Leon Nelson, with his ready humor, lilting Jamaican accent, and open, easy-going island manner, brings a fresh presence to the U.S. pavement sweeping industry in South Florida. He also brings an utterly unique business model that is succeeding in an increasing number of areas throughout the state of Florida and parts of Georgia.
Nelson founded Superior Property Maintenance in 2010, later renaming the company Brightstar. With all the vast array of U.S. American business options available to him and abundant talent to succeed at any he selected, why did Leon choose to start a commercial pavement sweeping business? “Because, he jokes, nobody told me it was that hard to start a sweeping business.”
There are many stories throughout the industry of sharp entrepreneurs rising from humble beginnings to build multi-million-dollar commercial sweeping service chains. The story of Leon appears to be one of those, and it is rapidly unfolding. He tells it philosophically:
My real trade is welding and fabrication. When God is preparing you, you really don’t know until you see — oh, that’s why I was doing that. Now, I’m my own welder and fabricator at Brightstar, most of the time. I taught one of our men to weld, so now he does some of it.
I used to do sweeping for Aimsley, and before that for another local company, J&P Lawson, as a helper on a truck. Aimsley is out of business now, but we continue to get advice from one of the former owners. She checks in to see how we’re doing and acts as mentor to Tandieka, our VP.
Tandieka adds to his story of the beginning of Brightstar, from its inception as Superior. She said he started the company with his car, a backpack blower, some garbage bags, and a pick stick. He began cleaning parking lots. She’s not understating it when she adds that it was the start of his realization of the American dream.
Superior was just sweeping, portering, and pressure washing. One of the things I realized and applied as one of our rebranding tactics during the transition to Brightstar is that we needed to offer more. I learned that clients want to do business with one company that will do everything.
So we’re doing paving, seal coating, landscaping, and other services. Some divisions have grown to the point that, for example, we do a lot of the city’s landscaping [Ft. Lauderdale], and we sweep the city of Palm Beach, across the island. It’s a one-stop shop at Brightstar, and we do it all in-house.
Brightstar’s business appears to be municipal street and parking lot sweeping, portering, asphalting and repair service, power washing, cardboard pickup for recycling, and construction site cleanup. The company has ordered a tow truck and will soon begin operating a towing and roadside assistance service. And, of course, Leon Nelson laughs at the notion that he might have somehow forgotten to include roll-off dumpster rentals in his comprehensive outside maintenance service enterprise.
In addition to South Florida, we serve Orlando, Panama City, Pensacola, Jacksonville, and areas of Georgia. Georgia will be one of the areas we grow in last because it will take more, with licensing and other considerations. We will have to pay to learn.
So, how should we label this kind of hyper-expanding conglomeration of services over an ever-more broadly extending land radius? Leon’s focus is on diversification, not classification. Whatever you call the model that we’re using right now — in all the areas we branch out into, we are taking it all into each.
I never had new sweepers; it was always used trucks. The first new sweeper we ever bought was in 2019. It was a [Victory] Mark III. We named our truck Prosperity. We now have 32 sweepers. They’re all Victory sweepers, including a CXI, GX, Mark III, Mark I, and Mark II.
Currently, we have our fleet of sweepers, including for sweeping garages, our official service truck, and one water truck. We just ordered a T600 from Victory.
We own all of our equipment for landscaping. (We bought most of that from Green Thumb Garden in Coral Springs. (We bought some of our asphalt equipment from (Browns and) places that equip rental businesses. We buy the equipment and refurbish it for our use.
We also have equipment for our cardboard recycling operation. We collect the cardboard from properties we service, it goes into the bailer in our facility, and a company picks it up.
We do have one mini rail loader that goes around to pick up the cardboard. We recently purchased ten 5-yard dumpsters for cardboard. We service 22 locations of a major national restaurant chain picking up cardboard. (I was just out putting stickers on the new dumpsters this morning.)
Brightstar also has roll-off dumpster rental units. We bought our first roll-off about six months ago. We now have a number of 20-yard roll-offs. We don’t go above that in length.
We just ordered a tow truck. So, we’ve got Brightstar Towing and Roadside Assistance coming on board. The truck is in manufacturing right now. We will do that launch in the next month or so.
Brightstar has dozens of employees, including those in landscaping and other teams in paving. We’ve partnered with Black Gold Paving, powered by Brightstar. Through city facilities maintenance, we got the opportunity to bring these services on board.
We upgraded their training and promoted a few of our guys, and took a team of six from Ft Lauderdale to Orlando. That included supervisors and others. I stayed up there too, for three months. Now, we are operating those services in Tallahassee, Panama City, and Southern Georgia.
Our Maintenance Dept is run by Nevel White, our Head Mechanic, and Calvin Nelson assists there. We have a rover team that leaves from here [Ft. Lauderdale] every other week to maintain sweepers throughout the state. Our team members come from good backgrounds. We don’t hire people with less than 3 to 4 years of experience. Brenton Wright deals with compliance. He was with Broward Health.
Tandieka McDonald, our VP, was in upper management at Verizon when we brought her aboard initially as our Marketing Manager. She had been in leadership roles in three fortune 500 companies’ operations and sales teams. She is accomplished in financial analysis, business development solutions, project management, strategy development, training, coaching, tactical implementation, and team building.
During the transition from Superior to Brightstar, Tandieka introduced rebranding to me and how it would work.
Our marketing has been just doing the work and communicating from one manager to another manager. So, our success has been mostly due to word of mouth. Of course, we have had our hard times. But, just doing more sometimes than what it takes says a lot. It’s in making sure you have tough people that want to do the work and trying to coach them to help them improve.
We take pride in ourselves and in our equipment condition looking great, always being presentable. We see a lot of equipment from companies that look bad. We emphasize to the guys to keep the equipment clean [to make a good impression for the company].
Learning from people with great knowledge has made our success possible. Mark Schwarz from Victory actually gave me my first sweeper, a Mitsubishi 340i, for about $10,000. We named it Spirit. I still keep it in the yard and could start it up. It’s never going anywhere. It will always be standing right here to tell the stories.
Right now, my goal is to have a billboard. This is Tandieka’s area. She’s on a break in Europe right now. When she comes back, we’re going to work on this and some other new things.
We do spot checks, visits, and calls to customers as part of our quality management. Myself, I do what I call “around the world.” I leave Fort Lauderdale and don’t come back till three weeks later. I may spend a day or two in Orlando, drive up to Jacksonville, and come back to the office from there.
Tandieka added during a remote email discussion for the article, customer service is vital to our business, so each customer has access to a dedicated account manager and they are able to get to someone even after regular business hours.
Along with all its equipment, Brightstar also owns the real estate where its impressive facilities are located. The property is a great source of company pride for the organization’s employees. Leon says simply, financially, we’re doing good.
However, we’ve had our times when we were down. For example, one of our biggest clients switched from net 30 to net 60. That was way more than a sting. It put us in more than a little spin. But, we got help from a bank and moved on from there.
A client may be good for a while and then have a financial problem. The same thing happening to you can happen to the person that pays you. Once you understand that and communicate, you can move forward. But, you have to explain to the team. Because, logistically things need to be happening.
Another problem occurred while we were running during Covid. That was the time while we were doing our expansion into Orlando. We ran into situations where guys did not want to be working. I was running a sweeper myself during that time. I didn’t understand Covid myself; there was so much mixed information about what to do and what not to do.
Leon mentioned that the company will soon be adopting a street and a program called Brightsar Kids, through which we will be sponsoring some games. We thought that seemed very nice for a small business owner to do. Then, Tandieka, contributing from the other side of the globe by email, advised us that Leon Nelson’s support for good causes is much broader.
In Tandieka’s words, he is very big on supporting children’s education and giving back to the community. He is in the process of rebuilding the entire welding program for the high school that he attended [in Jamaica] where he was privileged to obtain his welding skills. He has a big heart and wants to make sure that every child gets an opportunity to use the new technology, though they are in the country hills of Jamaica and not privileged to have access to these things. Back in December he supported the Hibiscus Girls Leadership Academy, and this is just to name a few examples of how passionate he is about community support.
I believe the industry is still strong. You’ll always need cleaners. We still need to do some work on the pricing, so it’s not chaotic. We can’t always let the managers [the market] study us and be the ones calling the shots. That’s what’s happening right now. I think we need regulation on pricing.
There are all these 3rd-party companies coming in, and clients pay us to do the work and pay them too. But, managers still go for it. I think, don’t you see that you’re paying twice? Being diversified is the way to go, [i.e., because you can profit from a wide range of services].
A lot of people want to go into the business, yet they have no knowledge of sweepers, the moving parts, or the cost of this equipment. I say to them, if you don’t know sweepers, leave them alone because they will take your money good. I tell them to start simple. Start from being a porter and work until you learn the industry. They can do janitorial work and grind their way up.
Don’t give up. A lot of times in the failure you think you experienced, you didn’t fail. What happened was that as soon as you felt a little burned you shut it all down. The business didn’t fail — you just didn’t allow it the opportunity to succeed.
Build a strong team. I’m a tough head, but what can make me tear up is having a good team and a good management staff. A good team of workers and a good management team will always propel you to success, in my experience.
Also, if there is one truth about this country [the U.S.] it is that you can be all you can be. If there is one truth, that is the boss of truths. You have people who seize on that and others just let it go. You’ve got to start somewhere. You can do car washing or push a mower, and a couple of years later, you can have a fleet. It is truly the land of opportunity. So, I proudly display the American flag on our trucks.
Brightstar Property Maintenance Services, Inc., Ft. Lauderdale, Florida is a NAPSA Member and a minority certified and CBE certified business. The company is also a certified member of ISSA, a European industrial cleaning industry consortium.
For more information about Brightstar Property Maintenance Services, Inc., call (954) 951-2500, see www.brightstarfl.com, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.