Weather the storm

State of the Industry Report - 2019 State of the Industry Report

Bad weather was an increased concern in the 2019 SOI, and navigating it properly is vital to a successful season.

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October 16, 2019

© Brian Edward Miller

Joel Allen looks at bad weather as an opportunity, not a problem.

Sure, it’s irritating to rework a crew’s schedule at the whim of excess rainfall, which is uncontrollable. But Allen, the owner of Selena’s Landscaping in Pennsylvania, reminds his team that rain makes plants grow, and lawn care operators will have more work to do and can charge even more if weeds have grown to a certain height.

What’s more, he still asks his crew to come in during bad weather to use that time in different ways. He will go over safety protocols, lead instructional meetings to correct mistakes and evaluate equipment with his employees. And as for catching up with rained-out days in the field, Allen sets aside money when he creates an annual budget for overtime. For his six seasonal employees, Allen usually amounting to roughly what he paid out the year before.

“If it’s raining… it gives us a better chance to get more in-depth into what’s going on with our equipment, changing things that we might’ve missed, going over safety rules, things of that nature,” Allen says. “When bad weather happens, it’s actually good weather because it gets you to go indoors to do things you don’t normally do.”

Not everyone shares the same rosy outlook on wet seasons, but most contractors have to deal with the elements in some way. Whether contractors are out east like Allen or closer to the Pacific like Aurora Outdoor Power’s Fred Joyner, planning ahead can prevent headaches that last all season long.

Getting creative.

Joyner says they experienced one of the most average years they’ve had in Oregon in recent memory – no harsh heat, no overly rainy weather. However, this was a departure from the norm, meaning the weather has been entirely unpredictable for a long time. To navigate this, Joyner says landscapers have to “get creative.”

“In Oregon, no matter what happens, come hell or high water or if the dinosaurs come back, it’s going to start raining Oct. 30 and it’s going to stop March 30,” Joyner says. “All of our plant material and lawn grasses are used to a lot of water, so if you hit a drought by the end of May, it’s not good. When we go from really wet to really dry…it dries out our plants.”

Joyner owns an outdoor power equipment dealership, but he remains a fully licensed landscape contractor and has been since 1980. He remembers a time from when he worked at a larger national company where they had to somehow salvage $3.5 million in sales from fertilizer despite a severe drought. As people called to cancel those purchases, he replied by telling them that if they made their program payments like normal, he’d make up for it with complete fall lawn renovations.

“We aerated, overseeded, fertilized, and the fall rain came. Everybody’s lawn came back and it was a win-win,” Joyner says. “It didn’t cost us that much to do a renovation… but you had to sell (the service).”

Doug Cincurak, who runs his landscaping company out of Green, Ohio, says he’s no different than anybody else – excessive rain forced him to push back plenty of jobs this season. Some service got shoved six weeks down the schedule because there were a few weeks they didn’t even mow all week long. They’d spend twice as much time on each of those properties without being able to charge extra for it, so they’d eat those costs.

“We certainly weren’t able to get done the amount of work we wanted to get done in the spring,” Cincurak says. “We lost quite a bit of business. You can’t plan for that. In all reality, you’ve just got to roll with the punches. If you’re not working, you’re not making money.”

Cincurak recommends saving up money during the offseason to plan for rain outs, especially if a company is able to plow snow in the winter as a means of making additional money. It didn’t quite work out for him this season, as there were several weeks without snow at all in his area, but it’s traditionally a way to navigate bad weather during the spring and summer.

“That in and of itself compounded the issue of the spring because we didn’t have the working capital to go forward from last year to this year,” Cincurak says. “I did far more salting than I did snow plowing… and I didn’t even make enough in March to pay my March bills. If I didn’t have enough money left over from January and February, I wouldn’t have been able to pay my bills.”

“When bad weather happens, it’s actually good weather because it gets you to go indoors to do things you don’t normally do.” Joel Allen, owner, Selena’s Landscaping

NOT GOING AWAY.

As EJ Lawler’s EJL Landscaping in New Jersey dealt with several rain delays this offseason, he was just thankful there weren’t many complete rainouts like usual.

“We’ve always had to deal with it, but I will say that it’s gotten worse over the years,” Lawler says. “It cuts down on our bottom line because there’s a lot of down time for us to pay guys to either sit around or do maintenance around the shop.”

Explaining these delays to some clients has been difficult who don’t understand that everyone is experiencing the same setbacks. Sometimes they’ll forego his scheduled services to run with another company, but largely, most get that there’s nothing a company can do to prevent bad weather. It’s simply how they handle it that’s important, Lawler says.

“Sometimes, it’s playing the jockeying game of moving some stuff around or working later days to get to the customers that are going to be the problem ones,” Lawler says. “You kind of shuffle things around because you know which customers are going to complain more than others.”

Cincurak has noticed much of the same trend regarding bad weather. In fact, this was the first year he didn’t skip a week because the grass was too dry; often he’ll get some brownout and the grass will be too brittle, but has been seeing less of that in recent years.

He also says some properties he’s always serviced now have standing water all season long, even in spots that weren’t problems when they first signed those clients. But he remains relatively steadfast that companies who are willing to put in the work or creativity to navigate bad weather can prevail.

“It’s been getting wetter and wetter and wetter as the years go on,” Cincurak says, “but this is now par for the course. The strong people and the strong companies are going to survive, and those weaker companies are just going to end up going by the wayside.”