TAMPA — Back in 1995, an apartment dweller named Mike Ferris was taking his garbage to a compactor when it started to leak all over. This is not good, Ferris thought.
He pitched an apartment management company on a new service: Let tenants leave their garbage bags by their doors each night and someone else pick them up and cart them away.
"And the rest is history,'' says Shawn Handrahan, CEO of Tampa-based Valet Living. "It was a genius idea.''
Originally called Valet Trash, for the first service it provided, Valet Living now does pet walking, apartment cleaning, grocery delivery and many other chores for which busy renters today often lack the time. A decade ago, it serviced 130,000 housing units; today, that number is 1.3 million. In the Tampa Bay area alone, Valet Living is in more than 170 apartment communities, including the Hermitage and Cottonwood Bayview in downtown St. Petersburg and the Aurora and 2 Bayshore in Tampa.
Revenues are an impressive $200 million a year.
Handrahan attributes the company's phenomenal growth to both the quality of service it provides — ''if we put your groceries in the refrigerator, all the labels are facing out" — and the emphasis on hiring and retaining good employees.
"Our people make the company; I'm the least important person here,'' says Handrahan, whose company ranked among Tampa Bay's Top Workplaces this year for the third consecutive year.
Handrahan, who joined Valet Living in 2012 after it was bought by a private equity firm, quickly realized that employee morale would improve with a move from the dark, dreary building in which the company was then based. Valet Living now takes up the entire seventh floor of the Wells Fargo Center where most in-house employees — though not Handrahan — have stunning views from their light, airy offices.
At least once and often twice a week, the company provides bagels, fruit and other complimentary treats in a break room overlooking the Hillsborough River. An ''anniversary'' board shows the dates that employees started with the company. A foosball table invites impromptu tourneys.
With more than 6,000 employees in 43 states, Valet Living keeps in touch with everyone through a social media platform called Workplace by Facebook. People can post photos, swap ideas, shares stories and company news.
"It helps us connect to all of our associates,'' says public relations director Nikita Bhappu, who's from Texas (but fell in love with the Tampa Bay area when, in her first job out of college, she drove an Oscar Mayer Wienermobile across the Sunshine Skyway bridge.) "The CEO (Handrahan) is super active on this page. He'll be the first one to say, 'Welcome to the family.' ''
Since Valet Living began using Workplace, the company's attrition rate has dropped sharply.
Employees — Valet Living calls them "associates'' — participate in local charitable events such as the St. Jude Walk to end childhood cancer. After Hurricane Harvey in 2017, they raised $40,000 that was matched by the company.
The bulk of Valet Living's business is still trash pickup, done five nights a week between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. by part-time "service valets.'' They must pass background checks, have good driving records and be able to lift at least 50 pounds. The hours make it ideal for people like Dean Alcover, 34.
Alcover had a full-time assembly job with a military contractor when a co-worker referred him to Valet Living.
"I had just become a new homeowner and was looking to make a little money on the side,'' he said. "With four kids, it also gave me an excuse to get out of the house.''
The service valets are around so often that they almost become part of the communities they serve. Residents leave Christmas cards, tips or just stop to chat. A few years ago, a valet in Orlando noticed that an elderly woman who lived alone had failed to put out her trash two nights in a row. He alerted authorities, who discovered the woman had fallen and had not been able to call for help. On other occasions, the valets' presence has thwarted thefts and break-ins.
"We're like the modern-day milkman,'' Alcover says
Two years ago, Alcover was promoted to district manager, overseeing operations in 17 apartment communities in the Clearwater-Largo area. He is an example of Valet Living's commitment to promoting from within; 67 service valets were promoted to district manager last year, double the number in 2017.
"A lot of companies as they grow, they restrict employees,'' says Nick Choma, 39, senior regional director of operations. "We do the complete opposite — there's lots of empowerment. When we see talent and personality we like to promote.''
Handrahan, the CEO, won't give exact figures but says Valet Living pays "substantially'' above minimum wage. Even part-time employees can participate in a tuition reimbursement plan
Sharie Lesniak, 52, joined the company a little over a year ago as creative director. She was particularly impressed by the fact that Valet Living created the apartment-service category that it now dominates.
"When I walked in the door,'' she said, "you could tell by the people — it's a super innovative company.''
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.
ABOUT THE COMPANY
Valet Living provides trash pickup, pet walking and other services to apartment communities nationwide.
"It's a great challenge to do what we do. I've been put in a position where I can make a difference in my own team.''
"It's all about residents and making a difference to a community.''