Systemized success

December 9, 2014 -  By
From left: Jay Felton and Fritz Frazier.

From left:
Jay Felton and Fritz Frazier.

How Winter Services uses systems to streamline operations and drive growth.

Puzzled faces stare back at Jay Felton, president of Winter Services, when he poses the question, “How many of you are unworried about your business when you’re away?” during a presentation to snow professional peers at the Snow & Ice Symposium, held June 18-21 in Columbus, Ohio.

Finally, Felton’s business partner and CEO Fritz Frazier breaks the silence in the conference room at the Columbus Convention Center.
He waves a 2-inch-wide binder with four tabs above his head. It’s Winter Services’ “systems journal,” Frazier explains, “nothing super sexy,” just “simple.” It’s how he and Felton keep peace of mind that operations are running smoothly at their headquarters in West Allis, Wis., in their absence.

The binder’s tabs represent four business divisions—administration, fleet management, operations/production and sales and marketing. They house the deliverables for each division 365 days of the year and, most importantly, the deadlines by which those should be met by its 20 full-time employees and 500 seasonal employees.

The tome embodies the secret sauce to Winter Services’ success: systems or, as Frazier puts it, “how things get done” at the commercial snow removal company.

Identify a need

It all started with a “midlife crisis,” Frazier says, jokingly.

“I had a dream,” he recalls. “I wanted to run a business, enjoy the fruits of labor. I ended up buying a freaking snow removal business.”

Working as an executive at Kohl’s at the time, snow removal seemed sound due to its singular focus. In Frazier’s eyes, it also was an admirable occupation, being that it’s more need-based than service-based.

Winter Services stays on top of deadlines with Gantt charts and white papers.

Winter Services stays on top of deadlines with Gantt charts and white papers.

Within six months of taking over the business in 2005, Frazier noticed his need-based business had a lot of needs itself, especially in the areas of cash flow, sales, routes and employee management.

From prior experience, he knew systems were the answer.

Frazier, who calls himself “more of a visionary,” welcomed Felton to the business in 2007. Felton, who also came from Kohl’s, is more execution-oriented and helped steer Winter Services into a system-focused organization, Frazier says.

Drawing on both of their experiences from the department store and Frazier’s experience at PC maker Gateway, the executives piggybacked off the ways those large corporations ran successful companies.

Operational systems are the focus, Felton says. The gist is to create documents to manage people’s behaviors.

To jump-start the systemization process, “We got everything out of everyone’s heads and put it on a calendar,” Frazier says.

Set milestones, work backward

The first step is identifying critical business domains, such as Winter Services has with administration, fleet management, operations/production and sales and marketing.

“Each area in your business should have a designated point person who will be responsible for building and maintaining their respective portion of their systemization process,” Felton says.

sample-white-paperNext, have those point people identify milestones to be met every year (see sidebar below). Then, plot those milestones on a Gantt chart or tracking document, such as an Excel spreadsheet, creating deadlines for when each should be accomplished.

From there, work backward. Plot small milestones that must be completed to meet the larger milestone on deadline, also noting who is responsible for completing them.

“Write down all these key steps and how far in advance you would like them accomplished,” Felton says.

Use historical data to determine the milestones. It’s critical to have employees plot these timelines themselves, he adds.

“It forces your employees to be realistic about what they have to get done,” Frazier says. “The reality of it is they don’t make some of those deadlines, but it gives them guardrails of your business so you don’t fall off the cliff and totally miss something.”

For example, if a piece of equipment needs serviced within 30 days, small milestones could include when the equipment should be assessed by and when blades must be ordered.

Winter Services tags such small milestones also as “check-in dates,” when employees must fill out a white paper noting the extent to which a task has been completed and by whom.

White papers should include information such as the event name, time to complete it, location, objective, goal and materials (as needed), Felton says.

The compilations of those documents—the Gantt chart and/or flowchart and white papers—become a “business bible,” Frazier says.

It creates historical data to benchmark team performance to set goals for future initiatives, Felton says.

In terms of organizing those documents, it’s quite simple at Winter Services.

“It’s an Excel document,” Frazier says. “You just list the task and the date you want it done.”

Housing the deadlines in a single spot and keeping them up to date also eases job roles, especially in the event of a new hire. Having documents that highlight the responsibilities of each position provides transparency and a clear path for training employees.

Winter Services, with 500 seasonal workers, maintains more than 900 accounts.

Winter Services, with 500 seasonal workers, maintains more than 900 accounts.

Revel in results

The systems journal comes into play here, in that Frazier keeps hard copies of the documents in the binder as a quick reference for the systems in place.

The struggle with systemization, Felton says, can be finding the time and people to implement the initiatives. On the flip side, once you start implementing the processes, it will unveil “who has the capacity to work harder for you,” he says.

For some perspective, Felton pointed out Winter Services’ employee retention is around 75 percent to 80 percent year-to-year.

In addition, as Winter Services closes in on its 10-year anniversary in 2015, Frazier notes it has grown from 85 accounts in Milwaukee to more than 900 accounts in seven states. It heads into that landmark with a 90 percent customer renewal rate—a statistic Frazier credits to systems.

“Your renewal rate is the success of your systems,” he says. “Your systems are what run your business, and your people are what run your systems.”

Milestones: Where to begin

Approximately 90 percent of snow removal activities occur at the exact same time every year, Winter Services President Jay Felton says. With that in mind, here are five questions to answer and consider creating milestones for:

-When do I have to get my routes done?
-When do I have to finalize my salt order?
-When would I like all my preventive maintenance complete?
-When would I like all my accounts receivable cleaned up?
-What are my sales goals and when do I want all the agreements?

About the Author:

Former Associate Editor Sarah Pfledderer is a West Coast-based contributing editor for Landscape Management.

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