Keeping the wheels turning

Photo: Wheeler Landscaping modernized logo
Wheeler Landscaping modernized its logo, which it proudly displays on its secure, enclosed equipment trailers.

When Rick Kier turned 16 and was finally old enough to get his driver’s license, he took the money he had saved from a paper route and mowing neighbors’ lawns and invested it in a new Chevrolet pickup. Because the region of New York State where Kier lives typically gets 100 inches or more of snow dumped on it annually, he also bought a snowplow for the truck. That was in 1978.

By the time Kier graduated from Jamevilles-Dewitt High School, he was the hustling owner/operator of Rick Kier Summer and Winter Services, with a fleet of three pickup trucks and several classmates as employees.

So began Kier’s career in landscaping and snow management that, during his career as a landscape professional, has seen him purchase 64 trucks over the years. As the founder and owner of 23-year-old Pro Scapes, based in Jamesville, NY, Kier’s fleet now consists of 30 trucks, including the three new models purchased last year.

In 2009 Kier also added to his equipment fleet four additional payloaders, three backhoes and a 100-hp farm tractor — all being maintained and repaired in a new four-bay maintenance building at Pro Scapes’ headquarters on a rolling, scenic former dairy farm in Jamesville, just outside of Syracuse. The new maintenance shop replaces a building half its size that was no longer adequate to handle the company’s vehicle/equipment maintenance and repair needs.

“Trucks and equipment are a huge part of our operation,” says Kier, who for many years did or helped out with most of his company’s vehicle and equipment maintenance and repairs.

“We have a lot of people, employees and customers, that depend on our equipment. If we don’t have the equipment or it’s not performing satisfactorily, then our people aren’t working and our customers aren’t getting the service we’ve promised them.”

Outside consultant
Recognizing the importance of safe, dependable trucks and other equipment, and planning for Pro Scapes to continue growing, Kier this past fall enlisted the aid of fleet management consultant John Dolce to help put systems in place that ensure the company’s truck and equipment maintenance and repair program will continue to meet its needs.

proscapeEven though the new maintenance shop is larger, cleaner and better organized, the company’s continued growth had put a strain on its ability to keep trucks and other equipment properly maintained and serviced. And, on occasion, this strain caused “finger pointing” among the crews or between the crews and the shop, Kier realized.

This isn’t unusual, Dolce explained to Kier. The consultant described the stress being put on the maintenance shop as part of the “growing pains” of a successful operation.

One of the solutions, Dolce suggested, was more employee training on proper vehicle and equipment use. Kier agreed.

“One of the reasons we’ve been so successful is because we’re committed to training. The next step for us is to implement a structured program for our vehicles and every piece of equipment,” Kier says. “I’m not going to slow down. I’m going to continue growing this company and buying more trucks and equipment. But what I have to do is lower our overall costs for vehicle and equipment utilization, maintenance and repair.”

Dolce, who has been a fleet consultant for almost 40 years and has written three books on the subject, looks at truck repairs and maintenance strictly by the numbers.

“Words have different meanings. They can be misunderstood. Numbers can’t,” says Dolce. “In building your service fleet and related fleet management and maintenance programs, develop systems to keep your field crews in close communication with your fleet and equipment maintenance person or people. But manage it with numbers — just like you do the rest of your business.”

Dolce points out there comes a time when the costs of maintaining and repairing vehicles and equipment, and the risk of related downtime and lost production, far outweigh the machines’ value to a company.

Unless a company meticulously tracks each truck’s and each piece of equipment’s expenses, also considering factors such as depreciation and trade-in value, it might hang onto vehicles and production equipment much too long.

This, and misused trucks and equipment, result in unexpected breakdowns and costly repairs, which can be a huge drain on a shop manager’s time and resources, and can trigger disruptions in production and lost revenues.

Dolce says shop managers and lead mechanics — even the most talented and organized — can only do so much. Many feel like they’re being asked to  “do a 12-hour job in an 8-hour day” because systems, based on numbers that track every aspect of a truck’s (or piece of equipment’s) usage, maintenance and repair history are not in place.

Mirror check

To help determine where the inefficiencies resided in the system Pro Scapes proscape2used to maintain and repair its vehicle fleet, owner Kier allowed Dolce to spend a day in private, separate, face-to-face meetings at the company headquarters with its two full-time and two part-time mechanics and also the firm’s account managers.

Dolce reminded each employee he wasn’t there to judge or criticize. He asked them to speak frankly about their jobs, and about any problems or frustrations they experienced with their vehicles or equipment. The meetings generally lasted 20 to 25 minutes each. The employees spoke frankly after some initial hesitation.

During the course of the interviews it became apparent Pro Scapes had work to do with maintaining and repairing its fleet. Much of that work focuses on a greater attention paid to pre- and post-trip reporting, recordkeeping and better communication between the field crews (through their supervisors) to the mechanics. This last point was a frustration voiced by almost every employee.

On the second day of Dolce’s visit, he shared his findings with Kier and offered suggestions focusing on the all-important numbers side of maintenance/repair and also with its operational and personnel sides.

“I built this business based on my attention to detail, and I’ve brought people in that have the same attention to detail,” Kier says.

On Jan. 1, Pro Scapes implemented a new reporting and tracking system to document the reports from the crews and also the performed service work. “The system tracks the cost to repair each piece of equipment as well as the annual cost of doing so,” Kier adds.

Different route

Wheeler Landscaping of Chagrin Falls, OH, has decided to try something new. This spring, Wheeler will be going a different route with its truck and equipment maintenance and repair program. It’s partnering with local vendors and depending on their help and expertise for service and major equipment repairs.

“We are relying a lot more on local vendors now, and they want our business,” says Rick Kerens, Wheeler’s Landscape Construction Project Manager.

Kerens handles installation crews during the growing season and all snow operations in the winter.

“Putting this into action was a little bit scary at first,” Kerens says. “To even consider this new process, it required trust with the vendors to be able to turn over our 23 trucks and equipment and know that the repairs will be done in a timely fashion, repaired properly and at a fair price.”

Like most companies, Wheeler Landscaping does its truck preventative maintenance (PM) strictly by the numbers. Every truck gets a full PM including oil changes and lubrication every 3,000 miles.

“Our supervisors and crew leaders log the mileage of their trucks when they do their pre-trips,” Kerens says. “When it’s time to do an oil change we call the dealerships where we purchased the trucks. They pick it up and take it to their facilities. They change the oil and inspect all of the basic components for wear and damage. When finished, they return the trucks to us.”

Kerens says the vendor keeps a complete maintenance record for each vehicle and has been very good about informing him if it finds any unusual wear, damage or any indication of operator misuse of the truck.

“We used to do everything in-house and we found it very cumbersome tracking when maintenance and repair were being done to trucks,” he says.

PM partners
Kerens equates the process to the nursery stock Wheeler Landscaping used to carry at its site but no longer does.

“We used to spent a lot of time and money caring for it, but now we let the local nurseries do that. They have the expertise to do it better, and it’s more convenient and cost effective for us. We look to our truck vendors the same way.”

The company will do minor fixes on its trucks inhouse — those that can easily be done through its 25-point pre-trip vehicle inspections. Everything else is done by the vendor.

“The key to making this work is finding go-to vendors and building the right relationships,” Kerens says. “That vendor has to understand what we’re trying to achieve as a company and that, in the end, we’re both on the same team. There are great vendors out there that will become your right hand and really come through because they care about your business. This results in a win-win for both.”

Kerens says the vendor must realize Wheeler Landscaping’s need to keep its trucks safe and operable.

“Every supervisor we hire, every crew leader we hire, every employee we hire is needed to be on the jobs working safely, efficiently and producing billable hours for the company. If we have a problem with a truck, we can’t make money with it,” he says.

Wheeler has made similar arrangements with its snowplow and other equipment vendors.

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