This story started 65 years ago, spans all creative corners of the commercial sweeping industry, and plunges at a rapid pace into the future. It’s about truly extraordinary achievements through the generations of a family that now dominates Western U.S. private property management support services.
Laser-focused on the future, Gina Vella, CEO of Universal Site Services, nevertheless looks back with admiration at the building of her family’s business, “My father and his partner started the San Jose Commercial Sweeping company in Silicon Valley back in 1958. They towed a ride-on Tennant sweeper behind a pickup truck. They swept 30 to 40 parking lots per night and sold sweeping services during the day, and went to school. They had the perseverance, and it [the business] just grew.
A lot of farmers had started selling real estate to developers. So, my dad, Leonard Vella, and his partner, Frank Dorsa, started selling pavement cleaning services with a ride-on sweeper to people in their network, for example, farming family friends, people they went to high school with, etc.”
Only around 45 years after the invention of the first motorized street sweeper in 1911, Leonard Vella disrupted the industry with his development of the Mr. Air Sweeper. His innovation was mounting a sweeping machine on a pickup truck for use in sweeping parking lots. His extraordinary innovation became the feature sweeper of MASCO. It was a transformational innovation that made parking lot sweeping much more efficient, kept drivers dry on rainy nights, and dramatically increased the quality and volume of work a single technician could complete in a day.
MASCO Sweepers, Inc. remains a major and thriving sweeper truck manufacturing company today, nearly 60 years after its transformation by Leonard Vellas, a young entrepreneurial innovator who brought boundless creativity and resourcefulness to improving his service methods.
Leonard and Frank collaborated with many people on many projects, and according to Gina, while they were at it, they sold them parking lot sweepers. Ultimately, Leonard sold his interest in the sweeper truck manufacturing business and returned his full focus to growing his successful sweeping business. Of course, this line of information leads into a large story of a great innovator who changed his industry forever.
But, here, we can only acknowledge that Leonard Vella created a spectacular history for the future of his family enterprise. He also cultivated a lineage of wildly successful business leaders. The next generation of Vellas have their own staggering success story to be told here. It’s about the astounding growth of a strong little family business into a dominant force across the commercial sweeping industry and multiple others.
Observing the methods and results of Gina and Joe Vella, dynamic brother and sister management duo, early on, it became clear enough that the two had come to build big on their father’s extraordinary legacy. Today, their impact on the U.S. pavement sweeping industry has been inarguably historic. As President, and now CEO, Gina’s tunnel vision on the future has paid off sensationally for all of Universal’s stakeholders.
Her team has hyper-expanded the existing healthy $2 million company that Leonard and Frank had nurtured from zero. In a 2009 article in the San Jose Business Journal, the company reportedly was generating over $17 million in revenues and had 65 employees. Now, a couple of decades later, Universal is on track to generate over $50 million dollars in annual revenues in 2023. The company dominates the west coast of the United States, including California, Texas, Nevada, Arizona, Nevada, and Hawaii. The company has further begun its systematic spread throughout other states.
By the late 80s, as a teenager, Joe had started working in the shop and went on to acquire years of valuable experience in the business. After completing her degree from an elite fashion institute, Gina gained exceptional strategic business skills from her management roles at the iconic Calvin Klein and Guess Jeans companies. Bringing to bear her wealth of leadership experience, she stepped up and took the reins at Universal. Leonard Vella, the reputed “Grandfather of the Sweeping Industry,” retired in 2005, leaving the company in the utterly capable hands of Joe and Gina Vella. (Though he reportedly still offers abundant great ideas to the team.)
Reflecting on that period, Gina says simply, “My dad was getting older and I realized that for me to excel in fashion, I would have to relocate to New York or LA, whereas I had the opportunity of a lifetime right in front of me. The business skills I learned in fashion school could apply to any business. I believed I just needed the true determination and grit to learn from trial and error.”
Jerry is a sweeping business veteran. He started out driving sweepers at another company for municipalities and ultimately impressed the owners so much that they created a management role for him. But, Jerry explains that the company was not “geared to grow,” at least not to the extent of his high ambitions. So, he familiarized himself with the market competitors and chose to reach out to Universal. Since joining USS, he has served in many roles, beginning within Quality Assurance, Sales, Operations, and as the Director of Operations. In that latter position, Jerry had been overseeing all regional managers since 1999, until he was ultimately promoted to President in January 2023.
When she came on board in 1992, Gina recalls,”It was just Jerry and me and a couple of people and multiple lines, with some people out in the field providing services to customers. There were so many moving parts at that time. We had no sales team. We were doing QA and selling. We went from $2-3 million of Universal site services work per year to about $50 million this year (23 years later).“
Previously, the company had generated about $250k per month. Gina recalls, “We knocked on doors, visited mall managers, etc. All of us did everything together to fill the gaps and meet our customers’ needs.
Gina explains that previously the business had been known exclusively as a sweeping company, “As Universal Sweeping Services, we started building relationships with property managers. They soon started asking if we could do this or that additional task, like landscaping, pressure washing, and various other exterior maintenance. As our geographic area of operations expanded and our lines of service increased over the years, the original name San Jose Commercial Sweeping and later Universal Sweeping Services no longer fully encompassed all we were offering. So we updated the name to Universal Site Services, Inc., to represent our broader potential to serve.
It was a seamless transition. Joey and I had grown up in the business. Jerry has been with the company since 1999. He has now stepped in as President. Chris, our Director of Sales & Marketing joined the business about 15 years ago in 2009.
After a career in electronics, Chris joined USS and laid out a strategic marketing plan for the company that included capitalizing on existing clients and increasing market awareness of Universal. By focusing on web marketing technology, getting involved with national and local associations, along with Chris’s strategic sales-person deployment and other marketing developments, Universal has continued to lead our industry on the West Coast.
Together, Jerry, Chris, Joe, who serves as the Director of Operations, and Gabriella Lau, Director of Finance, and our many regional managers, account managers, sales people, marketing team, and our back office support team are further growing the company.
In the 2000s, we grew by adding exterior day porter services. By the mid 2000’s, we were going to BOMA, CREW, NAPSA, IFMA, ICSC, and many other industry symposiums.
We had always been marketed as a sweeping business but had become a much more comprehensive commercial site services company. We have expanded from parking lot sweeping into a much wider range of exterior site maintenance services. Those include pressure washing, day portering, exterior building and pavement repairs and maintenance, landscaping, and more. These started as value-added services following sweeping contracts. Now, we are a true one-stop shop for all facility services and site maintenance and repairs. The types of accounts we service range from small local commercial properties to national big-box retail chains, office complexes, and industrial sites.
We have management professionals in every region we serve. We’re not like a large brokerage firm. If we have a footprint in an area, we put a Universal manager and necessary teams in the region. Each regional team functions within its own mini-corporate structure. We have found that this operational model works best for organizational efficiency and quality management.
The company has grown along with the population centers where we operate in California. As the San Francisco Bay area grew over the years, the sweeping company did too. We expanded beyond San Jose and ultimately throughout the state and adjacent states to cover the greater western United States.” As a result, Universal Site Services has been recognized as one of the largest woman-owned businesses in Silicon Valley.
Gina breaks down the transitions in the organization, “From Universal, we branched out to form Contract Sweeping Services (CSS), as our municipal accounts arm in 2003.” When North American Sweeper magazine interviewed Universal Sweeping Services back in January 2008, the group was proud of the CSS subsidiary’s low emissions certification and its reputation for reliability, efficiency, and quality. Rightfully so. After all, by that time, CSS was already providing street sweeping service for 70% of Northern California municipal governments.
The move to separate into multiple entities was important. Gina further explains, “We also segmented our highway and road construction sweeping services to create Statewide Construction Sweeping in 2007.
Fast forward to 2020, when we sold both of the independent sweeping businesses we had created to Broadtree Partners, who has since sold the two companies to the Sweeping Corporation of America.” Asked if she is satisfied with that outcome, Gina expressed, “I am happy with it. SCA does not compete with us on the west coast.” She further pointed out that the divestiture freed resources that have since been redirected toward the growth of Universal Site Services.
As Gina envisions the character of the Universal enterprise model in 2023-2024, “The success of the company’s restructuring relies on the personal advancement of more team members. We’re still a family-run company, but just on a larger scale. I feel our success is built on the foundation of the relationships we build with others and the encouragement we give each other to excel and personally grow within.”
Universal Site Services’ current mid-range growth plan includes major metro areas on or in the region of the U.S. west coast. Reno, Nevada, and Phoenix, Arizona are two expansion programs underway at Universal. The company has opened a shop and office in Reno and is looking to build out the Reno operation to full-size, as they have done in Sacramento, Central Valley, and in Southern California with their Brea office. They also plan to expand their service throughout the Phoenix market and are looking to increase their focus on that metropolitan area next year (in 2024).
Gina takes this moment, as she has consistently done throughout the years, to credit the dedication and teamwork of the employees for the success of the business. She says, “The Universal employees are very near and dear to the organization. For example, when a manager here is prepared and willing to grow with the company, that can mean relocating to a different area. That’s critical to our ability to deliver quality service to our customers in a new area and establish an effective organization there.”
Jerry adds, “Our longer-range plans will involve assessing where our strengths are now and building the structure and hierarchy to support our future goals. We want to focus on the west coast, Seattle, for example, and we’re still expanding in California. We also have a very good client in Hawaii. We’ve been there for years serving major retailers.”
In the future, the company will look at increased business development and growth by acquisition. The Universal leadership team has its sites on further expansion in California and new or broadened expansion in Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, and Hawaii.
As we’re running down the laundry list of customized site maintenance services quality control methods, we discover that Universal uses them all. Management performs frequent random follow-up site inspections after service. They also reach out to customers with calls for feedback on the work quality and their customer experience.
As the primary component of the quality assurance system, the company uses its own custom-developed software App for use by field employees. Jerry explains, “Account Managers are assigned a book of business each day. The App features a quality check questionnaire and a function for taking and uploading pictures, and it develops a nice report that we send to the client.”
A lot of successful sweeping company owners around the country emphasize their lack of need or use of any formal marketing throughout all their years in operation. They understandably take great pride in succeeding exclusively by word-of-mouth advertising through contractors they meet on construction job sites and from property managers talking with other business leaders in their area. Universal undoubtedly realizes its own share of such organic marketing yields earned due to the team’s deep commitment to its customer-centric culture.
On the other hand, Chris explains that Universal also uses formal marketing, “We use a lot of web analytics for SEO to drive maximum traffic to our website. We spend a lot of energy on the website.” Based on the comparative level of Universal’s success, following his group’s example is good advice for any operator in the commercial sweeping industry. Chris went on to note that the company is also “heavily involved in as many associations as we can be.” This commitment to industry networking is another often missed great marketing strategy.
We asked about what form of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) the company has in place to support its complex marketing and customer account management program. Chris explained, “A project is underway to migrate from Universal’s existing CRM to one with a lot more marketing enhancements.” He said that Jerry, along with Gabriella Lau, is spearheading implementation of a state-of-the-art Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) platform.
The new ERP will network formerly siloed systems for incomparably improved efficiency that will benefit customers. It will empower people in the field to access the tools needed to maximize services, marketing, sales, and other revenue-producing opportunities. The new system will also help our account managers identify problems and advise our clients on issues that need attention. This increases our team’s ability to uncover value added services we can provide that can mitigate liability risks for our clients.
Remote ERP implementation specialists, in collaboration with Universal’s in-house IT team, are anticipated to launch the exciting new internal mega-system in Q4 2023.
“Another structural advantage that differentiates Universal from our market competitors is our Contracts and Compliance Department,” Gina noted. “Most companies in the industry do not have a dedicated team for this critical work. It minimizes risk for us, and, by extension, for our customers. It’s an important advantage for us in evaluating contracts to help ensure equitability, which is, of course, essential to quality assurance.”
The state of California is nationally known for its stringent Clean Air Act laws. The regulations are especially strict on commercial truck emissions and debris disposal. Universal prioritizes compliance. Jerry explained that the company uses a combination of customer site disposal options and roll-offs of their own for the most eco-friendly and economical approach to disposal.
Naturally, Universal also continues to use MASCO brand non-pollutant regenerative air sweepers and other relatively environmentally-friendly pavement maintenance equipment and field support vehicles.
We asked the Universal leadership team what, if anything, they may perceive as possible outside forces that may one day adversely affect their company’s success. Jerry responded, “The industry is interesting in its nature of always changing. Change is its only constant. We’re accustomed to that.”
He went on to say, “Some competitors striving to go big / go national can seem to threaten. But, time and time again, our infrastructure and reputation built through working with our clients have proven to be all we need to keep the business strong.”
In other words, this is a company whose leaders are not preoccupied with or daunted by external hazards to their ambitious growth plans. They’re focused on strategy to sustain continual progress.
Talking with this C-team, we do get the sense that they won’t be stopped from ongoing spectacular growth over the coming years, per their proven habit. We certainly look forward to observing that and checking in as the Universal logo spreads ever-wider across the region and beyond over the decades to come.
The Universal Site Services leadership team has long mastered the art of succinct responses in interviews. To the question of what advice they would offer new market entrants, they crystallize their recommendations into a few truly universal principles.
Chris reflects on Gina’s often-expressed confidence in the winning formula of “grit and determination.” He suggests that new sweeping business owners have an abundance of those personal traits and be prepared for long hours. He cautions, “It’s not an easy road, and it’s a long path, but it’s very rewarding.”
Jerry notes the moving sense of reward for him is in seeing the company’s name associated with retail centers and other commercial spaces that shine due to Universal’s work. And, Gina reflects on the outcomes of the company’s focus on providing solutions for customers. She finds that, for her, learning how to succeed in that way and seeing the results is actually the most rewarding feeling in the site services business.
We get the sense that no one would be surprised if Leonard Vella showed up one morning flanked by a team of sweeper technology developers to roll out a new industry-transforming innovation. In any case, it is hard to imagine how the Universal leadership team of 2023 could be richer in its vision of a growth model, collaboration on improvements, and in the grit and determination that are at the core of the Universal CEO’s philosophy of success.
Meanwhile, Universal thrives under the world-class guidance of Gina Vella, executive talent of Jerry Nunez, sales management performance of Chris Dickie, and operational oversight of Joe Vella. That’s a formidable force of collective business management intellect and drive that could likely realize the loftiest of shared goals in any enterprise.
This year (2023) is the company’s 65th anniversary. For the Vella family and their team, that means it’s time to reinforce the point that the company’s direction is squarely on employee development and transitioning to the next teams taking over all levels of responsibilities at Universal Site Services.
For Gina Vella, as for her father before her, it’s all about the future and what the next generation of company leadership will do with it. She again underscores her expectation that the next crop of Universal leaders will rise from the ranks.
It’s exciting to see how the Vellas’ channel diversification and satellite expansion model has made their family business an increasingly powerful force in the Wwestern U.S. site services economy. That extraordinary company success appears much due to its leader’s commitment to learning, including through trial and error, more and better ways to help customers.
So, what stands out for us in this story is that — like her father and all other great business leaders we’ve talked with in the industry — Gina Vella, Universal CEO, is driven by a passion for process improvements that enhance service.
For more information about Universal Site Services, call (800) 647-9337, or visit universalsiteservices.com.