We had the good fortune of connecting with Barry Woods and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Barry, can you walk us through the thought-process of starting your business?
There really wasn’t much of a thought process, as such. I got fired from my previous job, couldn’t survive by playing beach volleyball everyday and needed to do something. It was something that did not require much: money, experience or brains at the entry level, so bingo, sign me up. Okay, granted, it did require some brains but at a different level.
Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
Mine is not a rags to riches story, but pretty close. I was fired from my job at the William Morris Agency (now WME) in the early 70’s for insubordination, or something akin to that. While trying to plot the rest of my life at 22, simultaneously collecting my weekly unemployment checks, I applied to the Graduate School of Education at UCLA. Back in the 70’s you actually received your unemployment on a weekly basis, in person, as a check. None of this high-tech debit card bullshit, replenished on a monthly basis, without ever leaving your basement and your Xbox X. You had to appear in person, dressed business casual, certify that you were available and willing to work full time, and that you spent the prior week actively engaged in the pursuit of gainful employment. “Why yes, ma’am, I searched my darnedest for work, just no luck. Yes, ma’am, I am sure next week will be better. Do you know if that liquor store across the street cashes these checks?”
I continued to live in my 1-bedroom apartment in a nice area on the Westside, while I attended UCLA, looking to obtain my teaching credentials. As an undergrad, I had applied to numerous law schools as I thought that was my path to fame and riches, and following in my older brother’s footsteps. Unfortunately, the law school that accepted me was not a top retired tiered palace of academia and 99 times out of 100, the top firms look to the top schools for first year associates and partnership material. I was afraid that after 4 years of study I would end up sharing an office with a bail bondsman adjacent to LA County jail. Hard pass.
One day my parents lost their housekeeper and but still needed their condo unit cleaned weekly. Knowing what a clean freak and how organized I was, they asked me if I wanted to be their weekly housekeeper. I took the job knowing a) that I needed the money, b) I was good at doing what I was being offered, c) day, time and conditions were of my own making, 4) if I fucked up, I probably wouldn’t be fired, 5) my unemployment compensation would continue as my parental units would not rat me out to the man. I said yes. Not doing so would provide enough evidence to have me committed.
Once word got around what a great domestic I was, the offers came in fast and furiously. First from one brother, then from another. In no time I was making beaucoup bucks. Ok, not enough to retire, but enough to live comfortably as a college student in LA. When the apartment manager of my other brother’s apartment complex heard of my new business venture, asked if I was interested in doing their apartment preps – cleaning, window washing, carpet cleaning, etc, making them ready for the next tenant. Having lived in many apartment units in my life at that point I knew the bar was set pretty low, one that I could comfortably reach and perhaps, dream of passing.
I took the woman and her building on as clients, not knowing she was only one of many managers for a company that had 11 buildings, over 200 rental units to add to my portfolio. As long as they didn’t move out on the same weekend, I should be able to handle it. However, I did seem to overestimate my abilities as far as time management, being able to handle study, student teaching and apartment cleaning simultaneously.
This is when I turned to one of my older brothers, the one that was not a lawyer. I asked him if he wanted to join “the company”, as I couldn’t do all the work while in class or teaching. He was a less than successful stock broker as he didn’t possess the required skill of churning, the constant buying and selling of securities in his customers portfolio without regard to their investment goals. After seeing my financials over the previous 18 months, he jumped on board, and thus began D & B Maintenance Services.
As our company grew, with Dennis, the “D”, handling most of the cleaning, his wife handling scheduling and billing and me doing some cleaning and more sales, there was too much work for the 1.5 of us. My younger brother, neither a D nor a B was graduating college shortly so we offered him an opportunity to buy into the company, a full ⅓ share. As a graduate of Cal State Northridge with no discernible skill set in the early 70’s, jobs were somewhat scarce. He jumped at the chance. And so continued D & B Maintenance Services.
To make a long story somewhat abbreviated, the partnership of 3 brothers in business together lives up to the axiom, Don’t Go Into Business With Family. Our familial relationships degraded the deeper and more involved we all became in the business. It literally reached the point where we were having fist fights on the client’s property. That was all I could stand. Since neither one had the head for business, though both had business degrees, neither one had the dedication to the company, neither one was capable of or wanted to engage in sales, something we desperately needed, I made the offer to buy them both out and return to running and owning the company myself.
Our other brother, also not a D or a B, or a J for that matter, but a lawyer, drew up the buy-out agreement. It was arranged that I would make monthly payments to them both for the next three years and at which point they would have no claim to the business, the name, though one could keep the “D”, or any assets accumulated and a covenant not to compete. Totally moot, as neither one would be capable of commencing an enterprise. Borne out by the fact both have had unsuccessful businesses after our breakup.
The hallmark of our/my business was that as the sole owner to partner to sole owner was that I gave the absolute best service that could be had. Since the labor, initially, was mine, I could afford to go above and beyond expectations, above and beyond what was contracted, above and beyond what I was charging. And so I did. Every chance I got. By giving superior service each and every time, the clients were not only pleased, they spread the word, which was my best advertisement. Knowing that when one hires service personnel, one puts more trust in a personal recommendation than a flyer, newspaper ad or mailer. Hiring maintenance for your properties required the utmost in confidence in your service personnel’s abilities, and trustworthiness. Early on I concentrated on giving the best service possible, and if that required more time for the same money, that was fine. It was the cost of doing business.
To this day, from 1 person company to 120 employee company, our standard is and has always been the same – exceed the customer’s expectations. Do more than is contracted for, do whatever is asked for, do whatever is required. This we have passed down to staff, never disagree with a customer, do what they ask, we will sort the billing out later, you just make sure they are happy when you have left.
After a somewhat less than successful venture in the entertainment arena, the company was reorganized under its current name, Woods Maintenance Service, to avoid issues with assets and the dissolution of the other enterprise. It was at this point that I decided to stay with what I knew and be the best in that field. I expanded the company to include graffiti removal and we became the largest licensed graffiti abatement contractor in the country. We expanded into landscape and irrigation maintenance and won multi-million dollar contracts with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA or MTA), the operator of all bus lines and the subway system. We added to this, contracts for graffiti removal and trash and vegetation removal. When the contract came up to maintain all of the call boxes in Los Angeles County, we crossed our fingers, prepared a comprehensive bid and won that contract for over 7 years.
We won contracts in Las Vegas, Austin, San Francisco, San Diego. When we thought we could be competitive in price, but superior in service, we took the leap and opened satellite offices. I am sometimes, no most times, criticized by management for wanting to grow exponentially. It is safe to say management feels safe in their criticism as the team is made up of my brother, my nephew and my son. What was that I said about going into business with your family? Funny thing is, my brother is the “J” who joined D & B Maintenance after he graduated way back when. He has been General Manager of WMS for the last 15 years and has helped to contribute to that success. My nephew moved back with his family from Chicago, after being raised an LA boy, when I offered him a position as Operations Manager. My son recently joined the firm as Director of Special Projects, as I was looking for some manner of succession as I start to pull back from the day-to-day operation, and my wife and I were interested in starting a charitable foundation for the homeless and needed a trustworthy head.
As we have grown and expanded, the single item most responsible for this success is our employees. I can look for contracts, our Contracts Department can prepare and submit the best and lowest bid, but unless you have the right people, unless you pay them well (many earning over $65 per hour), unless you treat them with respect, you will ultimately fail. We have been servicing MTA properties for over 20 years, as we have the City and County of Los Angeles and many other of our clients. It is more a testament to our technicians than any other factor. And for them I am grateful.
When we started out, it was cut and dry on bidding and winning contracts. Now there is much greater competition, prices have fallen quite low and the need to train your technicians is still high on the list. The unfortunate part of the business that we have to deal with, is the unscrupulous, mediocre competitor. They bid extremely low and then cut the service to make money. Many times the client is not aware as the contracts are pretty elaborate and involve many moving pieces. The upshot is they get lousy, substandard work, and they pay a low price. It now becomes a harder game of proving to the client why he can’t get the work done for that price on a rebid. The game has changed 180 degrees since we started, and if I were starting out again in the year 2021, I would definitely be heading down a different path. Possibly following the white Bronco down the 405 freeway.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
As a beach resident I would easily point to anything and everything along the coast as an “activity”. First timers would enjoy a drive from San Diego up the entire west coast stopping at all of the beautiful spots along the way. To bring it more local or manageable, a trip out to Catalina and a day at the island is always an amazing time. From a day at the beach, hiking the many trails, scuba diving, fishing. or just riding a golf cart around the island and watching the sunset while eating at the Avalon Grille or the Lobster Trap is something everyone enjoys.
Santa Monica and Venice were always fun places to visit, however, the homeless crisis has turned these people watching/dining locales into an area that is no longer “fun”. If you want to get a glimpse at the seedier side of LA, it might be worth a visit to do a reality check, and remind yourself of possibly how well you have it, and how there is a large portion in our city who are suffering.
However, great restaurants are to be found and our all-time favorite is the 2-star Michelin restaurant, Melisse, and Chef Josiah Citrin’s new offering, Citrin. It is not because we are an investor in this Santa Monica staple, but because, just possibly, it is one of the best restaurants in LA. Another favorite spot we like to take guests is Providence in Hollywood, coincidentally, another of less than 10, 2-star restaurants in LA. A more casual local restaurant we love to take guests would be Birdie G’s in Santa Monica. Their desserts are to die for…Malted Chocolate Cake, and their World Famous, Rose Petal Pie. Their entrees aren’t anything to sneeze at either, but I judge a restaurant by its desserts. You need to be able to finish off a meal in style. You’ve just finished a mind-blowing dinner. How do you end it, with a cheesecake? No, no, no. You need a pastry chef who, in his own realm, is as accomplished as the Chef. Maybe that’s just me.
Activities abound in LA, that it would take hours and volumes to recount just some of the fun, interesting or unique offerings. Usually a favorite, out-of-towners who are a tad star struck would enjoy everything from a walk along Hollywood Boulevard, to a visit to Universal Studios. On a not too busy day, with clear weather, a trip up to the famed Hollywood sign is usually an impressive end to a sightseeing day.
Fishing off Malibu Pier, lunch or dinner at Lucky’s in either Malibu or Santa Barbara, maybe a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, or even the unique Santa Barbara Bowl, makes for an enjoyable day and evening. The LA area, and by LA, I mean pretty much from San Diego to Santa Barbara, is ripe with concert and entertainment venues. Small venues like the Troubador the Wiltern, and the Fonda Theatre to medium size halls like the Hollywood Bowl, Santa Barbara Bowl, the Greek Theatre, Disney Hall, the Pantages Theatre, to the really large concert venues like Staples Center, Coliseum, Nokia Center, and the Forum present every type of cultural offering a person could ever want. Every night of the week you can choose from classical music, Broadway shows, small Indie bands, current touring rock groups, K-Pop, heavy metal, tribute bands, and live poetry reading (infinitely better than dead poetry reading). If the live concert scene is your jam, there is no better place than LA and its environs. Me, I like to sit on my deck and watch the sun set, waves roll in, and the dolphins playing in the surf. So if they are our friends coming for a visit, many times they will stay with us, or at the very least have cocktails on our deck, walk the beach at sunset and then have great dinner my wife has cooked!~ To each his own.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Though she was not there at the very beginning, I met her a year after starting my business, I would say my wife, Diane. Since the beginning I have run ideas, thoughts, strategies and tactics by her for her input. She is not a businessperson, per se, she’s a medical professional, so she was and is able to give me the viewpoint of the consumer or potential client, not as a competitor, banker or tradesman. She’s much more seasoned now, as the company is celebrating its 46th year in business, so her opinions are of even more value and import. I can honestly say that without her behind the scene guidance, our path could have been vastly different. I can say this because if you could have heard some of the hair-brained business ideas I had, you would know that the pathway would have been somewhere between driving a white Ford Bronco down the 405 freeway, and our current success.