By Katherine Shaver
Sunday, April 13, 2008
TWO YEARS INTO THEIR MARRIAGE, Art Major's wife gave him an ultimatum: Your stinky hockey gear goes, she told him, or I go.
"I loved my wife," Art says with a laugh, "but I loved hockey, too."
Luckily for his home life, Art came up with a sweet-smelling solution -- and a new business.
When he couldn't find a Washington-area company to clean his hockey equipment, Art spent $80,000 of household savings on an industrial washing machine and started GearClean Inc.
The firm quickly branched out into cleaning firefighting gear, horse blankets, gooey pizza delivery bags and anything else that needs disinfecting or serious sanitizing but won't fit into a regular washing machine. Even so, Art says, his core clients remain "hockey moms tired of driving their minivans around with smelly hockey gear in the back."
The one-year-old business got an unexpected boost, he says, from local news reports about students and teachers getting sick from methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and other potentially deadly staph infections, often from unsanitary sports equipment.
Many local hockey players wait to get their gear cleaned until they travel to tournaments in Pennsylvania, Upstate New York and Canada, says Art, who still plays in a weekly league in Loudoun County. When he floated his idea, he says, "the hockey moms and the guys on my team said, 'Yes, yes. If you buy the equipment, we'll bring you the stinky gear.'"
Art, 43, who lives in Winchester, Va., is used to dirty jobs. He'd worked for two hazardous materials cleanup firms and started his own consulting company in 2002. But consulting required frequent traveling, something he no longer wanted to do after the first of his two children was born in 2005.
Around the same time -- and after his wife, Maggie, got fed up -- he found the specialty washing machine manufacturer online. The large machine -- it weighs 3,600 pounds and is the size of three refrigerators -- sits in a leased portion of a former apple-processing plant in downtown Winchester. Art usually picks up and delivers customers' gear at their homes, ice rinks or locker rooms.
Robbie Souders, of Winchester, says he used to spray his 11-year-old son's "brutal"-smelling hockey equipment with fabric deodorizer before airing it outside. But he soon suspected the rash on his son's knuckles was coming from bacteria in the gloves.
He says he now has GearClean sanitize the equipment every few months "just for the peace of mind that he won't get a staph infection." His son's rash, he says, is gone.
Customers pay $60 for hockey equipment cleaning, $20 for a horse blanket and $70 for firefighting gear. The company, which also disinfects schools and locker rooms, averages about $40,000 in monthly revenue, Art says. He has yet to recoup his $80,000 investment but, since November, has drawn enough of a "mediocre salary" to pay the mortgage and basic living expenses.
Maggie, a former power tool saleswoman, does GearClean's bookkeeping and marketing. She says she enjoys working with Art and the flexibility they have with their young children. Her nose is happier, too.
"Investing in the specialty machine was worth it," Maggie, 30, says, "just to get Art's stuff cleaned, let alone anyone else's."
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