NORTH FEATURES


My Plan to Grow with Snow

By Steve Rak II


When my company finally decided to start to get serious about offering snow and ice management services, we had already been in business for more than 12 years. I knew very little about the snow business and knew that to be successful I would have to learn very quickly how to run and operate a snow and ice management company.

I began by assessing what we would need and how we should start those services. We already had the trucks and employees willing to do the work. We also had many commercial landscape clients that might appreciate having us as their off-season service provider. On the other hand, I knew that if we did not perform our snow services at the same level as our landscape services that we could lose customers.

I decided that in order to be successful in this new venture, I would have to approach it much differently that I did when we started doing landscape maintenance. I learned the landscape business by working in the field, doing the actual work, and it took me 10 years to finally get out of the field.

I wouldn't count on that same learning experience with snow management. I did not have the time or the patience to start out in a plow truck and work in the field for another 10 years so I could learn the business from the ground up. This time was going to be different. I had to learn this business and get it up and running as fast as I could.

I learned a lot over the years, perhaps the most important lesson (and one that all business owners must eventually learn) is to spend more time working on your business rather than in your business. That's how I approached the snow division of my company. I was going to only work on the business from the get-go - I would not drive a plow truck, salt truck or do any of the physical work. I would, however, learn everything I could about the snow business. In the next two years we went from $40,000 in snow revenues to more than $200,000, and we're continuing to grow that part of the company.

Here are the steps we took to get there:

1. Get your team on board: I had a meeting with my foremen and office staff and discussed what we were going to do. A few of my foremen had previously asked about doing snow so they could work during the winter, so they were excited about the news. As for everyone else, I didn't give them the option; they were either in or out. I had to make a business decision and it was final; we were going into the snow business so if you wanted to remain a Southwest Landscape Management employee you would be involved in the snow operations, period. Luckily, pretty much everyone was looking forward to it.

2. Develop a plan and share it: The plan was to start small and market to our current clients. This would insure that we already knew the properties and had a previous relationship with them. This would be phase one, but I also informed our employees of our plans for growth and where we wanted to be in two to three years with our snow operations.

3. Learn everything you can: I decided to start talking to my friends who were already doing snow, so I would take them out for lunch and ask them questions about their snow operations. Note: In Cleveland, many of my competitors are also my friends so we don't mind sharing information with each other when it comes to best practices and things like that. I also joined SIMA, ordered the snow training videos from PLANET, and bought and read a book about the snow business. I had everyone watch the training videos and I had meetings about what I had read in the book and learned from my friends.

4. Learn from someone does it right it: I knew that in order to get a jumpstart in this business that I would need some professional help, so I hired Rich Arlington, a knowledgeable industry consultant. Rich knows more about the snow business than anyone I know, and with his help we developed and put in motion a plan that I'm confident saved me years of work. First, I spent a day at his facility with him and his staff learning everything I could about his snow and ice management company that he has run for more than 20 years. Then he came to my office and spent the day with my employees teaching them about the snow business. It was intense, but we learned a lot.

5. Put your plan in motion: We began to market our snow services to our current clients and we were pretty successful in gaining the work. Now that we had the work we also had to purchase plows for the trucks, salt spreaders and snowblowers. I was pretty sure at this point that we could afford the investment because I did my homework and we had the customers lined up. All that was left was to do the work.

So were we successful that first year? You bet we were. And we have been growing our snow division ever since. Our plan is to keep growing our snow operations and we continue to learn by attending the trade shows and keeping plugged into the industry. I have also hired people who have experience with the snow business to help me grow my company.

This process has taught me a very important lesson, and that is it's possible to start a new division of your company and be successful if you just do your homework and follow through on what you learn. Yes, there will be some speed bumps along the way, but by following this plan you will be better prepared to navigate around them.

Steve Rak II is president of Southwest Landscape Management, Columbia Station, Ohio, and is a partner with his brother, Jeff, in Rak Consulting LLC. Contact him at steve@sw-landscape.com.