Hitting the road

Airplane at sunset. Photo: ©istock.com/guvendemir
Airplane at sunset. Photo: ©istock.com/guvendemir
Photo: ©iStock.com/guvendemir
Photo: iStock.com/guvendemir

Accepting out-of-town work can be a good business move—but only if it’s done right.

Jason Cupp recalls a situation where a client needed some emergency landscape maintenance done on a property the client owned out of state.

“I got the phone call at 4 p.m. and was on a plane at 7 p.m.,” says Cupp, a Kansas City, Mo.-based landscape industry consultant and former CEO of a landscape design/build firm. “My crew was on a plane the next morning, and we planned the job overnight.

“It was the only time I ever received a tip on a job,” he adds.

Cupp says his relationship and level of trust with that client was so strong—and the reoccurring business so profitable—that it was a no-brainer to accept the project, despite the hoops he had to jump through to get it done.

Accepting out-of-town projects may be a good business move—but only if it’s done right and for the right reasons, experts say. There are several things contractors should consider before accepting a job in unknown territory and hitting the road.

“In my opinion, the only reason to accept an out-of-town job is because it’s based on a relationship—either with an existing client or with a client whose business you want to get—or because it’s a strategic move that will help you enter a certain part of the marketplace,” Cupp says. “And the numbers absolutely have to make sense.”

Brandon Kuehler, owner of Light It Right in Houston, says his company takes on about five out-of-town jobs per year, such as servicing a client’s lake house or second home. The $900,000 company, which offers low-voltage lighting services primarily works in cities throughout Texas, but also has clients with homes in Colorado and North Carolina. Kuehler says word-of-mouth referrals have triggered more out-of-town requests. For example, he was recently offered an opportunity to service Applebee’s restaurants throughout Texas and in Oklahoma. He considers each project on an individual basis.

“We are pretty busy in Houston, so it’s a balancing act,” he says. “It depends on the job and what it is.”

Job considerations

To make an out-of-town job profitable, Cupp and Kuehler say it’s necessary to take into account extra costs associated with travel, equipment, materials and labor.

For out-of-town clients, Light It Right adds hotel costs and a per diem stipend of $40 per day per crew member as line items on the customer’s quote. For jobs far enough outside of the Houston area, the company would also add a vehicle usage charge. Many of Cupp’s out-of-town jobs also included airfare costs.

“You have to make sure the project is priced right and that the loaded costs are in there,” Cupp says. “I’ve seen contractors do a project many hours away and not make any money on it. It became a drain.”

Kuehler agrees. “You have to make sure you budget for that extra unexpected expense, and that it’s worth your time and investment.”

One pricing mistake Cupp has seen contractors make is assuming job costs will be similar in different 
marketplaces. For example, his firm did several jobs on the West Coast, where the costs of materials and labor are significantly higher than they are in Kansas City.

He suggests investigating material costs prior to accepting an out-of-town job by contacting industry peers or vendors in that market. These contacts also can recommend local 
suppliers and subcontractors, and perhaps even offer their office space as a staging location. Beyond that, Cupp recommends vetting suppliers by researching them online to make sure they’re reputable.

Material costs, like lighting supplies, differ by market. Consider this fact when pricing.
Material costs, like lighting supplies, differ by market. Consider this fact when pricing. (Photo: Light It Right)

While Kuehler usually comes prepared with all the materials he needs for an out-of-town job, he also makes sure to locate a reliable supply house in that region in case of an emergency. Like Cupp, he relies on recommendations from his local suppliers and his peers and does online research. To avoid hauling a large load, Kuehler also has shipped his supplies to local supply houses he has relationships with and picked them up when he arrived in the area.

“We always try to have everything we need for the job, plus some,” Kuehler says. “But if we happen to break a pipe or need a special adapter for a fixture we’re installing, it’s always nice to know of a local specialty supply house.”

In addition to researching local suppliers, Kuehler recommends looking into other aspects of the new marketplace. For example, his crews are used to working with the clay-like soil in Houston, so when they take a job in a place like Austin, where the soil is harder and rockier, Kuehler knows to factor in more time to complete the job and to come prepared with the appropriate tools.

Different cities also have different construction codes contractors must follow, so Kuehler does his homework to ensure he’s in compliance with the local standards. He says professional organizations, such as the Association of Outdoor Lighting Professionals, can help steer him in the right direction.

“Don’t be afraid to call and ask for help,” he says. “Other organizations can help you find out what you’re up against.”

Cupp and Kuehler both agree that marketing out-of-town work can be tricky and that these types of jobs are not for everyone. While Cupp listed “out-of-town concierge landscape services” on his company website, he doesn’t believe any business came from that mention. Kuehler does not actively market this type of work. Both Cupp and Kuehler agree that the out-of-town jobs that make the best business sense come from word-of-mouth referrals, strengthen existing client relationships or open profitable new doors.

“Some contractors get excited about out-of-town work, but for us, we never would have done it if it didn’t completely connect us to a client we already had or was a great client for us to pick up,” Cupp says. “Doing out-of-town work isn’t for every contractor, and most companies have enough work in their home market to make them successful.”

‘Tis the Season

One benefit of out-of-town work is it can help keep crews busy during the offseason. Jason Cupp, a Kansas City, Mo.-based landscape industry consultant and former CEO of a landscape design/build firm, used to scheduled jobs on the West Coast during the Missouri winters. While it was snowing in Kansas City, he also would take on jobs three hours south where many of his clients had lake homes and the weather isn’t as severe.

“Because we were a Midwest company in the snow market, we would try to sell some of our out-of-town work in our offseason,” he says. “Seasonality can help with scheduling.”

Updated 9/2/15 to correct the spelling of Brandon Kuehler and correct Light It Right’s location to Houston.

Schappacher is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.

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Emily Schappacher

Emily Schappacher is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.

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