Rachael Flanagan

Rachael Flanagan of Mrs Bucket Cleaning Services

The queen of clean

Branching out from domestic cleaning into servicing offices allowed Rachael Flanagan to scale-up Mrs Bucket Cleaning Services, as Maria McGeoghan finds out.

Colleagues describe Rachael Flanagan – the founder of Mrs Bucket Cleaning Services – as a “ball of energy”. And it’s easy to see why.

When we meet at Bucket HQ in Llanelli, she excitedly shows me a message a customer has posted on Instagram calling her cleaning team “legends”. “I love it when we get great feedback like that,” says Flanagan, 29, who presides over the £3m business. She is so passionate about the power of cleaning to bring peace and order in to your life that, by the time I head off for another BQ interview in Cardiff, I’ve resolved to get a cleaner. Once I’ve tidied the house, of course.

Flanagan, back at work part-time after maternity leave, is the driving force behind this growing business, which now employs 300 people and provides both domestic and commercial cleaning across South Wales. A fleet of Mrs Bucket liveried vans line up outside the office, and a busy team is gathering outside for a sales and marketing meeting.

And it all started when a cleaner let her Mum down. “When I was 18 I was coming home from college early and I saw my Mum’s cleaner heading down the road,” says Flanagan. “I knew my Mum was paying her for four hours and she had left early.

“My Mum was teaching and I knew how important it was to have the house looking clean and nice. She didn’t really have the time to do it herself.

“I said to my Mum, ‘You give me £40 and I’ll do the cleaning for you’. She agreed and I could see how happy a really clean house made her. That’s when it all started. That was the ‘why’ of my business.”

At 18, Flanagan had no idea what she wanted to do with her life and had a moment of inspiration during her business A-Level exam. “I used to swim for the Welsh team, but I wasn’t good at just one thing,” says Flanagan. “I was doing media, art, IT and business, with no idea what any of it would lead to.

“When I was sitting my business A-level, you had to do a case study and I just wrote out my plan for my business instead. I knew it was going to fail the paper but it was important to me to get it down.”

RachelPart of that plan was to spend £20 on flyers, which proved to be a great first investment. “They were plain black and white A5 flyers and I put them through the letterboxes near where I lived,” she says. “I was going to call it RF Cleaning, but my best friend’s mum, Jean, said it would have to be something that stood out. We called it Mrs Bucket Cleaning but when anyone rings it’s Mrs Bouquet. It makes you smile.

“I delivered flyers all day and waited. Then slowly people started calling. I worked from 8am until 8pm. I couldn’t afford cleaning equipment so I always used the customer’s. I hadn’t had any training but I knew that I wanted people to have that clean hotel room feeling. It makes you feel nice.

“If everything is clean and organised in your house you just feel better. We’ve all got much busier and Mrs Bucket is giving you the time back. Imagine not having to worry about getting the house straight at the weekend.

“I started to take people on and give them their own round. At 21, I had 18 staff and my own little workshop where you paid for the electricity by a meter. I’d sit there planning and doing the books, wearing three coats to keep warm. I loved it.”

The business really took off when Flanagan joined a business networking group and soon found out that she had been nominated in the young UK entrepreneur awards. “A judge came out to see me in my workshop in her Mercedes and then I found out that I was in the finals at Claridges in London,” she says. “That was massive.

“I took my Mum and my boyfriend, who’s now my husband. We didn’t have enough tickets for my Dad and sister so they stayed in their room. I thought it was nice to have a new frock and some champagne but never thought for a moment that I would win it.

“I was in the ladies’, talking to the housekeeping woman, when my Mum ran in yelling ‘You’ve won, you’ve won.’

“We were sitting at the furthest table at the back so I never thought I was going to win it. When I walked in, everyone stood up and clapped. That was like turning on a light switch for me. I finally started believing in myself.”

It was a transition that spelled a new, more confident direction for Flanagan and her business. “I thought now I really can be a businesswoman,” she says. “I bought myself a new notebook on the way home and decided what I was going to stop doing. I was being a busy fool. I was selling time for money so I had to stop cleaning myself.

“I started hanging around with other business owners who were very generous with their advice on everything from marketing to sales. I sat in on webinars, went to events, read books and realised that we needed to be different to stand out.”

She decided to target commercial cleaning, which proved to be another excellent strategic move for Mrs Bucket. “When I was 22, the business was worth £500,000 with 10% profit,” she says. “I’d worked my arse off so I deserved it.

“I loved sales and marketing and I decided to get out of my comfort zone and break in to commercial cleaning to scale up. I would drive around all the business estates and count all the cars outside each business to work out how many people they had.

“I started doing targeted mail, like sending a white glove and asking companies to put it on and run their fingers around once their cleaner had gone. We got invited to quite a few meetings where the glove was there on the board room table looking really dirty

Cleaning“I also posted out KitKat bars and said it was time to take a break and even sunglasses that they would need to cope with the shine once we had finished cleaning.

“In commercial cleaning, people have gone home and you can zoom around and give it a really good clean. In domestic cleaning, people still leave their pants on the floor and don’t flush the loo.”

And, as the business grew, Flanagan was spurred on by anyone who thought she couldn’t make it big. “I remember when I was about 23 or 24 I stood up at a business gathering and said that I was going to double my business in a year,” she says. “You could see them thinking, ‘Aww, isn’t she sweet’. That was my drive and that’s exactly what I did.”

Now, her domestic cleaning business is worth £500,000 with commercial cleaning worth £2.5m, and she has just expanded into Bristol. And Flanagan has a clear strategy for the future. “I don’t want to be a national cleaning company,” she says. “I don’t want us to be cleaning airports or fighting over margins for tenders. We just want to do a good job in the market that we know.

“We want to win and retain the right clients and have the confidence to say no. We’ve had no investment. This is all my own cash.

“We’ve got good processes and systems, a really good team, and we always try to treat everyone right. I think we are the Waitrose of domestic cleaning and the Marks & Spencer of commercial cleaning.”

And what advice would she give to young entrepreneurs who are toying with a business idea but not sure where to start? “By the time you’ve thought about it you could have done it.” Flanagan says. “And watch out if your child is doing what I did starting up their own little business. They could be an entrepreneur.

“When I was young, around seven, I used to have a little shop in my Dad’s office using one of his old tills. We used to go and buy a big tub of penny sweets and then I would sell them to my friends for real money.

“I liked earning money, I liked handling money. When I was 14 or 15, I used to wash the pots at the local pub. I always had a job.”

And finally, the most important question of all. What is the Holy Grail of cleaning? That magic, secret product, that can make a shower sparkle and a floor look like new? I wait with bated breath. Flanagan pauses, smiles and replies: “It’s just bloody scrubbing really.”