A year before the Great Recession, Shannon Jefferson was already on the back end of her second layoff.
“I was sitting in the (United Migrant Opportunity Services) job center, kind of with my hat low, not embarrassed but heartbroken about not being able to be working, looking on Wisc.jobs.com,” Jefferson said.
A veteran of corporate culture, she had recently started cleaning houses and began wondering if she could do more. When she saw a carpet cleaner doing a walk-through of the building, Jefferson took a chance and asked about work.
The next day, she was cleaning the UMOS day care center.
“That was my very first commercial cleaning contract,” Jefferson said.
Ten years later, Jefferson has gone from having a one-woman residential-cleaning company start-up to becoming an established entrepreneur with a growing roster of clients for final construction cleaning.
Looking back, it was almost inevitable.
“I am an entrepreneur in my soul,” said Jefferson, CEO of Gibraltar Industries in Milwaukee. “If you took me to the South Pole, I would figure out a business.”
But, after her corporate background at companies like Rockwell, Jefferson admitted cleaning wasn’t at the top of her list.
“It kind of picked me,” said Jefferson, a single mom with three sons, who began cleaning houses to help her own sick mother.
“I realized that I enjoyed cleaning. It brought me a certain amount of peace. I didn’t have to report to anyone. I enjoyed it the solitude of it and the instant gratification of, ‘This was not clean when I got here and, now, it is.’ That ended up kind of catapulting me.”
Through 2010, Jefferson concentrated primarily on cleaning houses and maintaining apartments.
But a successful bid to prepare four new Super Targets for their grand openings gave her an entrée into final construction cleaning.
It has since become Gibraltar’s specialty, even if many in the industry still need to be reminded such services exist.
“I feel like we are the forgotten jewel,” Jefferson said, “like project managers and the construction team are so inundated with the construction design and the fixtures and the landscaping, the forget about the cleaning. Then, once they get this beautiful thing built, they’re like, ‘Oh my god! I can’t deliver this to my customer.’”
Cue Jefferson and her team of seven (sometimes up to 20, depending on the project), who power wash and green clean to make new builds move-in ready.
The results often speak for themselves, but winning work still isn’t easy.
“Getting in the door, into the right doors — and not being raked over the coals because you are a small woman-owned, minority company – is hard. Doing the work is super, super easy; the work is so easy. It’s so fun. It’s awesome. I love going into big projects. But getting in contact with a project manager and getting him to give us a chance when there’s this stigma – that’s the issue.”
It’s also the secret to her success.
“Life, I feel, gives you these great valuable lessons,” Jefferson said. “Some people call them pain, but the downturns I have experienced, not only in life but also in business, have built the character that I have and the resilience that I have. And it has helped build our company culture.”
For Jefferson, that means thinking big, despite her humble start.
“A lot of companies fold because people can’t see the direction of the organization,” she said. “So, when I decided I’d go into Gibraltar Industries, I never thought of it as a mom and pop. I always thought of it as a global operation. Getting there is going to take a while, but I never thought of it as a small thing.”
The Daily Reporter: What surprises you most about your work?
Shannon Jefferson: That it’s never the same. No day here is ever the same in the last 10 years.
TDR: What would you change about the construction industry?
Jefferson: I wish that I could change the racial disparities in the construction industry. I would also love to see larger firms mentor smaller firms. You can’t build a great city excluding anyone. It won’t work. You can’t marginalize groups of people and give them nothing and think that you’re going to have a great city. But it’s still happening around us. And I get it. You just want to build it and have the people in our community serve hot dogs for $7.25 an hour, but you would exclude me from doing the work not because I’m not qualified but because you can.
TDR: What other job did you consider trying?
Jefferson: If I could do anything, I would be Samantha Brown from the Travel Channel.
TDR: What profession would you not like to explore?
Jefferson: I don’t know. I would probably say a police officer because it is such a tough job. But I wouldn’t want to be a doctor or a nurse either. I couldn’t do that. I’d be like, ‘Oh my gosh! She’s gagging! What am I supposed to do? Oh my God! She’s bleeding!’ I’d be crying. I could clean medical facilities, which we do. But I could never operate. I’d be 10 seconds from passing out.
TDR: What’s the last movie you saw?
Jefferson: Woohoo! “Guardians of the Galaxy.” It was awesome!
TDR: What would you never wear?
Jefferson: Probably I would never wear a two-piece bathing suit. Ever.
TDR: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Jefferson: The fact that I wear my emotions on my sleeve. Like, if I’m angry about something, you’ll know it; I can’t mask or fake feelings. So, if I like you or I love you, it’s genuine; it’s not pretend because I don’t know how to do that. If I don’t like you, you’ll probably know it.
TDR: What would your colleagues be surprised to find out about you?
Jefferson: That I like rap music. I listen to loud rap music before board meetings. I like southern rap, so like TI, some Lil Wayne. And that I love to dance and sing karaoke. I love it. It’s a stress relief.