When Eric Katzer launched his business 26 years ago, he named it WestCoast Window Cleaning.
“I should have called it WestCoast Window Cleaning and Hey, as Long as You’re Out There, Why Don’t You …,” he joked, recounting the chores he’s been asked to undertake while hanging as high as 20 stories above Spokane: touch-up painting, patching, and installing spike rails to discourage pigeons.
Serving customers from Seattle and the Tri-Cities to North Idaho, Katzer is game for just about anything – even wearing a Superman costume while cleaning pediatric patients’ windows during Children’s Miracle Network fundraisers.
“Window cleaning is a spectator event, even if we’re just standing on the sidewalk,” Katzer said. “Kids and adults alike will stop to watch a guy performing his trade well.”
During a recent interview, Katzer discussed soap, solitaire and his succession plan.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Katzer: Right in the middle of Iowa in a little farming community called Nevada (pop. 6,798).
S-R: What was your first job?
Katzer: In Iowa, you walk beans. Once soybeans reach a certain height, you can’t cultivate mechanically – it would destroy the plants. So you get a crew of kids, give them machetes or hoes, and have them remove weeds that would inhibit harvesting.
S-R: How old were you?
Katzer: The first time, probably around 6, and I was paid something like 50 cents an hour. As I got older, $3.50 was the going rate. The job also taught me a good work ethic.
S-R: What were your interests in high school?
Katzer: I enjoyed working on the newspaper and yearbook. Track was my sport – the 110- and 400-meter hurdles.
S-R: And after high school?
Katzer: I attended a small, liberal arts college in Pasadena (California), graduating with a degree in theology and a minor in business.
S-R: Then what?
Katzer: I met my lovely bride at college. Not long after I graduated and our son Michael was born, we realized we didn’t want to raise kids in Southern California. Tammy was from Spokane, and the climate is way nicer than Iowa, so we moved here. I cleaned windows for another company a couple of years before going out on my own.
S-R: What did it cost to start WestCoast Window Cleaning?
Katzer: Maybe $300.
S-R: Who was your first customer?
Katzer: Chicken N More downtown. I got $3 to clean Bob’s windows, and usually traded it for lunch. I still keep his barbecue sauce in my refrigerator.
S-R: What do you recall of the company’s early years?
Katzer: Good memories were being outside, rappelling and cleaning windows. When you’re in the zone, it’s a great rush and lots of fun. But the business took about 10 years to gain traction.
S-R: Where did you learn to clean windows?
Katzer: Before I went to college, I worked for my best friend’s dad, who had a window-cleaning company in Des Moines.
S-R: What’s the secret?
Katzer: Clean a lot of windows, and you’ll get really good at it.
S-R: What detergent do you prefer?
Katzer: We used Dawn dish soap for years. When they started putting in a bunch of additives, we switched to Walmart’s Great Value brand. We have to use a little more, but it’s a cleaner formula – fewer streaks.
S-R: What ratio of soap to water do you recommend?
Katzer: The same as you use to wash dishes.
S-R: And the other tools of the trade?
Katzer: A wand – the mop-looking thing – a squeegee and a bucket.
S-R: How about a towel?
Katzer: I was taught not to use a towel. If you have one, you tend to rely on it and get sloppy on your edges and corners.
S-R: Do customers ever call and say, “Come back. My windows aren’t clean”?
Katzer: Absolutely. Sometimes we’ve done the outside, and the problem is inside. Other times, the callbacks are completely legitimate.
S-R: Do people ever point out blemishes as you work?
Katzer: All the time. Mostly it’s in jest, and we smile. If they’re clearly intent, we scrub really hard on the spot and squeegee it again. If there’s still a problem, it’s either on the inside or there’s a flaw in the glass. With Thermopane windows, you occasionally get blemishes in between that nothing can make disappear.
S-R: What’s your business philosophy?
Katzer: Stay competitive and provide a superior service.
S-R: Have you had setbacks?
Katzer: In 2000, the company had grown to the point where it needed better management. I was still a worker instead of operating as an owner and making decisions. So I handed the company over to a friend who was between jobs, and my family and I took a 28-day road trip. I was so burned out, I didn’t care if the company existed when I got back. But getting away gave me a fresh perspective, and from that point forward things got better.
S-R: Do you still clean windows?
S-R: As much as you used to?
Katzer: No. When the business was growing, 60- and 70-hour weeks during spring and fall were standard. There were even 100-hour weeks. I’d take one person out in the morning, and we’d work through the day. Then they’d go home, and I’d take another person out and we’d work through the night on interiors. Now that I’m 54, I appreciate not having to be in the field every day.
S-R: What factors affect your business?
Katzer: Weather is the biggest one. When a storm rolls through, it creates a scheduling challenge. Wind is another issue. We’re required to knock off when it exceeds 25 mph. And the seasons. Our high-rise crew stops around Thanksgiving and doesn’t start up again until late February. But ground work at places like the airport continues year-round.
S-R: What’s your biggest building?
Katzer: The (288-foot-tall) Bank of America tower. It takes a crew of five about four days, and we clean it twice a year.
S-R: What jobs are hardest?
Katzer: The most physically demanding ones are like the Paulsen Center, which has 9-foot overhangs. Once we drop down from the roof, we have to swing in and clip onto little anchors. Other jobs may require so much setup that one person might spend four hours cleaning eight windows.
S-R: High-rise window cleaning looks dangerous. Is it?
Katzer: It is if you don’t do what you’re supposed to. But based on the Department of Labor and Industry’s experience rating, we’re a very safe industry.
S-R: What’s the typical reaction when someone discovers what you do for a living?
Katzer: They say, “You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to do that.” For most people, this would be a scary job. But those of us who do it like it.
S-R: What unusual things have you observed from outside high-rises?
Katzer: Once I saw someone in an office playing solitaire, and cheating.
S-R: What challenges lie ahead?
Katzer: Transferring the company to the next generation. I brought Michael into the office about a year-and-a-half ago and gave him five years to decide if he wants to stay with this. I hope he does.
S-R: Will you be ready to hang up your squeegee then?
Katzer: Maybe my squeegee, but I won’t stop working. There are too many things I enjoy doing. I recently added rooftop flagpole repair to our range of services. Last year, we put a new, 50-foot flagpole on top of the Paulsen Center.
S-R: Do you clean windows at home?
S-R: How often?
Katzer: Probably between 12 and 20 times a year. Some get cleaned upward to 50 times a year, because we recently moved into a home with beautiful views, and I want to keep the views beautiful.
S-R: Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
Katzer: At one time, my goal was to be an architect. I enjoyed drafting in high school and planned to go on to Cal Poly’s school of architecture after finishing my degree in Pasadena. My lack of artistic talent pretty much put a kibosh on that dream. Instead, I get to curse architects for failing to consider the needs of window cleaners. (laugh)
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at email@example.com.