Vonachen Family Values

by Lisa Ullenius

This family-owned company has been cleaning and maintaining commercial businesses for over 50 years.

While working for his father Bob Vonachen’s janitorial and healthcare products distribution company in the late 1960s, Jay Vonachen realized that his customers weren’t only looking for cleaning supplies—they wanted cleaning services as well. Recognizing the desire for a total solution when it came to keeping clients’ businesses tidy, Jay secured a business partner and formed his own company, Professional Maintenance, the predecessor to what would later become Vonachen Services, Inc. (VSI).

Opportunities Seized
The contacts Jay made through Vonachen Industrial Supplies proved to be useful in the development of Professional Maintenance. Some of his first customers were in the retail industry, including the likes of Kmart and Bergner’s. Through the 1970s and ‘80s, the company enjoyed steady growth, cleaning a multitude of office buildings in the area. One of their larger customers was Caterpillar Inc. Jay remembers how a strike at Cat in the early 1980s led to another growth opportunity for his company. 

“When that strike occurred, they asked us if we would do other things besides cleaning,” he recalls. “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,” he continues. “When the strike was over, they kept us on in some of those capacities—and then went on to do them for other companies, like John Deere.” 

This organic foray into manufacturing support has proved most advantageous to the company over the years, explains Jay’s son and current president/CEO, Matt Vonachen. “Although our business was founded on contract cleaning, that accounts for about 50 percent of current revenue,” he states. “I like to tell people we are an outsourcing alternative for anything that lies outside their core competency. In the manufacturing environment, it means we can provide help in shipping/receiving or material handling. Or, we can assist with special projects like concrete polishing or machine cleaning. In the healthcare field, we started by cleaning hospitals’ off-campus facilities, and today we do common areas and meeting room setups/breakdowns.” 

An Evolving Industry
By the late ‘90s, along with managing Professional Maintenance, Jay also co-owned Vonachen Industrial Supplies with his brother, Rudy. Meanwhile, Matt Vonachen had started working for this arm of the family business after several years of employment in the Chicago area. Over time, the brothers began to realize their father’s distribution company wasn’t large enough to meet the needs of industry giants like Caterpillar and John Deere, which preferred a single national supplier over a variety of regional ones. So in September 1999, Vonachen Industrial Supplies was sold as part of a roll-up to the larger AmSan Corporation, which was acquiring and merging similar companies in the market. But while Jay, Rudy and Matt were retained as part of the buyout, the Vonachen name was not. 

A few years after selling the distribution arm of the business, Jay’s financial partner in Professional Maintenance passed away. Jay decided the family name should be restored to the industry, and with that in mind, Professional Maintenance became Vonachen Services, Inc. The name change was just one impetus for Matt to join his father’s business full-time. “After yet another corporate buyout, I gave AmSan my notice,” he recalls. “And then my dad asked if I had any interest in the contract cleaning business.” In August 2008, Matt decided he did. “I had worked in the venture capitalist environment through the roll-up and really wanted to get back to a family business and its culture and values.”

Father and son worked well together for the next several years. “My dad and I have always had a tremendous relationship,” Matt states. “We don’t fight; we don’t argue. And we never wanted that to change.” So when Matt was ready to purchase the business from his dad, they hired a third party to evaluate it and put a structure in place for him to acquire it over a period of time. “It was the best thing we could have done,” he recalls. “It preserved the relationship with my dad and it made the family feel good that it was all done above-board.”

Jay gradually phased out his involvement in the day-to-day operations of the company, and Matt has officially served as president/CEO of Vonachen Services, Inc. since 2012. “Dad’s only claimed the word ‘retired’ for about the last two years or so,” Matt says, “but he’s still the biggest cheerleader for the business. He has an office and an administrative assistant, and when he’s in town he comes in every day to talk with employees, ask about their families and help where he can.” 

The Vonachens’ commitment to their community is reflected in the multitude of organizations supported by VSI. “We’re involved in more than 50 causes locally,” states Matt, “and they are all organizations that either our clients or employees are involved in. Whether it’s the United Way or another group, that’s always our main stipulation—we support causes that are close to our customers’ and employees’ hearts.”

Next-Generation Changes
During his tenure with the company, Matt Vonachen has worked not only to develop the business, but structure it in a way that makes sense. In 2017 he led his team in the formation of the Vonachen Group, which serves as a holding company for the six brands the family owns today, including its legacy company, VSI. All acquisitions have been in the field of facility maintenance.

Both Jay and Matt have witnessed great transformation in their industry over the years. “When we originally started the business, we would walk through a building and eyeball it, try to think about how many hours it would take us to clean, and that’s how we would figure a price,” recalls Jay. “Now we gather statistics—like square footage, how many restroom fixtures there are, what the specific jobs would be. This goes into a software program that develops a specific plan and tasks.” 

Matt agrees the business has become much more sophisticated and computer-driven. “The market has driven industry to be more efficient, so we’re more efficient. Technology is the driver today. Business is paperless and as much as possible, it has been automated.”

The next generation of Vonachens has now entered the fold as well. Matt’s oldest son, Alex, joined the family business at the beginning of 2018, working in Indianapolis operations. His other sons, Lucas and Max, have expressed interest, while daughter Isabella has spent time working in the business as well. Time will tell where they end up. “It’s not a hard ask,” notes Matt. “I tell them that if they want to join, we’d love to have them add value to the company, but there’s never any pressure. Just like my father never pressured me.”

Today VSI has a footprint in 11 states, and their goal is to continually grow, through both organic means and an acquisition strategy. “We want to create a world-class, Midwestern company specializing in facility maintenance,” states Matt, “and we want it to always maintain Vonachen family values.” iBi

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