Without skipping a beat

Features - Equipment Focus

Delays in ordering parts slowed down contractors across the country, but the real effects of COVID-19 are possibly yet to be seen.

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September 9, 2020

LMI Landscapes experienced a delay in receiving about 30 new trucks because the manufacturer’s facility temporarily shutdown.
Photo courtesy of LMI Landscapes

Jody O’Donnell from LMI Landscapes was ready to enter this season with roughly 30 new trucks.

O’Donnell says governments in both Texas and Colorado (where LMI operates) deemed landscaping essential work, so on the business side of things, they never really skipped a beat. Clients didn’t really cancel – O’Donnell says many of his clients actually wanted work completed faster – and arranging for social distancing with his crews wasn’t difficult. Internal safety adjustments were somewhat easy to make, he says.

But the tricky thing came down to those new trucks. When the truck manufacturer shut down its facilities for the COVID-19 pandemic, O’Donnell says his company scrambled for several weeks trying to figure out the logistics. It’s not about having a shiny new truck – O’Donnell says they were planning on retiring several trucks they had, and with attempts at social distancing, they needed to reroute and spread their crews across multiple vehicles anyway.

All’s well that ends well: O’Donnell says they were able to eventually get their 2019 truck models from manufacturers from all over the place, like Missouri and Florida, instead of getting the trucks from one plant like usual. But for a while, O’Donnell says the problem of finding the right tools for work was real. Those problems are real elsewhere in the country, too.

“We were buying what we could get our hands on. I’m happy with the way it worked out. It was six weeks of, ‘Now what are we going to do?’” O’Donnell says. “(The pandemic) reaches so far beyond what you would normally think about.”

Hurry up and wait.

Billy Van Eaton from Cumberland Landscape in Atlanta hasn’t experienced significant downturn in new jobs, though he says work on the enhancements side is down. They usually install seasonal color, but clients asked to hold off for now.

“We saw a slowdown in our new sales,” Van Eaton says. “Our pipeline just kind of stalled through that initial start of quarantine.”

But some of that’s already changing as competing landscapers cut back on their services. Cumberland has recently seen a spike in maintenance request volumes. They also started an outdoor sanitizing service that not only provided a needed service to their community in cleaning surfaces like benches and handrails, but the add-on service has also done well for the company.

Predicting whether those good fortunes are here to stay is a fruitless exercise, Van Eaton says. He hasn’t had a difficult time keeping his garages stocked but knows he could down the road, especially as their workloads increase. And finding the right equipment for the sanitization services was tricky because they didn’t want to take away personal protective equipment that was in short supply from doctors and other essential employees. “(We asked), ‘What can we do to offer this service to our customers without robbing them?’”

But who’s to say that service will stick around? Just as anything else during COVID-19, it’s relatively unpredictable.

“I do think in times like this, as an entrepreneur, you’re forced to find how to make it work,” he says. “In turmoil like this, there’s still great opportunity. You’ve just got to sift through the mess to find it. We’re going to either be geniuses or idiots, and we won’t know until six months down the road.”

O’Donnell says his company has been favoring recurring maintenance work in recent seasons, and he agrees with Van Eaton in that it’s still unclear where that work might go in several months. Will retail spaces no longer be able to stay open? Places like malls were already suffering before the pandemic due to online shopping, he says. Where will office spaces go if companies opt to have more employees work remotely instead? Will industrial sites continue to remain safe since manufacturing is still essential?

“We’ve got a pretty big backlog for 2021, but I certainly see that there’s going to be a gap in work,” he says.

“In turmoil like this, there’s still great opportunity.” Billy Van Eaton, Cumberland Landscape

A competitive game.

Robbie Pike from Environmental Landworks in Colorado describes this pandemic era as a “wait-and-see game.” They saw some cancellations in maintenance contracts, but a full backlog in commercial construction has kept the crews plenty busy.

When the state government asked businesses to reduce people in the office by 50%, they created a rotating, alternating schedule that gave office members the ability to work from home. Any visitors to the office have to sign in so they can trace COVID-19 back to the source during an outbreak, and they’ve required crews to wear masks on jobsites.

Like Van Eaton, Pike says they won’t know how this really affected the company for several more months. Pike says his company usually goes against the same three to four major contractors in bids, and they know how to bid against them because they’re familiar with their pricing strategy. But as things progress, Pike expects other small contractors to go after work they normally wouldn’t.

“The market is going to be far more competitive as work goes away,” he says. “They’re going to pull margins down, and I think there’s going to be a market correction in pricing. I think it will get more competitive.”

The competition doesn’t end with clients: Contractors are going after the same equipment and parts that are growing increasingly sparse. Pike says they didn’t experience delays in getting equipment until recently, where irrigation materials are hard to come by. He says manufacturers either shut down during quarantine or slimmed their production schedules significantly, so now the industry’s feeling a shortage on those parts.

Heads and valves, he says, are particularly tough to find. An order they placed in February for rotor heads hadn’t even gone into manufacturing by late June.

“It’ll be interesting to see if we’re seeing this across multiple markets,” Pike says.

“We were buying what we could get our hands on.” Jody O’Donnell president, LMI Landscapes

Calling it in.

Pike also says his suppliers haven’t allowed in-house purchasing until recently, and he anticipates that it might go away as COVID-19 cases rise again. Instead, the suppliers opted for email and phone communication and curbside delivery. Pike says this wasn’t particularly problematic, but for smaller pickups, it’s usually easiest to just walk in and order rather than arranging for it with technology.

Meanwhile in Texas, O’Donnell says his team at LMI also struggled with ordering those new trucks because they had to make so many phone calls at various spots nationwide. All things considered, it worked out for them, but the delays started to get concerning because the company had been in a “huge growth mode” prior to the pandemic, where they saw their revenue grow between 30-35%.

“(It’s) just the way the cards fell. We anticipated the majority of it, but we were awarded a plethora of new projects,” O’Donnell says. “We needed more people, we needed more trucks, we needed more everything.”

His concerns were certainly shared company-wide, but O’Donnell says transparent communication with the whole team helped guide them through this unprecedented time. Whether it was Zoom meetings or phone calls, keeping all 250 employees in the loop was a challenge but a necessary one at that. He says transparency was key and led to great ideas as they stumbled through finding the new trucks and evaluated every option.

“Once I was notified on the delay on vehicles, we collectively had manager meetings to figure out how we might work around it,” he says. “My team did a fabulous job.”

O’Donnell acknowledges so much can change between now and the end of this pandemic. He remains optimistic, but he knows there’s plenty of hard work still ahead. Safety remains the number one issue.

“It’s an unprecedented period in our history and I hope we’ll look back and wonder how we got through it all,” he says. “Be safe, wear a mask, social distance, do the things you can do.”