Making the Skyline Shine

It's difficult to think of an occupation where getting high on the job is acceptable, much less a requirement. But that is the case for employees of Grand Rapids-based Award Window Cleaning Services, Inc. — strictly in the literal sense, of course.

Mark S. Reinhart, Award founder and sales manager, watches his book of business grow with each addition to the Grand Rapids skyline. He is responsible for keeping the hard-to-reach windows on structures such as Bridgewater Place, DeVos Place, and the new JW Marriott hotel glistening on the horizon. When he ventured into the field, little did he know what an important role it would become.

“I loved cleaning windows from the minute I got started,” said Reinhart. “I never saw the growth coming.”

Reinhart discovered his calling in 1983 on the facilities team of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. While dangling outside the 30th floor of what was then Grand Rapids’ tallest structure, hooked to a line, Reinhart became, well, hooked. Window washing appealed to his desire to be outdoors while harnessing his maintenance proficiency. Twenty-five years and many, many buckets of soapy water later, the hotel is one of Award’s oldest customers.

Every occupation has its quirks, but those of being a window cleaner differ from the foibles of most jobs. For one thing, looking in people’s windows sometimes can’t be helped. For another, you’re always on stage.

“Everybody’s looking at you because you’re dangling from a rope 20 stories up,” says Award Safety Coordinator Mark Reinhart II, the second-generation of Reinharts in the window cleaning business.

While employees are washing, tenants are inside conducting business, often in suits and ties. As such, the company emphasizes professionalism. Workers are in uniform and doing what they can to make a good impression.

Washers don’t try to see inside buildings while wiping the windows clean, and facilities generally alert staff and visitors before a scheduled washing, but still — things happen. Washers have seen women’s phone numbers — and body parts —pressed against windows. Then there was the larger gentleman who, despite his awareness of the man outside, lounged blithely in a brightly-lit hotel room — in the buff.

“[The employee] cleaned that window the fastest he had ever cleaned,” says Reinhart, Sr.

So if the stage is a board with a bucket and squeegee, the audience is everyone, inside and out. And this audience is not averse to joking with — and sometimes heckling — the actors. They’ve seen and heard everything from knocks on the windows to the classic ‘You missed a spot!’ and ‘Hey, can you get my car windows?’

For car window requests, Reinhart II shouts down a quote of $20. So far, no one has taken the deal.

There are other, more serious questions the Reinharts hear on and off the buildings.

“Everyone wants to know: ‘what’s your secret?’” says Reinhart, Sr.

They are seeking the brand name of some miracle cleanser or product, but there is no secret. Just a good tool: the squeegee. In fact, Reinhart has used hand soap from a bathroom when he has run out of his own soap and still ended up with sparkling windows.

“The real trick is not to drink too much coffee,” he jokes.

Thrill-seekers need not apply
For much of its existence, the company has operated in an industry with no formal safety protocol, with the International Window Cleaning Association only recently drafting a set of safety standards. Reinhart II has been washing windows for his dad since he was 14 and officially went to work for him at 18, but his zeal for the industry didn’t emerge until he attended a 2000 IWCA conference.

"The IWCA convention was definitely an eye-opener," he says. "We realized that there were so many things we were doing wrong. There were so many changes we had to make."

Since that conference, Award has developed a written training program and implemented monthly safety meetings, while growing from a five-employees to an 18. Reinhart II attributes the growth, in part, to lessons learned at the IWCA convention.

So who are these people that want to rappel down the sides of skyscrapers, secured by a 7/16-inch work line and a half-inch safety line, all to make the view a little nicer? They’re not necessarily the same high-risk folks going skydiving and cliff diving. When job applicants come to an interview and play up their bungee-jumping and hang-gliding experience, "We don't want them,” says the younger Reinhart, “not to say they wouldn't be good, but that's not who we are looking for.

“We want them to be a little afraid. I'm afraid, too.”

It’s the fear, he says that makes them respect the calculated risks they take every day and ultimately, makes them safer. If someone gets spooked while in the air — for whatever reason — Award has the employee do something else that day or simply head home. Everyone has days like that, they say, and keeping a washer outside could compromise safety.

To keep the wheels of fear from turning, the safety coordinator turns on his iPod and avoids looking up, which, he says, is worse than looking down. Remembering that, statistically, it’s more dangerous to drive a car down the road than to wash the windows of a tall building provides a measure of comfort, too.

Awash in work
When watching a big building go up, most of us don’t think about how the windows will get clean.

“Most architects don’t either,” asserts the younger Reinhart.

But more and more, architects are turning to Award for advice on how to incorporate window-cleaning efficiencies during the design phase, saving property owners hassle and cost down the road.

There also are opportunities to use window washer expertise for the greater good. Reinhart’s staff was on hand for the highly publicized River House for the Michigan Community Blood Centers earlier this month, assisting the $1,000-a-head donors and an assortment of media types on their descent.

The Reinharts also see their work as a small measure of community service on day-to-day basis as well. It is their company’s job to keep the city skyline clean and beautiful.

“There is a high level of satisfaction in knowing that you provide a clear view for anyone who has to look through that window,” says Reinhart, Sr. “ When you’re done and you look at the result, you feel like you’ve accomplished something.”

And as long as there are big buildings with windows, there will be a need for someone like the Reinharts to clean them.

“It’s a great occupation,” adds the owner. “There’s no other job like it.”

Bridie Kent, a freelance writer, has lived in Grand Rapids since graduating from Aquinas College in ‘03. She also works for the Kent County Health Department. She last wrote for Rapid Growth about pedicabs in Grand Rapids.


Mark Sr. and Mark Reinhart

A crew of 5 rappels down the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel roof

Mark Reinhart Sr. sees many new potential clients along the Medical Mile

Mark Reinhart Jr.

Crews beginning the descent

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

Brian Kelly is a commercial photographer and owner of The Photography Room. He has been Rapid Growth's managing photographer since it was launched in April of 2006. 

You can follow his photography adventures on his blog here.

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