Operating efficiently before, during and after snow events

May 14, 2019 -  By
McIntosh truck out during storm. (Photo: McIntosh Grounds Maintenance)

Photo: McIntosh Grounds Maintenance

Knee-deep in a no-excuse business, snow management companies must find ways to operate efficiently before, during and after snow events.

“We only get one chance every one or two weeks to make money, so we have to be spot on,” says Doug McIntosh, owner and founder of Milan, Mich.-based McIntosh Grounds Maintenance, which has performed all-commercial snow services since about 2014. “Efficiencies are so important but are overlooked because people are worried about the top line versus the bottom line.”

The company was founded in 1987, but it didn’t start offering commercial and residential snow services until the early 1990s when it was faced with the looming possibility of losing several accounts to other local companies who offered year-round services.

“I’m passionate about it now because I understand the numbers and how profitable snow is,” McIntosh says. “You learn to love it, buy the right equipment and hire the right guys, and all of a sudden, it’s not just an add-on but one of our main services.”

Schill Grounds Management in northern Ohio is another commercial snow management company that sees the value in planning and operating efficiently.

“Ninety percent of the work is done before and after the storm,” says Jerry Schill, president and CEO of the company, which has about 100 employees and three locations. “The easiest part of the whole thing is just executing. You go out and you move it, melt it, stack it or haul it.”

T minus three days

With a large portion of the preparation work occurring long before the skies have even begun to darken, snow management companies must decide on the most ideal time to start their services for each snow event.

When deciding on the best time to dispatch crews, McIntosh factors in the day of the week and time of day the snow event is expected to hit, the temperatures during the event, as well as the amount and type of precipitation that’s expected (such as freezing rain, snow, etc.)

Schill says he uses information from the internet and a third-party meteorologist to continually track the weather on a regional and local basis.

Based on the information from those predictions, Schill Grounds Management holds meetings to talk about strategy, including staffing, material and equipment requirements. Often, these discussions are part of the company’s 15-minute
daily huddle.

Once a decision has been made, the communication can commence.

“The biggest and most important part of any successful storm management plan is communication with our clients and our partners,” Schill says.

The company’s communication tactics are threefold: Partners and subcontractors are contacted by email or texted through a platform called EasyText, snow clients are informed about the upcoming weather (based on their region and ZIP code) by email through HubSpot and each of the company’s branches are called upon by the corporate office HR department to determine staffing requirements.

At McIntosh, the company sends texts to its employees two days and one day before the event, reminding them to get plenty of sleep, pack a lunch and avoid fast food and energy drinks.

T minus 24 hours

When it’s crunch time, the crews at Schill Grounds Management and McIntosh Grounds Maintenance don’t leave anything to chance.

“If we know snow is coming, prep work is crews’ first priority before they go home the day before,” McIntosh says. “You never know what tomorrow is going to bring so be ready today.”

The crews get equipment on-site and ready to go, stock up materials, clean and gas up trucks, hook up plows, load shovels, place snow blowers by the door and check lights and spreaders to make sure they’re working properly.

“Sometimes equipment may sit for a week or two and not get used very often, so we’re also testing, fueling, starting and checking oils and lubricants because those are the last things you want to do in the middle of the night or during a blizzard,” Schill adds.

Depending on the type of precipitation expected, Schill may send crews to pretreat sidewalks with a liquid product. “That’s time for the product to get on the sidewalks, work itself in and crystallize,” he says.

Go time

Because all the prep work has been completed, crews are ready to attack their jobs head on when the snow starts falling.

No matter the event, both companies tout safety — of their employees as well as bystanders — as a No. 1 priority.

“Our No. 1 goal in the summertime is to make things pretty, but our No. 1 goal in the wintertime is to make things safe,” McIntosh says.

To stay safe on the road, both companies say it’s important to make sure that each crew’s jobs are close in proximity.

“We don’t want anyone driving back and forth across town,” McIntosh says. “Typically, we don’t go to work unless it’s crisis mode, and we don’t want guys on the road more than they have to be.”

Because the conditions are often dangerous, Schill says his company also tries to eliminate unnecessary radio chatter.

“It’s not safe for them to be talking on phones and doing a million different things, so once it’s time to go, we go,” Schill says, adding that each crew is GPS tracked in real time, in case any problems were to arise.

To keep crews fresh, McIntosh says his company operates in six-hour rotations and tries not to keep anyone on for more than 12 to 14 hours. “Accidents happen whenever you stress guys out too much,” he says.

Evaluating the type and size of equipment for each job is also important. For example, a large broom works well on flat sidewalks, but a shovel might be better for areas that have stairs, according to McIntosh.

McIntosh adds that he makes sure there’s bottled water ready to go at the shop for the crews to take on the road, so they’re not making unnecessary stops to stay hydrated.

Post-event wrapup

Once the event is over, the paperwork, such as incident reports and other documentation, can begin.

Schill says that the company sends out all billing within 48 hours and handles any communication that’s required with clients.

From an operational standpoint, crews restock products such as fuel, bulk salt, bag salt and liquid salt. Any equipment that may have been damaged is red tagged and taken care of.

“Then, everyone can go home and get some sleep,” McIntosh says.

Ready all year

Even when the temperatures rise and equipment is put in storage for the season, the work is far from complete for snow management companies.

For example, companies may hold trainings throughout the year.

“If you have someone new, (he) could end up putting down too much salt or plowing inefficiently,” McIntosh says. “A lot of people think you drop your blade and start pushing, but you need to know where to start and finish. We’ve developed books, and all of our plow routes have maps on their sites that we review in-depth.”

Additionally, both companies are constantly recruiting snow employees, even in the summer months.

To help with its recruiting efforts, Schill says his company employs several full-time recruiters, attends job fairs, hosts open houses and tries to provide beneficial relationships for students, such as learn-and-earn opportunities.

“Instead of complaining about not having enough help, we’ve got people to try and help us find more people,” Schill says. “We’ve just taken the extra time to figure out how to fix those challenges.”

McIntosh recommends paying well and being honest with potential employees about what the job entails.

“If you lie to them about what’s coming, they’re going to pick up on it real fast, they’ll be disgruntled and they’ll put you in a bad spot,” he says.

Sarah Webb

About the Author:

Sarah Webb is Landscape Management's associate editor. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Wittenberg University, where she studied journalism and Spanish. Prior to her role at LM, Sarah was an intern for Cleveland Magazine and a writing tutor.

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