Brady Smikles isn’t exaggerating when he says that winter takes up half the year at his firm. Located in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Smikles Enterprises faces long winters and short landscaping seasons.
“Between getting ready for winter, waiting for snow to melt and doing snow removal, our winters are six months,” Smikles says. “Typically, we don’t start landscaping work until late April or early May, and we’re usually done by Halloween.”
This seasonality forces Smikles to be versatile and efficient. “We were able to go from a larger staff of 30 three years ago to a smaller staff of 25 today that still accomplishes the same quality of work in the same time frame,” Smikles says. “That’s because we invested more into our people, but also into our specialty equipment.”
All hands on deck.
After the snow melts, Smikles’s season starts with intensive spring cleanup. “It’s too early for our landscape crews to do any landscaping because the ground is still frozen, so they help with spring cleanup,” Smikles says.
During the peak season, Smikles runs four crews: two landscape maintenance and two landscape construction, totaling 25 people. But in the spring, everyone works as one large crew.
The same thing happens in the fall. “As landscaping comes to a close and the weather gets a little iffy, we start taking guys off the landscaping crews to help with fall cleanups,” Smikles says. Having all hands on deck is crucial for year-round success.
“Our staff has to be very versatile. That's what makes the seasonality work,” says Hillary Proctor, a manager, estimator, designer, social media marketer and snow plow operator at Smikles. “In landscaping, you don't really want to be sweeping parking lots, but if it's getting everybody through, we find that everyone is willing to do what needs to be done.”
While there’s no telling how much snow winter may hold, Smikles’s 17 year-round employees don’t worry about having enough work.
“From Nov. 1 to March 31, our year-round employees are on salary,” Proctor says. “We pay them a guaranteed 48 hours a week, in accordance with labor laws here.
If it doesn’t snow, they still get paid. If it snows a lot, they get paid overtime. That salary is key to keeping good employees.”
Guaranteed salaries keep employees employed, but also add overhead. Smikles’s winter payroll nears $70,000 a month, while monthly shop and equipment costs add at least $30,000.
“Winter is a big challenge and a big cost to us,” Proctor says. “We have to make sure that our monthly contracts guarantee the ability to afford our payroll and other payments. Last year, we barely had any snow, so just keeping customers interested in the service is challenging.”
That’s why crews check on winter clients daily, whether or not snow falls. If there’s nothing to plow or shovel, crews find trash to pick up, debris to sweep, sidewalks to salt and other ways to add value.
Clients see crews working every day, in any weather, to keep landscapes pristine.
A fleet for all seasons.
Smikles started cutting grass at age 11 with his dad’s Craftsman mower. By 12, he bought his own John Deere, then a trailer. In high school, he hired friends to help. After graduating in 2003, Smikles registered the company and focused on the business, adding snow removal and landscaping services.
“That summer, I doubled the size of the business. The second summer, it doubled again," Smikles says. “Now, the landscape side has grown enough, and we have large enough snow contracts in the winter, to (afford) heavy-duty construction equipment.”
Smikles reported 2015 revenue of $1.85 million, a 7 percent increase over 2014. Landscape design and construction make up half of that, snow removal is 35 percent and landscape maintenance is 15 percent.
Today, Smikles’s fleet includes skid-steers, excavators, front-end loaders, 18-wheelers, single- and tandem-axle dump trucks, and several John Deere 1565 four-wheel-drive mowers dubbed ‘The Green Machines.’
“We put cabs on them with heat and air conditioning. They have mower decks with collection systems that lift hydraulically to the dump truck in the summertime, and then during the wintertime we put snow blowers and sweepers on them,” he says.
“When we buy equipment, we want to use it 365 (days a year), because we have more snow and shorter summers than most. I buy extra attachments so I can use our equipment during summer or winter.”
Smikles also opts for equipment that improves efficiency, like Kubota hydraulic mini-dumps to make manual work less labor-intensive.
The company also purchased a mechanized, walk-behind top-dresser and a slit seeder, in response to Manitoba’s pesticide ban this year. Smikles uses the slit seeder to push grass seed into the soil, resulting in higher germination rates. Now, instead of sodding large properties manually, this machine seeds grass with 90 percent success.
Starting with smaller training courses, Smikles pays for employees to pursue Class 3 driver’s licenses, Interlocking Concrete Paving Institute certifications and apprenticeships through Red River Community College’s Landscape Technician program.
Proctor also promotes the college’s Greenspace Management Program, where she became a certified landscape designer, arborist, horticulturist and turf manager.
“But you don’t necessarily want to push it on people, so we write it into their employment agreement,” Proctor says. “It says, ‘If you get this certification, we’ll pay you this much more.’ Money is a good incentive to take extra training. They know we have a plan in place for them to make more money; they simply have to take a little initiative.”
Finding flexible people who fit Smikles’s year-round team took a lot of trial and error, she says. The challenge is keeping them.
“How do we get them to decide that this is their career, as opposed to a job? We have to go through the next step of getting our employees educated,” she says. “That’s something we’re focused on for 2016.”