From eco-friendly trucks used for estimates, to large pick-ups that can haul heavy trailers, to cab over trucks that house every tool for the job, each landscaper has a preferred set of wheels. But no matter the exact make or model, a few best practices can go a long way in extending the life of any vehicle.
NEGOTIATING THE DEAL.
Some commercial truck models cost as much as $40,000 to $50,000 each, says Tom Grosh, owner and operator of Grosh’s Lawn Service in Clear Spring, Maryland. The company offers lawn mowing, landscaping and custom gardens with a heavy residential focus.
He finances his vehicles with the institution that offers the best interest rate at the time of purchase. That rate has been anywhere from 2.9 percent to 4.9 percent as of late. A recent General Motors truck purchase was financed through the dealer with the intention of paying the vehicle off before the end of the loan.
“It just makes it easier for us, because then we have working capital that’s not tied up with a five- or six-year truck payment,” says Grosh, who only buys new trucks. “And then we can move on to another piece of equipment or whatever else that we’re looking for.”
Usually Grosh will take out a six-year loan with the goal to pay it off in four years.
“That way if we do hit a bad period – like right now we’re without rain so work will be slow for mowing and all that – that way we don’t have the pressure of big payments. When it’s good, we just keep paying it ahead of time,” he says.
Grosh finds it efficient to be direct with dealerships. He will contact each one with a description of the vehicle he is looking for and ask for their best price.
“I don’t come back and try to beat them down because I don’t do that with my customers,” he says.
Terry Younglove, owner and president of Outdoor Experts, a commercial and residential lawn maintenance company based in Romulus, Michigan, only buys new trucks unless a dealer offers a used truck with an “offer he can’t refuse.” He also takes out loans for his truck and usually keeps the vehicles until they are paid off.
“I have gotten rid of some earlier on. It might have been I was getting too many miles up on a truck too fast, so before you get it too old, just dump it,” he says adding that he also will trade in for a lower interest rate.
Russ Jundt, founder and chief operating officer of Ham Lake, Minnesota-based Conserva Irrigation also only buys new trucks. In the case of a lease, he only does so with the intention of buying the vehicle at the end of the lease. He also negotiated a fleet rate through Bancorp. The minimum amount of vehicles that needed to be purchased was around 15, he says.
Complex repairs outsourced.
In conjunction with the size of his fleet, Jundt has also negotiated a deal for maintenance with an auto mechanic 2 miles from his business.
“They take care of all of our vehicles and we charge them or task them with logging so they know when they’re due for tire rotation, when they’re due for an oil change, when they’re due for recommended maintenance, all that stuff,” he says.
The shop also performs an annual comprehensive check of each vehicle, usually performed in the off-season. The fleet pricing is roughly 20 percent lower than the standard pricing the shop offers, he says.
At Grosh’s Lawn Service, oil and brakes are changed in house by one employee. All other work is done by the dealership the vehicle came from, as most of the vehicles are still under warranty. The company has three employees and an annual revenue of $300,000. Younglove says the same maintenance is also done in-house at his business, based on workload.
Two or three employees have mechanical skills to do the work. Outdoor Experts used to have a full-time mechanic but that position was eliminated following the Great Recession. The company has 10 employees today and an annual revenue of $800,000. Repairs are not budgeted, but they are tracked.
“If it’s broke, it’s got to be fixed,” Younglove says. “It’s just reality with cash flow. Sometimes we can’t do something we really want to, but we normally just fix them, because they don’t do me any good sitting here if they can’t be moved, because you can’t even sell them then.”
Keeping trucks in working mechanical shape and mending any cosmetic damage is paramount to company image, he says.
“If I have a truck that backed into a light pole plowing snow in the middle of December, I might not get it fixed until late March or April because I don’t want to down the truck during the winter,” Younglove says.
A professional image.
Alternatively, cleaning is mostly done in-house, contractors say.
Grosh says he has one employee who washes and vacuums the trucks every week. He has received comments from strangers about the cleanliness of his fleet as a result.
Having the trucks organized and clean also helps with routine Michigan Department of Transportation vehicle safety and compliance inspections.
“As a member of the National Association of Landscape Professionals, we’re trying to convey a professional image to the community, and with our equipment, and the way we work, and with our trucks,” he says. “It is my name and reputation, and I do everything to protect that.”
Younglove says his truck drivers typically take care of their trucks and cleaning is done in-house.
“On the newer trucks, sometimes I farm that out to a detail shop for the first few years, just to help keep them cleaner and in better condition,” he says. It is important to keep in mind they are work trucks though so signs of visible use are normal, Younglove adds.
Jundt says his crews run in a similar fashion with each irrigation technician tasked with a weekly washing and vacuuming of their truck.
Take home policies.
Jundt says his company, which has an annual revenue of $2.5 million and employs about 70 people nationwide, just implemented a take home policy in April in regard to use of company trucks.
“At this location, we do allow it when it is convenient and relative to where they live, to where their last stop was and where their first stop is in the morning. So we allow them to use their discretion and not over the weekend,” he says.
Jundt says the policy came at the request of his irrigation technicians. After looking at the use of the trucks, he saw traffic caused some employees to spend an hour coming back to the shop at the end of a shift and then another hour of their personal time driving home, not to mention a commute back to work the next day.
“We started doing analysis on what we’re paying them per hour to sit in traffic and what the trade-off was by allowing them to keep it at home,” Jundt says.
“It was a quality of life decision for them and that was important to us. It was also the time on the clock sitting in traffic and wear and tear of vehicle, fuel, etc.,” Jundt says.
So far the policy has been working smoothly, however, in the past there have been issues with employees getting into the habit of taking a truck home.
“When it doesn’t return to the shop at least every other day, then you have a restocking issue, so we had to mitigate that a little bit,” Jundt says. “As with anything we’re learning in business, it’s all about communication.”
Younglove says his employees rarely take trucks home. An exception would be, as an example, an employee working snow removal during a heavy storm who is heading home for a break before returning for another shift.
“If they only have a two-wheel drive car and we’re expecting a foot of snow, we’re better off to let them take the truck home, get their own driveway cleaned out and then come back,” he says.
To help deter these requests and improve efficiency on the job, Younglove says all of his trucks have GPS units in them. The units also help mitigate customer complaints and theft.
“You get a customer that calls in a complaint from somebody that one of your trucks did this or that. With speeding, there’s always a doubt in your mind. Now, we can pull it up, and see,” he says.
Prior to the installation of the GPS units three years ago, Younglove says he monitored crews in a more grass-roots fashion.
“We’d follow them around and check on them that way, which costs a lot of money and time and just wasn’t worth it,” he says.