From pickup trucks to vans to utility vehicles, landscape contractors can use a wide variety of vehicles for each specific job. Peter Novak, president of Serpico Landscaping based in Hayward, California, says his company uses pickup trucks for landscape maintenance.
The company, which employs about 150 people, tried out various pickup trucks and decided to purchase primarily one brand. “It’s the most versatile option,” Novak says. “We wanted to be able to maximize our utilization on our fleet, which means that the more versatile of a vehicle we can use, the more ways we can purpose that vehicle if we’re not necessarily sending it out to a maintenance route for the day.”
Novak’s fleet consists of roughly 85 service vehicles, the bulk of which are pickup trucks. Vans are used by irrigation crews. Management and sales staff are assigned either a company truck or SUV.
Different for each job.
Similarly, at Phase One Landscapes, a 50-employee company based in Denver, president Dave Graham says pickup trucks are used for maintenance crews.
Graham’s fleet includes a one-ton dump truck, multiple pickup trucks (large super duty ones for construction crews and smaller ones for management and a small gardening division) and a handful of trailers to pull behind them. The company has about 20 vehicles in the fleet.
Vans aren’t used at his company. “We haul too many materials. The stuff that we have to utilize on projects doesn’t really fit in a van. The tools are all carried either in a toolbox or trailers now,” Graham says.
Serpico Landscaping uses vans for irrigation work.“Irrigation technicians are typically the highest paid labor that you will have as a landscape contractor,” Novak says. “The wise thing to do is to make sure that you eliminate as much non-productive time as possible. You have to have an inventory of things with them at their hands ready to go.”
That inventory includes all tools and parts that would likely be needed for irrigation repair.
“The van works well for that because we can house those parts and equipment, those materials. We can secure them. We can lock the van up,” Novak says.
At Elegant Landscape & Design, President Eric Koeppel says the company uses UTVs with their crews in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
Elegant Landscape & Design is a full-service lawn care and maintenance company. The company works with country clubs and employs about 145 people.
Koeppel’s fleet consists of one grapple truck, three or four pickup trucks and about three dozen utility vehicles, some of which are hooked up to dump truck trailers. They also have a single passenger van and trailer for a mowing crew.
The utility vehicles carry a lower minimum liability for insurance purposes and are typically stored on the client’s property, Koeppel says. They are also less intrusive to the grounds at the high-end properties.
“They give us much more access to areas that we may not be able to get to if you were in a truck,” Koeppel says.
Take home policy.
Koeppel says employees can drive vehicles home but are not allowed to use them for any personal use. Novak says his company policy is that crew trucks and irrigation vans are not taken home.
“The employees depart our warehouse with them in the morning and return to our warehouse. They are housed here at night,” Novak says. Management and sales staff can take vehicles home and often need to because of the nature of their work.
“They are out prospecting or doing whatever they need to do at various times during the day, and they may have board meetings or evening client meetings that they need to attend to,” Novak says.
“The wise thing to do is to make sure that you eliminate as much non-productive time as possible.” Peter Novak, president, Serpico Landscaping
To lease or finance?
When the company started, Koeppel says the first two trucks were leased. Since then, the company has purchased vehicles. They will finance if a low APR is being offered.
Novak says vehicles are not leased, as they’ll finance them or purchase them outright as new vehicles or high-quality lease returns. At 150,000 miles or more, vehicles are flagged.
“We use a red, amber, green type system. It kind of keeps us aware as we’re doing our budgeting planning for the following upcoming year,” Novak says.
Graham says most vehicles last seven to 10 years before replacement is considered.
“We got in a position during the 2008 to 2013 range, where we spent more money on repairs and keeping our trucks alive than we should have because at a certain point you’re going to spend as much money on repairing them, as you would just making another payment,” Graham says.
The author is a freelance writer based in Ohio.
Good things really do come in small packages. At least that’s true for landscape equipment like compact excavators and mini-track loaders. Sure, you need the big rigs for jobs that require heavy-duty lifting or earth-moving. But compact excavators and mini-track loaders fit where the big equipment won’t – and they have plenty of other advantages. “We use our compact excavator every day,” says Michael Ely, co-owner of Backyard Escape near Atlanta. “It’s a versatile little unit that handles a lot of different tasks well for us.”
While Ely typically rents a 75,000-pound excavator for his biggest jobs, such as large swimming pools, he owns a couple of smaller units that work on many sites. There’s no question that one of the biggest benefits is the multi-tasking abilities of these small machines. “We purchased various attachments including a trencher, stump grinder, tiller, cultivator and auger for digging post holes. It saves us a lot of time and labor by hand,” Ely says. The variety of attachments makes the unit more cost-effective than a single dedicated piece of equipment.
Ely finds the connections on these units are easy to swap out, consisting of two quick disconnect levers. Changing attachments requires only a minute or two, which is a necessity in the field. Quick disconnects are one of the must-have features to consider when shopping for a machine, he says.
The excavator is lightweight and can be trailered to each site. “It weighs less than 3,000 pounds, so it’s light over septic systems or areas where we don’t want turf destroyed completely,” Ely says. The compact footprint on this machine, at around 3 feet wide, makes it a boon because it fits through 4-foot-wide gates. It’s also maneuverable in tight spaces, and the vertical lift loader arm can handle 1,000 pounds, Ely says.
The mini-track loader Ely owns is a somewhat larger unit that’s about 6 feet wide and three times as heavy as the other machine. “It won’t fit through backyard gates like the compact excavator, but we use it a lot for grading a lawn, spreading gravel for a driveway, or moving dirt,” he says. It’s used about three days a week, so it’s still a workhorse.
It’s no coincidence that both of the compact construction machines he owns have tracks. “These have better traction in all conditions than wheels, which tend to spin and get stuck in rain,” he says. “Mud is going to happen, and you’ve got to deal with it.” They’re also solid on other surfaces such as sand and gravel.
Ely says maintenance is non-negotiable. “If you don’t do it, these machines will not last long. There are lots of moving parts that need weekly, if not daily attention,” he says. For example, on Mondays, his crews attend to the grease points, check the hydraulics and ensure the tracks are tight so they don’t come off. He says some operators choose to do everything daily, and that’s not a bad idea. “Every maintenance task helps prolong its life,” he says.
He also takes his machines to the dealer where he purchased them for a full maintenance once-over every 1,000 hours. That service typically includes changing air filters, an oil change and fluid top-offs. It runs about $500.
Ely says working with a reputable dealer on a long-term basis is important. “I rent and buy from mine, and building that relationship through the years has been helpful. They won’t sell me something just to sell it,” he says. When it came to deciding what units to purchase, he rented first to learn the capabilities of each machine and talked to other contractors.
With the amount of time both of his compact machines spend in the field, Ely says they earn their keep. If he adds an additional landscape crew, he plans to add a second compact excavator because it’s the most versatile piece of construction equipment he owns. “I love this equipment,” he says. “If it’s leaving the shop, it’s making me money.”
The author is a freelance writer based in the Northeast.
Cream of the Crop features a rotating panel from the Harvest Group, a landscape business consulting company.
As if there weren’t enough challenges for landscapers, it’s become apparent that your organization better be really good at both retention and recruiting the right people. In today’s reality, the employee market has most definitely shifted from an employer’s market to an employee’s market. Of course, most of you, if not all of you, already know this, right?
Here is what that means to you and your company:
- Construction in all industries has picked up, meaning your people are prime targets.
- People are leaving their current organizations for higher-paying positions.
- Studies show that at least 20 percent of your people are looking for new jobs right now.
- Your organization’s ability to recruit and retain the right people is now critical.
If that isn’t enough, those of you using the H-2B program are learning that it’s becoming more and more unreliable. Additionally, if you’ve been relying on the H-2B program, your recruiting and retention skills have likely become rusty or non-existent. Beware!
If good employees are leaving and you can’t find good ones to replace them, then you have a retention challenge. If you can’t keep the good ones and can’t fix the problem, it doesn’t make sense to go out and recruit more people only to lose them because some areas in your organization need to be fixed.
Try these tips to improve retention at your company.
Listen and learn.
Conduct exit interviews, hold on-boarding meetings and even better yet, conduct stay on vboard meetings. Learn why people leave, why they came to work for your company and why they stayed at your company and build from there.
Build and shape the right culture.
Every company has its own unique culture. How would you describe yours? Does it need some work? Do you have an awesome vision that people want to be part of and stay part of? Are your core values clearly spelled out and lived by everyone including the leaders. Remember, this can either be one of your most attractive recruiting and retention tools or, if it’s not in good shape, your worst.
We all have them. What are the lingering issues at your organization? Maybe it’s a bad culture, poor leadership, inconsistent application of procedures, favoritism or keeping too many “sacred cows” on board for too long. Sound familiar? Identify your key issues and get these resolved!
“If good employees are leaving and you can’t find good ones to replace them, then you have a retention challenge.”
Be competitive with pay rates.
Learn what the true market value is for the people you are looking for and what it takes to keep the good ones on board. Ordinarily, pay is not at the top of reasons why people come or stay with you, but it is now for sure. Get your top performers up to market value stat!
Take stock and good care of what you have.
Know who’s currently on board and what performance and potential levels they possess. Rate and rank your team members. Get a sense of priority of who you need to focus on and know what is needed to keep your keepers. Identify development needs and retention strategies. Let them know you have an eye on them for moving on up.
Hiring and onboarding.
It’s important to make this a positive experience for new employees. Focus on ensuring their safety and providing them with the proper tools to become positive, productive team members. Upgrade this process now. Include a piece on your culture and values. Make certain they feel welcomed and appreciated. Include and involve leaders and owners. Assign a “buddy” for all new team members to help get them on board and to stay on board.
This is a great tool for both recruiting and retention. Break each position into three steps or rungs. Example: Lead Person – Crew Leader – Senior Crew Leader. Show graphically what skills, behaviors and results are needed to achieve each level. Once people get the “picture,” they know what is needed to move up the ladder! They can now actually visually see where they can aspire toward.
So there you have it, or at least a good start to answering the question: Which comes first, recruiting or retention? Start with retention.
Always remember that your success includes people at the core of your business. Your ability to find them and keep them ( the right ones) is essential.
Contact Bill Arman at email@example.com
When you turn to pg. 52 in this month’s issue, you are going to read a story that you may not expect to find in a business publication such as Lawn & Landscape.
Every once in a while, though, we try to include stories that make you think, even if they do not directly apply to the day-to-day operations of a landscaping or lawn care company.
This month, Joe Kujawa, vice president of Kujawa Enterprises, a landscaping company based in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, wrote about the suicide of his son, Jack.
Instead of hiding what is considered a taboo subject, the Kujawas are sharing their experience in hopes it will help someone else.
Yes, it’s a raw story from still-grieving parents, but it also gives a practical look at what life is like having a family member struggling with depression.
Aside from Joe working in the industry, what does depression have to do with landscaping?
While I hate stereotypes, I’m going to make one here. This industry is mostly made up of males. And if stereotypes hold true, us males don’t really like to talk about feelings, or especially anything that could be perceived as being weak.
By coincidence, May is mental health month, so now is the perfect time to squash those stereotypes.
Whether you are running a landscaping business or work as an employee in the field or in the office, the daily grind can cause days, weeks, maybe months where failure sometimes outweighs success.
But there’s no shame in talking to someone, whether it’s a family member, friend or professional about stress or other aspects of mental health. If your business is doing well and you still don’t feel right, it’s time to think about why you feel the way you do and maybe even take action toward getting some help.
I want to thank Joe and his wife, Patty, for sharing such a difficult story with our audience. I hope after you read about Jack, it helps you have what might be an uncomfortable conversation about your own mental health, or that of a family member or friend’s.
If you are interested in helping fight this disease, Joe and Patty have setup the Jack Kujawa Endowment for Mental Health Awareness with the purpose of developing programs and other initiatives to educate and support teens’ mental health issues. To donate, please visit: bit.ly/kujawa.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and you can learn more about mental health at nami.org. – Brian Horn