Cleaning up on small business growth

July 6, 2009
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Her small company recently won the largest contract in its 10-year history.

But Chakenya Degrate seemed more excited about what the contract would do for her business’s mission than what it meant for its bottom line.

The bid made by Degrate’s Building Maintenance last month to provide cleaning services for the Kent County Courthouse at 180 Ottawa Ave. NW was good enough to beat out 14 other companies for the contract. Her proposal of nearly $215,000 was the lowest by about $15,000, and her firm began tidying up the courthouse’s 13 floors last Wednesday.

“It was phenomenal. It was definitely a high place in my career. It let me know that all is not as dreary in these tough economic times, and there still are opportunities,” said Degrate.

“I think this (contract) is a little bit larger than some of the other ones I’ve had.”

The primary reason Degrate began her commercial cleaning business in 1999 was to help others find employment. She called it her “dream,” and it soon became her mission.

“I really didn’t even start the business for myself. I started it because I had a vision to help the less fortunate — the ones that nobody else believed in. It has definitely blossomed into what I expected it to be and a whole lot more,” she said.

The business turned 10 years old this year. Over that decade, Degrate has become a job provider for those who have a lot going against them in their efforts to find steady, suitable employment and who often are most in need of work.

“I’ve been involved with a lot of single mothers throughout the opening of my business and a lot of people who otherwise had no hope. So I started the business with the mentality of helping the less fortunate. Today, that’s still the same vision that I have, and it’s paid off,” she said.

Degrate said most of the people who fill out an application with her company are single parents, ex-offenders and disabled individuals. Then there are those who are simply down on their luck and frowned upon by others.

“That has been the base of my career. That was my career when I started the business: to be able to help less fortunate people and the downtrodden person. It definitely has been a phenomenal experience in being able to offer them some employment,” she said.

Of all the individuals Degrate has hired over the past decade, she felt those who have served time behind bars have needed the work most. That feeling is just as strong today, when jobs for them are in shorter supply than usual.

“Yes, it definitely is a trying period, especially as it pertains to the ex-offenders. Because most times, once they have a record of criminal history, it’s kind of hard to find employment. How do you get these people back into society and keep them from committing other criminal acts if they can’t find gainful employment, a place to work and be able to provide for their families?” she asked.

“A lot of the contracts that I have don’t allow me to hire those with a felonious record. But there are a few where I can offer them employment, and I am hoping to get more contracts that would let me hire more ex-offenders.”

Degrate’s Building Maintenance isn’t an unfamiliar name to the county, or to the city of Grand Rapids, for that matter, as the firm has done work for both.

“I’ve worked for the city of Grand Rapids in many of their facilities. I’ve serviced some of their public-service buildings and I’ve serviced a lot of their outside office buildings, too,” she said.

For the county, the maintenance company has cleaned the health department’s clinics in Kentwood and Wyoming and the Westside Clinic at 653 Stocking Ave. NW.

“She has done a good job and has grown to understand the county’s expectations,” said Jon Denhof, director of the county’s purchasing department.

When she spoke with the Business Journal, Degrate said she had 23 people on her staff and was in the process of hiring a few more to help clean the courthouse.

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