Finding the right fleet

Finding the right fleet

Focus on the jobs at hand when buying a new truck.

September 24, 2014

Trucks in the landscape industry work hard, and despite even the most diligent maintenance, they’ll need to be replaced at some point. Good equipment can make a crew faster, more efficient and more profitable, while the wrong equipment can lead to serious problems, both on the job and on the budget.

At Wheat’s Landscape, the strategic plan and budget process dictate when it’s time to replace old vehicles. “We analyze our trucks like we do our jobs,” says Greg Shannon, general manager at the company in Vienna, Va. “We track repairs, labor … on each of our 75 vehicles. We know when we are spending too much money and time on a vehicle and then we rotate that one out for sale and replace it with a new truck.”

At Carol King Landscape Maintenance in Orlando, Fla., Vice President Bruce Bachand tends to hold onto vehicles until they reach the end of their useful life. “Every five years, they’re repainted and fixed up to make them look good to the public. We’ll hold trucks anywhere from 10 to 15 years and track mileage and our preventive maintenance program and stay on top of it until that truck is worn out.” When a truck has reached the end of its life, Bachand will see what he can get for the used vehicle, or scrap it for parts.

And at Christy Webber Landscapes in Chicago, the truck question is all about projected revenue, and it’s a real numbers game. The company keeps records of the cost to operate each vehicle that Asset Manager Jason Sloat reviews regularly. “We’re very strict,” he says. “We try to do it based on work that’s actually booked. When it comes to replacement, that decision is based on the combination of the age of the truck, the mileage and our records.” When a truck is more expensive to operate than a new purchase, they’ll pull the trigger.

New or used?

Christy Webber and Wheat’s both purchase only new trucks. “At this point, we’re buying all new vehicles,” Sloat says. “In the past, we’ve purchased a combination of new and used but used has proven to be a problem. Generally, in the landscaping or construction world, when people are getting rid of their trucks, it’s because they’re at the end of their life span and there are a lot of problems.”

Carol King buys a combination of both for its 82-truck fleet, but Bachand never leases. He controls his overhead with a mix of new, lightly used and used vehicles, including previously leased vehicles. “We try to control our costs and overhead by being judicious with our vehicle purchasing,” Bachand says. “We don’t believe in leasing and we don’t believe in having a totally new and modern fleet that requires monthly payments.” By using cash from the operating funds, he avoids debt payments. “I’m always amazed at the number of companies that lease their fleet and are perpetually in payment,” he says.

It’s a strategy Bachand says helped sustain the company through the recession. “Staying lean and having less vehicle expense helped us tremendously,” he says.

Making the decision.

Once it’s time to buy, the decision is based on efficiency for the service the truck will be providing. Other considerations include fuel economy, reliability of the vehicle, the intended use, availability of parts and services, and the initial cost.

When it comes to extras like tinted windows, stereos and seating Christy Webber buys their vehicles “as stripped down as possible,” to avoid costly repairs, and Wheat’s doesn’t upgrade past the basic package. Carol King also keeps it simple, but everyone gets air conditioning to beat the Florida heat.

The focus is on the engine, the transmission and the intended use. “You can get trucks in a lot of different configurations and we put a lot of time into figuring out which configuration works for us,” Sloat says. So he’ll take into consideration things like which side of the truck the gate lift should be on or whether or not the truck needs an automatic tarp system.

So, at the end of the day, it’s the end use that’s the most important. Residential services and urban services will require different specifications like a tighter turning radius. So the right engine and transmission are crucial, Bachand says. “We want to pull the proper trailer and have the braking and towing ability for that piece.”

Getting input.

Employees play a role in the decision process since they’re the ones operating the new equipment. Sloat will just go to his operators and chat about the needs and the best options. “Ultimately, the employees who work in the field are the people who will actually be using the asset and I want it to function for them,” he says. “I want it to make their work as efficient as possible.”

Wheat’s Landscape’s production managers, fleet managers and key foreman all work together to find the most cost effective vehicle for different services. “We look to our field staff for ideas on how we can better service, including the trucks we drive and the equipment we use,” Shannon says.

After learning the trade from his father and spending 38 years on the job, Bachand tends to follow his heart. “It’s probably about 75 percent my own experience and 25 percent manager or department heads,” he says of the input, noting that a lot of times, he’ll still make decisions based on his own experience.

“I do as much research as I can,” Sloat says. “I listen to what other people in our industry have to say about their vehicles. I talk to as many mechanics as I can.” And with a staff of 10 mechanics, he tends to follow their advice. “They’re the ones making the repairs and they’re not trying to sell me anything, so they’re an impartial source.”

Insuring new vehicles.

Staff mechanics help Carol King avoid extended warranties, too. Thanks to the company’s six-mechanic shop, Bachand finds that extended warranties aren’t worth the money. “Our mechanics can do a lot of preventative and routine maintenance work, so I don’t worry too much about extended warranties.”

Operators don’t put “tons of miles” on the trucks since they usually park at a job site for the day and then return to the garage. “They’re not getting lots and lots of miles, so it’s not worth an extended warranty.”

Christy Webber and Wheat’s will buy extended warranties on certain items. Wheat’s will purchased them for heavy equipment and Christy Webber will buy them if the numbers add up. “We assume a truck will have a couple things go wrong in the five to seven years the truck is with us and we know what we’re going to spend on those repairs,” Sloat says.