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Kiplinger Magazine

MY PERSONAL FINANCES

Dr. Glass Does Windows

July 1998
By Marc L. Schulhof


How Philip Bregstone washes his way to a six-figure income--part-time.

Like many business people, Philip Bregstone counts a laptop computer and a cellular telephone among the tools of his trade. But he doesn't carry a briefcase. He totes a bucket.

As "Dr. Glass," a "boutique window washer" in a tony suburb of Washington, D.C., Bregstone cleans up: His annual gross income hovers around $100,000, a big-city salary that more than satisfies his family's needs--especially because they live in Colorado.

With his wife, Roberta, and 3-year-old son, Jonah, Bregstone spends eight months of the year in Nyland, a "co-housing" community outside Boulder, where the Bregstones own their own home and participate in communal activities. Philip helps raise animals, teaches music and takes care of Jonah while Roberta works as a sign-language interpreter.

But every spring, like the Orioles to Baltimore, they migrate back East for the window-washing season.

Humble beginnings. Bregstone, 38, launched his business 20 years ago to pay his way through Syracuse University. He spent vacations as Dr. Glass in his hometown of Potomac, Md., and continued the business as a graduate student studying music composition on a full scholarship at the nearby University of Maryland, in College Park.

After moving to Santa Fe, where he spent two years studying the Great Books at St. John's College, Bregstone continued to ply his trade during breaks. "I could fly home for long weekends to wash windows and visit friends," he says. "The work paid for the flight and a rental car." He even opened a branch office in Santa Fe.

When Bregstone finally settled in Colorado, he assumed his business would dry up. Instead, it has doubled. Every March the Bregstones pack up their Subaru and trek to Washington, where they rent an apartment in the shadow of the National Cathedral--usually for less than they charge to rent out their home in Boulder.

Bregstone's first stop is the home of a longtime client who has an extra-large basement, too much furniture and lots of glass. The client stores Bregstone's equipment every winter and lends him furniture for his apartment every summer in exchange for--what else?--annual window washing. (Another client trades Bregstone use of a vacation home near Vail. He washes the windows there,
too.)

On his way up. Though most of his tools are simple, "Dr. Glass" maintains his Potomac practice with a boost from technology. When he's in Colorado, calls to his Washington-area phone number are forwarded. He uses a computer to track his finances and appointments. When he's on a ladder 20 feet up, a cell phone keeps him in constant touch with customers and a digital voice recorder enables him to take notes on his calls.

In a given year, Bregstone services roughly half of his 800-customer database, at an average rate of $300 a job (these are big houses). In July the family returns to Colorado, and twice every fall Bregstone flies back to Washington alone to wipe up the last jobs of the season.

Bregstone has mixed feelings about his success. "My high school friends have graduated from law school and become partners while I'm 'just a window washer,'" he says. But life as Dr. Glass is too fulfilling to give up for a button-down career. And besides, "I enjoy washing windows," he says. "You go into a house with dirty windows and you have no money. You leave a few hours later and the windows are clean, you have money, and you get complimented on doing a good job."

In case you were wondering, Dr. Glass's prescription for clean windows is simple: Get a good squeegee.

Reporter: Stacy Stover

1999 The Kiplinger Washington Editors, Inc.