September 18, 2015

Easing the transition

Strategies to cope with spring and fall unpredictability


Landscapers who also clear snow and ice work hard year ‘round, but nature throws in some extra challenges during the transition periods from fall to winter and winter to spring. That early November day scheduled for fertilizing lawns might bring an unexpected snowfall.  An early spring melt could leave your plow crews with nothing to do while your customers clamour for landscape cleanup and repairs. These and other situations can be logistical nightmares if you haven’t planned ahead. Here are some strategies for making transitional periods less chaotic and more profitable.

Review contracts and sales prospects early 
Having trained crews and the right equipment to handle the unexpected is key to easing those hectic transitional periods. Since staff and equipment decisions are tied to the type and amount of business you generate, industry pros advise reviewing your customer contracts and new prospects as early as possible: June or July for winter work and January for spring to fall work. It takes time to hire and train additional staff and to negotiate deals with subcontractors. If you’ll need to order new equipment, remember that delivery can sometimes take weeks or months. 

Consider offering your customers and prospects an incentive to sign up early with you. For example, Gelderman Landscaping in Waterdown, Ont.,  guarantees pricing to condominium and HOA customers who sign on for five-year, twelve-month contracts. “Our prices tend to be 20 or 25 per cent higher than our competitors’ at the start of the contract for year one,” explains Nathan Helder, Gelderman’s president. “But I don’t raise prices every year like some other firms do. I want to get paid upfront for our work. That’s why our price is higher initially. But then year two has no increase, year three has a three percent increase and years four and five have no increases. So, for the five-year period all they are seeing is a three percent increase.”

Don’t keep or take on customers you can’t serve cost-efficiently. Consider: do a customer’s unrealistic demands take up too much of your crews’ time? Is a prospect too far away from your normal routes to be profitable? Says Helder, “With winter work, we always leave some room for late signups in December, but only if that site is near our existing sites — for example, in the middle of two of our other sites. If it makes sense and we’re in the area, okay. If it’s not we’ll say no. It would be too expensive for us to service them properly and most would be unwilling to pay extra.”

Don’t carry more equipment than you need
Once you have a sense of the business that next season will hold, it’s time to review the state of your equipment and whether it should be repaired or replaced. Helder’s philosophy is to have no unnecessary equipment sitting around in any season. “We try to be like McDonalds and take a cookie-cutter approach. We use 4 x 4 plow trucks. We use a single stage snowblower. We don’t want to have too many different types of equipment. If we need to do something special we’ll hire a subcontractor or rent the special equipment.”

 These days Gelderman rents a lot of their equipment, Helder says, “because I only want the cost incurred for a particular time period. I might be paying a little more by renting but I’m not using cash, and equipment depreciates so quickly. I look at return on assets. What’s my net income divided by my total assets? I find with most landscape businesses they have a lot of iron kicking around. They’re really not making the income that they should with all this iron. They say, Oh, it’s paid off. Yeah right. It’s sitting on your balance sheet and not doing anything for you.” A bonus in having rented equipment, he adds, is that it’s always new. “Our breakdowns are fewer. And employees like new equipment. They take better care of it.” 

Keep what you have well serviced year round
Whether you rent or own, you’ll reduce unexpected breakdowns by keeping equipment ready to go year round. “With trucks, make sure all the servicing schedules are followed. That’s important,” says Helder. Although Gelderman does not have a mechanic on staff, “We have strategic service relationships with providers throughout our area,” he explains. “We’ll drive in, they’ll take care of us and we’ll have it the next day. And we have a fleet manager who takes care of all that stuff. We’ve had fewer breakdowns in the last year thanks to him being on top of things. He’s not involved with snow or landscape operations — just fleet operations. He’s always making sure everything is top notch.”

Kindergan Landscaping in Bergenfield, N.J., serves a variety of residential and commercial clients. The firm has one full time and two part time mechanics on staff, said its president Danny Kindergan in a Landscape Live! radio interview. Mowers, blowers, trimmers, aerators and other spring equipment are serviced all year, he explained, but his crew spends a little extra time servicing them before putting them into storage for the winter.

And, to make sure equipment is accounted for at all times, Kindergan assigns his crew to colour-coded teams. So, for example, anyone on his “red” equipment team is responsible for the “red” truck and everything in that truck and trailer. 

Prevent seasonal amnesia 
Although landscapers sometimes use the phrase “seasonal amnesia” with a chuckle, being rusty on the use and care of seasonal equipment is no laughing matter. If you haven’t used a piece of equipment for several months, you’re bound to forget a few things and this can lead to workplace accidents as well as equipment breakdowns and delays. 
ULS Landscaping serves residential, institutional and commercial clients in Calgary and Regina. The firm uses a combination of tools to address seasonal amnesia, according to its vice president Paul Atkinson. These include training sessions from equipment manufacturers to web-based equipment training modules provided by a firm called LS Training. Although the modules are intended as basic training for new employees, they can be used as refreshers.

ULS is currently formalizing a comprehensive training/accreditation program which classifies crew as operator in training, probationary operator and professional operator. According to Atkinson, only professional operators use equipment independently and they must be deemed capable by the firm’s safety training coordinator.

Reduce crew stress 
ULS’s policies around safety, pay, strategic routing and scheduled shifts go a long way towards easing the stressful uncertainty of transitional periods for the firms’ crews and reduce the risk of burnout. Says Atkinson, “Our staff is paid hourly in the summer months and then, in November, we switch them to a guaranteed-hour contract. So whether they work or not they get paid. That relieves a lot of the stress right there. They might not work for a week or two, or work very little. Then when it snows they’re all rested up.” 

As for winter routing, high priority clients such as hospitals are scheduled for early morning, while lesser priority sites — like back parking lots that are rarely used — are slotted for the end of the day. Adds Atkinson, “when crews know they’re done at a certain time, the work is much easier on them — especially for the overnight plowing teams. They know that at a certain time, they hand the keys over to someone else and go home.”

The thought of going home to a hot meal is uppermost on the mind of anyone nearing the end of a harrowing shift. And there are things you can do to give your crews something to look forward to. For example, Gelderman provides comforting meals like lasagna or chili to operators who won’t have a meal waiting at home, says Helder. In any season, he adds, you need staff you can count on so you, the boss, can be thinking ahead. This is what separates the amateurs from the pros, whatever nature has in store. 

Susan Hirshorn is a Montreal-based writer, editor and communications consultant.