Never in a million years did Datuk Radzali Hassan think he would end up in the cleaning and maintenance business.
“Growing up, my ambition was always to be a pilot,” he says with a hearty laugh. “But I came from an average family, it was too costly for me to learn flying.”
The Chairman and Managing Director of Harta Maintenance Sdn Bhd did, however, receive a government scholarship to study in the United Kingdom, where he worked part time as a cleaner.
“When I came back my brother, who was already in the maintenance business, asked me to help him out.”
“Although there is a stigma surrounding cleaning, I saw the opportunity to expand the business.”
Personal Touch Sets Harta Maintenance Apart
Radzali - and a few friends - set out on their own to start Harta Maintenance in 1980, a time Malaysia was experiencing unprecedented growth rate, where skyscrapers were starting to lit the Kuala Lumpur skyline.
“To me, this is a recession-proof business. Everything needs cleaning. Toilets need cleaning,” says Radzali.“People don’t want to do these ‘dirty jobs’ but that’s where the money is.”
People don’t want to do these ‘dirty jobs’ but that's where the money is
“The first three years were very tough, not only because of money (cash flow), clients see us as a couple of young guys running the business. Are they reliable? Are they trustworthy?” Radzali reminisces the early years of Harta Maintenance.
“But we proved that we are committed and we built our reputation.”
Over forty years, Harta Maintenance has evolved from being ‘just a cleaner’ to an integrated facility management service company, providing services from housekeeping and landscaping to facility and indoor air quality management.
In recent years, to stay ahead of competition, the group also ventured into value-added services such as energy and asset management.
The company, based in Batu Caves, provide services to office buildings, hospitals and shopping malls, including Mid Valley Megamall.
In 2012, the group developed a ‘on the move’ cleaning services (which it had franchised) called Harta Rovers to undertake small scale cleaning jobs, including carpets and curtains.
Stay Focused, Build Your Reputation
The challenges in running a cleaning and maintenance business, are very different compared to before, says Radzali.
“When we started, manpower was not an issue. If you needed ten people, 100 would come for the interview. There were also less competition back then,” says Radzali.
Despite the advancement in technology that allows for the company to automate some of its services, Harta Maintenance employs about 4000 staff with 80 percent comprising foreign workers.
Social stigma associated with cleaning services makes it difficult to hire local employees, says Radzali.
“Our first choice is to hire locals. In fact, it is more costly for us to hire foreigners.”
“With our migrant workers, we spend RM2000 to RM5000 in two to three years to train them. What happens after? They leave to other countries like Singapore, whereby with their training, they get paid higher.”
“Locals, meanwhile, prefer to work in hotels or factories. They have a lot of choices,” he explains.
Radzali says the industry will move up the value chain if there is a collective effort to raise the standards of the cleaning industry, and to do so, the first step is improving the overall cleanliness of the country.
“If you look at developed nations like Singapore, Japan or South Korea, they depend a lot on local resources. The cleaners are also paid well.”
“I would say that being a developed nation means cleanliness is given top priority - our rivers, drains and surrounding must be clean.”
“The business today has been very professionalised. My desire is to create a cultural mindset whereby people see cleaning and maintenance as a lifestyle,” says Radzali. “But how do I change the mindset? And how do we tell people that hygiene as a way of life is very important?”
Making Cleanliness A Culture
He also laments that Malaysians care less about cleanliness than before.
“Culture is the most important thing. I still remember, as a kid, we were much cleaner in the kampung. So, where did we go wrong?,” he asks.
“For instance, when you go to a five star hotel, you are careful (about cleanliness). But if you go to a public toilet, you see rubbish, you add more rubbish.”
“To keep a place clean, it’s not only a cleaner’s job. It is engagement between the owners (of the building) and the users,” Radzali emphasises. “Everybody’s got to play their part.”