Cleaning House

Universal Building Maintenance's president, Mark Olivas, shares why it pays to roll up your sleeves and learn by doing

“I wasn’t unhappy, but a new opportunity presented itself, and it seemed right.”—Mark Olivas, President, Universal Building Maintenance

There are two ways to become a business professional. The first is to read the right books, get the right college degree, and find somewhere to land. The second is to “work your way up,” and learn by doing. Both options have their positives and negatives, but for Mark Olivas, learning by doing was—and is—the best route. He got his start in the US Army, and now he’s the president of Universal Building Maintenance—so who can argue?

At the age of 17, Olivas joined up with the US Army in 1984 and served on active duty until 1991, then joining the ranks of active reserves until 1993. During his stint in the military, Olivas spent time with the 101st Airborne Division in the 501st Signal Battalion, later being stationed in various posts nationally and internationally. “I was in communications, and I was always supporting front-line troops—that was my job,” Olivas says. “I’ve been through several management classes in the civilian world, but while I was in the military, I learned a lot of the skills I use now.” Olivas further augmented his education in the military with college extension courses that would help advance his career.

“When I finally decided that it was time to come home, I thought I would be able to get a job with the phone company,” Olivas explains. “Little did I know, it was a bad time to find a job in the industry.” Fresh out of the Army, Olivas had returned home to a newly deregulated telecommunications industry, so he quickly picked up a job with a cable company. And after a few short months with the cable company, Olivas got a phone call from a friend offering him a new position—in the janitorial business. “It doesn’t happen often, but I was literally given a call and offered the opportunity to become a night supervisor, overseeing around 30 accounts per night,” Olivas says. He said yes.

The company Olivas was with—then known as Commercial Building Maintenance (CMB)—was a major player in the southern California property maintenance scene. CBM was acquired by ISS, a international facility service company founded in Denmark in 1901 (which currently employs more than 530,000 worldwide), and soon began a large chain of promotions with increasing responsibility. “In 1992, I became a project manager for two high-rise buildings totaling around one million square feet, and two years later, I became the project manager for the tallest building in LA,” Olivas says.

“When I was promoted to operations manager for ISS in 1996, I was overseeing the entire LA high-rise portfolio which consisted of more than 11 million square feet, and I was overseeing around 300 employees,” Olivas says. By 1998, he was then promoted to branch manager for the region, doubling his square footage oversight. Though Olivas was then completely out of the military, the direct application of the skills he acquired was being both utilized and developed as his career matured.

ISS sold its acquisition in 2001 and the company Olivas worked with then became OneSource, then a union company, and for a brief window of time, Olivas left to try and start his own nonunion maintenance business, though he wasn’t quite satisfied working with small properties and wanted to return for the increased square footage oversight. In 2001, he became a senior branch manager, and in 2003, he became the vice president of operations for southern California, overseeing $80 million in revenue and covering all properties from LA to San Diego.

Universal Services of America was founded in 1965, offering Security Guard Services and solutions for various properties throughout the West Coast. In 2008, the company reopened its janitorial arm after seeing the consolidation of janitorial companies on the West Coast. That’s where Olivas came in. “Universal was everywhere, but they asked me if I was interested in becoming president of their janitorial division, and after a five day conversation, we had a new company up and running,” Olivas says. “We started with nothing, but recruited a team, and set out to gain market share in southern California.” The company now manages nearly 60 million square feet with 2,300 employees, and aims to hit $100 million in revenue in five years.

“I was overseeing everything from Washington to California, where there was around $160 million in revenue and 7,500 employees,” Olivas says. And then in 2007, another large janitorial company acquired OneSource, which is when Olivas realized that he wanted to move on. “I wasn’t unhappy, but a new opportunity presented itself, and it seemed right,” he says.

“Every day is a new challenge for me, and that’s why I enjoy this job,” Olivas says. “I can’t imagine doing anything different, as long as I continue to have the support of Lorraine, my best friend of 33 years and fiancé, and our children.”