Business skills programs give inmates a second chance at life.

Illustrated by: Jimmy Grochowski

About a year ago, I received a book order for 30 books from Corrections Corporation of America. Hmm. I wondered about that. Then, I got busy and forgot about it.

Recently, I received another order from Corrections Corporation of America - for another 30 books. This time, I followed my curiosity and called the phone number on the order form.

I found out the order was placed by Randy Mackenzie.

Dan Holohan once told me, “You can’t make up anything as good as real life. That’s where the great stories come from.”

Settle in and I’ll tell you a great story. It’s about Randy and the students of his commercial cleaning class.

Once upon a time, Randy was a restaurant owner. He and his partner owned a chicken sandwich business, a Chik-Fil-A competitor. As often happens with partners, they had a difference of opinion when it came to the vision of the business. They parted ways - amicably - and closed the restaurant.

About that time, 10 years ago, Randy noticed an advertisement in a cleaning magazine for a pressure washer. Randy and his wife Shirley started a new business, specializing in cleaning restaurants and drive-through banking facilities. The company is called Multi Cleaning Service Co. It’s based in Holdenville, Okla.

Randy and Shirley enjoy working together and she is particularly good at jobsite preparation. Randy does the accounting and the administrative work. Like most of us, he learned these skills at the school of hard knocks. Owning a couple of businesses will teach you a few things, if you are paying attention.

Randy is 64 years young and he is building a pretty cool business. He and Shirley work all over the state. Their intention is to grow to serve 100 banking establishments on a monthly service plan. He knows he is going to need some good people to help him do it. And he thinks he’s found some of them.

There is a medium-to-maximum security prison near Holdenville, owned by Corrections Corporation of American. The prison offers educational opportunities to the inmates. When they decided to add a commercial cleaning class, they found Randy and asked if he would teach it.

Randy agreed and started teaching technical cleaning skills to his students. He found out right away that most of these guys know how to clean.

Randy said, “I was supposed to teach them how to buff a floor. There were a few guys in my class who could work a floor with a buffer in each hand. The problem was that once they got out, they might find a job cleaning floors. But, a minimum wage job is not going to cut it. They can’t survive or provide for their families with that kind of job. So, I started teaching them what I knew about business.”

Randy teaches technical cleaning skills. He also teaches business basics. He found my Web site in a trade magazine and that’s how he found my books. He uses them to teach the guys how to read financial reports, how to come up with a selling price and how to put a business plan together.

“I ask the guys to do a mental inventory of the skills they have and we look at ways that they could make a business out of that. At first, some of them struggle with this exercise. One fellow said he didn’t have any marketable skills. I kept after him. Everybody knows something that is of value to somebody else.

“All of a sudden, his eyes lit up. He knew how to make really nice mailboxes. He had worked for a guy who contracted with people who owned multimillion dollar homes. They constructed high-end mailboxes to match the architectural design of the homes. His boss charged a lot of money to do that. He realized he could do that for himself.”

Nontraditional School

I asked Randy if he ever felt threatened in his class. After all, it is not a typical vo-tech training environment.

“Sometimes the practical exercises get a little tense. To learn how to wash windows, you have to go wash windows. When we are out in the yard together, the officers have to deal with an out-of-the-ordinary gathering of inmates. It puts them on edge. I understand the need for security, but I know that we need real cleaning situations if these guys are going to get a practical education.

“In class, we have two rules. One is you have to stay in your seat. The other is you can’t touch anybody. Other than that, anything goes. These guys are tough on one another. That’s OK. When I introduce the financial lessons, we start out easy and keep after it. We work on the exercises and we learn together.”

Randy is passionate about his students - and about business. “I have a lot of ideas and I mean to get them done. In two years, I would like to expand into a commercial building. In class, we are learning about an idea I call ‘Golden Handcuffs.’ Find one bank, and secure the monthly cleaning plan, then expand to another unit.

“I would like to work with some of these guys as business partners. We could share the responsibility of the building and each man could build his own clientele and pay off his share of the expenses and his truck. We’re calling this business Multi Cleaning Services.”

What about his superiors? Randy was hired to teach tech skills. How does the warden feel about this class and his expanded curriculum?

“The warden is a good man. Security is his priority. He also believes that some of these guys deserve a shot at rehabilitation.

“To that end, I also include survival training in our commercial cleaning class.”

Really? I asked Randy to expand on that.

“For many of them, getting out of prison can be a big challenge. What are they going to do that first day, the first 24 hours, so that they don’t get into trouble? If you don’t have a support system - a loving family, friends who will help you - your options are pretty limited.

“So, I teach them how to wash windows, in a professional way. When they get out, they can make it through the first 24 hours if they get themselves a motel room so they have a place to sleep that night. Next, go to Wal-Mart. Buy a bucket, a squeegee, a scrubber and a small bottle of Joy liquid detergent. Then, go offer their window washing services to someone. Make some money and you can buy yourself a steak dinner and pay for your motel room for the next night.

“One of our inmates did this and his first week out he made $1,200. That got him going. Now he and his wife have a power washing company and are pretty proud of what they have accomplished.

“Once they survive the first day, the first week, their chances of staying out of prison improve. It isn’t just about surviving, either. In class, we listen to Dale Carnegie, Steven Covey, Zig Ziglar and other motivational speakers. We practice sales techniques. I want these guys to thrive in their lives outside of prison.

“I like that exercise in The Bare Bones Biz Plan about creating your ‘perfect day.’ It helps them to imagine a better life, one without drama. One where they can make a living and enjoy life, enjoy their family.” When Randy told me this, I got a lump in my throat. If I have had a prouder moment in my professional career, I can’t recall it.

Hiring Convicts?

Even in the best of circumstances, business isn’t for everyone. What other options do his students have? I told Randy that many of my readers struggle with finding good people to come work for them. There are high-paying jobs waiting for “right stuff” guys in professional contracting companies. However, is hiring a convict a good idea?

“Drugs, addiction, these are the big problems. We talk about this in class. I asked the guys to come up with guidelines for hiring someone with a criminal record. They came up with a really strict policy.

“They recommended drug testing upon hiring and frequent surprise drug tests. If you want to stay clean, you can’t work around people who are doing drugs. A zero tolerance policy is good business. They also included indicators that would let a boss know when an employee was slipping: coming in late, looking sloppy, missing work.

“Also, if you are considering hiring someone with a record, call their references from prison. I will tell people straight up what I think about one of our inmates and how great a risk he poses to an employer. Or what a good employee he could be.”

I have been in the contracting industry a long time. I have heard all kinds of stories. Stories about service techs who have stolen from customers. Stories of techs who have downed pills from a customer’s medicine cabinet. Stories of rape and murder. Most of these stories are about guys who passed a background check and had never been arrested.

Sending one of your employees into a customer’s home is a risky proposition. Many business owners just don’t think about this, or close their eyes to some pretty serious clues of misbehavior.

Most inmates were getting away with it - until they didn’t. At your company, with your employees, how do you know what is going on during each and every service call? You just don’t.

Hiring someone with a record may not be a good move for you. However, lots of people make mistakes. They hang out with the wrong people, get caught up in drugs, make poor choices and sometimes they get caught. Some who go to prison end up worse for the experience. And some use their time to plan a better future.

Look in your own heart. Ask if you haven’t avoided being arrested at some point in your life by a lucky break or by someone who had your best interests at heart and gave you another chance. There are folks in this world who need to be isolated, to protect themselves and others. And there are folks who deserve the opportunity to make amends and start fresh.

Those folks are well-served to have Randy Mackenzie as their mentor.

Note: I am so proud that my books are part of the commercial cleaning curriculum. I have asked to visit and sit in on a class. I know I will learn something. Stay tuned ...