Key to Efficiency


A companywide effort keeps maintenance costs low

With hundreds of pieces of equipment to keep in good repair, CoCal Landscape has adopted a companywide program for purchasing, repair and replacement.

When your company has hundreds of vehicles and pieces of equipment, you better have some kind of repair and replacement policy. In fact, if you have one truck and three pieces of equipment, you should have a repair and replacement policy – and the policy should pertain to everything from purchasing to retirement, because without it, costs can mount up.

A large company that has evolved a companywide vehicle and equipment policy, one that shoots for cost-effectiveness and is well-known to all the employees in the company, is CoCal Landscape in Denver, Colo., which has hundreds of pieces of equipment. Co-owner Tom Fochtman doesn’t try to hold his policy up as a model, but it is a tried-and-true, work-in-progress methodology for getting everything the company can out of each piece of equipment, whether it’s a truck or a leaf blower.

“We’re trying to get our cost per mile down as low as possible,” says Fochtman, who started the company with Co-owner Jesus Medrano in 1992. Since both had experience in the Colorado landscape industry, they started off strong, with about 15 employees and $532,000 in sales the first year. The company hit its peak in 2007 with 560 employees, but recently slid to the current 300 employees and $15 million in business. In 2007, they reduced involvement in the bid/build business and now focus on maintenance, although the company still does some installation and other work, such as snowplowing.

Looking at the vehicle side of the business, CoCal Landscape is a three-quarter-ton truck company, Fochtman says, and it is instructive to look at the complete company policy regarding trucks to see how cost-effective it is. CoCal used to be a used truck company: they would buy used vehicles and wear them out. However, eight years ago after looking at pricing and longevity issues, the company changed its philosophy, after finding that buying new or formerly leased trucks was better for its bottom line.

Fochtman says at that time the company got rid of its used trucks and bought 82 new ones, changing out the entire fleet. They went to a competitive bidding process and ended up with GM trucks as the best corporate fleet deal.

Buying previously leased trucks with relatively low mileage is also a good move for the company’s bottom line. The company gets a much better price on a truck that still has a lot of worry-free miles on it, with the lost cost of depreciation of a new vehicle no longer a factor. So, when a replacement truck is needed, CoCal’s first move is to buy a one or two-year-old leased truck through an independent leasing company; the second choice is to buy a new truck.

Tom Fochtman, left, says that his repair crew is an essential part of keeping vehicle maintenance costs low at CoCal Landscape.

When a truck’s mileage begins to creep up and it starts to require major repairs, CoCal sells it on the open market, which can yield enough return to make the vehicle a good deal throughout its life with the company. “We’ve become a little more of a drive-it-until-it-dies company,” Fochtman says.

A big part of this philosophy is to keep the vehicles in good repair, and to do so in a timely manner so that a truck is not out of service for long. For this reason, CoCal does most of its own repairs. The company currently employs four mechanics and has a well-equipped shop at its central Denver headquarters. One mechanic is assigned to large equipment, such as trucks, trenchers and tractors, and two small-engine mechanics maintain smaller equipment, such as mowers and hedge trimmers. One mechanic does mostly welding, bodywork and painting, but also helps out the other mechanics.

“We don’t need to take too much outside the company. We rarely blow an engine, we go through one or two transmissions per year,” Fochtman says. His mechanics also handle those heavy machinery jobs if they have time. The shop is equipped to do everything from an engine overhaul to computer diagnosis of electrical systems. It also keeps a lot of common parts in stock, such as filters and all necessary fluids.

CoCal Landscape has a three-quarter-ton truck fleet and finds that buying new or recently leased pickups provides the greatest value.

One mechanic might work at night to fix what was broken that day, minimizing downtime; another may act as a mobile mechanic, traveling to the seven company locations around the state to work on various breakdowns. CoCal also has an ongoing relationship with a tow company to transport large vehicles.

Night fueling is done by an employee who travels from site to site to fill up everything from pickups to lawn mowers, with crews taught to put up a flag on equipment needing fuel. Trucks are usually topped off with fuel regardless, because company research found that a gas tank loses fumes more readily if it is less than half full. Because of the complex regulations regarding large fuel tanks, trucks are taken to local gas stations at night for fueling. Mowers and other large equipment pieces are filled at the same time, if possible.

Another chore done at night is the unloading and disposal of the green waste from trucks and trailers. Fochtman says this is done by a night crew of two, one of whom also does fueling. Other chores, such as sharpening mower blades and loading fertilizer and other materials needed for the next day’s jobs, are also done at night as much as possible. This not only makes the work of daytime crews more efficient, it also provides some security to those distant sites.

One important employee at CoCal is the shop superintendent, who oversees and handles mechanic work, as well as primarily serving as fleet manager and handling equipment purchasing. An important function is keeping track of vehicle maintenance scheduling, with an eye to replacement timing, licensing and other matters pertaining to keeping vehicles on the road. There can be huge savings when it’s all done correctly and on time. “One of the things we’re looking at now is the fuel efficiency of the new vehicles,” Fochtman says. Basically, if a truck is 10 years old or well over 100,000 miles, and has lost fuel efficiency as well as reliability, the company will replace it with a new or formerly leased vehicle that has a higher mileage rating.

Employee training on vehicles and equipment is an important part of the jobs of both the shop superintendent and shop foreman. They train employees on how to maintain equipment in the field, with emphasis on extending the life of the equipment, such as fluid changes and RPM recommendations. The company holds an equipment rodeo every year at the Denver Broncos’ Mile High Stadium, using it as an exercise for drivers, as well a demonstration of how to use small equipment properly and safely.

“We’ve become very keen on preventative maintenance,” Fochtman says. These seemingly little things have brought the company huge cost savings. The cost per mile of a truck has been reduced considerably, and the company has the means to measure that figure. An efficiency consultant was brought in a few years ago, who pointed out that even minor elements, such as keeping tire pressure at the correct setting, can lower costs and improve safety.

The other side of vehicle maintenance is vehicle usage. Routing efficiency is the goal, so the company uses computer software that looks at the size of a job and calculates the time it takes and how many jobs can be done in one day per crew. Usually, that means two or three maintenance jobs, and an ever-changing schedule (because contracts come and go) tells field foremen how best to group jobs close together.

An area supervisor supports crews and moves district boundaries for their jobs as needed. “It all revolves around a philosophy of efficiency,” Fochtman points out, with the proper routing of vehicles not only making work time more efficient, but also reducing wear and tear on vehicles.

The entire company is indeed on an efficiency kick. That’s why, two years ago, CoCal went to a maintenance focus. The sales force was increased in order to pursue more maintenance jobs, which have higher profit margins.

“The sweet spot is recurring revenue, which is maintenance,” Fochtman says. “This is a big turf market. The vast majority of what we do is turf care.”

Don Dale resides in Altadena, Calif., and is a frequent contributor to Turf. He has covered the green industry for more than 10 years.