WinnScapes Inc.

Because WinnScapes focuses on positive attitudes, prompt communication with customers, employee training, documentation and professional service, it has experienced considerable growth and contract retention.

Like many landscape contractors, as a young boy I mowed lawns and shoveled driveways for extra money. In so doing, I became familiar, at an early age, with the rigors of the business world. For example, when someone took advantage of me when I was a young businessperson, it helped prepare me for the real business world as I grew older. Thus, my education in business began a long time ago.

Eventually, in 1981, when I was 19, I founded WinnScapes--a landscape- and maintenance-contracting business in the Columbus, Ohio area. Today, the business employs 46 associates. Thirty of these are full-time, while the additional 16 are seasonal. WinnScapes has experienced an average annual-sales growth of more than 20 percent over the last 17 years.

While maintaining a staff of quality employees and a profitable seasonal business is a challenge. WinnScapes is successful because we have a large snow-removal operation. Our philosophy is: "If everyone in the industry is doing it, let's find a way of doing it 10 times better."

Behind the profits: A positive attitude

At a young age, I understood that I would face limitations in income and success if I worked for someone other than myself. After all, when you are self-employed, you go as far as your own expectations and motivations take you. That means getting up earlier and working harder and longer than your competitors. However, it also leads to meeting and exceeding your customers' expectations.

Snow removal had become the most exciting and financially rewarding aspect of our organization. Profits from snow removal--which contribute about 10 to 30 percent of our revenues--have changed our potential. For example, consider a small firm: Two men, a truck and a trailer full of equipment. They generate $60 per hour with management and overhead costs beyond their margins. Compare this to one man, one truck and a couple of accessories generating more than $125 per hour. Following the latter example, our company has grown considerably. We now own over $5 million in real estate (single-family homes and commercial property) and our income is over half a million dollars.

Like firemen and doctors, snow contractors provide an emergency service on a 24-hour-alert basis. Each of us also provides a safe and practical means of protecting the public. It is a rewarding responsibility both personally and financially.

Communications and training

Referring regularly to the Weather Channel and other weather information sources keeps us alerted to potential storms in our area. To keep staff in touch with weather as well as other information, we use a variety of communications equipment. We equip each person with a pager and all vehicles with two-way radios. Subcontractors and management-team members also have cell phones.

We also ensure all staff members have proper training and the information they need (and where to find it) to get the job done. Our training includes spending a few hours on theory and administration. Then, about 90 percent of new-hire training focuses on on-the-job work with experienced crewmembers.

Documenting the job

We use a detailed documentation system to track the work our crews perform. This includes a weather and dispatch log. Each person also has a routing sheet itemizing when he or she times in and out. The routing sheet also provides specific instructions to follow and space to document work performed at a certain site. We then input that information into a database that allows us to manipulate this inforation 15 different ways to provide management reports and invoicing.

Advice for the novice

If you are an old pro at snow removal, you may feel that my advice is limited. However, if you're a novice, here are a few points to ponder:

  • Provide uncompromised quality and superior customer service so that a competitor offering services at half your price cannot touch your accounts.
  • Reduce your minimum plow depth as much as possible. (WinnScapes plows 90 percent of its contracts at 1 inch).
  • Do not plow areas that you don't salt. In addition, salt more often than you plow. (WinnScapes salts an average of 5 times the number of plowing occurrences.)
  • Pay team members enough to keep them motivated about working in the snow-removal business.
  • Invest in the best technology in weather reporting, communications and production equipment that money can buy.
  • Cross train everyone. Obviously, keeping everyone focused on his or her primary responsibility is necessary. However, at times employees will have to know how to perform the tasks of others.
  • Invoice all services immediately. You can best answer questions within 24 to 48 hours of an occurance.
  • Structure a minimum monthly charge for services so that you can efficiently and effectively meet your customer's emergency needs.
  • Use subcontractors to help share the burden of overhead costs. The best subs are other company owners also in contracting businesses that understand the dynamics of contracting.
  • Don't operate at full capacity for normal snow events. After all, it doesn't always snow on the weekend or stop snowing before midnight. Therefore, you must have additional staff available for those times when you are overloaded.
  • Have contingent plans to accommodate extra-big snow events and for situations when temperatures drop to extreme levels. Keep in mind that trucks, equipment and people don't function as well at 10F as they do at 30F.
  • Participate with organizations such as the Snow and Ice Managers Association (SIMA) and network with others in the industry.

Richard A. Winnestaffer is president and chief executive officer of WinnScapes Complete Landscape Services Inc. (Gahanna, Ohio).

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