By Lanier Laney
Growing up with four brothers and sisters in a blue collar neighborhood in Philadelphia, Bob Cunningham recalls money was always tight in his family.
“I was fortunate, with my older brother, to get a newspaper route when I was 10,” says Bob. “That planted the seed to be a business owner. The paper route required you to not only deliver the newspapers everyday but collect the money each week from the customers. This was like owning my own business and I loved it.”
Later on, Bob worked his way through college and got a Bachelor of Science degree in marketing and management from Drexel University in Philadelphia, then joined a national electronics company as a salesman.
Bob says, “When I got transferred to California in 1983, my best friend at the time, Lon Hudson, was transferred to the same office. He was raised in Texas and had a similar upbringing — middle child of five, paper routes, etc. We would have brainstorming lunches right there in the Silicon Valley, thinking of all kinds of businesses to start. One day he put a Nations Business magazine in front of me with a small article about an Omaha, Nebraska, based franchise called Merry Maids. At the time, Merry Maids was pioneering the professional housecleaning franchise model. We both looked at each other and said why not? Lon and his brother cleaned houses while attending North Texas State, and I had worked at a car wash so we thought that was good cleaning experience. There were no professional companies cleaning houses at that time, so we just thought there was tremendous opportunity for a professional company to service this market.”
He left the electronics business in August 1985 to start his first Merry Maids business in Mountain View, California.
“I always wanted to own and operate a business and this fit the budget I had at the time to start one,” says Bob. “Since then, we have added offices in Gilroy and San Jose in California; Beaufort and Charleston in South Carolina. Most of my day is spent interacting with my incredible management staff and the outstanding housecleaners that work for us.”
More than 10 years later, in 1996, Bob met his beautiful wife, Melina, in San Francisco, where they were both living at the time. They fell in love and got married three years later.
Melina, who is of Philippine heritage, was born in San Francisco and grew up there and in Vancouver, British Columbia, where her father was in real estate. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in marketing from San Diego State University.
“Bob and I have a joke that if you couldn’t make it in other more difficult majors, you ended up a marketing major,” Melina says. “I guess we both weren’t the most academically gifted, but we both worked really hard after college and made up for it by having the help of some amazing mentors.”
Today, Melina does the bookkeeping for Merry Maids.
How they found Beaufort
Says Bob, “Melina and I came to visit two families who had just moved to Beaufort from the Silicon Valley. We immediately fell in love with the place. On the plane ride back to California, Melina looked at me and said, ‘I want to move to Beaufort. This is the place I want to raise our kids’. So a year later we moved.”
Adds Melina, “All of our kids now go to Riverview Charter School which we love!” Wes is 13, Gracie is 11, and the twins — Laila and Lana — are 7.
Says Bob, “Melina and I are both city folks — so we were concerned about how we would adjust to a small town. But we immediately fell in love with the lifestyle and especially the people. In the first year in Beaufort we had more good friends than in the 10 years we spent in California. You can’t beat the sense of community — people are always getting together to have fun and helping each other out.”
Adds Melina, “Yes the people here make Beaufort a wonderful place to live. Life is full of amazing opportunities and challenges and it’s good to know we are part of a community of people who have our backs and we have theirs.”
About Merry Maids
Bob says, “My goal in starting our Merry Maid businesses is to hire great people and take care of them. The twin brothers from Minnesota who started Merry Maids told me that this is a people business and if you take care of your employees and customers, they will take care of you. This philosophy has not changed since 1985. My parents always impressed us with politeness, good manners and giving back to the community. I have always worked to ingrain this in all of the Merry Maids companies.”
He adds, “We have been so blessed by the support of our business from the Beaufort community. We started in June of 2008 at the start of one of the worst recessions in U.S. history. But we were able to grow at such a rate that in 2009 we were awarded the Dallen Peterson Award of Excellence, which is given each year in honor of the founder to the top-performing franchise of that year. The military has been a big supporter of our business in both customers and employees. Over half of our cleaning staff are military wives.”
Melina says, “I would like to thank our staff. Even though I’m not involved in the day to day operations, I thank God every single day for our employees. They are all special in their own way and they make Merry Maids a great company. Employees have come and gone but all have contributed to helping Bob and I become better owners. That is our intention, anyway, to always learn and grow and become better because of our opportunities and most of all our challenges.”
She adds, “Bob jokes all the time that Merry Maids saves lots of marriages. I joke that men should know that the best foreplay is chores. But if you don’t want to do chores, you should hire Merry Maids for your wife and you’ll be glad you did.”
True to their word, Merry Maids and its employees have given back to the community. Says Melina, “The Beaufort community is blessed with so many great local charities that we have worked with. We have been able to support these with our employees volunteering and/or gift certificates to support fundraising programs.” Some of the worthy causes and nonprofits they have supported include the Coastal Community Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, Military Appreciation Day, Beaufort Memorial Hospital, Riverview Charter School Beaufort Twilight Run, Beaufort Water Festival, Cleaning for a Reason, Historic Beaufort Foundation, TCL, Family Promise, Beaufort County Disabilities and Special Needs Department, CAPA, LowCountry Food Bank, Toys for Tots, Wyldelife and Young Life.
As for the future
Bob says, “We plan to continue living and operating all of our businesses from Beaufort. We are very blessed to have a partner in California who runs our operations there.”
Bob gets out there three or four times a year, and is fortunate to have a younger brother and his wife who live not far from one of the offices.
Melina says, “I am a super geeky health nerd. I give away health books, and sometimes people run the other way when they see I’m coming. If you get me started, I will talk your ear off, so beware! In the future, I want to help people be healthier and happier. I’m not sure what this looks like yet, but for now I’m happy that Merry Maids helps people save time and have less stress in their lives. I think reducing stress is way more important than eating perfectly or exercising all the time, so I’m happy Merry Maids is helping people that way.”
Call Beaufort Merry Maids now at 843-420-2104. The office is located 829 Parris Island Gateway, Beaufort, SC, 29906. Visit www.merrymaidsbeaufort.com to get a free estimate, special savings and see the range of services offered.