In the snow removal industry, experience counts, says Dan Jacobson, president of Landstyles Landscape Development in Northeast Ohio.
“These guys in their pick-up trucks running around, from a price standpoint, you can’t compete with that,” he says.
“You have to compete with the things that you bring to the table: having trained employees, enough equipment and backup equipment.”
Landstyles has been in business, including snow services, since 1994 and provides landscape management services primarily to commercial clients including medical facilities, hospitals, office buildings and shopping centers.
That encompasses about half its business. Landscape design and installation is offered to both residential and commercial customers and makes up another 30 percent of business.
“I’ve been in this industry for 34 years. We have a lot of knowledge and background with what we’re doing, but we’re priced competitively in the market,” says Jacobson, who also studied horticulture and landscape at The Ohio State University.
About 12 of the company’s 20 employees stay on to aid with snow removal work, which is solely commercial and makes up the remaining 20 percent of the company’s annual revenue.
“We don’t look at snow removal as a separate entity of our business,” Jacobson says.
“It’s ongoing throughout the year from a sales standpoint. As we get in toward August, September, we’re fixed heavier on certain parts of the snow business: equipment acquisition, material acquisition, equipment maintenance.”
Hit by the belt.
Jacobson likes to be ready for the season by Oct. 15.
“All the trucks have been prepped for snow events,” he says. “We monitor the weather 24/7, and when the snow event is upon us, we just switch the gear over.”A typical winter season in Northern Ohio begins Nov. 1 and runs through the middle of April, Jacobson says. But the term “typical” is used loosely.
Many of the Landstyles customers are located in the Snowbelt, an area encompassing the east side of Cleveland and stretching roughly to Buffalo, New York, along the coast of Lake Erie. There, the lake contributes to heavy amounts of snowfall.
“We run a very tight snow parameter for snow. Our response time for an event is very quick so we eliminate the need for great travel time since we’re very close to our clientele,” he says. “It keeps your customer happy.”
Grab a shovel.
Jacobson says generally the same employees work the same routes during each snowfall.
However, employees are cross-trained in case they need to help on another route or with a different piece of equipment
“Nobody’s too good to get out and shovel,” he says.
Once all properties have been cleared, if snow is still falling, they will start the route again.
“We keep going until the event is done and everything is taken care of for our customers as well as everything is taken care of from the equipment side, from a maintenance side,” Jacobson says. That maintenance is all done in house.
“We have spare parts on hand at all times to take care of the truck that may go down,” Jacobson says.
“A plow may go down or salt or whatever, we can replace out most normal things here.”
Salt is housed on site and at a few customer sites. When a snow event occurs, employees are called in via phone or text.
“When we see an event coming, we’ve already notified all our employees that this is what they’re looking at. We’ll give them a call when we’re ready to pull the trigger on snow depth,” Jacobson says.
Each customer is different on snow depth. Some clients want the property 100 percent wet before crews arrive. Others may have a 1-inch trigger. Most contracts average a 2-inch trigger.
Most snow removal contracts are set up separate from landscaping work, Jacobson says.
“Our contracts are mixed. They’re probably 50/50 on a per-occurrence pricing situation and a seasonal contract pricing situation,” he says.
There is no cap on the per occurrence contracts as long as the clients continue to pay.
Right now Landstyles doesn’t use subcontractors, but that could change in the future if the company takes on more snow removal business, Jacobson says. “We don’t really guarantee them hours, but we’re going to be out for a minimum of six hours generally on any snow event,” he says.
Jacobson does, however, offer a nighttime premium.
“They are guaranteed increases in pay when we are plowing during certain hours,” Jacobson says.
“We generally consider our nighttime hours 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. We feel it’s an inconvenience to our employees and we appreciate their time.”
Typically, employees are not working days on end, even in the worst of storms. During a rough storm, they may be asked to take a six-hour break before returning to start another shift, Jacobson says, adding that he will often buy meals for the crews as an extra way to say thank you.
All employee training is done in house at Landstyles. It is ongoing, year-round and done hands-on in small groups. Special training is done prior to the beginning of each snow season.
“We take them out and we run through sites, like the different nuances of the site, where to put snow, where not to put snow,” he says.
“There are some hotspots on particular client sites that we let them be aware of as a group.”
While many areas of the country experienced a mild winter this past season, that was not the case for CAM Services, a Denver, Colorado-based snow removal and property maintenance company.
“Denver has a very unique snow removal market. We could get 6, 8 inches of snow at night and two days later it’s all melted and it’s 60 degrees outside,” says Hunter Hartman, vice president.
“They’ve predicted 6 inches before and it ended up just being a bust, but this past winter was actually heavy.”
Founded in 1999, CAM Services is family owned and serves commercial and industrial clients. The company aims to be a one-stop shop for property managers with services ranging from power washing to sweeping to maintenance work and, of course, snow and ice removal.
Crews handle a few storms with up to 6 inches of snow during a typical winter. This past winter, there were three events with more than 12 inches of snow each and one was at least 20 inches.
Because of the reliability of snowfall each year, snow removal work is a large part of the company’s business, encompassing roughly half of annual sales.
That’s $12 million at CAM, which is short for Common Area Maintenance. Contracts begin Oct. 1 and run through April or sometimes May, Hartman says.
“The last three years we’ve had significant plowable snows in May. I’ve pushed snow on the last two out of three Mother’s Day holidays,” he says.
Next year’s contracts are discussed right after that last spring snowfall, Hartman says.
“We like to try to start talking about snow while it’s still fresh on our customers’ minds,” Hartman says.
Developing training tools.
Employee training typically begins in September at CAM Services and is conducted in house.
They use training materials offered through the Snow and Ice Management Association alongside their own.
“We’ll have the guys come in for a full day and we spend half the day in a classroom setting watching videos and doing classroom work, and then the second half of the day is out in the field, hands on with equipment – how to take plows on and off, how to inspect your truck,” he says.
For the past two seasons, Hartman has been compiling video via dashboard cameras on the trucks and using drones to take aerial shots and video.
“We’re in the process of making our own training videos that are on our properties with our equipment and our people,” he says. “We’re trying to make it a little more personalized.”
About 30 percent of the fulltime employees at CAM Services are cross-trained, running plows, skid steers, loaders and other equipment and hand shoveling. The remaining staff members are trained in one primary function.
“The majority of our hand laborers just hand labor,” Hartman says.
“We do have a select group of guys as backup drivers and operators, and they come in and do hand work if someone has an emergency and has to leave.”
lending a hand.
While the company has about 75 full-time employees year-round, the head count bumps up to 400 to 500 people during the winter with the addition of subcontractors.
Hartman says he hires both individuals who run CAM Services equipment and hand shovel, and small companies that have their own snow removal equipment. However, subcontractors are never on a property alone.
“If we put a subcontractor on a property, we have one of our trucks on the property as well,” he says.
“We like to have our equipment and our people there so there is a presence of CAM Services. We don’t like unmarked trucks (alone) out on our property.”
Many of the subcontractors have been working with CAM Services for a decade or longer. Subcontractors are found via word of mouth, Craigslist and social media.
“One hundred percent of our company works snow when it snows,” Hartman says.
“Our peak season is year round. They know they’re not going to get laid off in the winter.”
About 75 percent of CAM Services’ contracts are priced on the time spent on a property and the cost of materials.
The remaining quarter are monthly contracts are monthly up to a certain inch amount or certain number of pushes.
“We’re very big proponents of time and material because you never know when it’s going to snow or how much we’re going to get,” he says.
If a season is light and there is little snow, the customer can pay for service they don’t use, which isn’t appealing, Hartman says.
“If it snows a ton, the contractor is just losing money left and right because it snowed so much,” he adds.
But Hartman won’t rule out a seasonal contract. "If a big customer with 10 buildings comes out and says we’re going to do a seasonal contract and you want to bid it or not, we’ve got to bid it if we want to be in the door with them,” he says.
Winter 2016-17 is just around the corner, and you and your crews are gearing up before another snow season bears down on your market. Some are transitioning from “green” to “white,” while others are going from sweeping to plowing. No matter what your transition is, you are going through and preparing your fleets, prepping your teams and positioning your customers for the next four to five months.
It is a prime time to dig out your Accredited Snow Contractors Association binders from your desk and dust off your copy of the Industry Standards because now, more than ever, we need to brush up on the details that will help you and your teams this winter.
The Industry Standards is known technically as “American National Standards Institute document number ANSI/ASCA A1000-2014, System requirements for the Snow and ice Management Services.” All ASCA members have a copy of this document and they are available either through the ASCA or directly through ANSI.
Its website describes its mission this way: “As the voice of the U.S. standards and conformity assessment system, the American National Standards Institute empowers its members and constituents to strengthen the U.S. marketplace position in the global economy while helping to assure the safety and health of consumers and the protection of the environment.
The Institute oversees the creation, promulgation and use of thousands of norms and guidelines that directly impact businesses in nearly every sector: from acoustical devices to construction equipment, from dairy and livestock production to energy distribution, and many more.
ANSI is also actively engaged in accreditation – assessing the competence of organizations determining conformance to standards.”
The ASCA knew that to raise the bar in the snow and ice management industry, to help improve the situation as it pertains to insurance, to better positon the professionals to property owners and to influence legislation, we needed to provide snow and ice management companies a way to show the credibility of their organizations. Creating written standards for the snow and ice management industry and subsequently getting them accredited was the first step, a major step, in this direction.
In addition, accredited Industry Standards are a critical part of defending you, your company, your clients and your insurance company in the event of a slip-and-fall claim against your company. One of the first things a plaintiff’s attorney does when they take on a case (in our industry, the slip-and-fall) is go to ANSI and find out if there is a “standard” for the industry they are about to file suit against.
There are thousands of standards out there. One you may be familiar with is the American Society of Safety Engineers Standard for slip-resistant surfaces. If you are familiar with this, it is likely that you were asked about it in a deposition defending your company. This was the standard that was most often referenced by attorneys in the past. This standard has two paragraphs that cover snow and ice. They essentially advise “have a plan.” Not a real helpful standard for us in the snow and ice management industry.
The ANSI/ASCA Standard for snow and ice management covers training, preseason site inspection reports, in-event documentation, post-event processes and procedures, and weather service reporting. It also includes a set of definitions of commonly used industry terms. These standards were developed according to ANSI requirements by a group of your peers – real world snow and ice management contractors. They were then reviewed and voted on by a consensus body that included representatives from snow and ice management companies, your customers (property managers and owners), as well as others allied to the snow industry.
ASCA member companies receive a copy of these standards as soon as they join. I encourage you to brush up on these as a part of your preseason preparation.
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If legal, would you make getting the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for your employees?
- Yes for some employees