Presented by First National Bank Alaska

When the novel coronavirus arrived in Alaska earlier this year, it caught just about everyone off guard.

Just about everyone, that is, except for Andy Kwon.

“No one really expected COVID-19 to really be like this,” Kwon said. “When it came, I think it caught everybody by surprise how fast it was spreading.”

But Kwon was ready. The owner of M.C. Corporation, an Anchorage building maintenance company, Kwon had already taken steps to prepare for the heightened emphasis on sanitizing -- and the shortage of supplies that was to follow in the pandemic’s wake.

An unexpected business venture

Ask Kwon how he got into the building services business and he’ll tell you: “By accident.”

Born in South Korea, Kwon emigrated to Anchorage with his family when he was 12. The move effectively bisected his youth; his childhood was spent in Korea, his adolescence in the U.S.

“I’m a hybrid,” he said. “We call ourselves ‘first-and-a-half generation’ Koreans.”

After graduating from West Anchorage High School, Kwon moved Outside to attend college and start his career as an electrical engineer. In the early 1990s, he moved back to Anchorage to help care for his parents. Kwon had been a project manager for ExxonMobil in California and planned to work in Alaska’s oil and gas industry, but when that fell through, he ended up stumbling into a job at a small building maintenance company. What was supposed to be a short-term gig turned into a career as a business owner.

“It’s not what I had envisioned,” Kwon admitted. “When you study engineering, you don’t say ‘I want to be a janitorial company owner.’ Really, I didn’t know much about it. My world was project management. But the principles of operating are about the same.”

Since 1993, M.C. Corporation has grown to offer everything from basic janitorial services to floor restoration, painting, maintenance and small improvement projects. The company also offers a specialty service called SaniGLAZE that seals tile floors to keep them cleaner and eliminate odors. The staff includes 40 full- and part-time staff who service about 20 clients, including private office buildings and municipal, state and federal properties.

M.C. Corporation was able to grow significantly through the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) program, which provided access to government contracts, and as it grew, Kwon found ways to share that success with others. Today the company has a nonprofit arm, M.C. Resource Management, that provides employment in food service for 35 Alaskans who experience disabilities.

“We live in the community, therefore you need to give yourself back to the community,” Kwon said. “That’s the only way businesses will thrive.”

Going ‘above and beyond’

One of Kwon’s satisfied clients is First National Bank Alaska, which contracts with the company for janitorial services at its Anchorage and Mat-Su branches and also provides business banking services for M.C. Corporation.

“They have just established a background with us of response above and beyond the call of duty,” said FNBA Vice President and Property Manager Mike Bridges. “They bend over backwards.”

More than once, Bridges said, M.C. Corporation has provided rapid response to help First National reopen branches quickly following emergencies. When Anchorage was struck by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake in November 2018, First National locations sustained damages including burst pipes, leaks, and downed equipment. As soon as the ground stopped shaking, M.C. Corporation sprang into action to help get the bank’s locations safe and ready for employees and customers to re-enter. With the exception of the main lobby at its hard-hit Eagle River branch, First National Bank Alaska was open for business later the same day throughout the Southcentral region.

“They were spectacular,” Bridges said. “We had everybody back to work within a few hours.”

Because of the business it’s in, First National has stringent requirements for vendors and their employees. Bridges said it makes his job “exponentially” easier to know that the bank has a reliable cleaning crew at the ready -- and not only is it nice to see the same faces every day, it’s a strong statement about the company.

“They have been one of our more stable vendors as far as the staff that’s doing the work on our behalf,” Bridges said. “They don’t seem to have a huge turnover. That means to me they’re taking care of (their employees).”

As it happens, just a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, First National conducted a pandemic flu drill as a company-wide training exercise. Because of that exercise, the bank was well-stocked with extra supplies. Even so, Bridges said he was impressed at just how prepared M.C. Corporation was for the pandemic.

“They came through with spray sanitizers and appropriate other materials and supplies, and immediate responsiveness for calls of potential COVID cases,” Bridges said. “Each time they have absolutely nailed it. They’ve made life easy for me and my team here.”

Getting coronavirus-ready

How was M.C. Corporation able to be ahead of the game when it came to COVID response? It all comes back to Kwon’s Korean roots -- and his TV habits.

Kwon is a daily consumer of television news. In addition to watching multiple American cable news channels for a mixture of perspectives, he regularly watches news from South Korea. It was that habit that put him ahead of the game when it came to preparing for the pandemic. When South Korean news began reporting the virus' spread in January, Kwon reacted swiftly. Before a single case of COVID-19 was reported in Alaska, M.C. Corporation’s staff had whipped up 200 office-made masks using dryer sheets as filters.

“I knew what was happening in Korea could be here,” Kwon said. “We actually prepared all kinds of chemicals and PPE prior to March. We were already making masks in the office (in) late January, early February, because we couldn’t find anything online.”

As soon as Anchorage started to implement measures to prevent the disease’s spread, M.C. Corporation notified all of its clients that periodic services like carpet shampooing would be delayed as the company shifted gears to disinfecting surfaces.

“We emphasize sanitary,” Kwon said. “We want to have sanitary buildings more so than shiny buildings. You could have a shiny building that’s really infected.”

Kwon was even able to source a handful of electrostatic sprayers -- the futuristic-looking devices you see workers using to spray down public spaces with disinfectant in news reports.

“That was hard to get,” Kwon said. “That took about two months. I did some research and I could only find it online through eBay from China.”

Employee education has been a priority from the start, he added. Masks and gloves became a required part of the uniform. Educational materials were prepared in both English and Spanish so all employees would be fully informed about COVID protocols. Cleaning teams generally travel in pairs, so schedules were rearranged where necessary to ensure those teams stayed consistent, and the company established its own internal contact tracing process.

“We have to protect our employees first,” Kwon said. “They (do) all the work. I’m just kind of the guy who watches the news and tells them about it.”

The future of the cleaning business

Like other Alaska small businesses, M.C. Corporation has experienced fallout from the struggling economy. While its services are essential, its clientele has been severely impacted.

“More people will be going to remote work locations, whether it’s home or somewhere else,” Kwon said. “The economic dynamics have changed. We don’t do the same thing anymore.”

Although there may be fewer offices to be cleaned and maintained, he added, disinfecting is increasing in importance, and he expects that demand for SaniGLAZE and air quality work will grow as well.

“The landscape for the janitorial and custodial business will change for the next decade,” Kwon said. “I think (clients) understand that keeping it sanitary is more important than just keeping it looking clean.”

For Kwon, who never expected to be in the cleaning business -- and certainly never expected to be in the pandemic-response business -- there has been a silver lining to the pandemic. From part-time employees to longtime clients, he has observed the year’s challenges being met with flexibility, patience, and a willingness to work together to protect Alaskans' health and safety.

“I do appreciate the support that we give each other,” Kwon said. “This is a time everyone just needs to help each other out and be more understanding.”

First National Bank Alaska has been Alaska’s community bank since 1922. We’re proud to support Alaskans by investing in your success as you take the leaps of faith, large and small, that enrich communities across the state.

This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. Photos by Matthew Waliszek. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.