Tackling the big lot

Tackling the big lot

Maintaining complex industrial properties requires more preparation and attention to detail, but there can be big rewards for that effort.

December 3, 2018

Safety, accessibility and revenue. These are your customers’ concerns whether removing snow from a grocery store lot or a 10-15 times larger distribution center (DC) or e-fulfillment center (EFC). The basics are the same; quality operators, the right equipment, a plan and a process all lead to positive results. There are, however, some big hurdles to jump when servicing industrial properties and while scale is the obvious one, it’s not the only one. Security, timing, oversight, capacity and insurance all play into your ability to do the job right. Pricing it right ensures you’ll actually profit from the venture. Let’s consider the issues:

No downtime. The shift plan at any industrial facility controls every aspect of the job and shifts change. That is true particularly during high-traffic/holiday seasons, though EFCs in particular are open 24/7 most times of the year. Dodging moving tractor trailers while hundreds of employees enter and exit the buildings requires precision and a good understanding of flow. The zero tolerance policies many DCs and EFCs have in place will keep you running 24/7 too. Expectations must be clearly defined in discussions between contractors and facility and operations managers well before snow season arrives.

Managers. Unlike many businesses you already service (groceries, medical clinics, strip malls, pharmacies, etc.) DCs and EFCs have on-site facility managers. Here’s the difference in the level of oversight:  a store’s general manager is focused on the customer and sales. An industrial facility manager is focused on you during a snow event. If you aren’t on site as snow approaches, expect an angry call/text/email complete with pictures. You should expect to dedicate operators to one site before and during the event. Be prepared to revisit sites several days after a snow event. This allows for refreeze checks, drifting snow handling and any other situations that may appear.

Safety. Carefully vet your team and impress upon members the importance of following OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) rules. You’ll find industrial sites are much more concerned about compliance than many other customer types. Specific fuel containers, salt storage bins, or types of deicer could very well be required. Of course, these are typically listed in any RFP, but at an industrial site, be prepared to comply with required OSHA training and certification for every operator on site. (A clever vendor will ensure these requirements are completed during the off-season, which separates them from other bidders. Consider this:  if your operations team does not have safety certifications in place, members may not be allowed to visit the site prior to offering a bid. Satellite imagery may not be enough to accurately determine pricing.) In addition, expect site-specific requirements:  one customer of ours insists on slip resistant shoe covers with cleats during inclement weather for everyone on the property. Remember, a customer slip and fall at a retail site is a one-off occurrence. A slip and fall at an industrial site is a worker’s compensation claim - potentially times many more employees or contractors. 

Gauging capacity. I’m not just talking about one crew here. Total capacity includes all necessary operators and machinery. It may also include specialized equipment like side box plows to clear underneath trailers. Depending on the surface, brooms, rubber and poly edges may be required. The type of chemicals or product being applied can vary when customers are concerned about corrosion on structures and vehicles. Special sidewalk equipment may be necessary and may actually allow you to be more competitive when bidding an industrial site.  Unlike many commercial retail locations, you can often use equipment on walks instead of hand-shoveling around customers. 

Be aware, the much larger flat roofs will hold hundreds of thousands of square feet of snow. With wind, you can be removing another 3 feet after cleaning up the lot with no additional snowfall. It’s something to factor in when looking at how to execute operationally on the site. 

During the heaviest snows, our national facilities maintenance company supplies a zone manager to maintain communications and reallocate crews and supplies, so operators can focus on completing the job without distractions. Be advised: keeping your machinery there and a salt bunker on site will save you both time and fuel costs. 

Tight security. I represent the largest maintenance vendor at the nation’s No. 1 online retailer, where security is very tight. We cannot leave anything on site, including garbage, even a paper lunch bag. We cannot take pictures on site (with other customers we use photos to verify the quality of our work). Though ours is secure, we had to set up a separate platform for check in/check out and the invoicing process to ensure it is not shared with other customers. Our contractors must be pre-approved and identify themselves as they enter the gate, meaning we have to have a deep bench… no last-minute changes in personnel. Our operators must either surrender their phones to security personnel while on-site or allow them to note the serial number on the phone. This is primarily about loss prevention and not limited to facility maintenance crews. No employees may bring items onto the property, even sunglasses that may be confused with products the customer sells. Be aware of the possibility of additional security requirements if the facility is connected or has access to any major rail yards or shipping routes. Also, some secure sites require monitored/chaperoned laborers while clearing snow. In any case, be prepared to coordinate with security personnel so that the site is accessible when they need to conduct patrols.

Your push plan may look peculiar. An industrial lot is typically not wide open, like a parking lot at most other sites. There are more challenges regarding where you can place your snow piles and just as important, where you cannot, to allow access for all tractor trailers. Your plan should include not only which way to push, but hauling requirements, where the guard shacks and gates are located, which ones will be utilized by employees during a snow event and which will remain locked. Note also the trailers that do not move. You and the facility manager can also work together during the pre-season snow walk to determine a logistics plan; to stack and rotate semis in a way that gives you the best shot at empty spaces to clear. That will maximize your snow efficiency ratio and minimize downtime.

Insurance. You must be able to prove you have snow removal insurance certification. Conversely, make sure that coverage for snow removal is not excluded from your operator’s insurance policy. Read the fine print, don’t assume anything. You don’t want to be stuck in the middle of a claim if the coverage your operator says he has is proven to be inadequate.

Pricing. This is when snow and ice removal is clearly a risky business. As with any job, no matter what the size, you must understand your historic numbers; the 30-year weather average, spend and property specifications. Your customer will want to dictate billing requirements based on the same criteria expecting seasonal, per push, or per inch pricing. Generally speaking, a lower standard deviation from the norm (northern climates) is lower risk. That means more room for historic billing options. Higher standard deviations (southern climates) equal more risk. Consider more strategic pricing around a hybrid model, offering lower limits and upper caps (sunshine and blizzard clauses) to protect both you and your customer should the coming season vary greatly from the norm. With so much more equipment, material and labor on the line at an industrial site, it can be difficult to know where to draw the line. The bottom line:  Minimize your financial risk while still ensuring your customer gets a fair and sustainable cost, which improves your chances of renewing the contract next year.

Proactive approach and the 5 Ps. This philosophy is especially true with it comes to servicing industrial sites:  Prior Prevention Prevents Poor Performance. Anticipating your customers’ needs removes many of the headaches of snow and ice management and reduces liability. Tackling the big lot requires a great deal more preparation and attention to detail, but there can be big rewards for that effort. It puts you and your operators in the big leagues of snow removal and successfully accomplished, can only make your business more attractive to potential customers seeking safety, security, timely response and a valuable vendor.

Bill Voltz is Divisions Maintenance Group’s vice president of field operations.