The last thing an owner wants is a bunch of downtime to blow productivity during work hours. But clocking miles on the road to visit clients, branch locations, job sites and vendors can eat away a good chuck of time.
How do you make the most of that windshield time while reducing the pile that builds up on your desk while you’re away? Lawn & Landscape talked to three contractors about how they manage their time when their schedules demand many hours on the road.
The cycle commuter
Ninety minutes of road time each day might not sound like a lot. But for Jack Barnwell, at left, all of that time is spent on his bicycle, steering around Mackinac Island, Mich., where his landscape firm designs, installs and maintains showy projects at resorts. The logistics of working on the island dictate Barnwell’s mode of transport. Horses are welcome, no cars allowed.
That’s why Barnwell’s mobile office for Barnwell Landscape and Garden Services is his bicycle, an attached cart that carries paperwork and some weather gear because he can’t just jump into a truck to take cover during a torrential downpour. Barnwell rides up to 20 miles per day – and thanks to a Bluetooth device, that time is now spent with both hands on the wheel.
“My wife and family and everyone was sick of seeing me ride around with one hand on the phone and the other hand eating my lunch out of my bike basket, while riding job to job, with no hands on the wheel,” Barnwell says with a laugh. They gifted him the hands-free device, and now Barnwell steers with at least one hand.
Bike time is used to manage logistics, mainly. “You can’t just call up and have a truck rush to the job site and dump 20 yards of soil during the summertime,” Barnwell says. Horse-pulled wagons can carry two yards of soil at a time. So, Barnwell’s phone calls are all about making sure materials get from source to site without a hitch (or with a hitch attached to a horse).
He calls the excavating company or trucking firm to get the soil to the boat docks, and then he phones the freight company to load and organize the material by project on the vessel. Items are labeled so when they arrive on the island, the horse company and his own crews can load materials on to carts and ensure that the supplies are transported to the proper sites. “To get one large tree to the island can take four or five phone calls,” Barnwell says. Staying organized is paramount, and Barnwell relies on his suppliers answering the phone so the tight transport timeframes can be met. “I have a unique supply chain, and I make sure they understand how much we appreciate them – the patient people who answer the phone every single time I call so that there is no lapse in my chaotic and extreme timing,” he says.
“If they don’t answer the phone, the whole freight train can come to a screeching halt and it can screw up days, if not weeks, of time,” he continues. “And with Mackinac Island being such a resort community, there is an insane window of time to get the whole island cleaned up and colorful for the tourists.”
A great deal of this calling can happen while Barnwell is riding his bike to jobs. “If I have a five or 10-minute ride, it’s a perfect opportunity for me to check in with suppliers,” he says.
Meanwhile, Monday morning crew meetings keep his people on track so time is maximized. “We draw a plan for the week on a white board, and during busy installation time I print out schedules to make sure everyone is well aware of what’s coming,” Barnwell says.
Making the most of a tight schedule demands appreciating the time of his people. “If they feel ownership in the company and like they are appreciated, they put that much more effort in,” he says, noting that days start at 4 a.m. and end at dark during the busy season. “We all eat together and just about sleep together,” he jokes. “The only way we can pull off what we do in that time is human appreciation for each and every member of the crew.”
Winning against the windshield
Drive time means catch-up time for Steve Pearce, general manager at Sebert Landscaping in Bartlett, Ill. A hands-free phone system in his truck – “You can talk your life away on it” – and a good, old-fashioned notepad with an agenda steer his time.
Not a moment behind the wheel is wasted because he plans in advance. “I don’t have any breakthroughs in technology and tools,” Pearce says. “The key words are time management – using your time wisely throughout the day to get things done.” The flip-side of drive time is desk time and must be just as productive as his road time, he adds.
Windshield time generally amounts to five hours per day for Pearce, who as a general manager, travels to the company’s four branches each week.
Every day, he’s in a different location. Meanwhile, he’s checking up on job sites while crews are working so he can ensure that projects are going smoothly. “My clients are my branch managers, account managers and other management staff within the company,” he says.
Before heading out on the road in the morning, Pearce handwrites the plan on his notepad. That includes where he’s going, what he wants to accomplish on the way and while on location. “Obviously, in our business everything changes as soon as one or two phone calls come in – anything can change – but the notepad allows me to take quick notes, and make follow-up notes on what I see when I’m out in the field,” Pearce says. “I’m making notes all the time.”
He organizes an agenda for his drive time, mainly centered on follow-up calls. About 75 percent of his drive time is spent on the phone, safely talking hands-free. “I can have the same conversations with any one of my managers while I’m driving as I can in the office,” he says.
There are days when Pearce does not have to report to a certain branch. The agenda is loose. Then, he relies on the company’s GPS system, NexTraq, which is installed in all of its trucks.
An app through that system helps him find where crews are working. That way, he can plan site visits while work is in progress. “I’ve got over 100 trucks on the road, so I want to find four in the same general area so I’m not wasting too much windshield time,” he says. “I can go directly to the crews without having to call someone and say, ‘Hey, where is crew No. 95?’” he says. “I know exactly where everyone is working.”
Pearce says making the best use of his hours can actually be more challenging back at the office than when he’s driving. He admits that work can pile up while he’s on the road.
Pearce uses Outlook and sets “meetings” to accomplish tasks like writing a performance appraisal or reviewing a lawn maintenance contract. “I’ll get a reminder that pops up, and then that’s the next thing I do,” he says.
Overall, drive time isn’t a terrible thing, he says. “Windshield time for crews is really bad time, but for me and my account managers and branch managers, it does take time out of the day, but it’s a matter of making sure we’re using that time driving as wisely as we can.”
Think before you drive. That’s the mindset Bill Dysert has adopted when he fields a phone call from a client concerning a “burning” issue in the field – or from a prospect who needs a quote on a project by noon the next day.
“I have found that issues that seem like such a fire at the moment turn out to be nothing but a little smoke, and by not dropping what I’m doing and running right out to solve the problem, I’m giving our team members an opportunity to grow, make decisions and be accountable,” says Dysert, founder and CEO of Exscape Designs in Chesterland, Ohio.
Another strategy for reducing drive time is holding more client meetings at the Exscape headquarters. Generally, an initial meeting takes place at the client’s home, and the follow-up occurs at the office. “That can save me an hour to two of travel time,” Dysert says. “And I think that meeting at our office also establishes our credibility.”
But the nature of Dysert’s work leading a design/build firm is spending time overseeing projects. That means fueling up and clocking miles to clients’ homes, and that windshield time is when Dysert makes calls. He’s not always phoning clients. “Sometimes, it’s making the call to grandpa or to my wife,” he says. He’s always figuring family into his daily plan.
One way Dysert maximizes his time is by taking a geographic approach to all site visits. “I group together area events, whether that be meeting a customer or a job site walk-through or sales appointments,” he says.
Dysert always plans a week out – and he maintains a monthly and annual calendar, as well. His technology is synched – phone, iPad, laptop – so his notes and calendar updates automatically transfer. “I religiously have my calendar open, so whenever I’m having a conversation or responding to an email, I’m always bouncing that off of my calendar and trying to plan at least a week or two out.”
At the office, Dysert protects precious desk time by blocking those hours and observing a closed-door policy when necessary. “I try not to do that very often because we like an open atmosphere here, but there are times when you need two or three hours to clear away a project, and so I’ll touch base with team members the day before or that morning and ask if there is anything they need during that time,” he says.
Dysert adds that this forces his team members to think in advance about their time. In general, he schedules meetings so he can be available for colleagues when they require his input and direction – and so he can make the best use of time not spent behind the wheel.
“It’s so easy to let the environment drive your schedule and to be reactive,” he says. “I’ve always approached it with the mindset of, how can I be productive and not allow distractions in my life to dictate my schedule?”