SFA alum provides service to keep the environment clean
Story by Dr. Shirley Luna '85, '06 & '14
Photos by Hardy Meredith '81
As a college student, Jodie Thompson '92 took a 600-question career interest survey and was told he should choose a career as a park ranger or business owner. Today, his office walls are adorned with impressive trophies of his many hunting and fishing successes and don't provide many clues regarding which career path he chose. However, the desk sitting in the middle of the space is a monument to the entrepreneurial legacy his ancestors established.
Becoming a business owner may have been a foregone conclusion.
Thompson's grandfather, Joe C. Thompson, opened the first 7-Eleven store and founded the chain that would grow to include more than 70,000 stores. Jodie's family invented the Slurpee that helped make the franchise an icon in the 1980s and popularized the company slogan, "Oh, thank heaven for 7-Eleven."
"My grandfather had worked for an ice company, and one of the employees said customers were asking for other items — like milk and bread," Thompson explained. "So, they added those items to the horse-drawn wagon, and a few months later, the employee came back with a box full of cash. Sitting at this desk, my grandfather quickly realized those additional items needed to be at every location, and that idea spurred the idea for the convenience stores."
When Thompson arrived on the SFA campus, it was his first trip to Nacogdoches, and he did not know a soul.
"I was driving around town trying to get my bearings and looking for a place to live. I kept passing the Catholic Student Center, and I finally decided to take a break and drop in," he recalled. "I met the priest and learned that the apartment behind the church would be available the following year. My roommates were forestry majors, so it was just a great situation. My experience with the Catholic Student Center really helped me refocus my attention on my faith, and that has had a long-term impact on my life."
That focus, and his bachelor's degree in finance, plays a major role in Thompson's leadership of Mister Sweeper, a company his family purchased in 2006.
"When we bought this business, we were blessed that the employees were individuals with a lot of experience. We employ approximately 60 people with a record 610 years of combined service. You don't find that longevity everywhere. We value employees — they are a company's greatest asset. We try to go above and beyond to make it like a family."
Making the decision to purchase the company reflects his family's entrepreneurial spirit.
"My dad instilled a strong work ethic in my sisters and me," Thompson said. "I worked every summer, and from the entrepreneurial perspective, you have to ask yourself if you want to take risks, and are the risks worthwhile? And secondly, do you always want to work for someone else, or do you want to work for yourself?"
Now the largest privately owned sweeping contractor in Texas, Mister Sweeper handles sweeping for about 700 properties and 50,000 curb miles of city streets, including contracts with the cities of Dallas, Frisco, Lewisville, Rockwall and Houston. The company also offers pressure washing, striping, porter services and roll-off rentals. There's a satellite office in Houston with 15 employees.
"Some of these are daily or weekly jobs, and some are monthly or quarterly, but it results in us cleaning parking lots almost 50,000 times per year."
Mister Sweeper was named 2020 contractor of the year by the North Texas chapter of the American Public Works Association. Nominated by the City of Frisco, the award was the result of technology the company utilizes that improves the customer experience.
"We previously used paper route sheets, and drivers had a set amount of time to complete work at each property," Thompson said. "I did away with that and just told drivers to get it clean, regardless of how long it took. Sometimes a job will take longer because of a storm or a change in wind direction, but the next day, that will even itself out. Now, all the drivers come in and grab a tablet. They have site plans and other data at their fingertips so that they can do the best possible job."
Thompson offers other benefits not commonly available to employees of small businesses. The company provides a marketplace chaplain who provides on-site confidential counseling one day a week and visits with employees' hospitalized family members, upon request.
"It's just something extra that few companies provide," he said. "In this day and age, you have to do everything you can to attract and retain great employees."
Thompson gives some credit for his success to Convene, a Christian-based CEO group that offers executive coaching and leadership development.
"My faith is so important to me, and it is really helpful to prayerfully lead a business," he said. "God has entrusted this business to me, and I need to take care of the employees. Work is work, but I want to create an environment that makes people always want to come back."
Mister Sweeper operated continuously during the COVID-19 pandemic, with Thompson taking precautions to help keep his employees and clients safe.
"When the mandate requiring face masks was announced, it was impossible to find them," he said. "We went and bought bed sheets and spread them out on the conference table and cut them into bandanas. We provided those to employees so we could comply with the mandate, and our employees could continue working."
In spite of the pandemic, Mister Sweeper finished the year with 98% of its projected revenue.
"The construction boom that began during the pandemic helped make up for the businesses that reduced their cleaning schedules," Thompson explained. "Track out is a big business for us. Construction companies need help cleaning up the dirt that's tracked onto streets by vehicles leaving construction sites."
But COVID-19 isn't the first hurdle Thompson has faced — the Great Recession began the year after he purchased the company, and the price of fuel subsequently increased from $1.50 to $4.78 a gallon.
"Our trucks get seven or eight miles per gallon of gas, so you are looking at a cost increase from 20 cents per mile to 70 cents per mile," he said. "It has been a roller coaster."
Thompson looks to complete a construction project of his own, consolidating Mister Sweeper, currently housed on three separate properties, onto one nearby property.
"It will be nice to have all our employees in one location," he explained. "Our staff is meticulous about maintenance, and this allows us to extend the life of our vehicles. We have some trucks with more than 400,000 miles. At the new property, we have a covered area so that these employees don't have to be out in the weather when they are working."
While property sweeping always has been considered an important service — patrons are more likely to return to an establishment that is clean and well maintained — a recent study showed that street sweeping is the best management practice to prevent storm water pollution. "Most cities now have a storm water pollution prevention plan, since sweeping plays a major role in reducing pollutants in streams. Debris that goes down storm drains ends up in rivers and lakes," Thompson said.
Increased concerns about environmental impacts have shored up the necessity for Mister Sweeper's service, but it's also attracted competition from national entities breaking into the business.
"Reputation is so hard to establish and so easy to lose," Thompson said. "We haven't tried to be the lowest-cost provider, and we don't cut corners. We have a lot of work, and it behooves us to do the job right the first time. Take care of customers, and they will want you back."