Plan before you plow

May 14, 2019 -  By
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Selecting the right equipment can go a long way to help with the labor shortage. (Photo: Brian Mauer)

Selecting the right equipment can go a long way to help with the labor shortage. (Photo: Brian Mauer)

Owners better have a plan, team and equipment in place before the first flake of the year falls if they offer snow and ice removal services. Without those things, they (and their revenue stream) will be left frozen in place.

Three landscape contractors offer tips and advice on purchasing snow equipment, hiring employees and becoming more efficient during the winter season.

Double duty

When purchasing snow and ice equipment, it comes down to versatility and then reliability for Brian Maurer, president of Brian-Kyles Landscapes of Distinction in Lorain, Ohio.

“There is a lot of equipment out there,” Maurer says. “If we have two similar pieces of equipment from different manufacturers, we look for who will partner with us and allow us to stock common issue parts and/or provide better service during emergencies.”

His company has an annual revenue of $3.2 million and provides landscape management, design/build and snow/ice management services to a 60 percent commercial and 40 percent residential clientele.

Since finding winter labor is a struggle, Maurer looks for equipment that’ll compensate for the shortage.

“Over the past couple of years, we have started to replace most of our older snow pushers — conventional snow pushers with rubber cutting edges — and have made the transition to Arctic sectionals and SnowWolf QuattroPlows,” Maurer says. “We have found that the conversion to these plows has bettered our efficiencies and decreased the amount of salt used post-storm.”

The company also purchased and converted over some of its green-season equipment, including mowers that have manufacturer options to upgrade to winter equipment. Maurer recently purchased two mini loaders, in lieu of smaller skid-steers, to handle sidewalk operations.

“These two changes have allowed us to reduce the amount of on-demand help we need and has allowed us to do more with less,” Maurer says.

Brian-Kyles uses all of its staff from the growing season for snow and ice services and also brings on workers from other seasonal companies. “We establish relationships with other seasonal businesses like concrete and roofing contractors,” he says.

No matter how long someone has been working in the industry, Maurer says the company always trains them on its standard operating procedures (SOPs) and then evaluates personnel and clients’ sites on these SOPs.

For example, the company’s region experienced long durations between snow events this past winter. To keep its team ready for the next accumulation, it held mock events and refresher courses in-house to focus on the priorities of the sites it
was responsible for.

Knowing the site

For Lewis Bennett, owner/operator at Little Miss Mow It All in Pinebluff, N.C., it isn’t just about planning an efficient route: The company also needs to map out the best entry point for each property.

Bennett’s company plans its routes ahead of the season, looking for problem areas that might arise.

“One of our properties has two different ways to get there — one of which has a heavily graded hill that would be difficult to pull a trailer with a skid-steer up in icy conditions,” Bennett says. “So, that way is avoided altogether in favor of the other, flatter approach.”

The $750,000 company offers maintenance, design/build, lawn care and snow/ice removal services to a clientele that is 60 percent residential and 40 percent commercial.

The company uses skid-steer buckets to clear parking lots, as well as shovels and push blades for sidewalks and curbs. Since it is in a warmer climate with fewer snow events, it mainly uses equipment and tools already in its fleet that can be useful for pushing snow.

Bennett and his wife, Dana Shook, each run a crew: Shook’s crew goes first to run shovels, and Bennett and his team come behind to push the lots and resalt. The company chooses key crew members for snow and ice removal services. He says the company is careful to manage crews’ workload, which is important since snow events require a timely response.

“For our area, I would say be careful not to take on more than you can handle as we have picked up full accounts — maintenance and snow services — because the company that was contracted could not fulfill the snow removal requirements,” Bennett says.

Residential focus

Instead of competing for large commercial accounts during the snow season, John Paige — general manager of Nurney Landscape & Design in Buckingham, Pa. — found a different niche: residential driveways.

“The unique thing for us is that we’re willing to do so much residential, whereas most everyone else is focused on commercial,” Paige says. “That’s been really profitable for our business.”

His company provides full-service landscape maintenance, irrigation, power washing, design/build and snow/ice removal services and has $1.2 million in annual revenue.

Its snow and ice customer mix is 90 percent residential and 10 percent commercial. It uses pickup trucks, Jeeps, skid-steers and loaders with plows for snow services. Paige says he looks for efficient vehicles and equipment that will increase productivity and that have narrower wheel bases that will fit on driveways.

“They’re all winding and really tight, so we use smaller equipment to allow more maneuverability,” he says.

Paige says his company tries to relieve homeowner tensions before a snow event by using an automated texting service.

“If there’s a storm coming in, we text all our customers to let them know we are thinking about them, and they’re on the schedule,” he says. “It eases their mind that they will be taken care of. Our call center gets very little calls because of that.”

For internal preparations, the team plots out the plan. It routes each year during its preseason meeting, which includes crew leads and managers. “We get their feedback of what did and didn’t work, and that’s critical,” Paige says.

Paige aims to employ the same crew members year-round, so he doesn’t normally bring on anyone new for snow removal. To make that possible, he looks to create a steady stream of work during the year.

“Snow removal is a portion of what we do, but it’s not the key factor of what we’re doing,” Paige says. “Our focus when we sell snow services is to look for customers we can turn into full-service clients.”

While some companies focus all of their efforts on snow services, Paige says he knows that’s not his company’s business model and encourages other landscape contractors to understand what makes sense for them.

“We can chase every snow lead all day long and sell it, but those are where we fail when we take on a client that doesn’t fit our company,” Paige says. “If you remember who you are, you’re golden.”

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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