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Chasing nickels

Features - Business Management

7 boring ways to make your maintenance crews more productive and profitable.

Chuck Bowen | September 11, 2012

Mike Rorie grew his maintenance company from $5 million to $30 million in eight years. How? Mostly through a laser focus on how to operate efficiently and eliminate as much waste as possible. Earlier this year, he shared some of his tips for other contractors to get the most out of their production crews.

“It’s a game of throwing nickels, dimes and dollars into the bucket,” Rorie says. “Every production person puts a key in something and burns fuel when they start working. The best thing you can do is think about how much of that can you completely eliminate?”

A lot of what Rorie’s tips will save you is intangible, but that doesn’t make them less important. You’ll save money on fuel, sure, but more importantly, you’ll save time.

More time means more attention and focus on selling new work, closing accounts and planning for jobs. Better routing means increased profit per employee and boosts the lifetime value of your customers.

“You get more capacity,” Rorie says. “The incremental cost is small, so it’s often overlooked.” But it’s there. Add it up over time and it can mean big things for your entire company. Here’s how to get it.


1. Questions to ask at the outset of this exercise:

  • How many times do you travel to a customer’s site per year?
  • How far is your average job from your dispatch point?
  • How many solo trips do you make a year?
  • How far are they on average?
  • How many trips do you not need to make at all?
  • What’s rush hour like in your market?
  • When makes the most sense for your crews to roll out and return to the shop?


2. Keep in mind that you want to leverage the best and most productive use of your:

  • Time. This is the most expensive and fleeting resource you have.
  • Fuel. It’s not going to get any cheaper.
  • Fleet. Mowers can’t cut much grass when they’re stuck in a traffic jam.
  • Employees. Consider direct reporting to large job sites. Crews can still paid for the same hours, but you get more productive hours.
  • Job environment. If a job site sits near a high-traffic highway, park your trucks and trailers like billboards. Use one site to build a concentration of other jobs nearby.


3. Plans are great, but sometimes you need some flexibility. Say there’s a wreck on the inner belt. “Ever been stuck in rush hour?” Rorie asks. Forget the job that’s next on the list. “Just go to the closest damn work you’ve got.”

4. On site, use maps and visual checklists to keep your crews on point. Where do they park? Where do they start cutting? Which areas get more attention? Where are the greens, fairways and roughs? “You’re trying to build outdoor assembly lines,” Rorie says. “The most redundant, most foolish things should never be discussed because you’ve eliminated them with the checklist. These are the nickels dimes and quarters you’re chipping into the bucket.”

5. What does the highest paid member of your crew do? Hope it’s not run the zero turn. After you set up the higher-level plan, give it to your best guy and let him run it on site. But remember, the person you delegate to needs to have a strategic mindset, not an hourly pay mindset. Does he want to be the quarterback? Can he motivate his team? “I wouldn’t let a lot of my guys plan a vacation, let alone how we’re going to make money,” Rorie says.

6. Use a smartphone to diagnose problems in the field and keep track of how crews are doing. Deal with problems with equipment or plants digitally before you mobilize a repair technician or send your account manager down the road.

7. Consider the value of jobs individually and as a whole. A high-paying job could end up costing you money if it’s on the other side of town, or outside your territory entirely. Don’t get caught up in the idea that a big number means big profits right out of the gate. Focus on route density in your sales and marketing efforts.

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