Professional Grounds is located in a sweet spot of the greater Washington, D.C., area. Its modest property, little more than an acre in size, is about 12 miles from the capitol and situated along Interstate 95, a main traffic artery.
“A lot of our competition is further out, so we have a niche here close in,” says Bill Trimmer, president of the Springfield, Va.-based company, which he co-founded in 1974 as a maintenance firm. In 1992, the company added a landscape division, and gradually the company has grown from a start-up to 100 employees and $6 million in annual revenues. “Other companies are within a 20 to 25 mile radius of the city, so to come in and do this work during the day,
it could take them an hour to get to jobs we can drive to in 10 minutes.”
Location is a big deal when traffic can kill drive-time productivity. And efficient operations are critical for making the most of precious morning time, when a 5-minute slow-down at the shop can mean an extra hour on the road.
That’s why over the years, Professional Grounds has implemented efficiency measures to make the most of its small parking space, perfectly time the morning rush out of the shop, and manage precious labor hours, which are one of the biggest expenses for a landscape company.
“Labor is everything if you are doing maintenance work,” Trimmer says. That’s why the firm focuses on smaller crews, decreasing windshield time and improving efficiencies across the board.
Here’s how Professional Grounds takes care of business in the D.C. fast lane.
The Morning rush
A sign posted on the gate of Professional Grounds lets crews know if I-95 is a logjam or if the highway is decongested enough to travel efficiently. It’s a simple system. The board says I-95, and a “no” or “yes” sign below it instructs crews to take the Interstate or local roads. This makes all the difference in the crews’ morning commute to jobs.
And as soon as crews arrive at work, they unlock their assigned truck (labeled with an “M” for maintenance, a number and the driver’s name), start the engine and head out of the gate. All of the preparation, including gassing up the truck and all equipment on-site, is completed the night before. “Crews are expected to be loaded up and ready to go in the morning, so all they need to do is get in the truck and leave,” Trimmer says. “It’s so important for us to get on the road early here because of traffic problems.”
Professional Grounds’ property is tight, and its morning schedule leaves no wiggle room. So the company has developed systems for parking, fueling, scheduling and completely preparing each crew. The routine begins when the company’s dovetail trucks (they’re easier to park and maintain) file in after a day’s work. The company has 48 vehicles and 1.1 acres of land – but all trucks are parked on 0.16 acre, says Melissa Bigler, marketing director. Because crews return to the shop at different times – some roll in at 3 p.m., others at 6 p.m., depending on the day’s job – parking and fueling is easier in the afternoon hours. It would be impossible in the morning because the lot is basically wall-to-wall metal. Trucks are backed in with about 1 foot between each vehicle.
After returning to the shop, trucks fuel up at the 50-gallon above-ground gasoline and diesel tanks. There’s also a 50-gallon tank of premixed fuel for two-cycle equipment. “None of the crews mix their own two-cycle gas, it’s all done here at the shop,” Trimmer says, adding that the on-site convenience is an efficiency booster. “You can imagine how much time it saves if they can fuel up here and not go to a gas station. We can control the cost and fuel usage.”
Plus, when trucks fuel up at the end of the day, there’s no pileup at the pump. “As they get back in that staggered format, they refuel,” he says.
Then, they park – very close together.
“There’s always someone here helping drivers back up into each tight space,” Bigler says. The property, situated on a hill, is divided into an upper and lower area. Maintenance trucks (there are 17 crews) are parked below, and landscape vehicles park up top where the materials are stored, which makes loading trucks easier.
Equipment is loaded and chained into trucks for safety – the company has experienced a couple of break-ins. “It looks like a football field here at night it’s so lit up, with cameras,” Bigler says.
On the road, GPS systems in each truck track details such as mileage, speed and idle time. Trimmer knows how fast each truck travels in I-95, and if a driver exceeds the speed limit, a report tells the story. “We also have a no idling program, and anyone who idles their vehicles more than 3 minutes will get a report for that,” Trimmer says.
Beyond managing cost and time, GPS can confirm work performed, Trimmer says. For example, when a snow client called and questioned whether Professional Grounds visited the site, Trimmer pulled up the truck report that detailed the truck’s route and how long it was on the property. “GPS can validate the work you are doing – you have to use the technology available to you,” Trimmer says, adding that after 38 years in the industry, you stay fresh by trying new things.
The people factor
Every labor activity is accounted for at Professional Grounds – but the real efficiency begins with the people on staff. “The biggest movement you can make in improving your efficiency is in your people,” Trimmer says. “You only want A and B people – and you only want B people who can be trained to be A people. In this economy, there are great people out there looking for jobs, and you need to take advantage of that. Your people are everything.”
Trimmer says Professional Grounds has had no problem recruiting top talent in the D.C. area. “The good people are out there,” he says. The company finds them by keeping up with who’s who in their market. They know where the top performers work. And they have a headhunter service that provides leads. For foreman and crewmember positions, an advertisement on Craig’s List will result in a line at the door.
Trimmer sticks to the old adage, “Hire slow, fire fast.” “How many times have you let go of a marginal person and wondered why you waited so long to make that move?” he asks. Good employees are better for the bottom line and company morale, he adds.
Meanwhile, those crews are relatively small and adaptable in their work schedules, by design. Small, specialized crews are more efficient, Trimmer says. “Each job doesn’t require three or four guys – that needs to be flexible,” he says. Based on the foreman or production managers’ daily reports of each job, the next day’s schedule is determined and crew size is planned.
Further, every man-hour on each job is tracked on a report. Jobs are assigned estimated man-hours, and weekly updates show whether the crews’ performance is meeting the goals. “We keep a running tally of estimated man-hours compared to the actual man-hours,” Trimmer says. “Crews are very aware of that man-hour goal, and they do what they can to meet it while still delivering quality. You have to measure and track performance.”
The result of watching the numbers is a history of strong performance overall at Professional Grounds, which has another location in Sterling, Va., that covers western counties. “We’re having a good year so far, and we’re off to a strong start,” Trimmer says.