Snow removal and landscape management is all Herman Witte has ever known. Witte, who owns Witte Lawn Maintenance in Wyoming, Mich., grew up in the business started by his father, John, in 1957. That was a year after John, a hero of the WWII Dutch Resistance and a policeman, moved the family to the United States from the Netherlands. Witte purchased the assets and clients from his father in 1976, and has been at the helm ever since.
Attention to detail is critcal to snow and ice management because of public safety, says Herman Witte.
Today, his snow portfolio is comprised of a mix of seasonal contracts for commercial, institutional and residential clients, with commercial/institutional as the biggest piece.
"We are a little bigger in the winter than in the summer, and we have more employees on the ground," he says. "We have that mix because we don't want to put all of our eggs in one basket, especially in the commercial sector, where all that work funnels through property managers."
Witte Lawn Maintenance, Inc.
Owner: Herman Witte
Headquarters: Wyoming, Mich.
Markets: West Michigan
Services: Mowing maintenance, lawn care, landscape management, landscape design, landscape installation, snow & ice management
Employees: 20 during the landscaping season; 24-plus during the snow removal season
While many green/white industry professionals often have a preference on which season they favor, Witte says he enjoys both. "The unique thing about our industry when you have a year-round operation is by the time I'm tired of one I'm ready for the other to start."
As winter approaches, Witte says this is the first year in which he probably won't regularly be behind the wheel of a plow truck. Instead, he'll be focusing on strategic planning and managing operations while his son, Mark, begins to oversee more operations in the field.
"I'm still fairly active in the business. My goal is to move out of it, but you have to have the right people in place. In the past, we had people lined up that just didn't work out and I stepped back in. Now with Mark and another manager, I think we will have good success."
Witte says he and Mark have talked about succession but nothing concrete is yet in place: "It's going to happen, but I don't have an end date in mind. I'm not as involved in the day to day, which gives me flexibility to be involved in different things. I can see us continuing like this for some time."
Part of Witte Lawn Maintenance's mission statement is to "acquire long-term business relationships by providing quality landscape management and snow removal services at a fair price."
Witte said a few factors - availability of quality labor, fuel prices and lower prices - have made his mission more challenging, but that he also has been somewhat insulated from some of the trends that have taken hold in other areas of the country.
Industry-wide, Witte has seen the gravitational pull of customers to the lowest-price providers. Even so, he has been able to keep a client retention rate of about 95 percent.
"The last few years with pricing pressure, people found out they could keep working the price down and contractors started taking it. Overall, client loyalty isn't what it used to be but we are above the norm. We might lose an occasional commercial client due to money. But, for the most part, those we lose either move or they die."
He attributes his ability to keep his clients to longevity in the industry and to providing a high level of customer service with honesty and attention to detail. Attention to detail is absolutely critical to snow and ice management service because public safety is on the line. Organization and training are huge in providing detailed services.
You must meet expectations
"You are only successful when you service clients to their expectations. To meet those you have to have equipment, and your people must be ready. Your people have to know what they're doing and how to do it. We aren't perfect, but we fix our mistakes. If you don't, word gets out and you won't be welcomed back," he says.
National service management companies have taken hold in many service industries, and snow is no exception. Witte says he is routinely contacted to quote that type of work and even experimented with the process during the summer. He came to realize that it's not how he wants to do business.
Windrows with Herm Witte
If you could start your business over again, is there anything you would have done differently?
Don't skip business and finance. When Witte was in high school, he says counselors focused more on college prep and were less open-minded about trade careers. Looking back, Witte wishes he had received more education in the landscaping and business fields. "My son got a four-year degree at Michigan State University and it's amazing what he learned in his first two years. Some of that took me a lifetime to learn."
What's the biggest mistake you made in getting to where you are today and what did it teach you?
Watch your own business. Noting that a mistake is something you could have avoided, Witte doesn't believe he's every made such a terrible one that it was a game-changer for his business. But looking back, if there is a lesson he has learned it's to protect your own interests. "I once had an employee come to me and say he wanted to start his own business. I should have said, 'That's fine. You can start today.' From every side, whether it's labor, clients, health care, watch your business because you worked hard to build it."
How are you viewing The Affordable Care Act?
Companies be gearing up for what's coming. Witte says his concerns about the Affordable Care Act are twofold: the uncertainty that still exists in the details and the impact on small business.
"We offer health care to our full-time employees, but during the winter we employ a lot of young people and college students. Their hours may no longer be exempt. There is a cost not only in the insurance piece, but also the 'taking care of business' piece. What more can you dump on a small business that doesn't have the office resources to manage all of the paperwork and reporting that will go into this?"
"I'm too old-fashioned and don't want to jump through hoops to do work, and there are a lot of hoops to jump through," he says. "The main reason I feel so strongly about not working for them is that they really don't know our market as far as what we get in snow [his market averages 70 inches a season]. I'm not convinced I could service my clients how I want through that type of presence."
Witte is passionate about looking out for the interests of those in the snow and landscape industries. He has long been active in professional associations at the local, state and national level. He is a member and past president of the Association of Grand Rapids Landscape Professionals and Michigan Nursery & Landscape Association. In March, Witte received an honorary certificate from Michigan State University's Institute of Agricultural Technology's Landscape and Nursery Management Program for his continuous dedication and work in the green industry. He also is a member of the Snow & Ice Management Association.
Active involvement in industry organizations is great from an educational and networking perspective but Witte says it's important that they advocate for the industries they serve by getting in front of legislators and keeping an eye on their movement on issues that impact the industries.
Two key issues in Michigan specifically involved a restriction on backup alarms on plow trucks that was struck down as well as a regulation on truck registration and weight classes that was changed to be less restrictive and more in line with other states.
"It's good to be involved because if you're not, things are going to happen to you that you don't like," he says. "So many people benefit from what the associations provide. Our industry is important and we have to be heard."
Cheryl Higley is a freelance writer and editorial director of Snow Business magazine, the official publication of the Snow & Ice Management Association.