Call in the subs

Call in the subs

Developing long-term relationships with contractor partners helps snow businesses expand and accommodate challenging service schedules.

August 28, 2014

During a major snow event, Reliable Property Services could have up to 600 pieces of equipment on the road, from trucks to tractors and skid-steers. All of the vehicles bear a slick magnetic logo and the company name, but the majority of the fleet is subcontractors.

“We have contractor partners that have been with us for virtually all of our 30 years in business,” says Tom Hougnon, COO of the Minneapolis, Minn. based firm, which was only a winter business until six years ago when it used this sub-force to launch summer maintenance services too.

Subs are the lifeblood of Reliable Property Services, and the company has the infrastructure, reporting and systems in place to properly manage every aspect of subcontracting from site inspections to invoicing.

There’s no guesswork for subs. And because they can depend on a lot of winter work from Reliable Property – which prefers that their own accounts consume the bulk of subs’ work during winter – they can truly round out their own business revenues by serving as a Reliable “contractor partner.”

Meanwhile, Reliable Property Services does more than feed subs winter paychecks. The company invests in its contracted labor, even supporting their equipment purchases by providing steady work to keep new machines busy.

The company recognizes that its growth is dependent on the success of its subs. “Our contractor partners are able to purchase more equipment and add to their fleets knowing that for five or six months in the winter, they have work for that equipment,” Hougnon says.

Partnering with subcontractors, communicating expectations clearly and managing quality are the tenants to operating a successful sub-rich company. And in the snow business, that extra help is essential because you never know what the winter will bring. Having honest, hard-working professionals on call keeps operations running smoothly.

“It’s a relationship you have to develop,” says Tom Trench, who has been on both sides of the contracting relationship as owner of Denver-based Landscape Systems and Designs (which hires subs) and Cooperative Design Resource LLC (where he works as a designer sub for installation firms). “You want to make sure there is a good reputation behind the subs you hire – their work is your work.”

In any event: ramping up.

Heavy snow seasons can be difficult to predict. Persistent, harsh winters like the one we experienced last year place greater labor demands on snow and ice management firms. Quality subcontracted labor is just as important as reliable equipment – it’s one in the same.

Reliable Property likes to know that subs are dedicated to working for its company, though it doesn’t require this. The company requires that subs sign a seasonal agreement, and they are paid on the 15th of every month. (Each contract is assigned a dollar amount.)

Subcontractors driving trucks generally do not wear the team uniforms, but those working on shoveling crews are provided with a Reliable Property Services vest. Magnetic logos are placed on subs’ vehicles. “Then we know they are one of our partners when they are using our salt sources,” Hougnon says.

Heading into the winter season, Reliable Property is in touch with its contractor partners, keeping tabs on their interest in resigning an agreement and their own business growth. A successful contractor that acquires more equipment in summer can do more work for Reliable Property in winter.

“Our contractor partners usually come back each year, and our clients are familiar with them and they know the service level and our expectations,” Hougnon says.

Many of the company’s subcontractors come through referrals. “Their peers and others recommend them to us because we’re a quality company to grow with,” Hougnon says.

Meanwhile, the economy does impact subcontractor availability, Hougnon says. When times are tough, contractors who were not busy during their “in” seasons and are laid off in winter may want to make up for lost revenues.

“As the economy gets better, and as some of these contractors and landscapers make more money in the summer, they are less likely to want to work in the winter,” Hougnon says. “A weak economy in the summer tends to increase the amount of contractor partners available for winter work.”

Cultivating contractor partnerships.

Subcontractors recognize the value in supplemental income – and the company contracting their labor gains their expertise. The best subcontracting arrangements are mutually beneficial.

Such is the case with Ryan Schaffer, who branched off into a snow venture several years ago, which he works in addition to serving as a lead foreman of All Phase Landscaping in Quakertown, Penn. Schaffer brings on a few workers to help run his snow business, which essentially serves as a contractor for a larger firm that handles HOAs.

Schaffer manages one community for a larger snow management firm, allowing him to dedicate his winter efforts in one location. This saves drive time and stress, while helping him build his business. (He’s hoping to acquire a skid-steer this year.) “I’m at the same site for an entire storm, and there are 215 driveways to do,” he says. “So, I’m not running around to different accounts – I’m in one, tight-knit community.”

Meanwhile, growing tight-knit relationships with subs is important for maintaining service consistency. “Stick with your subs – don’t shop them,” Trench says, adding that it’s also important to support your subs’ quality of work when speaking with clients. “Sell them to your client the same as you are selling yourself.”

Supporting your subs also means giving them systems to do their best work. Reliable Property Services has a supervisor who oversees team members, including all subcontractors. Site coordinators and sales team members perform inspections on a regular basis. Service report cards are completed. “That way, we know if our contractor partners are fulfilling their jobs,” Hougnon says.

Also, an internal system that generates detailed information for each route/site gives subcontractors specific orders. “They know which parking lots get plowed first when a storm is rolling in – we give them as much detail as we possibly can,” Hougnon says.

With systems in place and expectations set, subcontractors can help a company expand, and fulfill demanding winter contracts. Underscoring the partnership aspect of this arrangement, Hougnon adds, “Our contractor partner program is helping develop quality professionals in our industry.”