Silver linings

State shutdowns because of COVID-19 affected fuel budgets.

Lawn & Landscape photo illustration • Royse Lawn Care

As COVID-19 spread across the U.S., business as usual came to a screeching halt for many companies. Landscaping businesses felt both ill effects and even some positives resulting from virus-related restrictions. One of those areas where contractors found a silver lining was fuel management. With less traffic on the roads and fuel costs at historic lows, COVID-19 restrictions often gave way for more efficient business operations.

“As this unfolded, it was like a ghost town. When I came to work in the morning, I would see four to five cars where I would normally see too many cars to count,” says Michael Kravitsky IV, president of Grasshopper Lawns in Pennsylvania.

The same was true in Ohio, where crews at Royse Lawn Care enjoyed about a month of clear roads along their typically congested routes. Instead of payroll hours ticking by while sitting in heavy interstate traffic, crews could get done much earlier in the day, Nathan Royse says.

“It did make a big difference. At some point every day, it seems like there’s at least one truck stuck in traffic or going around a closed road somewhere,” Royse says. “So, it absolutely made us more efficient because we could get around easier.”

Candice Jenkins, of Jenkins Lawn Care in Missouri, also says that with less traffic, it was much faster and easier for her crews to maneuver through the shopping centers that they service. On the flip side, they did lose some business from their smaller commercial sites that were forced to close and cut expenses.

When it came to residential jobs, some landscaping companies actually saw an increase in business as homeowners have been spending more time on their properties, Kravitsky says.

“It is sad to say that COVID has been very good for our business. We have been the busiest we have ever been in the history of this company, which is 56 years old. It was a little scary in the beginning employee-wise, but … when things settled down, our veteran guys came back to work and we have been gangbusters ever since,” he says.

Following the rules.

Staffing issues were a challenge for Jenkins as well. Between employees having to quarantine, unemployment benefits dissuading new hires and social distancing guidelines complicating logistics, each day was full of uncertainties.

“Mid-March came along and that’s when everything is ramping up for the season, at least in our area. Then we got the stay-at-home order. What does that mean for us? Do we have to stop doing our landscaping? Do we have to stop doing our pre-emergent and fertilizer? What does that actually look like? There was a lot of uncertainty in that,” Jenkins says.

To comply with social distancing regulations, Jenkins had to ask some employees to drive their personal vehicles behind the crew trucks.

“We couldn’t have three guys in a truck anymore. So, we did have to pay some mileage for that third crew member,” Jenkins says.

Grasshopper Lawns in Pennsylvania had its best year yet despite COVID-19.
Photo courtesy of Grasshopper Lawns

Despite those added mileage expenses, plus an addition of a crew this year, overall fuel spending still decreased significantly for Jenkins. The cost to fill their on-site fuel tanks got as low as $1.25 a gallon at one point.

“We spend a significant amount in fuel, and when you multiply that out per gallon and the miles we drive, that would save us quite a bit,” she says.

While many companies like Jenkins Lawn Care opt to have on-site fuel tanks, Royse found that it was actually a cost savings to go back to using a gas station.

“At some points, we were paying 40 cents more per gallon to have it on site, plus there were no credit card rewards or cash back deals or anything like that. That’s probably the thing we do differently from other lawn care companies,” he says.

This year’s low fuel prices helped Royse’s bottom line as well. With trucks totaling 120 miles a day, and gas as low as 75 cents per gallon at one point, Royse saved about $300 a month.

“(Fuel costs) will definitely help the bottom line coming into the year. On average, we are saving close to $15 a truck a day.” Nathan Royse, Royse Lawn Care

“It will definitely help the bottom line coming into the year,” he says. “On average, we are saving close to $15 a truck a day. It’s huge.”

To further manage fuel expenses, Royse made it a goal to tighten routes this year by upgrading their routing software to the mobile live platform.

“We know where every truck is all the time,” he says. “When service calls or new sales calls come in, we can look from the office and see where trucks are and then add things to peoples’ routes. Routing software definitely makes a difference.”

Even for smaller companies with high route density, the savings added up. Brace Lawn Care in Massachusetts services about 100 weekly accounts predominantly located in large developments or on cul-de-sac, says owner Kevin Brace.

“Even though we are not traveling 30-40 minutes for each lawn, every little bit counts. So, when fuel prices go down, that’s a huge boost for us,” Brace says. “It’s all about time. If I know it takes six minutes to get from this lawn to that lawn, if there’s no traffic, it will take us six minutes. If it’s congested, those extra two minutes times say 25 lawns is an extra hour out of my day that we are losing productivity.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Kentucky.

October 2020
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