Challenge accepted

Contractors across North America are facing their biggest problems head on with innovative solutions and can-do attitudes.

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Biggest challenge: Rapid growth

Matthew Snyder

President, Snow Hill

Alfred Station, New York

An influx of younger homeowners is growing the demand for mowing and landscaping services in Matthew Snyder’s area. The president of Snow Hill in western New York says not only are people looking to amp up their curb appeal before selling; younger homeowners are more likely to hire a professional for lawn and landscape care.

“My customer base has typically been either near retirees or retirees, but we’re seeing more and more young professionals in their 30s and 40s calling for services,” Snyder says.

Those younger customers also want to communicate more informally via Facebook and texting. Plus, they’re more adaptive of technology to pay their bills online or through credit cards.

Tech is helping the company be more efficient too. Three years ago, Snyder introduced tablets and management software to help manage crew assignments, invoicing and customers. “It’s saved a tremendous amount of time in both invoicing and bookkeeping, as well as for the crews and actually tracking the time and the work completed,” he says.

With an increase in demand, the company’s biggest challenge is finding the money to purchase equipment to expand. “Being able to expand and add additional equipment to start another crew – just the overall cost of that with the relatively narrow profit margins has been our biggest challenge,” Snyder says. “We have a consistent demand for more work than we can put out with the equipment we have.”

Surprisingly, finding labor isn’t a concern of Snyder’s. This year, the company has been advertising jobs on Facebook and getting three to four times more applications than openings to fill. “A lot of them weren’t what we were looking for but we were able to find what we did need,” he says.

Snyder plans to continue growing but is scaling back. Over the last five years, Snow Hill grew about 50 to 60 percent annually but is down to about 20 percent this year.

“But it’s still pretty aggressive growth as fast as we can capitalize for it,” he says. -Kate Spirgen

Biggest challenge: Hurricane Recovery

Scott Carlson

Owner, Landscape Maintenance Professionals

Dover, Florida

For much of the South, catastrophic weather events at the end of last season had the beginning of the season off to rough start. Scott Carlson, owner of Landscape Maintenance Professionals in Dover, Florida, saw the havoc induced by Hurricane Irma. Recovery took about four to six weeks for LMP.

“Financially, storms are good for business, but they’re bad for operations,” Carlson says. The hurricanes impacted LMP’s customers, which meant budgets were also affected.

“We have a lot of customers that obviously did not forecast a catastrophic disaster in their budget. So a lot of them are still in that recovery mode,” he says. “When all (the storms) went down last September, a lot of people already had their budgets done for 2018.”

Landscape Maintenance Professionals is a full-scale commercial landscaping company on track to bring in about $18 million in revenue this year. The company employs about 300 employees.

Carlson has noticed prices slowly starting to hike, similar to what happened before the Great Recession a decade ago. He’s not overly concerned but says he wouldn’t be surprised to see another recession in five or 10 years. In his market, however, there is no shortage of work.

“Am I concerned about it right now? No. Is it something that’s probably five, maybe 10 years away? It’s cyclical. So as long as new homes are being built (and) people are paying their bills, then I don’t worry about it,” Carlson says. “And I see the mortgage industry has kind of revamped what they do. So there’s a little bit less of concern. Homes are going up all over the place the now. Budgets are getting better and better.”

Carlson says the company pays close attention to real estate as a measure of how the economy is going, and also as a way to predict how things will go in the future. -Lauren Rathmell

Biggest challenge: Labor, water restrictions

Eric Schauwecker

Owner, Eric’s Restoration & Renovation

Fenton, Michigan

Eric Schauwecker of Eric’s Restoration & Renovation in central Michigan says labor remains a top concern for contractors in his region. Schauwecker used to have a team of employees, but he transitioned to a one-man operation the past few years after experiencing issues with unreliable workers.

“It looks bad when I’m calling customers saying I can’t go out to work for them because my guys didn’t show up to work,” he says. “I’d make a lot more money with more trucks, but I don’t have the headaches of certain (employees) anymore.” As a one-man operation, Schauwecker says he doesn’t have to stress about labor, but he also can’t grow.

Despite the labor concerns, Schauwecker says this has encouraged contractors in his area to collaborate more. “There’s a lot more inter-industry cooperation,” he says.

Earlier this spring, Schauwecker saw a local contractor who set up a table at a landscape supply store, seeking help from other contractors to take some of his company’s jobs. He says the contractor had increased demand from customers but didn’t have enough workers to complete the jobs. So, the contractor was looking for help from local competitors.

“I’d never seen that before,” Schauwecker says. “I put my name in there to help them with sprinkler repairs or installs.”

Aside from labor, Schauwecker says he also faces water restrictions in a few communities he serves. With irrigation being his main service offering, this affects work demand and revenue a little.

“If irrigation isn’t running, it won’t break down as much, so I get less maintenance calls (in those towns),” he says. -Megan Smalley

Biggest challenge: Labor, low-ball competition

Chris Price

Principal, Mow & Snow Pros

Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Like many in the industry, the biggest challenge for Chris Price of Mow & Snow Pros in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is finding good employees. Although Mow & Snow Pros pays higher wages than most of its competitors, Price says other part-time and blue-collar workplaces offer competitive pay.

“This has been a really tough hurdle,” he says. “Our starting crew pay is $15 an hour, but it’s becoming harder when McDonald’s is paying about $14.25 an hour down the road.”

Also, Price says low-ball competitors remain a big issue. “It’s a low cost to get started in the industry,” he says. “That’s a good thing, but it’s also a bad thing.”

Mow & Snow Pros values quality over quantity, but Price says some new competitors coming into the industry are cutting lawns for much lower costs than what Mow & Snow Pros charges.

To combat low-ball competition, Price says his company focuses on having good customer service. Mow & Snow Pros always has an employee in the office to answer the phones to address customer concerns. Price also promotes his company’s work on platforms like HomeAdvisor to showcase the quality of its projects. -Megan Smalley

Biggest challenge: Labor

Mike Hommel

Owner, Designs by Sundown

Denver, Colorado

In the Denver area, Designs by Sundown has seen a good year of business. Owner Mike Hommel says that in the past two years, the area has seen a strong economy. And, weather has been great. However, the H-2B cap did cause a scare for his company.

“We don’t depend solely on the H-2B work but it really helps supplement our labor,” he says. “We did end up getting our workers in the 11th hour, though.”

As with most of the country, Hommel says maintaining a full labor force has been tough. The company has tackled it head on, however, with the development of an intern program.

“We’re also trying to get more active in the community, visit high schools, talk to the administration,” Hommel says. “There’s students who aren’t aware of their options.”

The internship program has helped Designs by Sundown recruit employees as they’ve hired on many of their interns once the summer is over.

Since 2008 when the Great Recession hit, Hommel says his company has always had a game plan. He saw the Recession coming a decade ago, so his business was prepared.

“We cut our workforce from 150 to 85. We had to evaluate every single person,” he says.

“We downsized quick enough so that it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.” After the market started to level out, 2009 and 2010 were solid years for the company.

Now, 10 years later and with talks about an impending recession, Hommel isn’t too concerned.

“We’re always a little concerned, but never paranoid,” he says. And, he says now he always has a plan. “It’s inevitable that we will have a correction soon,” he says, referring to the economy. -Lauren Rathmell

Biggest challenge: Rapid growth

Antonio Zeppa

CEO, Zeppa’s Landscaping Service

Louisville, Kentucky

Antonio Zeppa completed some design work for a client this past spring. After not hearing from the customer for a few months, the customer contacted him. Turns out, he wanted Zeppa to do some work for a job that a couple of other contractors didn’t follow up on.

“I don’t know why he didn’t end up hiring us,” says Zeppa, CEO of Zeppa’s Landscaping Service in Louisville, Kentucky. “I think he said he was supposed to have two other people do it and they never came to do the work. We did the work … when he contacted us three months later, the following week.”

That job was around $10,000, but Zeppa, who runs a mostly residential maintenance and lawn care company, says that’s par for the course in his area, which is one of the reasons he has been growing at a 40 percent clip. He finds just providing the basic service will get you in customers’ good graces.

“I don’t feel like we go above and beyond. I think we do what we say we are going to do and we do it well,” he says. “It’s not even just landscapers – this market is so bad with contractors … as far as follow-up and processes and systems. If we just do what we say we are going to do, it’s easy to get a competitive advantage.”

But, don’t get Zeppa wrong. He’s very proud of his company’s performance, and he works hard to provide a good culture to recruit and retain good employees. But he also realizes if he can’t do a job and is upfront with potential customers, it’s a different approach than his competition.

“They’re overbooked. Instead of saying no, they want to look at it, but they can’t produce a proposal in time,” says Zeppa, who adds that the rapid growth can cause cash flow problems because of the need to buy equipment and other necessities.

Zeppa says his company embraces technology, which contributes to the ability to grow. Employees use a program on their phones to sync up with software for routing and scheduling purposes, for oil change checklists and even for safety training. He pays his workers a credit for data they use on personal cell phones for work reasons.

“We use as much technology as possible,” he says. “We are 100 percent paperless. We keep on adding to it.” -Brian Horn

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