They work in the evenings and often overnight; they clean kitchen floors, walls and equipment, enabling safe food preparation; they scrub the toilets and replenish soap and paper products, ensuring a hygienic environment.
You can hardly walk through the Cayman Islands Hospital without using a wall-mounted hand disinfectant.
The equipment, supplies and the labor – and the efficient, regular scheduling of service – are almost invisible. Dispensers and towels and tissues are magically restored daily; and few witnesses ever see the teams of cleaners and their equipment.
But their work allows each day’s onward press of business, and Chris Hew and Kristin Thomson quietly preside over the effort, operating two of the largest business-to-business enterprises in the Cayman Islands.
Hew’s Cleaning Services and Hew’s Hotel Restaurant Supply – the former an outgrowth of the latter, and the latter an outgrowth of the original, called Commodity Marketing – have both operated since the ‘70s.
Commodity Marketing, founded in 1973 by family patriarch Leonard Hew, was initially housed in an old wooden building opposite the Royal Bank of Canada in George Town.
As the business expanded, spinning off HHRS, which itself spun off Hew’s Janitorial Services, the headquarters moved to Industrial Park’s North Sound Road. Commodity Services actually became HHRS, and its managing director Leonard Hew’s third son, MLA and Ministry of Tourism Councilor Joey Hew, while the janitorial company changed its name to Hew’s Cleaning Services: “I was invited to get involved and we built this building about 18 years, maybe 19 years ago,” says Managing Director Chris Hew, speaking from his 335 Dorcy Drive office.
“We’ve been in business since 1976, 1977, starting with the company my father and uncle founded, supplying chemical and paper products,” he says. From the start, it was a business-to-business operation, servicing hotels, restaurants and other institutions.
In conversation, Hew still refers to the company by its old “Janitorial Service’s” name, although its shiny new multi-page, full-color website trumpets the “Cleaning Services” moniker.
“Say goodbye to dust, dirt and unwanted filth from your office space, home or business plant area. Presenting a hassle-free cleaning service that caters to your every need,” it says.
Hew himself is a little less breathless, offering details of the operation.
“Our clients are about 90 percent corporate,” he says, “and we have around 200 of them. They come and go at times, and we don’t see them all daily, but the 200 are those on daily or monthly contracts for one year or two years. We usually do five nights per week except those related to hospitals, for example, that run seven days per week.”
“We do banks, we do jewelry stores, we do a lot of larger clients. We don’t want to advertise who they might be. Some of them don’t even want us to wear our own uniforms. They want an image for their entire staff, even their entire building. Sometimes we wear something that just says ‘janitorial department.”
Thomson, however, says, “[There are] too many to count – we service the majority of restaurants and hotels, all of the hospitals and many other institutions, banks, the prison [Northward], etc., in one way or another.
“We have been involved in … commercial kitchen-equipment projects,” she says, in supply, installation and start-up phases: “Blue Cilantro, George Town Yacht Club, the Bistro, Health City Cayman Islands, the Lobster Pot fire reinstatement, Clifton Hunter High School to name a few.
“We are currently involved in the commercial laundry fit-out at the Kimpton SeaFire. We work regularly with The Ritz-Carlton, the Marriott, the Westin, Sunshine Suites, Comfort Suites, the Royal Reef, Fluff and Fold, Puritan Cleaners, the [Cayman Islands] Hospital, Chrissie Tomlinson, Eats Café, Calypso Grill, Blue Cilantro, Kaibo …”
She trails off in mid-list, saying “I do not want any of our customers to feel forgotten.”
HHRS largest job was $1.5 million, although Thomson declines to name the client. In the same breath, however, she says “the Kimpton laundry fit-out, the Health City Cayman Islands kitchen fit-out and Clifton Hunter High School” are the largest jobs she has done.
“The bulk of our business is ‘B2B,’ although we also provide installation, warranty support and service for our sister company Bon Vivant,” a Hew’s-affiliated, high-end Camana Bay kitchen-equipment showroom.
The list of services HHRS offers is daunting. “We like to say the list is endless,” says Thomson, and while she begins with what the company doesn’t do, even that isn’t quite so definitive because, well, they do some of it.
“We do not offer cleaning or laundry services – we don’t clean or wash linens. But we do support these operations.
“We specialize in the supply of paper products, hand towels, toilet tissue, etc., cleaning products/sanitation supplies, janitorial products such as mops, buckets and brooms.
“We have a dedicated service department with a team of technicians that provide equipment repairs, preventative maintenance and installation of commercial equipment – and some residential – including [industrial] kitchen equipment, commercial laundry equipment etc. Our technicians have a combined 65 years of experience and are some of the most talented in the business. We also sell commercial equipment and can do commercial kitchen design.”
Hew offers a list similar not only in scope, but also in function, overlapping HHRS at critical points, meaning the two companies will occasionally subcontract work to each other.
“Usually one or the other of us has the contract and then subcontracts the other,” Thomson interjects. “So, for example, Hew’s Cleaning Service gets a government contract to clean the schools. They may subcontract us to service the equipment in the cafeteria or vice versa. We support each other.”
The complexities of a “B2B” business also involve scheduling, when Cleaning Services and its clients have to operate simultaneously.
“Take a hotel kitchen, for example,” Hew says. “I have seen some that run 24 hours per day. We will start at 11 at night. The spas run seven days per week. With public areas, we start at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m.”
He explains that a commercial kitchen cannot be treated like a domestic kitchen. “Some of them have a barbecue grill and you have a stainless steel brush to scrape it clean. You can’t use it, though, in a commercial kitchen because metal scraps can come off. We need to be aware of safety and hygiene.
“We use a lot of chemicals and some of them, used to clean walls, can catch fire,” he says. “This isn’t just a mop-and-broom operation. We need to consider safety, health and environmental concerns and the health and safety of employees,” Hew says.
“Even cleaning products you might buy at the grocery store, you will use, say, once per week. The staff, though, are working with them eight hours and nine hours per day. That can have serious repercussions.”
Some of the solutions mitigating prolonged exposure to caustic chemicals are ingenious – and simple. “Ammonia is used to clean glass because it evaporates quickly,” Hew says. You can replace it “if you add a few drops of dish liquid into a bucket, and you get a shiny, streak-free surface.”
Similarly, a few drops of vinegar or baking soda in a wash basin cleans as well as any chemical.
Cleaning Services does not do as much private cleaning as it used to, he says, instead largely dedicating the 140 staff to larger contract work.
“We will do ‘one-off’ jobs sometimes, usually residential, but we stepped out of maid services because of all the costs involved. When we looked at it the maid service generated only about 10 percent of our income, but was 70 percent of our costs.
“We still do a little bit, though, but we had as many as 35 staff doing two clients each per day. Now we have only three staff doing about 90 minutes” at any particular job, then moving to the next.
Hew says, however, that he will not abandon the private side of the business and, in fact, is preparing a surprise: “We will launch a new service for home owners. We’ve been testing it for six months and we’re thinking about starting in November. There are a few complications with hiring though, and we may start around Christmas, maybe January.”
“B2B,” he explains, frequently overlaps with the personal and private, as on-site Cleaning Services staff encounter the owners of businesses – and even buildings – who commend Hew’s corporate work, and seek to extend the relationship from the workplace to the home.
Thomson, meanwhile, does little extra-corporate work, and the demands of HHRS’s B2B structure are entirely different from Hew’s, requiring a professional acquaintance with building standards and Planning Department regulations.
“We begin with a consultation with the client to gain a better understanding of their operational needs,” she says. “Using architectural drawings provided to us, we begin the kitchen-design portion taking into consideration not only the needs/wants of the client, but Department of Environmental Health and Building Control Unit requirements as well as our expertise.
“This process usually goes back and forth a few times until the final layout is approved by the client, at which point equipment is specified and final drawings (mechanical, electrical and plumbing) are provided. Typically, at this point the project goes out to tender for the equipment package.”
Ultimately, the “package” is supplied out of the U.S.
“We have some preventative-maintenance agreements in place where we are contracted to provide regular equipment maintenance,” Thomson says, “but otherwise our customers simply call in an order and we deliver.”
“Do we have competition?” asks Thomson. “Of course we do. Because the nature of our business and the diversity of the products we offer, we not only compete with other local businesses, but with U.S. business as well. The Internet has made the whole world a lot smaller.”
HHRS prevails, she says, because of “our commitment to our customers and our dedication to providing quality service.”
“When problems arise – and, let’s face it, there will always be problems in business – we are there to handle the issue and work with the client toward a speedy resolution. We stand behind our word, our products and our people and we do our best to make our customers feel cared about and to provide solutions to their problems, not the problems we think need solving.”
Hew points to the personal nature of his enterprise: “Each business has its own strength and its own culture. Our culture is that we are a family; our main asset is our staff.
“When we started out, we paid attention, and sometimes it was difficult, but it’s in the little details. We care. We don’t nickle-and-dime them to death. There are few opportunities for gratuities in this business, so we pay enough to support families, who can educate their children.”
He meets former staffers, he says, wherever he goes: In Florida at 3 a.m. in a Denny’s restaurant, on Facebook and Instagram, in random parking lots and sometimes when they walk through his office door.
“I’ve never been to a single country where I did not run into a former member of Hew’s Janitorial,” he says. “If you pay attention and you care for them, they will care for you.”