Irvin Serrano

Cleaning House

At first glance, the group assembled at the pizza joint in a Mesa strip mall seems as docile and diverse as a citizenship class. Clustered in groups of twos and threes at bright blue Formica tables, they glance around the room conversing quietly in Albanian, Spanish, Vietnamese and English.

From a table by the window, Rosario Alvarez watches the unlikely crowd assemble; more than a dozen disgruntled franchise holders have come together to discuss their grievances with ProForce USA, the janitorial business they signed on with, and its president, Howard Gardner. To Alvarez's left sit two ProForce employees, backs to the wall, here to defend Gardner and their company.

The sound of sizzling chicken wings drifts lazily from the kitchen as what has until now been a war of glares and wills erupts into enraged allegations of fraud and deceit. This is the first time the angry franchise owners have vented their frustrations at representatives of ProForce, and they are so eager to voice their anger they drown each other out.

They accuse Gardner of lying and defrauding them not only out of a steady income for the next 20 years, but out of sums of money ranging from $500 to more than $23,000. They say he promised them success, cashed their checks, then drove them to failure. Carlos Bejarano, Gardner's right-hand man and operations manager for the company, sits undaunted as franchise owners hurtle grenades of accusation from every corner of the room.

Then he holds up his hands. "Wait a minute," he says. "Whoever is in charge of this meeting needs to take control."

Alvarez stands up and paces, watching the face of the man she calls "the Mexican Judas." Her lips are pursed, jaw clenched, left foot tapping a furious rhythm. She can't contain herself any longer.

"It is so hard for me to stand here and keep my mouth shut," she shouts in a trembling voice. "You took my money, you took food from my kids and it is so fucking hard to keep control. I'm angry! All these people are angry!"

The room erupts again. Bejarano tries to defend his employer. "Listen, we are obligated to offer. We cannot obligate anyone to take an account. We cannot obligate anyone to do a good job."

No one wants to listen.

Arnett Brice, a minister, has been eyeing Bejarano throughout the meeting. His wife is a franchise holder, and Brice says Bejarano spoke rudely to her on the telephone. He stands slowly, rising to well over six feet tall, and takes a few steps toward Bejarano. The room grows quiet.

"I wanted to whip your butt when you walked in that door," he booms, pointing his finger at Bejarano. "Next time you talk to my wife, you remember I've got a size 12 with your name on it. . . . I'll hurt you, boy! Do you hear me? I'll hurt you!"

The angry janitors start yelling again.

"God will punish you and your family!" a woman shouts. "You are selling yourself, you are selling your soul!"

"You would make a really good politician in Mexico," someone snaps.

"If you have anything human in you, you will leave this company and pray to God for forgiveness!" another man yells.

"Wait, you're not letting me talk," protests Bejarano. "You're listening to what 50 people are telling you but you're not listening to what I'm telling you."

The preacher takes another step in his direction.

"I have to leave now because I am concerned for my security," Bejarano says, pushing past them.

"Shame on you!" the preacher's wife scolds as the door slams shut.

Bejarano's boss, Howard Gardner, is in the business of cleaning up messes, but the one he finds himself involved in today baffles him.

Gardner's troubles began last fall, when Alvarez began seeking out other franchise owners and they began comparing stories. "I thought I was the only one, and then I began calling people and found we all have had the same experiences," she says. "I was like, 'Oh my God.' I couldn't believe it at first. I thought I was the only one."

Their experiences have since been detailed in 23 complaints submitted to the state Attorney General's Office. While not accusing Gardner of any criminal behavior, the complaints allege that he promised revenue to the franchisees that they never received, and offered accounts to clean buildings that he never actually had. They say he regularly underbid contracts, lied about potential earnings, provided inadequate training, and that once he took their money, it was impossible to reach him on the phone.

Gardner says they just don't understand how to run a business. He says they're lying.

The company has good reason to be defensive -- and not just because a couple of its employees got threatened with an ass-kicking at the pizza parlor. The group at the pizzeria has met three times since its first meeting in November, and Gardner says they're bad for business. "This small group of people are poisoning a larger group of better people," he says.

But there are also former employees who say ProForce has used some questionable business practices, including targeting Hispanics to sign on to its complicated franchise contract.

The Attorney General's Office won't comment on the complaints, in keeping with its policy, until a decision is reached on what action, if any, to take. So in the meantime, a group of Valley franchise holders -- many of them immigrants from Mexico, Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe -- is finding itself in a standoff against ProForce over a series of messy disputes.

Rosie Alvarez looks like a delicate little thing, with a firefly waist, full breasts and willowy limbs. Her face is tiny, too, framed by dark tendrils that match her full lashes and brows. Her conversational tone is as soft and slow as a lullaby, but get her going on Howard Gardner and Alvarez becomes a pocket-size flame-thrower, spewing insults in Spanish that test the creativity of the language, involving mothers and goats in the most unnatural scenarios. When asked what she thinks of Gardner, she takes a breath and beams like the Mona Lisa. "Este pinche hijo de su puta madre," she says, savoring each word, "que come mierda."

But Alvarez and the group she represents would like to see ProForce do more than eat excrement; they'd like to see it pay for all of the time, money and labor they say they've put into ProForce for very little in return.

A divorced mother of two, Alvarez sells Mary Kay products, prepaid phone cards and Ardyss girdles by catalogue to supplement her own housecleaning business. One of six children her mother raised alone in Colima, Mexico, after her father left, she saw her mother struggle to provide for her kids. "I've always believed that wealth is something you create," she says.

When she speaks, Alvarez slips between English and Spanish as easily as she does the two worlds she navigates. On one hand, she is close to her family, proud of her Mexican heritage, and dances salsa every Friday night at a club on Van Buren Street with a furious drive. She enters the club alone -- they all know her there -- and closes it down, again leaving alone. On the other hand, she courts success, searching after the same goals of any other American entrepreneur. "My family calls me la güera," she says, smiling, not because she's fair-haired or light-skinned, but because she's single and ambitious beyond what they call the more traditional aspirations of Mexican women.

Alvarez wants to get out of her one-bedroom apartment and own her own home, she says, and she's going to do it on her own. "No voy a esperar hasta que un pinche hombre me de lo que yo quiero tener para mi familia," she notes emphatically. "You wait for a man to give you these things and you'll never get them, and if you do they won't really be yours."

ProForce was her chance at success, she thought, when she gave Howard Gardner a check for $500 in April 2000 and went to work cleaning day-care centers and office buildings at night after her children were in bed. Alvarez worked from 6 p.m. until 2 a.m., she recalls, but ended up earning less than $4 an hour because the accounts were so underbid, and the buildings too large and demanding to finish in the time Gardner said it should take. "There was no way anyone could make money cleaning those places," she says. Some she turned back to Gardner in frustration. Soon Gardner started taking accounts from her, alleging that there had been complaints from customers, though she never heard any from the clients themselves.

Like most local franchisees, Alvarez read about ProForce in the classified section of the Arizona Republic and La Prensa Hispana, where the company promises: "Guaranteed accounts and financing. Lowest initial investment in the industry. $800 to start."

The terms that she and other ProForce franchisees agreed to are laid out in a carefully crafted legal document that spans 33 pages. Its provisions do much to protect the franchiser and little to ensure a return on investments for the franchisee. By signing the agreement, franchise owners agree to pay Gardner a sum of money to purchase the rights to a ProForce franchise for 20 years. The amount of money they pay, the contract states, determines the monthly income level they will be offered. But at the same time, the contract makes no guarantees that they'll actually receive that amount. A paragraph at the end of the contract states, "ProForce USA expressly disclaims the making of, and you acknowledge that you have not received, any warranty or guarantee, expressed or implied as to the potential volume, profits, or success of the business venture contemplated by this agreement."

It's just one of the nuances that potential ProForce contractors have to detect. According to the agreement, ProForce has between 120 and 180 days to "offer" the franchisee accounts adding up to the income level they have paid up to $31,000 for. If a franchisee declines an account, ProForce is not required to offer another. If a franchisee loses an account because of poor service, ProForce is not obligated to replace it.

These terms may make business sense for ProForce, but what many franchisees claim in their complaints is that Gardner uses these practices to set them up for failure. Many accounts are so underbid, they say, that it is impossible to make a profit servicing them. They turn them back to Gardner in frustration, and Gardner then pawns them off on a new franchise owner, fulfilling his obligation to them while maintaining an ever-growing roster of franchisees.

Many of the franchise owners are not proficient in English, and some don't speak it at all, which is why ProForce's critics say many franchisees don't have the skills to navigate such a document.

Whether they understand what they are signing, Gardner says, is not his problem. "People take this information home and read it, other people maybe prop their coffee table up with it," he says. "Everyone I meet with has called in response to an ad; that tells me they can read."

Among the complaints filed with the Attorney General's Office, one of the most common allegations is that ProForce employs a bait-and-switch technique to draw new franchise holders in, offering lucrative accounts that disappear once their checks are cashed. This is what Gina Woods says happened to her.

A demure Filipino woman in her 40s with a thick mane of auburn hair and glasses, she speaks in a controlled voice when detailing her dissatisfaction with ProForce.

Woods was introduced to ProForce by a friend, Bihn Nguyen, and became intrigued by the advertised "guaranteed profits."

"I have a daughter that will be going to college and needing a car soon," she says, "and two sons in their 20s that also go to school and need financial help. I thought, what a great way to make extra income."

In the complaint she filed with the attorney general, Woods says she and her friend Bihn met with Gardner on October 4, 2001. She claims Gardner told her she had been awarded the contract for 3131 East Camelback, the building where ProForce's own offices are located, and he needed someone ready to clean it on November 1. It paid $16,500 a month, he said, and all he needed was a $10,000 down payment.

Woods claims that Gardner pushed her to come up with the money right away, allegedly ignoring the 10-day waiting period required by the Federal Trade Commission. (Last month, another Valley franchisee won a $4,500 judgment against Gardner, on the grounds that Gardner allegedly asked him to back-date his contract to fit the waiting period.) "He asked if I could have it to him by October 11," she states. He told her she could write a postdated check. Woods said she'd prefer to wait.

She gave Gardner a check for $3,000 on October 11 in order to secure the building, and came up with an additional $5,000 which she delivered to Gardner on October 18. Gardner told her not to worry about the remaining $2,000, telling her they could work out payments.

Five days before she was to start work, on October 26, she met with Gardner and was informed that ProForce had lost the contract for 3131 East Camelback. She claims Gardner blamed losing the building on inquiries she and her husband had made of the current maintenance staff, asking how long it took them to clean the building. The current employees had protested, she says, and ProForce lost the account as a result.

"That's bullshit!" Gardner says. "Ridiculous. What I offered her was the Westward Ho." He sighs, visibly frustrated. "I haven't even given a bid on this building."

So why would Woods make up such an elaborate story? "I don't know," Gardner says angrily. "Yeah, I do know. You want my opinion why, and that's all this is, an opinion: She came into the system, she saw the building that I offered her [the Westward Ho], she drove around the outside -- I'm sure it looked huge -- she thought, 'Uh-oh, I got in over my head' and now she wants out."

Not so, says Woods. "He offered me 3131 [East] Camelback. That's the only reason I signed the contract."

The complaints Gardner is facing are not unique to ProForce. The entire janitorial franchise business is a risky enough venture that the Federal Trade Commission has put out a pamphlet to warn consumers about the field's common potential pitfalls. "The size, number and location of accounts may not be what you expected," the pamphlet reads, ". . . [Y]ou may not be able to make a profit once you pay for expenses like supplies and transportation costs. . . . [Y]ou should not count on receiving all the revenue the franchiser promised at first." The government might as well be talking about what happened to Vasel Dedvukai.

Dedvukai, or Vinnie as his colleagues at the Century 21 office call him, is a 44-year-old with a Dracula accent and a passion for Marlboro reds. He looks like a French cop from a '60s movie, with a long nose and silver hair. Dedvukai is from Montenegro, in the former Yugoslavia. He graduated from college in Kosovo and went to work as a journalist. Then came Milosevic, and Dedvukai and his family fled to the United States, landing in New York 12 years ago.

After success and then failure in the restaurant business, Dedvukai decided to start over once again, this time even farther west. He and his family came to Phoenix four years ago, enticed by "the climate and the opportunities to make a good business here," he says.

Dedvukai read about ProForce in the newspaper, and says he first met with Gardner in the spring of 2001. Gardner's background clinched the deal.

"In meeting, he said he was right-hand man of Reagan security, he worked for FBI and State Department. He said, 'I have government connections.' Okay, I tell myself, that's right person to work with."

If Dedvukai was impressed with Gardner's claims, he didn't get the whole story. As he reportedly did with Dedvukai, Gardner told New Times that in 1996 he worked for the FBI by day and operated his ProForce franchise at night, eventually leaving the Bureau when his business grew successful. Gardner's bio in the company's offering circular -- a document given to every potential franchise-buyer which discloses the past dealings of ProForce and its officers -- similarly says he was with the FBI from 1989 until 1996. The FBI, however, says Gardner served in the FBI for scarcely more than two years and hasn't worked for them since 1991, five years before he tells people he left.

At first, Gardner says he can't remember exactly what he did during that five-year period. He says he went to school but won't say where or for what. "You're asking me to go back 10, 11 years," he says. "You're throwing dates at me."

That's not the only inaccuracy in the circular that Dedvukai -- and all other ProForce workers -- was given. In the document, ProForce is required to outline any past or current litigation, and at the top of the list is a civil racketeering suit filed by a competing janitorial firm against ProForce franchisers in Maryland and Capital Maintenance, another janitorial firm co-owned by ProForce's founder, Curtis Salla (Gardner himself was not involved in the case). The suit, which alleges unfair competitive practices, fraud and civil conspiracy, is listed as "pending." But federal court records indicate that the case was closed in April 1999, after Capital Maintenance was sent into involuntary bankruptcy proceedings.

Gardner says his corporate supervisors prepared the information, and he never noticed it was inaccurate.

"It may sound stupid, it may sound corny, it may sound ridiculous, but ProForce is what I concentrate on and making sure the information people really need is accurate." he says. "My biography is not a relevant part of all this. Okay, so I did some soul-searching, hiked across Switzerland, took a few classes . . . it's just not relevant."

The price of Dedvukai's willingness to put his faith in a man's word and reputation, rather than the document he signed his name to, is a lesson he says he's learned the hard way. He wishes he'd read the FTC warnings before giving Gardner his money. He also wishes he'd paid more attention to his contract.

Dedvukai signed on at what's called the L-120 level, which calls for a $20,000 investment in return for $10,000 per month in cleaning contract offers from ProForce. He gave Gardner a check for $10,000 with the remaining $10,000 financed. Dedvukai was optimistic; he says he liked Gardner then.

Not now. Dedvukai says the cleaning contracts he was offered required substantially more work than Gardner calculated. He claims Gardner deliberately offered accounts he knew Vinnie wouldn't be able to take. "He tries to get not just your money, but your spirit. He pushes people to give up," Dedvukai says, raising his hands in the air and launching into an emotional diatribe.

"He takes measures with franchise owners that are sabotage. . . . Most of these people are very poor people. I feel very betrayed and very stupid." Dedvukai takes a breath. "I think maybe this could happen in Afghanistan, but not in the Western world. The whole world is fighting against terrorism, but one part of terrorism is terrorism on civilization -- it's not only killing you physically, it is also taking food from your kids, taking your income, attacking the logic in your head." Dedvukai pauses and shouts, "He is the Osama bin Laden of the cleaning business!"

For his part, Gardner gives a more measured response. "Between May 2, 2001, and October 16, 2001, we offered Mr. Vasel $46,708.21 in accounts," Gardner says, opening Dedvukai's file. "Some he accepted, most of them he declined."

As for the allegations of underbidding accounts, Gardner is resolute. "I can't find people an account that they can roll out of bed, walk next door to service one time a month, and make $10,000," he says. "I wish I could.

"I don't know what some of these people expect, I honestly don't," he goes on. "I offered him $46,700 when I had an obligation to offer him $10,000. The contract says 'offer.' If he doesn't take it, I can't force him to. That's the reason it's written that way."

Mary Tran is built like a short stick of dynamite, with a sleek black bob and a shrill voice. Her fuse is short when it comes to ProForce.

Tran and her husband came over from Vietnam eight years ago when they were in their early 20s with high hopes and the dream of going into business for themselves. They invested what capital they had in her business, Mary's Mobile Wash, which has been successful enough to pour $82,000 into their bank account by the fall of last year. Tran wanted to expand into something new; she called ProForce at the beginning of November, and ended up writing Gardner checks totaling $22,000.

Gardner says Tran was given an account to clean a car dealership on December 4, and that they began receiving complaints about her service on December 10, December 15, and December 20. Tran says she was informed there were problems, but never told what they were specifically. "How am I supposed to fix something if they don't tell me what I did wrong?"

"On January 9 we got a cancellation notice, so we lost almost $7,600 a month account from that," Gardner explains. "The Westward Ho [another account Tran was servicing] started complaining around the same time.

"Here's what I think happens," he adds with a slight grin. "And I gotta sit here and look into a crystal ball, I don't know if this is the case, but the franchise owner loses one big account and instead of concentrating on their other accounts they just go, aw, screw it. And everything just starts to domino. She got another account just after that worth almost $2,500, and we got a cancellation notice from them. We took the account away from her."

Tran doesn't dispute that some clients complained about her cleaning, but that doesn't help explain Gardner's next, curious move. Whereas complaints from customers were enough to take accounts away from her, Gardner nonetheless asked Tran to become his partner in a new office in Tucson. He asked her for $75,000.

"He said we would be 50/50," Tran recalls. She decided to take the contract to a lawyer. "I'm Asian, I speak English so good, but I don't understand contracts. I can't read this."

The contract turned out to be something less than the 50/50 arrangement Tran says she was promised. She would contribute $75,000, $65,000 of which would go directly to Gardner. The remaining $10,000 of her money would be matched by $10,000 of Gardner's. Even though he was putting up a fraction of Tran's investment, Gardner would be president, secretary and treasurer of the corporation, and retain 510 shares of stock to Tran's 490. She refused to sign the agreement.

Gardner shrugs it off as just a business deal that didn't go through. When asked why he would propose going into business with someone who had such a shoddy performance record, Gardner says, "At the time that we started discussing opening up Tucson, there were no problems. When Mary first started, everything seemed to be going very well. We didn't really start getting complaints until February."

But the three complaints and the cancellation of the auto dealership contract all took place in December. "Those three complaints were all from the same customer," he offers. Besides, they all could have been because of a personality conflict. "An ornery customer that is difficult to please is not necessarily an indication that the franchise owner's terrible."

Complaints were something David Delgado dealt with on a daily basis during the five months he worked for ProForce last year. Delgado was operations manager then.

"I would do all kinds of stuff, check up on his people, train people, make sure the jobs were done correctly, also customer service," he says. "When there were problems, I'd smooth them out, or try to."

Delgado said he was given specific instructions to recruit Hispanics.

"[Gardner] said if I knew some Mexican people to bring them in, and whatever package they bought he'd give me a percentage," he claims. "He wanted me to tell them they could own their own business, how good I was doing with ProForce. He targets Hispanic people because he thinks it's easier to take money away from people who don't speak English."

Lewis McFadden also worked for ProForce, waxing and buffing floors on a contractual basis, and later as a quality control supervisor for three months. "There's some funny stuff going on in that office," he says.

"Quality control basically became fire control, there were so many complaints. People were always in the office upset about this or that, most of them were non-English-speaking people who had put large deposits down."

McFadden says franchise owners were poorly trained and not given much attention after signing on. "It's like watch a video, now here's your mop, go on out there, and hey, is that check good?"

"I think at the beginning [Gardner] went in there with the right attitude," McFadden adds. ". . . But he kept promising people things, they kept putting their money down, large sums of money, and he keeps losing accounts."

Gardner denies any wrongdoing and discredits McFadden, saying he quit a few days after spilling five gallons of paint on the carpet in Gardner's office and adding that McFadden would often send others to check on franchise holders rather than do the job himself. In response to Delgado's allegations, Gardner says Delgado's role was simply to help him communicate with his Spanish-speaking franchise owners, and adds that he fired Delgado in November when Delgado brought a six-pack of beer into a day care he was cleaning after hours and left it in a freezer.

As for the makeup of his franchisees, Gardner estimates that 60 percent of his franchise holders are Hispanic. "The Hispanic community is largely involved in the janitorial aspect of the area," he says, "but I would also say that the Hispanic community is largely involved with a lot of aspects in the community. Do we specifically target them? No. We advertise in La Prensa, but we also advertise in the Republic, so I guess you could say we target whites, too."

ProForce headquarters is located on the first floor of a shiny office building on Camelback. The waiting-area furniture is upholstered in shiny burgundy leather accented with brass tacks. On their way to Gardner's office, visitors walk past a framed cover of Forbes magazine with a ProForce headline -- "a novelty item," Gardner says.

Gardner locks his office door behind him and glances up at a television monitor as he settles at his large desk. The monitor transmits sound and video from a camera trained on the lobby. Gardner sees and hears everyone who enters the office, and as he talks about the troubled winter his business has weathered, his eyes dart instinctively to the screen each time the door opens.

The wall in front of his desk is nearly taken up by a large aquarium filled with brightly colored fish blowing bubbles against the glass. Next to the fish, a headless mannequin wears Gardner's Marines uniform inside a Plexiglas case. On the wall sits a framed "Presidential Certificate" from the time Gardner spent in the Marines as a presidential guard at the White House and Camp David.

Gardner looks like Data from Star Trek with a pinched, boyish face and brown hair. He dresses like Sonny Crockett at a funeral, favoring dark tee shirts under darker suits, a Rolex strapped to his wrist. Gardner's eyes are expressionless and rimmed with circles; he's a man prone more to sighs than smiles.

After leaving the Marine Corps in 1988, Gardner was hired by the FBI (FBI officials describe his position during his time there as "a police officer"). He then bought a ProForce franchise in 1996. "My first day on the job was atrocious," he says. "My first account was a fitness center in Rockville, Maryland. At first it took eight people eight hours to clean it. Three weeks later my wife and I were cleaning it in three and a half hours." He says he increased his business from $3,000 a month to $27,000 in his first 14 months.

Gardner purchased master franchise rights for Arizona and opened his Phoenix office in November 1999. Today he says he has more than 200 franchise owners servicing more than 400 accounts.

"What I do here is provide people with an opportunity, the same opportunities I had. If they decide to take advantage of those opportunities and succeed, wonderful, because the more they succeed the more I succeed. When these people fail or quit, it hurts my business as well."

He says he's upset by many complaints filed against him with the attorney general, and he's willing to work things out, to a point. "I think I've done everything I'm supposed to do," Gardner says. "I'm human, I make mistakes, and if I make a mistake I'm willing to stand up and say, 'Hey, I made a mistake,' and here's this or here's that or whatever I need to do to rectify the problem. Am I ignoring these people? Absolutely not."

He adds that he has contemplated sending out letters to the disgruntled franchise owners requesting meetings. "Let's sit down on a one-on-one basis, let's figure out what it's going to take to get your business up and running. Am I just going to freely refund everybody's money in hopes that they go away? No! No, because I don't like the message that that sends. They're business owners. One part of business is standing up and taking responsibility for what you've done."

And taking responsibility for what he's done is exactly what Alvarez, Woods, Dedvukai, Tran and the rest of the group say they are hoping for. As they discuss their options at the pizza joint, they put most of their hope in that the Attorney General's Office will decide to investigate their cases. But it has been nearly five months since the first complaints were filed, and people are getting impatient, losing interest and hope.

They talk of filing individual suits in small claims court, the possibility and expense of filing a class-action suit. They want to plan strikes and protests outside ProForce's Camelback office. They want to launch a letter-writing campaign to Hispanic activists, and politicians like John McCain, asking them for help. Alvarez takes a deep breath. She tells them the phone calls and mailings necessary just to keep these meetings going is taking their toll on her, but she urges them not to lose hope. "I'm tired, I don't see my kids enough, but I'm not giving up."

Gardner says he feels as betrayed and angry as they do. "Rosie Alvarez has $500 invested in this company. She came in to me, she gave me a story about being a single mom and she couldn't afford this and she couldn't afford that. Not only did I bring her in with minimal money down, I tried to do what I thought was everything possible for her," he says. "Talk about losing your faith in humanity. . . . Sometimes it feels like the more you try to help people, the more they're gonna kick you in the ass."


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