Gazing out into the equipment yard some days, it may feel like you’re operating a truck dealership. Operating a landscape business requires a significant capital investment in vehicles and equipment. “We probably have over $1 million in automobiles out there,” says Pat Falvey, vice president and co-owner of Environmental Enhancements in Sterling, Va. “So, I would say that fleet management and maintenance is huge. It can’t go by the wayside.”
This month, Lawn&Landscape spoke to three firms about how they purchase, maintain and monitor their fleets to maximize the mileage and reduce wear-and-tear. It’s a game of balance: knowing when to repair and when to replace; deciding whether to hire a mechanic or subcontract service work. The more you put into a vehicle, the more you expect to get out of it. Here are their ideas on how to manage the fleet.
The mileage was getting out of hand. Earth & Wood’s headquarters in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, a retirement haven and outdoorsman’s mecca, is about a half hour from Missoula, the hub of western Montana. Earth & Wood crews tending to Missoula sites would clock 30 miles to and from the city, adding miles as they worked their daily routes. General Manager Gus Johnson says he averages a solid 90 miles per day on his truck just to facilitate company operations.
The long haul to and from headquarters to job sites in the region was taking a tool on vehicles. “In the heat of the summer, we’d have crews with three men hauling a truckload of debris and a trailer coming off of a landscape site down major highways at 5 p.m.,” Johnson says. Not pretty.
Wear and tear was a problem. Hot engines. Flat tires. There had to be a better way. “The travel expenses – not only gas and vehicle maintenance, but the labor involved – were so high that we leased a 1-acre piece of ground in Missoula on a main thoroughfare,” Johnson says of a decision made in 2000. On that property, Earth & Wood built a retail nursery with a staging area out back for vehicles. Now, crews working on Missoula accounts report to that office and drive a few miles to job sites.
Crewmembers live in town, so equipment for those routes stays in Missoula and operations are still managed out of Bitterroot Valley. All of this has greatly reduced travel and maintenance costs.
And if vehicles do have issues, in-house mechanics facilitate parts ordering and service.
Earth & Wood employs two mechanics, one in each location. Johnson, who calls himself a quasi-mechanic, oversees these two employees.
“We know our equipment really well, and we have outside subcontractors, like transmission shops, that are available to help,” Johnson says. “We work closely with suppliers who get parts to us quickly, and by utilizing the two mechanics we are very fortunate that equipment just doesn’t go down very often.”
And when Earth & Wood invests in a new vehicle or piece of equipment, the plan is to run it until it dies. High-mileage vehicles move into a “retirement” phase. “Typically, there is not much of a call for our heavy equipment after we are done with it, so we may tear it apart and turn it into a work truck,” Johnson says.
Owners replace their vehicles on a regular basis, then graduate those trucks into service vehicles for the fleet.
“Very seldom do we sell,” he says, attributing this to the high mileage and demand in his area. The population Earth & Wood serves is about 150,000.
But certainly, having a staging area in Missoula goes a long way toward trimming down mileage and reducing wear-and-tear.
“Now, our fellows go five or six miles round trip to a residence and back, and never at highway speed,” Johnson says.
Driving first impressions
Environmental Enhancements purchased four new trucks this year, stirring up its all-diesel fleet with gasoline engines instead. The company typically holds on to trucks for 10-12 years, says Pat Falvey, vice president and co-owner of the Sterling, Va.-based business. “We tend to wear out the truck before the engine reaches its lifespan,“ he says.
Because trucks last so long at Environmental Enhancements – Falvey says each crew only puts about 10,000-15,000 miles per year on a vehicle – the company always makes the decision to buy new. The warranty is typically 100,000 miles for the engine and 3-4 years for the rest of the truck, and this arrangement works to the company’s benefit, he says.
Plus, the firm can’t lease the color of truck it prefers: gold. “It’s not a stock color that you normally see on a dealer lot,” says Falvey, adding that a purchase means he can specify exactly what he wants in each truck. Some of the trucks have four doors and 10-foot beds; others are two-door, 12-foot bed models with tool storage. The 1-ton pick-up trucks work in winter to push snow.
Beyond truck specs, Environmental Enhancements chooses to buy for image reasons. Shiny, new trucks are important to the firm’s branding efforts, Falvey says. Only crew leaders are allowed to drive, and they must fill out daily circle checklists and weekly inspection reports, which are reviewed every Tuesday so parts can be ordered and service requests can be submitted.
Two part-time mechanics work at the company; one focuses on vehicles and the other on small engines. They come to work in the afternoon and stay late. “They are here when the crews roll in at night so they can deal with any emergencies at that time,” Falvey says. The company keeps a couple of spare vehicles, retired from the fleet, on hand in case one truck is down and out. But for the most part, a focus on preventive maintenance keeps all of the trucks on the road and in good condition.. “It’s easy for maintenance to get away from you if you let a month or two go where there is no follow-up,” Falvey says. “Regular maintenance protects your business and keeps production efficient.”
When employees take pride in their equipment, they take care of it. So Bozeman Tree, Lawn & Landscape Co. focuses on vehicle accountability, and that starts with giving crew leaders a well-maintained vehicle to drive.
That doesn’t mean trucks are brand-new, but they are cared for and detailed to a shine. And crews are responsible for keeping them in this top condition through weekly inspections. “We get buy in from the employees so they take care of (company property),” says Jeff Pfeil, president of the company. “We do this, in part, by giving them equipment that is clean and not beat up. Even if it’s an old truck, it looks good as new.”
How old, you wonder? The company still has not replaced much of the original equipment purchased when the business was started. Lawn and tree spray trucks are nearly 20 years old. Of course, the low mileage helps. Pfeil says that these trucks generally travel 30 to 50 miles per day for an average of 6,000 miles per season. They require just one oil change at the end of the season. Tree trucks that are dispatched on winter service routes clock more miles and get bi-annual oil changes in spring and fall. “We will probably get about 12 to 15 years out of tree equipment,” Pfeil says.
Achieving this longevity requires employee participation, and Pfeil says the inspections drive home the importance of constant maintenance and upkeep. After company weekly meetings, crews go out to their trucks, wash them and fill out the inspection reports. The process takes about 15 minutes, Pfeil says. Usually, it’s the little things that pop onto the radar during these once-overs: low fluid levels, leaks and excessive tire wear (possibly due to poor alignment or bad shocks). Pfeil uses a checklist and vehicle booklets he purchased from the Tree Care Industry Association. Each vehicle has a booklet.
Plus, Pfeil keeps a close eye on the condition of vehicles. He usually shows up at the shop early, before 7 a.m. when crews arrive, so he can take stock of vehicles and equipment and perform some random checks. “You have to stay diligent,” he says. And the same rule goes for getting vehicles repaired when necessary. “There is no such thing as deferred maintenance here,” Pfeil says. “When maintenance needs to get done, it gets done, period.” Service is performed by repair shops in town.
Pfeil is careful about who he puts behind the wheel of his vehicles. He won’t hire anyone with a poor driving record. “That ties in with maintenance, if you have a driving record,” he says, relating that the way one operates a vehicle is a reflection of a workers pride (or lack thereof) in the equipment. And simple pride, more than anything, is what keeps these vehicles running for umpteen years. “It’s not about technology,” Pfeil says. “It’s about awareness.”