As a young boy, Jay Vonachen remembers sweeping floors and emptying wastebaskets, eager to help out at his father’s business. Little did he know growing up that those early days would lead to a lifelong career in distribution, cleaning services and manufacturing support. After joining the business in 1962, Vonachen had a vision that the future would require a total solution to cleaning needs, and with that in mind, he founded Professional Maintenance in 1968. Today, Vonachen remains chairman of the board at the company, now Vonachen Services, Inc., where his son, Matthew Vonachen, is CEO. Over the years, the firm has grown from two to 1300 employees, with locations throughout Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Mississippi and Tennessee.
But Vonachen’s legacy extends far beyond his successful business career. He has been active for decades with a range of organizations, including AMBUCS, the OSF Saint Francis Community Advisory Board, Human Service Center, Goodwill’s Home for Veterans, and the General Wayne A. Downing Foundation. Vonachen recently received the BSCAI Walter C. Cook Award for Distinguished Service, the Tom Connor Award and the W.D. Boyce Council’s Distinguished Citizen Award for his volunteer efforts. He insists that family support and a strong work ethic have had a lot to do with who he is, and he’s worked hard to pass that sense of commitment and the importance of family onto his three children.
Let’s start off with your family background. How did they first come to Peoria?
I believe the first Vonachen in Peoria was Rudy Vonachen; in fact, my brother is named after him. He had three sons: Dr. John Vonachen, the pediatrician; Dr. Harold Vonachen, a general practitioner and then-medical director for Caterpillar; and Judge Francis Vonachen. My father was the son of Dr. John Vonachen, the pediatrician. So, that’s our lineage. Rudolph was a saloon keeper, and at one point in time he was the fire marshal in Peoria. He would be my great-grandfather. I was fortunate enough to know not only my grandfather, but his two brothers.
My dad was Bob Vonachen; he has been gone about 10 years. He started out in the insurance business [and] went from selling insurance to selling supplies. At one point in time, he decided he wanted to go into business himself, and so he started a distribution business in 1947—the distribution of janitor supplies and healthcare products. I was seven years old when [it] was started… so, that was part of our growing up—we grew up in that business.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a doctor, because I admired my grandfather so much. But by the time I got to school, I figured out that I didn’t have the stomach for it. You have to get over being too empathetic… and every once in a while, you lose a patient. I couldn’t deal with that.
Tell us a little about your schooling.
I went to Spalding High School in Peoria. At Spalding, I met a [man] who was the business manager there. When I was a junior, he moved on to Marquette [University] and became the assistant dean of the College of Business Administration. We continued to communicate, and when it was time for me to get serious about looking for colleges, he offered me the opportunity of going to Marquette and working for him at the university. As assistant dean, he was in charge of the night school. The first year… I was a gofer for anybody who taught classes after 5pm. The next year, I began working in the office, and I worked there until I graduated. I started out in liberal arts and ended up with a degree in business—a Bachelor of Science.
How did you meet your wife, Betty?
Betty and I met in… I think high school. We have been together so long, it’s hard to remember! (laughs). We did date in high school, and Betty went to Marquette. We were married our senior year [of college], so we just about raised each other.
Tell us about the rest of your family.
[My wife and I] have three children. Matt is the oldest; a couple years behind Matt is Elizabeth, and a couple years behind her is Molly. Matt went to Chicago and worked for eight or 10 years; then we recruited him back to Peoria to be involved in the distribution business… Matt is the president and CEO of Vonachen Services. He came into this company about five years ago, and over a period of time assumed the role he is in now, which essentially means he replaced me. I’m still chairman of the board, and I still try to keep abreast of what’s going on and what we’re doing… what we do well and what we don’t do well, and who is solid and who might not be solid.
Elizabeth went to the University of Iowa, married shortly after she graduated, and has not lived in Peoria since. [She] has four children… and we see them frequently. They come here to visit, and they visit us in Florida and… Wisconsin.
Molly went to Chicago… She came back to Peoria and worked for Lincoln Office… [then] went back to school in Chicago to get her degree in graphic arts. She then came back to Peoria and worked in the advertising business… for Simantel. That was for 10 or 15 years, and then [she] moved over to Easter Seals and married Mike Miller… the car dealer. They left Peoria for a couple years to run a large dealership in Florida—and the rest of the family complained enough that they ended up moving back!
Tell us about the early days in the family business. What was it like working with your father?
Well, there were times when we disagreed, but what we did agree on is where two people agree all the time, one of them may be unnecessary (laughs). They were always healthy disagreements. He was frequently right, and less frequently, I was right. It was a good relationship; it was a good opportunity. Four years after I came into the business, my brother came into the business; then it was the three of us working together.
Did you have a feeling in those early days that this would be a lifelong journey?
I didn’t really think that far ahead. I never intended to come back to Peoria. I had accepted a job with IBM in Milwaukee right out of school. At the last minute, Dad prevailed on [Betty and me] to come back, and it turned out to be very beneficial… We had accumulated some debt, so his next request was that we live with them until we paid that debt off, which we did. It was about a year… We came back in June, and in March of the following year, he died of a heart attack.
In coming back here, I wasn’t sure how long I was going to do it or what it would lead to. But the more I did it, the more I liked it, and… so, here I am. I [came] back in 1962, and as I was involved in the business, it occurred to me that there were people who didn’t just want to buy supplies but would rather buy the service, and have people come in and take care of everything. [So] I started another business, Professional Maintenance, in 1968. I had a partner in that business because I didn’t have the money to start it, and I didn’t know everything I needed to. Through my connections in the industry, I had developed a friend in Cincinnati, and he agreed to put up the money. When he died, I bought his interest in the business and changed the name to Vonachen Services.
Describe how Vonachen Services evolved from your father’s business, Vonachen Industrial Supplies.
My dad was a part of that business until he retired. When he retired, Rudy and I bought whatever interest we had not purchased before, [so we then] owned the business. In 1999, we realized, in the business we were in, we couldn’t continue to be competitive and prosper because we weren’t big enough. We had five locations in Illinois and Iowa, but we were doing business with companies like Caterpillar, John Deere and 3M, and they were going through an era where they decided they wanted a principal supplier for North America instead of one here, one there and one someplace else. We wouldn’t have done well. So we became a part of a startup. So instead of a $30-million company, we became a $300-million company. And that company was in the position to have North American-wide distribution.
We were part of a rollup. A venture capitalist in Chicago put together four people—one whose expertise was in management, one in sales, one in finance, and the other person was a generalist. They researched the market to look for companies they would want to buy in different parts of the country, and we were one of the companies they looked at. We met with them over a period of months and ultimately decided this is what we wanted to do.
So did they purchase an interest in the company?
No, they purchased the business lock, stock and barrel, with the understanding that Rudy and I would each remain for five years. By that time, we had recruited Matt into the distribution business, along with two of Rudy’s sons. [The startup] owned us for five years… and I went on the road for that company, so to speak. I participated in helping them identify other people, overseeing the transition and then monitoring their performance. I did that for five years, and they put Matt in charge of the business. Rudy did something similar that involved a lot of traveling. I got out as quickly as I could. It wasn’t as much fun.
We sold [Vonachen Industrial Supplies] effective in 2000. We retained the name for a short period of time, and then it became AmSan [Service and Supply]. I still know most of the people over there; they were the people I was involved in hiring, and they [are] a major supplier to the service business.
So, describe your business today.
[Vonachen Services, Inc.] has had good, steady growth over a period of time. In the beginning, all we did was clean buildings. When Caterpillar had that serious strike in the ‘80s… we were cleaning for them. We were the first non-union company to begin working for Caterpillar. When that strike occurred, they asked us if we would do other things, so we got involved in providing manufacturing support services, like shipping and receiving and manning a tool crib. We would do things like manage inventory—basically non- or low-skilled kinds of things. That opened up a new arena for us… We continued to do some of those things for Caterpillar after the strike was over, but then went on to do them for other companies, like John Deere, for example. Today, the business is divided between the cleaning business and the manufacturing support business.
What has changed most in your industry in the last 10 to 20 years or so?
Like most businesses, it has become much, much more sophisticated and computer- and software- driven. When we originally started the business, we would walk through a building and eyeball it, and try to think about how many hours it would take us to clean, and that’s how we would figure a price. Today, we would gather some statistics, like square footage, what’s on the floor, how many restroom fixtures there are, what the specific cleaning tasks would be. That would go into a software program and we would develop the number of hours required for each task and break it into what positions those tasks would represent and what those people would be doing. That’s a long way from where we started. It used to be that we tried to figure out at the end of the month whether or not we made any money. Today, I could tell you what the budget was for each job we did last night. I could tell you how many hours we put in and whether it was under or over budget. Our product is labor, and over a period of time, we’ve become very sophisticated in managing that labor.
What about the manufacturing side of the business?
It’s pretty different. When we go into a situation, typically they’re having us replace an existing position, and they have a definition of what they want that position to be. So in the beginning, we accommodate them, and we do that job as it has been done or as they want it done. As time goes on, we might seek to modify it, or we might work with them to change how that position is performed. In the manufacturing business, it’s typically the customer that’s dictating the position, because you’re working in conjunction with their people; they know what they want the position to do to support whatever activities it’s supporting.
What do you believe have been some critical factors in your business success over the years?
I’ve always had a good example around me in terms of work ethic. I learned a lot of valuable things in college while I was working for the university—I probably learned as much working for the university as I did attending class. My parents both had very strong work ethics and were committed to what they were doing, and that same thing existed in the family… I was around people who were very serious about what they were doing. So, I think that has a lot to do with who I am, or in my brother’s case, who he is. We had strong family support.
Let’s talk about some of the causes and organizations you’ve been involved with over the years. What causes have taken your heart?
When I came back to Peoria, the first thing I ended up involved in was the Jaycees, so I began participating in the things they were doing. Subsequent to that, I was in AMBUCS. I’m not sure that they exist anymore. It was like a Rotary Club. Rotary is on one hand a social entity; on the other hand, it’s a charitable entity. It led to your getting involved in things they were sponsoring, and [other] things that they weren’t sponsoring, because of the friendships and relationships you develop. If I were in AMBUCS or Rotary with you and we got to be friends, you might ask if I would help with this cause or that cause… and one thing just led to another…
The one I’ve been involved with the longest is probably OSF Saint Francis; I’ve been on their advisory board since 1980. I’m still on the advisory board and a couple of committees there, but I am emeritus at this point. At age 70, you become emeritus. That’s a good thing. You can’t have people hanging on too long. Some organizations let you remain emeritus, and you may not have a committee chairmanship or a vote, but they’ll let you do whatever you might do to continue to be helpful, and OSF happens to be that way.
I’m still on the Human Service Center Board… I knew someone on the board there and I got interested in that. That was something I’d been interested in for a very long time, as was my wife. She was on the board there before I was.
I was also involved in starting the [General Wayne A.] Downing Foundation, along with some others. The purpose of that foundation was to have some way of remembering the contributions of Wayne Downing. [We] ended up… getting the airport named after him. The other part of it was trying to do the kinds of things Wayne would liked to have done if he had lived, principally… to support veterans. That is still ongoing. We’ve done some good things, and we had a part in Goodwill’s Home for Veterans.
Are there any other organizations or activities in which you’re involved?
My grandfather started going to Wisconsin in 1934, and built a cottage up there. When he couldn’t take care of the place, my dad bought it. And when my dad couldn’t take care of the place, I bought it, and when I can’t take care of the place, Matt will. We’ve been in that community since 1934, so it’s like a second home. Anyway, there is a foundation there that funds the hospital, and I am a part of that foundation. That’s something I continue to do.
I have been involved in a number of political campaign fundraising activities. I think if we’re going to have a good city or county or country, people have to do something to make that happen. The people who do the most are those who hold office or run for office. If you’re not willing to do that, I think the least you can do is support those who do. I’ve never been willing to make that commitment, but I’ve tried to support people who do, and I continue to do that. A great frustration of mine is the fact that so many people don’t even care enough to vote. I mean if you look at the turnout in whatever election, it’s just awful. The people who sometimes complain the most are the ones you would find haven’t voted for years. It’s a damn shame. If the people who should vote did vote, our country would be a lot different than it is today. I think it’d be better.
What do you like to do to relax or unwind?
I have enjoyed working and enjoyed the people I’ve worked with; I’ve gotten a lot of satisfaction out of that. I’ve enjoyed whatever I’ve done to volunteer, whether it be political or in healthcare or whatever. I’m not much of a golfer, but I play a little bit. I’m not good enough to say I really enjoy it (laughs). I do a little bit of fishing. I’ve spent time in Wisconsin; I’m now spending more time [there]. There was a time when we went up year-round… when we wouldn’t miss a month without going up for at least a weekend. Now we go back and forth from sometime in May until September. And then typically, Betty and I go up the day after Christmas and stay a week. We’ve been going up there long enough that we have friends there…
The name of the community is Minocqua, and it is exactly 400 miles due north of Peoria. It’s one of those little Wisconsin communities with a population… of 10,000 residents that swells to 100,000 people during the summer. [My grandparents] ended up going up there with two or three other couples and just loved it and kept going back. At one point in time, three of them bought property together in the bay… They each built cottages, and when they were up there in the summer, they did a lot of things together. It was a good environment—very good memories.
Looking back, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
Well, I’m proud of being a part of the distribution business and this business. I’m proud of family: kids, grandkids, nieces, nephews, brothers, sisters. I’m proud of the things that are going on in the community that are similar to things that I’ve been involved in at one point in time or another. I think what Saint Francis does is terrific. I think what the Human Service Center does is terrific. You could go on and on, there are so many not-for-profits. Somebody was telling me the other day that Neighborhood House now serves 1,000 meals a day… that’s incredible. There are a lot of people doing a lot of great things, and it’s been fun to be a part of it whenever I have been. iBi