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'Obsessed' Teen-Age Entrepreneur Cleans Up With His Carpet Business

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 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 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 $750,000 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, the unsavory reputation of the carpet-cleaning business 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.

Chairman, Sole Owner

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. "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.

'Edge of Competition'

"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 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.

Promoting Book

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

But his visit isn't merely informational. The barrel-chested young entrepreneur--Minkow resembles a college rugby player--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.

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