Contractor Q&A: Diverse portfolio

Features - Feature

Waverly Landscape Associates manages a large-scale snow removal operation through careful planning and putting a lot of faith in the ability of its area managers.

March 1, 2010
Mike Zawacki, editor

Waverly Landscape Associates considers itself the big fish in the highly competitive Boston snow removal market. It manages a large-scale snow operation that includes a diverse commercial client portfolio, including Gillette Stadium, home field of the New England Patriots.

The company owes its success to the efficiency and effectiveness of its regional managers who command from the front lines during snow events, says William J. Butts, general manager at Waverly Landscape Associates in Belmont, Mass.

“You could never run the operation we run out of a central location,” Butts says. “Just from a communication standpoint it would be overwhelming. What we do is push down the responsibility to our area managers. They take direction from our owner, and he with our other key people distribute to them the key information about a coming snow event. From there the area managers funnel that information down to their people – subs, shovelers, operators.  Everything falls on them. There’s no doubt about it, the area managers are the key to our success.”

Butts talked with Snow Magazine editor Mike Zawacki about doing business in a competitive market, organizing the equipment needs of a large-scale operation and the debate over the use of sand in snow removal.

Tell me about the market you’re doing business in.
The market is heavily saturated with industrial and commercial properties, but we also have our fair share of retail. Plus, we’re one of the contractors that care of Gillette Stadium, which falls into our interesting scope of work.

Our market is made up of a lot of small- to mid-size, five-truck operations that sub work out to a couple of buddies which gets them up to 10 to 12 pieces of equipment. There are hundreds of those kind of guys. Then there are the dirt-and-rock guys who have about 20 pieces of equipment and who might partner up with other dirt-and-rock guys for an operation that’s about 50 pieces of equipment in size servicing a dozen large accounts. And some of the bigger landscape contractors can get up to 60 to 70 pieces of equipment. We own 95 trucks and 50 loaders and lease another 25 for the snow season. For a single event we put out about 200 pieces of equipment and another 250 shovelers. And we have about 125 commercial snow accounts broken up over four districts that are overseen by area managers. From our home office we reach out about 40 miles.

We service mostly commercial accounts, but we include home owner associations, as well. And we have a fair amount of those.

If you looked at size, you could say we’re the largest snow removal contractor in the market. There are a few bigger dirt guys who have the large equipment doing many of the retail malls who are close to us, but as far as area of coverage, men and equipment, I’d say we’re the biggest.

What type of contracts do you use?
Up until about five years ago we steered clear of flat-rate or seasonal contracts. But recently that’s the way the property managers and the ownership groups want to go. So probably 10 percent of our business is flat-rate, seasonal contracts with a cap, if possible. Having them “unlimited” is just too risky. And typically we won’t enter into a seasonal contract unless we also do their landscaping, or we have a long-term relationship with the client.

As the biggest fish in the pond, what’s your growth strategy? This year we had an interesting strategy. We sent out all of our renewals before July 4th weekend, which was one of the first year’s we got our renewals out so early. The reason why is last winter we got 72 inches, which was a heavy winter for us, and many of our clients went upside down on their budgets. So we figured we’d better get to them early for renewals incase someone decided to go out to bid. Then we offered plowing services to our existing customers who we weren’t plowing and some of them accepted bids from us.

We really just want to work for our customers year round and that’s been our strategy. And this year we were able to create some market opportunity by letting our customers know we wanted to do their plowing as well as their landscaping.

We do have the capacity to expand into our northern and southern markets. We’re not overbooked there. But as long as people are interested in talking to us about landscaping, the snow removal work usually comes to us as an added bonus.

How do you cover four distinct districts?
We don’t mobilize our equipment from our home office. Instead, most of our sites are big enough where we can set up a couple of trucks and plows, hand equipment and snow throwers at the site. We’ll set up an equipment trailer and put up a bin for sand/salt so we don’t have to leave the site.

A lot of our competitors will line up sites and then bounce their plows and equipment from site to site, which I see as burning the candle at both ends. Invariably, at some point in a snow event, that truck is going to be stuck in traffic and not making money.

Do you use your own people, or are you subbing this work out to other contractors?
We’ve got about 10 subs, most of whom are owner/operators, and we really don’t have subs who come in and are other contractors. Most of the guys we deal with are construction guys. Then we have other operators who are employed seasonally by other construction companies who don’t do snow removal. They come on board and run our machines, which is a benefit to us.

How do you find 250 shovelers?
We actually have about 150 on staff, so it’s not too difficult. We have a couple of job or recruiting fairs in the fall and we let people know about the opportunities to shovel snow on an on-call basis. And we pay pretty well, which I see as a big difference when attracting and keeping these employees.

How do you manage these guys during an event?
They’re assigned to each account. Each area manager has a captain, and that captain is a Latino worker who has worked up through the ranks and is in charge of all the shovelers in that area. So each captain has only 30 to 40 shovelers that he has to worry about. Also, we pay the lead shoveler more because he is responsible for calling everyone and alerting them to be ready for an event.

It sounds like a lot, but we manage 250 pretty well. You’ll never see 250 guys standing around the operations center during a snow event.

What are the challenges of maintaining the amount of equipment you put into play for a snow event, especially if you have back-to-back events?
Again, this falls back on our area managers. An area manager has inventory the equipment in his portfolio. If he has a down piece of equipment he’s responsible for scheduling our trucking manager for a pickup, assessing what the problem is and letting the shop foreman know what needs to be done. If it’s going to be a major repair we’ll find a temporary replacement for that piece of equipment.

We have six mechanics in our shop and four others who are mechanically inclined who basically tend to our 140 snow throwers, which need maintenance all winter long.

We do a good job investing in the right age of equipment – they’re not brand new, but their not clunkers. We invest a lot of time before we send them out and, knock on wood, they tend to be Ok.

Because we use so much equipment, we recently purchased a facility about 25 miles from our headquarters  – a former body shop on three acres of land – just for staging our snow removal equipment. And we plan to have three mechanics there who work on snow equipment year round. That way they can tune snowblowers in the summer and they’re ready to go. Typically we’d get ready for the snow season around Sept. 1, maybe mid August if we we’re on the ball. But because it’s so much equipment, it just never seems to get done by the first snowfall.

Wow, that’s quite a commitment.
Snow is such a big part of our bottom line that we have to support it with a major amount of maintenance and upkeep. This is what keeps us from having major equipment breakdowns during a snow event.

Where do you find quality used equipment?
The distributors we do business with – because we do buy new, too – are on notice that if they find a skid steer under 1,000 hours, and they think it’s decent, then they should call us. The local CAT and John Deere dealers here all know we buy used equipment and they’ll put us on their used-equipment call list.

And everyone here knows if they come across a loader parked on the side of the road with a “for sale” sign that should have our maintenance supervisor take a thorough look at it.

Also, there have been a number of distressed business in our market because of the economy and we’ve purchased equipment that way, too. Sometimes we won’t buy a piece of equipment because we need it, but because it’s a solid piece of (used) equipment and then we’ll find work for it.

With an operation of this size, how do you handle salting and deicing duties?
Again, this responsibility falls on our area managers. Each area has two to three salt trucks and there’s usually one larger unit that has a route in that area. The area manager will kick it off and the operator starts his route while the smaller trucks spot check and treat the problem areas.

What type of products do you use?
We use mostly straight rock salt. But we also use some blended products because of the sensitivity to salt in some of the residential communities we service.

We probably use 70 percent salt and 30 percent sand if we’re using sand. We use some brewers-treated product and we’re just getting into pretreating and the use of liquids. But right now, we’re still in the testing phases.

There’s some debate about how effective sand is for deicing. What are your thoughts on this issue?
The problem is if they did away with sand then the price shock to use straight salt would be difficult for most people in our market to digest. The market has built itself around sand/salt pricing. Some customers see the value in straight salt, but they don’t want to pay $1,000 for an application when they can pay $600 for a sand/salt mix application.

The sand does have value in our market because it tends to be a little hilly and it’s nice to have that little bit of grit on the roadway.