Stephen Davison epitomizes the notion that if a person works hard, takes risks and perseveres, success will come.
Davison admits he made some bad decisions along the way. But he has had some good business ideas -- so good that others copied them -- since graduating from Northside High School in Warner Robins in 1974.
Over time, one of those good business ideas developed into a multimillion dollar company.
Davison is founder, president and CEO of Clean Control Corp., a Warner Robins-based company on Booth Road that manufactures OdoBan and numerous other cleaning, deodorizing and specialty products for household and industrial use.
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“I don’t want anyone to think I’m sitting here not having paid my dues,” Davison said. “There is a lot of stuff that went on in my past, and not all of them were successful. I learned something from every one of them.
“As long as you learn from your mistakes, it’s a success.”
The learning curve had a few twists.
Davison, 58, grew up the child of an intelligence officer in the military, and his family moved every summer. In the second grade he was in a one-room school on the side of a mountain in Spain.
“I was always the new kid in class and I got into a lot of fights,” he said. “I learned to use humor. If you could make the kids laugh, they didn’t fight as much.”
His first job, when he was about 13, was sacking groceries on a military base in Japan. He was a dishwasher in the officers club at the same time.
When his father was assigned to Vietnam, the family moved to Warner Robins. After high school graduation, Davison began a career that included overlapping jobs.
He worked for the former Timberlake Grocery Co., a wholesale company for grocery stores, about two years.
Then he started the first detailing business for dealerships in the area. And he went up north to learn about leasing cars and tried that awhile.
“The dealers weren’t even leasing at the time,” he said. “We were the only people in town, and it just didn’t go over.”
About the same time, at 19, he became the youngest conductor for the Central of Georgia line of Southern Railway.
“It paid good money,” he said. “I was young and I enjoyed it. ... I had a lot of time on the trains and I would think about what I was doing with my life.”
He recalled a time as a child living in West Berlin. He would climb a tree to look over the Berlin wall and see armed guards, guard dogs and bombed buildings. The streets were quiet. Then he would turn around and see a bustling city with active businesses, cars and double-decker buses.
“It was like watching a black-and-white movie and then a color movie,” he said.
While Davison enjoyed working for the railroad, he didn’t think it was the right long-term career for him.
“I would think back (to East Berlin), and those people weren’t given the opportunities that I’ve been given, and I’m not taking advantage of it,” he said. “It bothered me a lot. I started reading Entrepreneur magazine.”
So, while still riding the rails, Davison read about how to start various businesses, and he picked pressure washing because no one had ever heard of it before.
“I thought I was going to get rich,” he said.
With a partner, they paid $30,000 for a van and trailer, the training and rights to use the name, and in 1980 Mobile Wash of America Inc. came to Middle Georgia. They started off cleaning driveways, but it was tough going.
“It was a whole new concept and nobody understood it,” he said. “So we had to do a lot of demos. ... I about starved to death that first year.”
Davison then decided to open a bar on Pio Nono Avenue in Macon with a friend. Danny’s Allstar Joint was a spinoff of a successful restaurant in Warner Robins.
“We started Mobile Wash in December of 1980 and in February of 1981 we were opening up Danny’s,” he said. “Now, how stupid was that?” The bar lasted less than a year.
Davison began cleaning chimneys to have work during the winter and had three crews on the road. The business -- which by then went by MWA -- began including relining chimneys and was “the only one around here doing that,” he said.
But then other people started getting into pressure washing -- the cost to do it had come down -- and more people began cleaning chimneys as well.
“So we started specializing in cleaning hood vents in restaurants,” Davison said.
Soon he had contracts with A&P, Kroger and Burger King in the Southeast, and then he won bids on military bases. He stopped cleaning chimneys.
“So I made the decision to get into pressure washing hood vents and that kind of turned into a specialty.”
‘THE RIGHT THING TO DO’
After a Kmart maintenance manager asked if he could clean duct work, Davison researched it and MWA got into the duct cleaning business. He soon had five crews on the road.
When he first started the pressure washing business, he bought cleaning chemicals in 55-gallon drums that weighed about 500 pounds. The drums were unwieldy. After getting soaked with a degreaser when a drum seam split, Davison contacted a friend, Cory Hammock, who was a chemist at Bibb Mills. Hammock came up with a way to make the chemicals “super concentrated” in five-gallon pails so Davison could make his own chemicals. Odor Ban was born. The name later changed to OdoBan.
Davison tried to make the first batch in his bathtub.
“(Hammock) didn’t tell me at the time you have to add A and B and mix it before you add C,” Davison said. “I just dumped everything in. ... It did not turn out well,” and he lost $800 of raw materials.
Hammock later joined the business and is now the vice president of research and development.
After people began asking if they could get some of the cleaning chemicals, he began selling it in smaller containers using another company to bottle it.
Disaster struck in 1989. One of his employees fell and was badly injured.
That’s when Davison learned his insurance had lapsed. In order to cover the medical expenses, Davison wasn’t able to meet his other obligations and filed for bankruptcy. On the advice of a mentor, Alvin Koplin, he took on the debt personally and paid everything back over time.
“Steve learned from Mr. Koplin that even thought it was tough, that it was the right thing to do,” said his accountant, Marlan Nichols, a CPA with Nichols, Cauley & Associates. “And Steve was willing to learn, he was willing to listen, he was willing to take the advice.”
Nichols said Davison’s confidence helps propel him forward.
“It’s a strength and a weakness, but Steve always believes he is going to be successful no matter what,” Nichols said. “He’s a risk taker. Most people who are successful have a risk-taker attitude.”
The bankruptcy caused the end of MWA, but the next year Davison founded Clean Control Corp. and continued making cleaning and odor control products.
After wearing down the buyer for Sam’s Club, Davison was told the store would put one pallet of his product in the Macon store. It sold out in three days.
Another pallet sold out in a week. The company’s product continues to be sold in Sam’s Club -- the first national company to carry OdoBan.
Davison, along with several other companies, had product demonstrators in Sam’s Club, and he had about 475 employees doing that around the country. Sam’s Club decided to pull the plug on the demos, and Davison had to let those people go. Four months later, though, Sam’s Club asked Davison to take over doing all of the in-store demos.
So in 1995, Davison created Demo & Sales, and he built that up to about 1,200 employees. Six years later, the same week of the 9/11 attack, Sam’s Club gave 30 days notice that it was taking over the demos itself.
Shortly after getting his product into Sam’s Club, Davison realized he needed to have better control of the process and needed to be able to fill the smaller bottles of his product himself. He had been using another company to do this. But he needed a larger facility for that process.
In 2001, he obtained $5.5 million in industrial revenue bonds, buying the land and building the current 140,000-square-foot plant on Booth Road.
Clean Control products have been carried by Sysco Food Service and Mohawk Flooring. From there they went into Wal-Mart, and about five years ago into Home Depot, which carries 21 items. Clean Control also sells to catalog companies, such as HD Supply and Grainger Industrial Supply.
The company now averages about 130 employees, depending on the season.
Dr. Todd Kinnebrew with OrthoGeorgia in Warner Robins, who has known Davison for years, said Davison has achieved what many people strive for.
“Steve Davison is what makes America a special place and why everyone wants to come here,” Kinnebrew said. “He came from nothing and by just hard work and putting his nose to the grindstone, he became very successful.
“Anybody who’s around him knows he’s got their back and his word is his word.”
To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.