It's hard for any small company to stay in business for almost 60 years, but it was even more of a challenge for Leonard Hale. He opened Hale's Cleaning Service in 1955, when Lexington was segregated and blacks had limited choices of where they could eat, shop or do business.
"It was tough for a few months at the beginning, but we stayed with it," Hale said with characteristic modesty.
Hale, 83, has been cleaning homes and businesses throughout Central Kentucky ever since, and he has no immediate plans to retire.
Those who work closely with Hale attribute his success to his hands-on approach to doing business and his focus on people — the customers and his employees.
Spring and fall, Hale's cleaning crew arrives at Darby Dan Farm on Old Frankfort Pike to wash the windows, and clean and polish the main house from top to bottom.
"Mr. Hale does a really hard clean. The windows are beautiful when they finish. Not a streak," said Carol Schmetz, the farm's operations manager.
"This is a big horse farm with a big history. The house has lots of trophies, and antiques and valuable items. It's hard to find a crew to come in that you feel comfortable with," Schmetz said. "Mr. Hale's people are completely trustworthy. And they are really nice, just like Mr. Hale is. He's a trustworthy, great guy, and such a gentlemen."
Hale hand-picks his employees and trains them himself, said Gamble August, a 17-year employee. "He teaches you how to treat the customer, about your appearance and how he wants things done. ... He chooses the right workers and he's good to them. He's kind."
Robert Beatty, owner of Proactive Cleaning Service, said, "The key to Mr. Hale is he knows the ABC's of a successful business. He's done the customer service right, the back house business right, he treats his people right."
And Hale stays on top of things, Beatty said.
"He works his business every day. He gets up, goes in. He knows what's coming in, what's going out," he said. "He never turned his eye away from his business."
To this day, if it's time to clean windows and a customer hasn't called to set up an appointment, Hale places a phone call. Just as a gentle reminder.
Hale has had several other business interests. He owned a television and radio sales and repair store, and was in the horse business about 15 years with LCH Stable, focused primarily on breeding and sales. In 1997, he started the first minority-owned bus company in Central Kentucky, Town & Country Tours.
But his cleaning service came first. "That was always my bread and butter," Hale said.
He learned to clean from his uncle Robert Searcy, who specialized in spring and fall house cleaning, doing ornate chandeliers and expensive wallpaper. "That's where I learned the trade," Hale said.
After graduating from Oliver High School, a black high school in Clark County, Hale went to work for Searcy, who worked for wealthy Lexington families. "That's the only ones he cleaned for," said Hale, who has a degree from Fugazzi Business College.
In 1955, Hale opened his own business, also focusing on working with upscale clients.
"We've worked for 90 percent of the big horse farms — Darby Dan, Claiborne, Big Sink, Forrest Dome, Lane's End," Hale said. "We work for doctors, lawyers. I cleaned for Adolph Rupp and Mrs. (Pansy) Yount after she built Spindletop. I cleaned the chandeliers at Spindletop."
Hale said his commercial contracts have included Kentucky-American Water, Ashland Oil (now just Ashland Inc.), General Telephone, First Security Bank and First National Bank, Blue Grass Army Depot at Avon (now called Blue Grass Station) and L.V. Harkness. He cleaned offices at Toyota before the plant opened, he said.
As he was getting his business established, Hale faced some rough times.
"We had a payroll of many thousands of dollars a week. We went to the bank to get a loan to help us meet payroll. They said, 'No, not for a black company,'" he recalled.
Hale received financial help from his father and uncle, but he also learned to save.
"We were careful and we made it," Hale said.
Geraldine Sykes worked for the state Commerce Cabinet in the minority business division, helping minorities get loans with banks or other lending institutions. "At one time, Mr. Hale wanted to expand, but he was unable to obtain financing," she said.
"No matter that he had been in business for years, was successful, paid his bills on time, the fact that he was black, banks would not give him the money he needed to grow his business," she said.
For years, Hale had three trucks and three crews. He has downsized to one crew.
He remains scrupulous about his company's work. The cleaning is thorough and meticulous. Windows sparkle and floors gleam. "We're careful to get corners. A floor can't be pretty if the corners aren't clean," August said.
August chuckled as he told about the time he suggested the crew use squeegees to clean windows to speed up their work: "Mr. Hale said, 'No, I told the people we were going to use hand towels and rags.' It's his way or no way."
"He's a gentle, humble man who treats everyone professionally — his clients and his employees," said George Brown Jr., a contract supply chain coordinator at the University of Kentucky.
"He's one of the best business people I know," said Brown, who served six terms on the Urban County Council. After college, Brown worked for Hale for 25 years, keeping his books and doing payroll.
"I saw firsthand how he does things," Brown said. "His best quality is tenacity, in the best sense of the word. He always finds a way to make things work."
Many of Hale's customers have been with him for years. "They become part of me, like my family," he said. "That's the only way I know how to do it."
For example, Hale has cleaned for VanMeter Stock Place on Pretty Run in Clark County since 1998.
Carla VanMeter, the owner, said, "Mr. Hale is so lovely and gracious, a very humble man."
Twice a month Hale cleans Les Whitmer's house on Fontaine Circle. "He worked for my parents for years," said Whitmer, a retired federal court clerk. The chandelier that hung in his parent's house on Hart Road is now in his foyer.
"When it's time to clean the chandelier, Mr. Hale puts on gloves and wipes each crystal individually. That's the kind of upscale cleaning he does," Whitmer said.
Hale doesn't scamper up a stepladder to clean chandeliers as often as he once did, but he oversees the work.
And he has a routine that never varies. A couple of hours after a job is finished, Hale arrives to inspect the work, to see whether the customer is happy, and to be paid.
"We want to make sure the customer is totally satisfied," he said.