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19-Year-Old Founded Million-Dollar Business : Teen-Ager Cleaning Up in Carpets

October 29, 1985|DANIEL AKST | Times Staff Writer

Nineteen-year-old Barry Minkow's life seems a kind of parody at first, an elaborate spoof of society's obsession with success.

At 10, he carried water at the carpet cleaning business that his mother managed. Later, he worked Saturdays and summers at the same trade, by then actually cleaning carpets, drapes and upholstery himself.

At 15, against his parents' wishes, he started his own carpet cleaning business. They finally agreed to let him use their Reseda garage, but for $150 a month in rent. Still in high school, Minkow hired a crew to do the work while he sat in algebra class, worrying how he would make the week's payroll. He wasn't even old enough to drive.

But both Reseda-based ZZZZ Best Co. and its founder have grown fast. The company has four offices now, with a fifth to open soon. Minkow said his business grossed $1.3 million last year and should reach $2 million this year.

Drives Ferrari Now

With profit margins that Minkow says are at least 20% after taxes, he tools around in a new Ferrari nowadays or in his year-old Nissan 300-ZX Turbo. He said he is also about to close on a high-priced house in a gated development in Woodland Hills. His parents' skepticism has been curtailed.

"They work for me," he said matter-of-factly.

Barry Minkow is basically rich. He is also driven. Once a skinny, hyperactive kid who was bullied at military school, Minkow transformed himself through assiduous body building into a competitive weightlifter with a shape like a fireplug.

He appears to have built his business with the same determination. He said he ignored advisers who urged against expansion and surmounted dishonest employees and the worries of suppliers and customers who thought he was too young.

To get business, he would send crews out in the middle of the night if that's when a customer found it convenient. To get a driver's license early, he said, he made a special plea to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Now, as chairman and sole owner of ZZZZ Best, he presides over 108 employees. And, as if to affirm his precocious success, he has acquired a pair of bleeding ulcers along the way. People in his business call him Mr. Minkow.

He also acknowledges a host of resentments against those he feels tried to hold him back or failed to support him in his climb to success.

Bankers come in for particular ire. Minkow still gets turned down for loans, he said, and, for a while, he couldn't even get a bank account.

"The jealousy comes out, because he's 42 years old, he's getting a salary of about $30,000 or $40,000 a year out of the bank," Minkow said of loan officers he encountered. "Do you think he wants to help me earn more than him?"

His parents, he acknowledged, are among those he resents--he feels they didn't back him sufficiently--although they say there is no animosity. Indeed, Carol, his mother, is now a senior vice president and helps run the business. His father, Robert, is a salesman. The company's president is Vera Hojecki, 54, a woman with years of experience in rug cleaning.

"As a young child, Barry always wanted to compete with me," said Robert Minkow. "That edge of competition stayed with him."

ZZZZ Best has offices in Anaheim, Reseda, Thousand Oaks and San Diego. Another, in Santa Barbara, is in the works, and franchises are planned.

What motivates all of this? How does a kid with $5,000 in savings build such a business, and why does he vow to keep building until it becomes "the General Motors of carpet cleaning?"

Minkow answers frankly: "I'm obsessed."

Addressing a group at California State University, Northridge, Minkow is charismatic, funny and unpretentious. He gives such common-sense advice as "plan ahead" and stresses such old-fashioned business values as delivering quality. He knew the business from top to bottom, he points out.

"I don't give anybody any reason to think of me as a kid," he said later.

But his visit isn't merely informational. Minkow has traveled to campuses throughout Southern California and the Southwest to drum up interest in his book, which he hasn't taken to a publisher yet because, he said, he figures he'll get a better deal on the manuscript after more publicity as a wunderkind.

The industry in which Minkow made his mark is a fiercely competitive one with a reputation that has been tarnished by some bad business practices. David Tuck, immediate past president of the Carpet Cleaning Institute, a Los Angeles-based trade association, said there are about 2,000 companies in the business in Los Angeles and Orange County and many more practitioners who do the work part time.

The main industry problem is bait-and-switch techniques in which an absurdly low price is advertised, a price that in many cases turns out to exclude much of what needs to be done to clean a carpet. Then the cleaners attempt to sell the consumer costlier services.

Officials at Better Business Bureaus in Los Angeles and Orange counties said they have had no complaints against ZZZZ Best, which Minkow said discloses prices up front, provides a written contract and guarantee and "does good work."

ZZZZ Best gets most of its business by selling itself over the phone through cold calls, although Minkow said his customers tend to come back. The average customer spends about $90 for the service, which entails sending a crew to customer's home to do the work, Minkow said.

Despite his precociousness, Minkow is old-fashioned in some ways. His largely inspirational book, "Making It in America," for example, reveals little about himself but stresses the need for hard work and knowledge. It scorns those who hope for easy, overnight success.

Even his company's name has traditional overtones. He said he picked it because "I want four kids. So I have four Zs."

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