Blooming in Bloomingdale

Features - Operations

An Ontario-based company increases efficiency in snow removal despite mild winters that posed staffing concerns.

Snow removal makes up for about one-fifth of Wright Landscape Services’ annual revenue, according to President Dave Wright.

After a short hiatus, snow removal service was added back to the book of business at Wright Landscape Services based in Bloomingdale, Ontario. Today that service makes up about one-fifth of the company’s annual revenue, says President Dave Wright.

The company has been in business for more than 50 years. Wright’s father started the business and added snow plowing services as the company grew.

“We had maintenance clients who were commercial facilities that were using another company for their snow clearing,” Wright says. “We went and expanded into that (area of snow removal service), and that basically doubled our revenue from our maintenance clients.”

However, by the mid-1980s, the company stopped plowing. The snow plowing service was brought back in the early 2000s. Today, Wright Landscape Services offers design/build, property maintenance and landscaping, snow removal, and more. Its clients are both residential and commercial, primarily falling within a 30-minute radius of the company’s headquarters.

Contract structure

Today, Wright strives for all clients to be on a 12-month contract, receiving landscape maintenance during the green season and snow removal in the winter season. The contracts are multiyear, typically for a three-year term.

New clients are found by going door to door in neighborhoods or commercial areas of town, from leads via the company’s website and word-of-mouth referrals.

Contracts start Nov. 1 and end March 31, matching the lifespan of the typical winter season in Ontario, Wright says. A few contracts extend until April, allowing the client peace of mind in case late-season snow comes.

“We start prepping our equipment in October. We have one of our guys start prepping equipment and bringing it from our storage area and getting it ready,” he says.

Fleet size and structure

Trucks are readied for winter, but then the equipment is removed and set aside until summer work is finished.

“We have about six plow units, three agricultural tractors with 16-foot blades, two walkway crews, and each walkway crew has push mowers and a ride-on machine for doing the city walkways,” Wright says. “We do bring in the odd subcontractor to help out when we need it. We have two smaller salt units on three-ton trucks, and then we have the large 6-ton salter as well.”

Most of the salting is done with the large salt truck. Smaller units can help out if more coverage is needed during a storm, Wright says. Walkway crews operate separate from plow drivers, and ideally, hit a property before the plow comes.

“It’s a bit of a balance between that, and having to do cleanup afterward,” he says. “It doesn’t always work. They’re all communicating with each other as well.”

The company runs 12 snow removal routes and employee roles are interchangeable depending on needs, Wright says.

Finding and keeping employees

Manpower is always a challenge, but even more so during a mild winter like this past one, Wright says. This past season, the region experienced only about 70 percent of the average snowfall for the area.

“Because of the winter we had, we didn’t have consistent snow so it was a challenge keeping our hourly employees on, because they just weren’t making enough hours,” he says. However, those who stayed on did learn to work more efficiently, he adds.

“I think I need to go find more all-inclusive contract work in order to manage cash flow,” Wright says. “Fewer per trip stuff because we’re just not making the money per trip.”

During peak season, the company, which has an annual revenue of about $2.5 million, employs 20 individuals. About $500,000 of that revenue comes from snow removal work, Wright says.

When it comes to staffing, Wright says it’s important to invest the time into hiring the right people. He has found that hiring in the fall works well, and 80 to 90 percent of employees typically stay on for more than one season.

“You find some of your best employees that way. Once they stay through the entire season, they turn into great green season staff. We hire for 12 months; we don’t hire just for a season,” he says.

Wright also offers a program where employees can bank hours so that summer pay goes toward slow times in the winter, allowing them to receive a steady paycheck year-round.

Hiring should be at the top of your mind all year long though, he adds.

“You may not have a position, but someone good comes along where you’ve got to hire them because it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge finding people that want to work,” Wright says.

The good employees have jobs, but they may be unhappy with their employer and are simply staying because it’s easy, he says.

“It’s a matter of searching for those employees who are not happy and convincing them that maybe it’s time to go find their happiness,” Wright says, adding that he does much of this type of headhunting through networking.

Subcontractors are used occasionally, usually on client sites that are on the furthest outskirts of the company’s service area.

Employee training

All employees visit the client sites they will be servicing prior to the first snowfall for a walkthrough and in-the-field training. Ride-alongs are also performed with an experienced operator leading a new employee. “The experienced ones it’s more of just you tell them where the hazards are, and leave them to figure out their best way of doing it,” Wright says.

Also, about one-third of the company’s employees are trained to use a salt truck. While roles are interchangeable, there are some limits, he says. “We don’t just drop somebody into one of the bigger machines or a truck. They have to kind of work their way up there,” Wright adds. “Certainly, when it comes to walkways, everybody’s doing it.”

Holly Hammersmith is a freelance writer based in Ohio.