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Taking care of business

Last updated: 09-06-2020

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Taking care of business

Lawn & Landscape
Early order programs give you a head start on keeping your customers’ lawns looking good.
© white78 | Adobe Stock
When Luke Hawthorne started his company in 2006, he and his wife operated the company out of their spare bedroom. Today, Emerald Lawns in Austin, Texas, employs 130 people and earns roughly $3.3 million annually. With most of the business being predicated on fertilizing and weed control, Hawthorne says he stumbled into a blessing when he discovered early order programs.
At first, Hawthorne says he just pre-purchased weed control he’d use in the spring. But now, he’ll pre-order just about everything – even his holiday lighting materials.
“It’s a pretty lucrative little system we’ve got going on,” Hawthorne says, citing rebates that reach upwards of 11%. “I’m going to use (the materials) anyway, so why wouldn’t I get that 6-11% back?”
Hawthorne acknowledges it’s not always that easy of a choice. Every contractor must evaluate his or her businesses to see if they can afford paying for the materials up front, or if they can make the space for all the inventory. Plus, there are plenty of “what if” hypotheticals that run across contractors’ minds, like what happens if you order pre-emergent in October and a chilly, wet winter pushes the start of the season back several weeks?
Those degrees of uncertainty, coupled with the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, can lead to questions about whether early order programs are the right choice for contractors this fall.
Hawthorne will be doing much of the same as he always does – he’s trusted EOPs since his first or second year in business and won’t stop now over a decade later.
“One of the reasons I was scared when I started was because I don’t know what the next year is going to hold,” he says. “The longer I’ve stayed in business, the more I’ve realized that (hypothetical) stuff doesn’t happen or it rarely happens.”
Crunching the numbers.
Cory Elmendorf of Total Care Lawn & Landscaping in St. Louis says they implemented early order programs a few years ago because they wanted to get their clients into a solid monthly rotation.
Elmendorf says they do maintenance work for both residential and commercial clients, but the residential clients in particular clamored for improvement in their homes’ curb appeals. By planning around a monthly fee from clients and signing them up for an annual seven-round program, Elmendorf says he’s able to budget accordingly in the fall for the clients who will be back in the spring.
“We use a local supplier here in St. Peters (Missouri), and we get a lot of our seed from them,” Elmendorf says. “We can get chemical from them if need be as well. We also have other outlets, but if we’re getting bulk stuff, we go to our local supplier.”
Elmendorf says he rarely orders so much they have to keep it in stock for too long in the season, and he recommends finding EOPs that will hold on to materials and store them in advance. Some of those same programs also offer online calculating tools to help landscapers budget and estimate along the way.
Not only can the tools help with figuring out how much the material costs, but they could help you determine possible rebates through ordering so far in advance, an advantage that Hawthorne says cannot be overlooked once he starts planning the orders in August and early September.
“The rebates are an obvious pro, and the earlier you get your order program, the better,” he says. “It’s just better to get it off your plate. If you can do it, just do it.”
“(An EOP) makes it much easier when we know what’s coming.”
Luke Hawthorne, owner of Emerald Lawns
Knowing your stuff.
Elmendorf says early order programs are easy to figure out, but he stresses that LCOs should make sure their employees are certified to use all the product they’re ordering for the next year. It could be frustrating to be stocked up on products but also needing to teach new employees how to use it on the fly in the spring season, particularly with the chemical products.
“Just get the knowledge first,” he says. “The testing, you’ve got to be certified. If your employees are going to spray, you’ve got to go through the protocols to get the right license.”
Hawthorne says the planning used to be difficult for early order programs, particularly because he didn’t know how much spring products and weed control he’d need. But on the flip side of the coin, it’s a lot easier in the spring to know you have a product than trying to order amidst a busy season.
Paying for the programs is where a company could get in trouble, Hawthorne says, so budgeting requires careful research. He pays for his programs in May or June after ordering during an annual trade show in September. Though the trade show is cancelled this year due to COVID-19 – which makes the early order program planning less fun, Hawthorne jokes – he’s still communicating clearly with his vendor. There’s not a face-to-face meeting like in years past, but Hawthorne says his relationship with the supplier needs to remain strong.
“Be careful how much you order because you’re still going to have to pay the bill,” he says. “Otherwise, you start paying late fees or you’re damaging your relationship with your vendor and you don’t want that.”
Hawthorne admits he’s not sure what’s ahead due to the pandemic. For his own company, the client cancellation rate didn’t decrease this year like he had hoped, but he also has no worries about investing in an early order program. Landscaping remained essential and strong during the quarantine in the spring, so Hawthorne says he doesn’t anticipate that to be different next year.
If an LCO is worried about the ramifications of COVID-19, he recommends a strategy he used when he was first starting early order programs: order half the product than you think you’ll need, and order the rest during the spring season as you go.
But Hawthorne says the peace of mind in an early order program is worth every penny.
“I don’t know how this year is going to play out,” he says. “But beyond the obvious perks, which are the rebates and the cash back, it makes it much easier when we know what’s coming.”
5 hazards to watch for this snow season
Snow and Ice Report - Snow & Ice
Snow contractors must prepare for any contingency. Here are five particularly troublesome property issues.
Before the season starts, snow contractors should take things like space constraints and traffic patterns into account when doing site planning.
© Patrick Jennings | Adobe Stock
They’re out there on every client’s property, and there’s a chance you don’t know about them. Failing to recognize hidden property hazards not only increases the chances of a slip-and-fall incident, but they contribute to avoidable property damage. They might even mar your bottom line.
Here are five common hidden property hazards to familiarize yourself with before your next preseason site inspections. Once these trouble spots become apparent, then you and your crews will more easily recognize them and take the appropriate actions to either avoid or rectify these issues before any damage is done.
Pavement conditions.
More and more snow professionals are taking advantage of the latest advancements in plow technology, which, by design, are bigger and heavier than the traditional straight-blade plows. Designed to provide a cleaner surface, these tools tend to bite the pavement better than their predecessors. As a result, these plows can potentially tear up pavement imperfections and make existing surface damage worse.
In addition, these surface imperfections are prime spots for refreeze conditions. Ice builds up in these pits, dips and cracks and contributes to potential slip-and-fall hazards for pedestrians traversing the parking lot from their cars to the adjacent building. In addition, larger and/or deeper damaged areas can fill with snow, which disguises a potential tripping hazard to unknowing pedestrians.
When inspecting the property, look for signs that the pavement has heaved. And if you can identify broken grout joints, then that’s a sign the pavement has already heaved during your market’s freeze-thaw cycle. Common areas to find these imperfections are at high-traffic areas, stop signs, near site intersections and around loading docks. It’s imperative to thoroughly identify and mark these problem areas on the site’s storm management plan.
In addition, site inspections should take place all winter long. Since we’re ISO 9001/SN 9001 certified, we not only conduct preseason and postseason inspections, but we also do post-event inspections on all of our properties. This exercise identifies any new problems areas site crews need to be aware of before the next snow and ice event.
Lastly, we’re all aware snow contractors typically get blamed for any site damage that takes place during the winter. That’s why it’s very important to thoroughly document site conditions both before, during and after the season. Again, this is important from both a safety and a financial perspective to make sure we don’t have to carry the financial burden of correcting damage we didn’t create.
Curbs, Catch Basins and Sewers.
When it comes to curbs, all I can say is document, document, document.
Curbs are probably the No. 1 thing we repair on an annual basis. Obviously, if we damage a curb during snow ops, then we’ll fix it. However, curb damage happens all year long and the snow contractor is often the fall guy. That’s why you must video document and photograph the curb conditions at client sites where you anticipate a lot of damage could take place. It’s a preventative measure to identify for the client property damage you’re not responsible for.
For example, a retail center has a lot of semi-truck traffic coming on and off the property throughout the course of a business day. And curbs tend to get damaged when semis – or even cars, for that matter – cut corners too closely. Therefore, it’s important to be vigilant. Go through and document curb conditions, so you don’t get blamed for the damage and stuck with the financial burden of repairing them at season’s end.
It’s important to mark catch basins and sewers on your site map not only for plowing purposes, but also for drainage. For example, if you stage snow on a property, it’s important to have an awareness for where the catch basins and sewers are located to understand how the property is designed to drain. So, for thaw-refreeze cycles you’ll want to know which direction water will flow and where, potentially, it will reform into ice.
And as with other property features, it’s important to note any existing strike marks or damage to these areas because these are easy targets. In fact, it’s not unheard of for a plow operator to unknowingly take off a manhole cover. Imagine the damage that could do to a car driving into it, or God forbid, a pedestrian.
Roofs and architectural details.
Many storefronts and modern facilities have intricate, architectural details and overhangs that can cause havoc with your site management plan. Snow tends to build up at these areas, and they become major areas for refreeze problems on the pavement and walkways below.
In addition, pay very close attention to these details if they are south facing or are surrounded by reflective glass. Both tend to melt snow and ice during the day, and therefore are the first areas that will refreeze at night.
Clearly mark these areas on your site maps, so you, your crews and your clients are well aware of the potential hazard to pedestrians.
Space constraints.
When developing your storm management plan, it’s important to know where you’ll stage and store snow, as well if it’ll be removed from the site. It’s not uncommon to have challenging space-constrained properties where you’ll have to employ specialized equipment to relocate the snow while you’re plowing.
Therefore, it’s important to know in advance where you’ll be putting it because it will decrease the amount of time to clear the site completely. Don’t forget to consider these factors when building out your proposals.
Traffic patterns.
A lot of being successful in snow and ice management has to do with timing, so understand both the vehicle and pedestrian traffic patterns unique to each property.
For example, some properties condense employee parking areas. Once people start parking in spaces, it’s nearly impossible to get the pavement cleaned safely. So, timing is vital to get the product down and services done before anyone arrives for the work day or their shift.
In addition, be aware of the site’s hours of operation. Over the course of an evening you can plow against normal traffic patterns and place and stage snow in certain areas. You lose that flexibility during the site’s hours of operation – typically the daytime hours – when your only option is to abide by the traffic patterns. This only elongates the amount of time you have to clean that pavement and make it safe.
When building your site’s contingency plan, it’s equally important to know when customers are open, where and how people typically park and the delivery schedules to the property. For example, if you have a Starbucks on a retail property, then it typically opens at 5:30 a.m. while the rest of the stores don’t open until 10 a.m. It’s those kinds of details that must be taken into account when you do your site planning.
Jerry Schill is the president of Schill Grounds Management in North Ridgeville, Ohio. He is a frequent Snow Magazine contributor and a 2011 Leadership Award recipient.
What to know as an LCO
Features - Cover Story
Here are some excerpts from the conference. To watch the full four-hour event, visit bit.ly/lawncarell .
 
From networking to letter writing, LCOs need to have a presence in their communities.
Edited by Brian Horn
Four industry experts participated in a wide-ranging panel discussing important issues in the chemical lawn care industry including how to deal with local chemical bans and how to change the perception of the industry. Visit bit.ly/lcopanel , to hear the full hour-long panel.
The state of chemical bans.
Reardon: We certainly should be uneasy about where we are. We have about 600 jurisdictions that have put bans in place that include cities and towns out of about 80,000 in the United States. But really, the core issue is the undermining of our state and federal regulatory processes and generally the trend overall in society not to trust institutions. I think we are an easy target, a low-hanging fruit, if you will. And that’s something that really should get everyone’s attention, especially professional applicators.
Wenger: Being in Montgomery County, Maryland, we’re one of the leading jurisdictions that’s banning the use of pesticides. As far as how we should feel about it, we should feel, as Karen said, uneasy. The industry is in flux right now. And not to beat a very popular punching bag, but I do have to use the term “mainstream media” because that is where a lot of this is being profligated – places like Facebook and other media tend to promote anti-pesticide and anti-GMO platforms. Despite scientific data and even anecdotal data that show otherwise, people tend to embrace that anti-pesticide stance.
We should all be very uneasy despite the facts. This is the way legislation is going and Montgomery County doesn’t, I think, plan to stand still. I think they want to see this spread.
Mann: There is a strong correlation between anti-pesticide activity and the presence of a pesticide preemption law in each one of the states. There were 45 states that have preemption language in their laws that say that only the state and the federal government can regulate pesticides. But in those states where that is not the case, like for instance, Maine with its home rule tradition, and Maryland with its similar type of tradition – that’s where the anti-pesticide activists are concentrating and working against that.
Then to take the model that was used to ban pesticides in the province of Ontario, they use local momentum to effect change at the state level. In Massachusetts, when we talk about the pesticide preemption, what we’ll hear is how wonderful and things are in Maine where they’re able to regulate it from local level. The local level means that things are going to be banned. I mean, there’s really nowhere else to go after the EPA and the state regulatory agencies have done their job. That’s the only thing left is to ban the product. So that’s what we’re kind of looking at the moment.
Know your representatives
Wenger: The number one thing that LCOs who are concerned about these things in their jurisdictions should do is to immediately get involved with their local politics, learn who their politicians are, who the representatives are and show up – not just sending a check in to support.
You can certainly send money, but you need to be a presence. You need to show that you’re a human being, that you’re a real person – a business that supports the community. You need to learn who your representatives are, and you need to try to make friends with them or at least show them that you are an important part of their constituency.
I can’t emphasize it enough. It’s something we didn’t see coming here and we don’t have a lot of friends at our local political level. So do your due diligence as a local person. Learn who your political leaders are, your representatives. Meet them in person. Go to fundraisers, go to networking events and let them know that you’re a real person.
"I think we are an easy target, a low-hanging fruit, if you will. And that’s something that really should get everyone’s attention." -Karen Reardon, VP of public affairs, RISE
Reardon: Everything Eric said, plus I really think LCOs have got to think about being extenders. And this was especially important in Montgomery County and other jurisdictions thinking about bans. You’ve got to engage your customers as well and that’s going to be contingent on your having a good, trusting relationship with them – one that is potentially a little bit more personal in some cases than may have been the norm. In Montgomery County, it came to be a numbers game and the numbers were not astronomical.
We needed constituent letters in. You’ve got to understand what motivates your elected officials at the county and city level. So, have that insight. Join a coalition, join your state association, as Eric said, get to know everybody and understand what kind of targeted activity is going make a difference and then do it.
Whether we had letter writing events in the evenings for customers and residents – no one lost a customer by asking them to be engaged as a voter and as someone who appreciated a well-maintained yard and public spaces. Everybody was willing to come. You just needed to make the ask.
I would say be bold and understand that some of these things are as simple as they the proponents of a ban may have gotten in 500 letters and we got in 450 and it was a matter of that small number in some cases that can hold sway.
Enger: I think what Bob did by inviting the EPA to come out and look at a lawn care operation to see exactly what we do was very good because a lot of these people have no idea what we do.
As I often say, I think a lot of customers think that we’re in this big warehouse with the big cauldrons and we’re mixing up all these exotic chemicals. They can buy the same products at the hardware store that we use. So maybe invite your county person or whoever to come out and spend a day with you, looking at lawns, seeing how you run your operation, seeing how that, yeah, we don’t overuse these products. We use proper protective equipment when we’re applying these things so they understand how we do things.
Mann: NALP had roughly 40 EPA scientists from their office of pesticide programs – we’ve brought them out to … (an LCO’s house) in Virginia and we had (equipment) … and we had people that would make applications. There were all dummy applications – water and lime, that kind of thing.
But, we demonstrated what we do, we demonstrated how we go about and we demonstrate it to them – how accurate we can be with the equipment that we have.
We demonstrated the deflection devices that are incorporated into our equipment so that the product doesn’t go where it’s not supposed to. I think at that particular point, we sort of had a breakthrough with them.
We started to get actual substantive questions as to what we do and how we do it. The important part of that is when they go back to their offices and sit in the cubicle and do what they do, we have an improved outcome as far as the products we’re able to use, the rates we’re able to use, on all the different things that we would like from interacting with the EPA. So I think that was a big win for us. L&L
Zero to hero
How zero-based budgeting continues to be the backbone at Weed Man.
By JIMMY MILLER
Weed Man’s Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Lemcke remembers doing zero-based budgeting by writing everything out on graphing paper. Before they got a program to help them, Lemcke says it’d take five days with a box of pencils and a whole bunch of erasers to finish the budget.
“When we moved it into a spreadsheet, it was great,” Lemcke says. “Everything that we do, we want to measure and then be able to adjust and circle back. The budget… really started back in the day when I first started in the 90s. We did the exact same thing, we just used paper and a pencil.”
Lemcke swears by zero-based budgeting, which is intended to dive deep into each function of the company every year. Users of this method are supposed to start from a “zero base” and add each company function’s cost as they go. Lemcke says it helps Weed Man pay attention to its operations and spending control, plus it allows those who use the method to identify when cash flow will be higher or lower throughout the year.
Zero-based budgeting is her first choice, but Lemcke says every LCO should at least use some tried-and-true form of budgeting. Whether it’s incremental budgeting, fixed budgeting, capital budgeting or another method, keeping track of your spending is an essential way to stay in business.
“Certainly, doing nothing is really not an option, and I know quite a few LCO operators that don’t do budgeting. They just kind of fly by the seat of their pants,” Lemcke says. “By and large though, I’m seeing more and more people looking at doing budgeting, business planning, and certainly the sophistication of our industry has come a long way.
“You owe it to yourselves and really to your employees to make sure you’re on track,” Lemcke says.
THE BENEFITS.
Lemcke says zero-based budgeting is essentially budgeting your business based on the assumption that you start the year on Jan. 1 with nothing.
One of the major perks is that each year is viewed as a clean slate entirely, Lemcke says. If a company had a good year, they get to enter the new season with some momentum and had a fresh, rosy perspective on many areas of the company. If the company did poorly, zero-based budgeting is an easy way to clear the slate and identify specific areas where they failed.
“It allows you to be very involved in the whole process, from measuring how your metrics are going to be on the bottom line and on the top line. It allowed ownership and managers to really kind of access the previous year,” Lemcke says. “(But) it allows people to kind of forget their past.”
For a self-admitted micromanager like Lemcke, zero-based budgeting helps management sit back and really analyze how their company is doing, but she believes this form of budgeting also incorporates everyone on the Weed Man management team. Looping each person on the management team into the process helps each department understand each other’s demands and deliverables. Zero-based budgeting is a process that continues throughout the year and requires attention throughout the season.
“The reason we do the zero-based budgeting is to root out waste and to find some effective ways to improve operations along the way,” Lemcke says. “We call it a business plan. Some could argue that it is a budget, but we feel that in combining the two… we don’t talk about ‘what ifs.’ We’re not throwing numbers, it’s really done methodically. (We’re) not talking from gut, we’re talking with clear measurements taken throughout the year.”
At Weed Man, a returning client is one who was a customer in the previous year and participated in a main program.
Photo courtesy of Weed Man
BE CLEAR.
Lemcke says the trick to implementing zero-based budgeting effectively is to clearly define each category so that you’re measuring the exact same things year after year. For example, Lemcke says Weed Man analyzes client renewals and subsequently client retention, but there are multiple ways someone could define a returning client. For Weed Man, a returning client is one who was a customer in the previous year and participated in one of their main programs. Using Weed Man’s proprietary system to identify these clients, Lemcke is able to track retention over a time span stretching several years.
Companies using zero-based budgeting can and should develop their own formula that works for them. Lemcke recommends joining peer groups who use this same type of budgeting to cross reference how each company measures each category on the budget. She’s seen some companies make claims that they have a 100% retention rate, but she knows that those companies are simply twisting the definition of retention and not being realistic about their client base.
“The key to this is to be incredibly precise with what a measurement is so you can compare apples to apples each year,” Lemcke says.
Lemcke says it’s easy to just leave these measurements alone after completing them in the winter; however, she says at least periodically checking in on the budget helps management identify areas where the company is underperforming against expectations. For Lemcke and Weed Man, the whole point of zero-based budgeting is to serve as a business plan, which means adjustments should be made throughout the year based on the budget.
“There’s a lot of people that do budgeting, which is great, but then once it’s done, you leave the room and you kind of put it up on the shelf or save it into a file and you don’t really look at it until the midpoint or… the end of the year,” Lemcke says. “I think that is a huge mistake.” L&L
Visit: bit.ly/ lemckelawn to see Lemcke’s presentation.
Just grow with it
The owners at Teed & Brown focused on key aspects of their company at different stages of growth.
By Lauren Rathmell
Teed & Brown started like many other lawn care companies: A truck and some equipment. But having grown into a company with 35 employees, over 2,000 clients and revenue upwards of $6 million, owners Christopher Brown and Peter Teed faced every growth obstacle you can imagine. With harder decisions to make and bigger issues to overcome, the duo learned how to strategically address those problems while still running their business.
“When we started out it was just me and my partner. We were going to become wildly rich by continuing to grow on this linear path,” Brown says. “I think (many) of you will understand how ill-informed this idea was.” Brown says after some reflection and talking to other companies, he realized they were dealing with growing pains that were pretty common across the industry.
Looking back – and after some formal education in the form of an MBA – Brown and Teed noticed what a successful business needed to focus on at each stage of growth. “I can look back and clearly see (that when we had problems), one of these things was not in place,” he says.
Self-employment.
Brown says early on, companies should be focusing on strategy, shared values and style. When you’re first starting out, your business might just be you and one other person. Brown says his company was a little larger when they explored these areas of the business, but growth was stagnant.
They shifted their focus on developing the company business strategy (what they were doing to give them a competitive advantage), the company’s values (what it is they are trying to achieve) and the style in which they would operate the business (their culture.) Are you selling the service or the experience? There’s no “right” answer to this, according to Brown. The important thing is that you know what it is you’re trying to sell and commit to that.
“Every successful business out there is one or the other. They are either selling a product or service or selling an experience,” he says.
Mind your money.
Brown admits that in the beginning phases of his business, he found it difficult to ask for money. He thought it may be distasteful or greedy, so asking customers for money almost felt wrong to him. “If you have that feeling, you have to get over it,” he says.
Cash is king.
“I can’t think of how many businesses I’ve seen that are terrible at billing their customers.
They’re not charging enough. Cash is the blood of your business.”
The “small startup” phase.
At this point, you have a team of people you’re managing, maybe five or 10 employees that are helping you do the work. You know how you want to run your business and what culture you want your company to represent. Now, your focus should be shifting to the skills and staff that you have on board. Now other people are going out and doing the things you’re used to doing day to day.
“The staff and skills you have need to be in alignment with the values, strategy and style of the company,” Brown says. Often Brown hears complaints about companies that have “grown too big,” he says.
But when it comes down to it, it’s not that the company grew too big; it’s that they did not have the staff and skills in place to match their growth.
Don’t wait for the problem.
Fine-tune your training and recruiting efforts before your customers feel you’ve outgrown yourself. At Teed & Brown, they break up skill sets and training into different levels. As levels increase, the employee knows more about the work they are doing. And, to ensure employees are best equipped for the job, they utilize local universities for the higher-level training.
A lifestyle business.
At this point in your company, you’re able to step away from the work a bit more. Brown says those 60-hour work weeks are behind you and your time is spent checking in on operations instead of out in the trenches.
You’re running what Brown calls a “lifestyle business,” which can go one of two ways.
Don’t be in the doghouse.
“I’m a dog lover,” he says. “But in business, dogs aren’t a good thing.” This kind of business owner is staunchly independent and doesn’t put a lot of work into the business. Things go downhill quickly. The freedom to step away from the business can get taken advantage of. “You’re taking the profits out of the business,” he says. “And you have this lifestyle business for only so many years.” If this goes on too long, the company’s image will suffer.
Teed & Brown has 35 employees and generates more than $6 million in revenue.
Photo courtesy of Teed & Brown
Your cash cow.
This type of business is taken care of well and allows you to reap the benefits of it. While it may not be a huge profit every time, it will only help in the long run.
Smooth operations.
“You manage systems, you lead people,” Brown says. By now, the people in your company should be aware of how to manage the systems you put in place.
“When the trucks come back at the end of the day, do you have a system for getting them cleaned out and ready for the next day?” he says. “Is there craziness or chaos, or is there a clear cut process?”
Super-regional.
You’ve got enough clients and enough employees to warrant several different locations across a fairly large area.
Brown says your business might have roots in several states at this point or many locations spanning a certain area.
Managing multiple branches and more employees than before, the focus should be on implementing an organizational structure for personnel.
Employee paths.
Keeping clients is important, but keeping employees is just as critical.
Brown says laying out a clear path for growth within the company should be a focal point when company growth reaches a certain level.
“It makes it easy for new employees to come into the company and see their path,” he says. “It makes them motivated to want to improve.” L&L
Visit bit.ly/llteedbrown , to see Brown’s presentation.
Keeping your crew safe and sound
Features - Safety
Safety protocols are an essential part of a business, but the culture of your company is where it starts.
With a competitive labor market, employee safety is increasingly important to avoid missed days.
Photo courtesy of United Right of Way
Years ago, there wasn’t as much of an emphasis on safety, says Chris Testa, general manager of United Right of Way. It was expected that your crews would use their best judgment around dangerous equipment, but companies offer far more programs and training today than ever before. That’s a good thing.
“Now, we’ve got less people on the job,” says Testa. Fewer people, to Testa, means more responsibility falls on one person.
His company primarily takes on municipal work, so in recent years, they developed a safety program to lessen the missed work days. This reduced the risk of being short-staffed in an already scarce labor market.
“Years ago, we thought it was not a big deal but when you’re filing for workers' compensation, it might lead to the employee continuing to go to a chiropractor for a period of time,” Testa says. “Next thing you know, we took a hit on that.”
At Trio Outdoor Maintenance in Mount Clemens, Michigan, Owner Bryan Buero says jobsite safety wasn’t very complicated until the business started offering tree care, which can be a dangerous industry.
“We’ve always been safety-oriented,” he says. “But getting into tree work, there were new facets to it.” Trio Outdoor Maintenance began tree work around 2006, and after observing his crew on several jobs, Buero says he saw too many close calls. He realized it was time to buckle down on safety protocols.
The same goes for Curby’s Lawn and Garden in Gardner, Kansas. Larry Craig, safety manager, says safety has always been a top priority.
In fact, Craig says the company has gone at least 15 years without a safety incident.
Jumping in.
The first thing United Right of Way did to enhance its safety program was reach out to its state business association for help.
“In the state of Arizona, we have a small business association, and we got into the program with other companies and in other fields to share resources amongst each other,” Testa says.
Buero kicked things into high gear at his company first by educating himself and his crew. “I thought about where the most logical place to start would be, and picked up industry magazines,” he says. Buero skimmed fatality reports for tree workers and posted them all over the shop, even in the bathrooms.
Once he had a grasp on better protocols, he participated in a nationwide safety challenge. They adopted the motto “Look, Listen, Feel” and he had posters made with the new safety mantra.
“These guys, they have headphones on, but you can stop and see if equipment is running or hear it. If you can’t hear it, you can put your hand on it,” he says. “(That motto) really broke the ice for better safety conversation.”
“Your crew doesn't leave in the morning with the intent of somebody getting hurt.”
Chris Testa, general manager, United Right of Way
Tailgate talk.
Many professionals in the industry have regular safety meetings to ensure every crew member is on the same page. Whether you’re touching base with your crews before rollout, or meeting around a conference table, these discussions are critical.
“It’s a good way for us to talk about things that might have gone wrong,” Testa says. During his safety meetings, he’s found that many of the incidents on the jobsite come from someone not paying attention.
“Your crew doesn't leave in the morning with the intent of somebody getting hurt,” he says. “But more times than not, that comes from not paying attention.” Even the smallest incidents get reviewed in the safety meetings.
At Curby’s, the crew doesn’t roll out in the morning until all their equipment has been checked.
“We remind them every single morning,” Larry says. “They check the lights, make sure everything is tied down and secure every day.”
With materials from the National Association of Landscape Professionals, the company runs tailgate safety meetings once a week to keep everyone on the same page. They also host larger monthly meetings to cover wider topics. United Right of Way breaks the meetings down into smaller sessions and leaves crew leaders or supervisors in charge of the content. Testa says it has proven to be easier than gathering everyone in a large group and trying to cover everything at once.
The crew at Trio Outdoor Maintenance looks forward to the safety meetings held sporadically throughout the month.
“It shows them that this company cares about them,” Buero says. Any serious safety issues are also brought up to crew members individually.
It's in the culture.
A huge part of a successful safety program is making sure it’s intertwined with the company’s culture, says Buero. “My company is only as good as my worst worker,” he says. Buero admits that some new workers don’t last at Trio simply because of how serious they take their safety.
Buero rewards his team with lunches and donuts at morning meetings when their safety performance is up to par, and he says the smallest gestures make the most impact.
“I gave them all shirts – matching shirts, and it was like Christmas morning to them," he says. "It’s something simple to add to the team culture.”
At United Right of Way, the safety protocols extend far beyond the shop. Sometimes work takes crews on the road to different states and it’s always the job of the supervisor to keep track of local emergency rooms.
“They track down the closest hospital or closest clinic and then those are things that they'll go over with the crew if something happens,” Testa says. “We have an internal report system and no matter the severity of it, whether it's a splinter or just somebody observing something, there's a report that individual fills out.”
Testa doesn’t have a set incentive system for safety but instead he focuses on making sure protocols are universally understood.
“I try during the training portion to make sure we are doing things that garner their attention," he says. At company parties, he makes sure to recognize those who have gone above and beyond on the job, which includes following safety protocols.
“I don’t like to tempt fate,” Buero says.
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