Cleaning In The Middle East

Cleaning In The Middle East

I hope this article, which offers a different aspect of conditions in our profession, will be of interest to you. It is from the point of view of someone living and working in the Middle Eastern country of Israel. Israel is a country of great contrasts. On one hand, many of the cleaning situations I have to deal with here seem somewhat “old world” in nature. On the other hand, Israel arguably has the most advanced Hi-Tech Industry outside of the US. I am operating my business in a country that is, at times literally a “war zone”.

My History In England

First, let me give you a little background history as to how a guy from the North of England ended up running a cleaning business in the North of Israel. It has been a combination of consciously made decisions together with blind circumstances pushing me in a given direction.

In England, I lived in Liverpool (of Beatles and soccer fame). I entered the carpet cleaning trade by a very round about way. A partner and I owned four small retail clothing stores. All of them were fully carpeted. So, my partner and I decided that it was worthwhile buying a small hot water extractor for us to clean the carpets with on a regular basis (today, of course, I think, “Thank goodness not too many other business owners (which are now my potential clients) feel that way too!”) We bought a small orange Trewax single motor extractor. The people who sold us the machine also offered a training course. So my partner and I flipped a coin and chance chose me to become “The Expert”.

I often think it is very strange how one’s future path can be ordained by something as mundane as to which side a circular piece of metal (a coin) falls.

As the retail business declined due to a recession in the United Kingdom economy, we looked for extra things to supplement our dwindling incomes. We concluded that it was a shame to have the carpet extractor sitting idle for three and a half weeks out of four and that we should put it to profitable use cleaning rugs for other people. Looking back, I am embarrassed to say how little we really knew about the technical side of carpet cleaning at that time, and even now, I am still learning so much.

The recession bit deeper and the Stores bit the proverbial “dust”. The cleaning side was still only a sideline so it was not yet profitable enough to support one family (never mind two). My wife Avril and I had always loved the sun and outdoor life, so we decided to take our fledgling family (two boys: Jason, 7 years old and Daniel, 2 years old at the time) to live in the city of Haifa in the north of Israel.

My History In Israel

I knew that I had had enough of retailing for two lifetimes and so even before we
emigrated, I had settled on the idea of maybe doing carpet cleaning out there. Shortly
after we arrived in Israel, I found out almost immediately how totally different many
things here were from England.

First of all, inflation in the UK was regarded as being high at nine percent. In Israel,
inflation was at an incredible rate of ONE THOUSAND PERCENT !! Can you can imagine trying to do business in a market where inflation was nearly one hundred percent per month? All prices where quoted in US Dollars and only exchanged to Shekels on the day of payment (in theory, anyway). I learned a lot of hard arithmetic and business lessons in those days. If you received your money even only a week late, it would lose twenty five percent of its value!

Today, I am pleased to say that inflation in Israel is more or less the same as it is in the United States or Europe.

The other main difference was that in Britain almost every home office and shop had
wall-to-wall carpeting throughout. In Israel at that time most homes had small area rugs
that were sent to the dry cleaners for cleaning and offices and shops where usually tiled.

I met an Irish guy who was doing commercial window cleaning in the center of the country and so added this as well to my list of services. Having somebody on a regular basis to clean windows was almost an “unknown thing” so I had to first sell the basic concept before I sold myself. Furthermore, my Hebrew was so poor at that stage that very often unless there was a “yes” or “no” in their answer, it was difficult to tell whether I had gotten the job or not.

Chance meetings with two fellow Englishmen helped to push me and my business forward.

The first one was with Tony Conroy who was head of the Cleaning and Maintenance Department for The Bahai World Center. The Bahai Religion is a world religion based in Haifa and they are a fascinating group of people. Anybody interested in reading about these people check out their web site at:

Tony’s cleaning responsibilities ranged from antiquities to toilets and most stops in
between! He had a team of janitors who where composed of mainly volunteers who would stay with him for a maximum of one year. With only a few permanent staff members, he had to constantly retrain people. Amongst the Bahais collection of beautiful oriental carpets where some so delicate and valuable that when they required cleaning, they were sent to a company in France where they were placed over special racks and painstakingly cleaned “square inch by square inch” by girls using small camel hair brushes.

As this was pre-Internet days, Tony became my mentor and only true source of professional advice and information, as well as a close friend. He helped me out of more scrapes than I can count and I owe him a debt that can never be fully repaid.

The other fellow countryman who had a major influence on my progress, I met as I was moving (window cleaning pail in hand) up an escalator in a shopping mall. He was the manager of several branches in a nationwide chain of pharmacy stores. After cleaning his windows on a regular basis for a few months, he complained to me about the trouble he was having with his hard floor cleaning contractor.

I decided to take a gamble based on nothing but hope. There are no training schools in Israel for hard surface cleaning so I flew back to England and did a hard floor training course. I also read a lot of books and articles and drove Tony crazy with my questions.

Armed with a head filled with theory and with nearly zero practical experience, I drafted a “floor cleaning and polishing program” for the pharmacy company and was given one store to do. I will not bore you with the ups and downs of our initial problems of how theory and practice do not always match, but after a number of years we are now doing most of their stores in our area. Furthermore, over the years, wall-to-wall carpeting has become more popular in Israel and so we are starting to market our carpet cleaning services and are hopeful that we can attract a reasonable sized group of clientele.

My little company has grown now to include my eldest son, Jason who joined the firm after he finished his regular Army service and is now Works Manager. My wife, Avril, handles the accounting. They have helped greatly to not only advance the company, but to also raise the standard of our work considerably. I also have 8 or 9 part-time employees.

The Cleaning Industry

In Israel As I said at the beginning of this article, Israel, due to its history, geographical location, and population mix is an intriguing, annoying, tiring but never boring country. The main problem of working in the “field of cleaning” in Israel is the lack of availability of many basic items. For example, only black, red, and white floor buffing pads are available. If you ask for green pads, you are looked at blankly and asked why black or red are not suitable? I often find it frustrating to read on one of the forums I subscribe to about this or that chemical or tool that would suit me perfectly just to find it does not exist here. Part of the problem is the size of Israel’s population or rather, lack of it (approximately five million). An even bigger problem is the lack of professional education. This is not only true of the staff working where the “rubber hits the road” but also of the local distributors.

I often find that I know more about the use of a certain item than the folks selling it. It is not about my superb knowledge but rather their lack of it. It is a perfect example of the saying ” In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king”. As far as I know, there are no truck-mounted carpet cleaning systems here. Whether this has to do with the very high number of apartment dwellers, I do not know. I personally use a combination of extraction and spin bonnet cleaning. Our vacuum cleaner is a Holloway Power Brush. The majority of wall-to-wall carpeting here is glued down to the floors due to the fact that most floors are either tiled or made of concrete.

They have an interesting method here of getting the large quantities of dust and sand out of area rugs. They turn them over for a few days and the process of people walking over the back vibrates the grit and sand to the floor. I have adopted this method as well by vacuuming the back sometimes ten or twelve times. The amount of dust and sand that comes out can be incredible.

While the greater part of our work is fairly routine, we have had some “out of the ordinary” circumstances, like for instance, what happened during the Gulf War. As most of Sadam Hussein’s rocket attacks occurred during the evenings, we were advised to finish working by five in the afternoon. Furthermore, because of the threat of chemical warfare, every home had what was called a “sealed” room. On one particular occasion, I lost track of time and suddenly the air raid sirens started and I found myself in the sealed room with these total strangers!

We also clean the carpets for The American Sixth Fleet when it is in port. It is usually the Captain’s quarters and Officers mess that are carpeted and though they are usually not very big jobs, they are a welcome break from the routine.

Hopefully this has given you some idea of the working conditions out here. When I first came here, I wrote back to friend of mine in England that the standard equipment for cleaning floors was an old squeegee and floor cloth and that the state-of-the-art equipment was a “new” squeegee and floor cloth! :o)

Though things may have not changed as fast as I would have hoped for, there are small signs of progress. As an English speaker, I am lucky to be able to tap into the vast resources of the Internet. However, I believe that the best way forward is for the client to be educated in what is feasible and make this choice rather than them employing the services of a contractor who is satisfied to stay with the “low level” status of his service. If this “client education” can be accomplished, we will really start to see major progress here.

Anyone with questions, suggestions, or comments can contact me at: Harvey Fish