Durham cleaning service reaches revenue milestone

Sisters seize the day withintuition and follow-through

CorrespondentNovember 13, 2012 

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Portrait of sisters in business, Jessica Clark, COO, left, and Wendy Clark, CEO and founder of Carpe Diem Cleaning, stand by one of their company cars Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012. Carpe Diem Cleaning, a residential cleaning service out of Durham, NC was started in 1994 by Wendy Clark; her sister Jessica Clark joined the firm in 2006 after working with her sister's cleaning crews while in high school. The triangle residential cleaning service last year topped $1 million in revenue and currently has over forty employees.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com

Wendy and Jessica Clark have the same laugh. They laugh in huge, belted guffaws. And when they laugh together, which happens often, it’s like two musical instruments complementing each other.

The sisters have good reason to laugh these days. Carpe Diem Cleaning, which Wendy founded in 1994, hit the $1 million annual revenue milestone in 2011. The company also opened its first location outside the Triangle in Greensboro this year, and currently has about 400 clients and 33 employees, according to Wendy.

The success has come about in large part because of the sisters’ partnership. Wendy, CEO, is the big-picture thinker, looking decades ahead at emerging trends. Jessica, as the chief operating officer, is the tactician who provides an anchor, laying down solid infrastructure to execute on the ideas.

Jessica has full confidence in her sister and the two share an unabashed desire to do good work, in a big way.

“Wendy is going to save the world, and she’s going to bring everyone with her,” Jessica said.

Wendy’s work extends beyond Carpe Diem. In East Durham, where the company is headquartered, Wendy has formed partnerships aimed at community redevelopment. In 2007, she renovated the John O’Daniel Exchange, a former hosiery mill, transforming it into a center for nonprofits like World Relief Durham, which helps refugees adjust to life in the U.S. This year, she founded Bless Durham to connect faith-based communities, businesses and nonprofits to foster spiritual and social change.

At Carpe Diem, the mission has been about people. Wendy has sought to continuously improve communication with customers and staff and work on relationships within the corporate management, including with Jessica and administrator Arielle Cutrara, who is a hinge between the sisters’ differing personalities, helping them communicate between ideas and actions.

“It’s not just about cleaning houses. It’s valuing the people who work for us and the people we work for,” Cutrara said.

Most of the company’s employees are women, some of whom come from difficult situations, such as domestic violence. The company provides weekly training sessions and leadership and character development workshops to empower the women to take ownership of their lives.

“My passion is to help rebuild community, to rebuild people,” Wendy said. “How can I build more hope, more restoration?”

Intuition and faith

To keep improving herself and her work, Wendy has stuck with one saying over the years: “Our lives are designed by the strangers we meet, the questions we ask and the lies we believe.”

“I want to be a national business. So, what are the lies that I believe that are preventing me from creating the infrastructure to grow to a different level?” Wendy said.

“If we wanted to be just a $1 million business, we wouldn’t have taken the employees that we did. We chose to keep our own salaries low, so that we could have the management staff, so our time could be free to work on the corporate side,” she added. “If we want to be a $4 million-$5 million company, there are choices that have to be made.”

“And sometimes it’s not, ‘What’s the next step?’ but ‘What’s the direction we want to head toward?’” Jessica added. “One of Wendy’s favorite expressions is, ‘You have to kiss a lot of frogs.’ I’ve learned to trust her intuition a lot.”

The irony when it comes to Carpe Diem is: Wendy doesn’t even like cleaning. But starting a cleaning business was the path that was laid out for her, one that arose out of tragedy and dreams for a better way to live.

Wendy’s father died when she was 15 years old; Jessica was 4 years old. He died with regrets, Wendy said, and she did not want to do the same.

“I lost the fear of death at a young age,” she said.

After going to Wake Forest University for a year, Wendy dropped out at the age of 20. She realized there were three things she wanted in her life: To be debt-free and help others; to help young children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds; and to have the freedom to be a stay-at-home mom.

So she set out, with $100 and three clients to start, and scrubbed toilets while other young people were heading to more glamorous careers.

“I was in a lot of emotional pain because I hated cleaning, and I was doing that while my sisters were going to school. It was difficult, but that was the path that my boundaries allowed me to take,” Wendy said.

She stuck with it and slowly built the business. She found words to give her strength from the Bible, such as, “It is good for a man that he should bear the yoke in his youth.”

“The saying still applies,” the 38-year-old said and laughed.

As the years went on, Wendy gathered insights from thought leaders, including Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning social entrepreneur who pioneered micro-lending in Bangladesh, and Roy H. Williams, author of “The Pendulum,” a book about generational theory and cultural cycles.

Connections and creativity

Since 2007, Wendy has been working on community development efforts in East Durham. With the John O’Daniel Exchange, which opened in 2009, she has created a home base. With Bless Durham, she hopes to connect different people and ideas to serve different needs in Durham. The motto of the new organization is: Connect, pray and serve.

Wendy, who also lives in Northeast Central Durham, hopes to foster authentic relationships between people to lift up the area.

“It’s about building a holistic bridge that incorporates faith, that incorporates the truth in a relationship,” she said. “What we’ve done in our culture is replace program for relationships, and I hope with Bless Durham to bring back the relationship aspect.”

In the long-term, she is a proponent for creativity and social entrepreneurship, which she said is just “capitalism with heart.” “I think we need to get back to our entrepreneurial roots,” Wendy said. “We need unique economic models to solve social issues.”

“I’m deeply concerned for our nation. I think we’ve got to put infrastructure into creativity. It’s the ability to produce, to create, that’s foundational,” she said. “What is the unique work that each of us is called to do?”

Chen: monicaxc@gmail.com

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