NO MATTER WHERE YOU LIVE, THERE’S always one glorious day in early spring that hollers to the world, “Winter’s over! Winter’s over!” The temperature is unseasonably warm. The sun is finally high enough in the sky that north-facing shrubs and trees, which haven’t tasted sunlight since autumn, are lit with lustrous, lemony light. Trees sprout buds. Daffodils jut skyward. The invigorating smell of the earth coming back to life is everywhere.
Meanwhile, in thousands of offices across North America, landscape contractors and their crews smell something else in the air: money.
Springtime. You want to hit the ground running. What you don’t want is to hit the ground stalling. How frustrating is it, when you start up mowers, trimmers, and even heavier equipment like skid loaders for the first time after the winter doldrums, to find that they stall?
It’s not just gear, either, that can have you hitting the springtime ground stalling. Your billing forms, time-sheets, and other internal forms may be out of date. You may be planning to use exactly the same flyers as last year, and to advertise in the same media, without considering new opportunities.
As for personnel, maybe you’ve assumed that your crews of last year were all coming back, only to hear “Sorry, man, can’t do it this year,” when you call to talk about start dates.
Equipment. Paperwork. Marketing. People. Four areas where a little preparation in these last months of winter means you’ll hit the ground running.
Before you even think about these areas, though, if you’re one of those in our industry who runs a snow re moval business, you’ll need to wind down that operation before shifting over to landscaping.
Kujawa Enterprises, Inc. (KEI) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, keeps busy with snow and ice in winter, while running a robust landscape operation in warmer weather.
“Converting our trucks from winter to summer?” asks KEI president Chris Kujawa. “We’ve become really good at putting plows on trucks on taking them off. They’re all quick patch, so we can change them in a hurry. What’s more of an issue are the salters. Getting those on and off a pickup or a dump truck is a major thing. So we try to leave them on the trucks as long as possible, and watch the weather very carefully.”
Yes, with winter in snow country comes an enemy of all vehicles: road salt. It’s just so corrosive, making vehicles old before their time.
“To get ready for spring,” Kujawa explains, “we wash our trucks inside and out. I don’t want salt eating away at the exterior or the interior. After we’re done washing, we wax the undercarriages.”
Once your winter gear is squared away, you’ll want to make sure all your landscape equipment is in perfect order.
Jason Anderson, a landscape designer at Clinton Korfhage Landscaping in Louisville, Kentucky, stresses how important it is to get your gear in shape for Day One of springtime. “We’ve got an equipment maintenance guy on staff here whose job it is to look after anything that’s more advanced than an oil change.”
“We do mostly landscape installations,” Anderson goes on to say. “So we’ve got six dump trucks with lift gates, and several tractors. The old est is twenty-five years old, the ‘newest’ is four or five years old. But whether you’re talking about tractors or mowers, if we do the maintenance the way we all know should be done, we’re fine come spring.”
Clinton Korfhage Landscaping must be doing something right. The company has operated continuously as a family business since 1920.
Even if the mainstay of your operation is just lawnmowers, like Lewis Landscaping in San Diego, California, a little love in late winter can mean a long happy romance come spring. “The biggest thing with small equipment is to service it before you start to have any problems,” says owner Brian Lewis.
Paul Jurgens, director of customer service at Beatrice, Nebraska-based Exmark Manufacturing Company, offers helpful advice, regardless of what mower you’re operating.
“Obviously, the best way to get your mowers ready in the springtime is to have prepped them well for winter storage. What you hope has happened in autumn is that the owner drained his gas tank down to about a half-gallon, added some fuel stabilizer, cleaned the mower thoroughly, and changed out the oil,” Jurgens advises. “But in the real world, that doesn’t always happen.”
When fall maintenance is overlooked, it has to be done in the spring, Jurgens notes. “Any gasoline that’s in the mower tank through the winter ought to be drained and replaced. The fact is, 2011 gasoline, with additives and ethanol added, doesn’t have the shelf-life of gas from a few decades ago. So when you’re starting out again in the spring, don’t fill the gas tank from the can that’s been sitting next to the mower all winter! That kind of defeats the purpose.”
As for oil and filters, Jurgens also advises changing them if you didn’t do it last autumn, while also checking for frayed belts and any nuts that may have loosened. “Change out your air filter too, if it’s time. Again, in a perfect world, we’d do all these things in November. But it’s not a perfect world.”
Jurgens offers one more springtime tip. “If your sparkplug is fine, the gas tank full, and you still don’t start up in the spring, a little shot of ether starting fluid should get the engine going after the winter layoff. You should be just fine after that.”
Liker your mowers, you’ll want to prepare your blowers, trimmers and other equipment according to manufacturer’s specifications. Once the prep is completed, start each piece of equipment once before loading it on your truck for a job. If there’s an issue, you don’t want to discover it when you’re on the job.
Another area that you should consider reviewing is the office paperwork and forms. We all take it for granted that we don’t need to change the forms we use. You’d be surprised how many revisions need to be made to be up-to-date. At the very least, take out 2011 and put in 2012.
No matter what the size of your business, late winter is the the best time to make revisions, create new forms, and get databases in order before your phone starts ringing with customer calls.
A small contractor who uses the off-season to revise his forms and databases is John Ziegler, of John Ziegler Landscaping in State College, Pennsylvania. Ziegler is a former schoolteacher. “This winter, I’ve created a new client database form,” Ziegler reports, “where I not only list identifying names and addresses, but also my judgment as to whether the client was easy or tough to work with.”
Ziegler has also used this winter to start a catalog of photographs of his work, linking it to the new database. “I’ve been in business for twenty-five years,” he says. “I learn something new about how to do things every year.”
That said, there’s no sense making changes just for the sake of making changes. For example, Lewis Landscaping has kept the same letterhead for several years. Yet the new spring season is an ideal time to take a look at everything that gives your business its identity. In an industry as competitive and fluid as ours, the contractor who does it the same way year after year is one who will lose competitive advantage.
“During my off-season, I take a fresh look at my advertising,” Ziegler says. “Last year, I found that print newspaper advertising in the ‘Services’ listing gave me my best return on investment. I’m thinking about how to maximize that by improving my listing there.”
Kevin Grady, who operates Stump Grinder, Inc., in Alpharetta, Georgia, had made a science of his pre-spring marketing evaluation. Six years ago, he says, he got eighty percent of his business from the Yellow Pages. Today, it’s eighty percent Internet.
Grady uses the pre-season to order and prepare his not-so-secret marketing weapon: thank-you cards.
“I’ve been mailing thank-you cards to my customers on the same day I complete a job since 1999. The cards are pre-printed, and I write a brief personal note at the bottom. Mailing them is the best forty-four cent client development investment I can make.”
Finally, you’ll want to have your staff lined up, so your crews can get right to work on that first fine spring day. Everyone does this differently; some landscape contractors like Anderson are fortunate to have five, ten, and even thirty-year veterans on their rosters. “Loyal people who know the business and the equipment make getting ready for spring a lot easier,” he declares. “They remember which mower crankcase was leaking last year, so you can fix it this year.”
For his Wisconsin business, Kujawa recruits from several sources.
There’s a “careers” click-through on the KEI website. He also uses a local staffing service, and reports that many applicants come through word of mouth.
Spring is the time for new beginnings. When that first glorious spring day makes your heart race and your nose smell money, be sure your business is ready to race, too. Have your equipment, paperwork, marketing plan, and people ready to go.
If you hit the springtime ground running, instead of stalling, you’ll make a super-fast start on what could be your best year ever.