Turf Magazine - January, 2012

NATIONAL FEATURES

Sponsored by U.S. Lawns: Equipment Fleet Decisions

By Paul Wolbert and Kevin Sabourin

It's that time of year again where a lot of decisions need to be made. You just tallied your year-end results and brought the "fiscal snapshot" to a close. You revised your business plan, established new sales goal and reviewed your labor needs going into 2012 full production. It's the perfect time to reflect upon 2011, what worked or didn't work, and what you must do differently in 2012. While there's a lot to reflect on, take a close look at a variable that has huge implications on operational efficiency, employee retention and your bottom line: your company's fleet. Not just vehicles, but the total package.

Fleet management is one of the single biggest challenges a landscape contractors faces each year. Not just how much equipment costs, although that's a big part of it, but how well it integrates into their operations. Think about it; fleet has a reach into everything from how happy and engaged your employees are to the all-important customers' perception of your business, and, ultimately, to how profitable you are. Don't take fleet planning for granted. You can't make poor fleet decisions and expect they won't back up into other areas of your business.

So, what makes a sound fleet? Look at fleet considerations from three different perspectives: the company owner (or manager), the employee and the customers.

What's right for you?

Start by determining what's the right type of fleet for your operation. If it's simply getting the job done, but difficult to operate in the areas it's expected to perform, the operator might say "no" while the manager might say "yes." In this case, while the job may be getting done, the operator might be worn out and frustrated. Customers witnessing the inefficiency might question their confidence in how the job was bid and the overall management of your business.

Or, in another frequent situation, what if "too much" machine shows up. The operator is likely to be happy as the unit makes quick work of the task, but you have productivity and expense tied up in a sub-optimized unit capable of much more work. The customer probably could go both ways - confident in your company resources yet concerned about the potential collateral damage from unnecessarily large machines operating on the site.

Size and shape, old or new?

What about machines clearly past their useful prime? While owners might want to squeeze another season out of the aged asset, operators tend to feel like they're being used after spending hours on a relic, especially if it's in frequent need of repair. Doubt it? If so, watch the dynamics in about every job or crew when a new machine hits the scene.

For their part, customers start to wonder where the money goes if not into the fleet re-investment. It's no secret that customers prefer to be engaged with professionals, and quality tools kept in good condition project a professional image to clients. It's one of the main reasons people select national brands - image, consistency and professionalism equals comfort.

Accountants grimace at the high costs of keeping the aged machines running, but what is an aged machine to small companies without a controller to provide this analysis? Would it surprise you to learn the average, commercial, zero-turn mower is designed, tested and built for a 2,000-hour design life? How old are your units, years and hours, and what are you spending in repairs and slowed or lost production? It might be time to replace.

But wait a minute, can you really consider a unit based on size, shape and age alone? No. Really, wouldn't we all prefer new, shiny, big and fast? Yes, probably so. Questions like these shouldn't be solved in a bubble, so let's add logistics, scale and composition to this discussion and see where that takes us.

How do you organize your jobs?

In other words, are you structured on a route or by job type? There are many views and philosophies on this topic and it has huge impact on fleet choices. The "route" approach requires nimble units as they are typically leveraged on different property types bundled due to their close physical proximity rather than job type. The "job type" approach allows for more highly specialized pieces purpose-built for specific tasks, but sacrifices some of the geographic benefits of minimized travel time. Maybe it's a blend of both route and job types. Can you optimize to get the best of both worlds? Before answering that investigate your fleet approach and growth plans for the coming year.

Are you organized by trailer (or crew) or do you prefer a blended fleet or pool approach? The first assigns a crew to a fixed trailer and route. Usually, these crews will manage the whole project from start to finish. The fleet pool approach usually employs small crews of specialists to augment the baseline crews. How about considering the route approach for most of the crews augmented by a small number of specialists who jump routes and only go where a high level of specialty is needed and productive?

Once you solve the riddles about how to organize the work and direct your resources, questions like "How many to have?" begin to answer themselves. It becomes simple math. The only real question left is what to do with the old; trash, sell or keep for a spare? Read our next article in Turf, where we discuss the topic "Total Cost of Ownership."

With more than 30 years of experience in franchising, sales and business operations, Paul Wolbert keeps the U.S. Lawns marketing plan on target for franchisees' growth and for all divisions of U.S. Lawn's business to thrive in any economy.

Industry veteran Kevin Sabourin is president and founder of , a Web directory and online marketplace designed to help buyers and sellers engage each other and key resources. His background is in equipment sales in the landscape, grounds and rental markets, and he has worked for Fecon, FINN and The Toro Company prior to his company launch in June of 2011.