– Story by Tess Van Straaten Photography by Don Denton
Michael Sikorski’s introduction into the commercial cleaning industry came at a very early age.
“Some of my parents’ Polish friends picked up a cleaning contract for some extra money and my parents decided to do the same thing,” says Michael, the vice-president of Fantastic Cleaning. “They used to bring me along… I had this little pedal car and I would ride it around whatever location they were cleaning.”
After seeing how successful they could be, Michael’s parents, Waldek and Elizabeth Sikorski, decided to start their own cleaning company in 1989. Polish immigrants, they were living in Regina at the time, after leaving their homeland for a better life.
“My father was a photojournalist, a photographer for a newspaper, and was doing quite well in Poland in those times,” Michael explains. “Listening to Radio Free Europe, he became quite obsessed with Western values. He was fired from the newspaper during martial law in Poland after refusing to affirm commitment to the Communist party. It was quite a big deal given how well they were doing at the time.”
When Waldek told his in-laws he wanted to move to America or Canada, Michael says, they were shocked and said, “Why would you want to do that?” But the young couple wasn’t going to be deterred.
“Mom and Dad packed their tiny car—a Polski Fiat—with everything they could and said they were going to visit his dad in Germany. And they didn’t go back,” Michael says. “They were given refugee status and I was born there.”
But Waldek’s dream of going to the United States would soon be dashed.
“My dad went to the U.S. Embassy and the guy had his feet up on his desk and wasn’t very kind. He got denied to go to the States, and that was heartbreaking for him because that had been his life’s dream,” Michael says. “His next choice was to come to Canada.”
With a reputation for a professional European approach to cleanliness, quality service and treating people well, the hard-working Sikorskis quickly grew Fantastic Cleaning in Regina to 35 employees. But then a trip to Victoria would once again change the trajectory of their lives. They fell in love with the city and decided to move here.
“They sold the business and they looked to see if there was another business they could purchase here, but Dad decided to stick with what he knows,” Michael says.
They launched Fantastic Cleaning in Victoria in 1996 and the business is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. They now have loyal commercial customers all the way to Qualicum, but those early years weren’t easy.
“The biggest challenge in Victoria early on was this insider mentality,” says Michael. “They weren’t open to new people being here then—that was the big difference from Regina, which was so welcoming—and my dad was told, ‘We have enough cleaning companies here; you should go back to Regina.’”
But Waldek wouldn’t give up. He went door-to-door, dropping off pamphlets that a 10-year-old Michael helped him to write, to 15 to 20 businesses a day.
“He wouldn’t let himself come home unless he had dropped off 15 introduction packages,” Michael says. “The biggest thing my dad taught me was to never give up and to embrace that immigrant mindset to build our enterprise.”
From those humble beginnings, Fantastic Cleaning has grown to around 100 employees and now services more than 100 buildings on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. This includes numerous long-term customers and some that have been with them for more than two decades. Michael’s younger brother, Philip, is the company’s operations manager and they became equal partners with their parents a couple years ago. Both have worked in the company since they were kids, but they weren’t sure they’d go into the family business.
“Dad told us he wanted us to do something else because it is a difficult business,” says Michael, who went to business school at Camosun College and then did an entrepreneurship program at Royal Roads before coming to work for the company full-time.
“It was still being run as a mom-and-pop shop out of our garage then, and I came up with a restructuring plan that had a central office location and a warehouse, so we could become a more professional and efficient company with streamlined operations.”
After making those changes, Michael says, the business started growing at a much more rapid rate—about 20 per cent a year. But convincing his parents to do things differently wasn’t easy.
“We had some crazy fights,” Michael laughs. “We call them ‘Polish fights’ because they’re crazy loud! People often think we’re yelling when we’re talking because of our language. There was a lot of pushback because it’s hard for someone to let go of micromanaging when it’s their baby.”
Michael also implemented quality control and employee-tracking systems. He admits, however, that his biggest mistake was trying to change things too quickly. Looking back, he thinks that if he’d introduced things more slowly and proved they work, it would have produced faster results in the end.
The COVID pandemic has been another hurdle to overcome, with decreased hours and some businesses temporarily shutting down.
“I learned that no matter how good things are going and it seems like it will be forever, everything is—at the end of the day—very fragile and we shouldn’t take it for granted,” Michael says.
The pandemic has also highlighted the critical importance of proper cleaning and sanitizing, and Michael and Philip have helped clients implement new cleaning protocols. Like their parents before them, they’ve also invested in staff—offering benefits and paying above minimum wage.
“Building relationships with our staff has always been a staple for us,” Michael explains. “The cleaning industry is notorious for high turnover rates among employees because of lack of job satisfaction. Nobody likes to feel replaceable or that their work is undervalued. We made it a priority to approach this differently and that’s resulted in many long-term employees.”
The brothers are now looking to grow the company, both internally and through acquisitions, and have started to expand to the Lower Mainland.
“The sky is the limit on what we can achieve,” Michael says. “And I believe staying true to our values and harnessing that resilient immigrant mindset we learned from our parents, we’ll be successful.”
Fanstastic Cleaning can be found here at their website.