Family Business

Apex family shares the secrets of their business success

December 22, 2012 

Have you ever seen those guys hanging from the sides of buildings while cleaning windows 50 floors up and think they are crazy? You wouldn’t think that of Apex-based family business Scotties Building Services, which is one of the 10 largest window-cleaning companies in the country. It covers Virginia and both Carolinas.

Scotties is truly a rags-to-riches story. Back in 1986, John McGrath, who grew up working in the window-cleaning business with his dad in Syracuse, N.Y., decided to get out of the snow and move south to North Carolina. Once he was settled, he sent for his dad to come down, and soon after his brother Tom left the military and came down, and they formed a new window-cleaning business.

The window-cleaning business was different back then. “It was like the Wild West. Some crazy guys with a bucket of soap and a wiper could get jobs hanging off buildings cleaning,” John McGrath said. “It’s not like that anymore.”

John and Tom McGrath were founding members of the International Window Cleaning Association, whose charter is to promote safety and education, and enhance professionalism throughout the industry. Scotties went about cleaning up the cleaning industry. And the family led by example by professionalizing themselves. A lot of this came about by reading a book, “The E Myth,” by Michael Gerber.

‘Work on your business’

“The point of ‘The E Myth’is to spend time working on your business, not just in your business,” Tom McGrath said. “It teaches you how to put systems and controls in place, and that’s what we did at Scotties.” And it paid off. The cleaning industry has very low barriers to entry, and there are no legal certifications required to operate. The key to success is to be safe, efficient, economical and consistent. In fact, this is the company’s motto. Developing a reputation is the key to success. With a 96 percent retention rate, it looks like it is paying off.

The dedication to safety extended so far that they formed another company focusing exclusively on designing and manufacturing safety harnesses for high-rise building cleaners.

The McGrath family also has spent time working on being a family business. They have divided the functional areas among the three of them with John in charge of sales and marketing, Tom focusing on management and operations, and dad providing the initial expertise required to do the actual work. It is a known family business management tenet that the clearer the definition of roles and responsibilities, the better.

‘Trust each other’

But what happens when disagreements occur? “We talk it out, but ultimately the decision falls to the one who has responsibility for that particular area, and we just trust each other,” Tom McGrath said. What also helps is a strong staff. They have four geographic divisions with a general manager running each with a great deal of autonomy. “Having a strong management team provides another good source of input for decision making,” Tom McGrath said.

Another trick they learned to help them work well together as a family business is that they try to keep business talk to business hours. And they consciously avoid taking on issues toward the end of the work day. “Any issues that come up late in the day, we just save them for tomorrow,” John McGrath said.

Today, in addition to their key managers, Scotties has the third brother, Gary, in the business, as well as John’s son and Tom’s son-in-law. Tom and John both pointed out that most of the successful companies in their industry were family businesses.

So remember, the next time you see some guys hanging from the side of a skyscraper, they are not crazy, they are just Scotties!

Henry Hutcheson is a nationally recognized family business speaker, author and consultant in Raleigh. He can be reached at

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