I trained myself to accept that all good things come to those who wait and the hunt should be as sweet as the kill.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Visit my company’s websites www.thegerminator.com and www.sirgrout.com. We are always progressing and do not stay static. If you want the full experience, consider talking to us about being a franchise owner in one of my systems.