Cut The Bull

Features - Operations

Three BS excuses for failure in the snow and ice management business and why they don't cut it.

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July 24, 2019

© Christos Georghiou

As I reflect back on the now finished 2018-2019 snow season, it’s occurred to me that this was very likely one of, if not the, most challenging seasons ever for many snow and ice management organizations. While some markets saw record snowfall, others received almost none. Winter seemed to last forever in some areas, whereas it never really got going in others. Much of North America’s snow markets were challenged with labor shortages and incredibly high prices for materials in short supply. After being involved in the snow industry for over two decades, I’ve come to realize that if you pay attention to what people are saying, you’ll hear the same five excuses why things aren’t going, or didn’t go, as well as they should have.

These three conditions are undoubtably real challenges, but when one goes so far as to blame anyone, or all of them, for the lack of success their snow program enjoys, these conditions – these challenges – become nothing more than excuses. And if there’s one thing I’m sure we can agree on, it’s that making excuses does not – cannot – drive exemplary results. This is business so results matter – not circumstances, conditions, or challenges. Results matter.

Labor

The challenge the service industries are facing in terms of recruiting and retaining quality talent is real. Obviously, labor intensive businesses are struggling the most. Snow and ice management is an incredibly labor-intensive business. I won’t argue that it’s a job seeker’s market. Job seekers have more choices than ever before.

We must remember that when we’re recruiting snow fighters, we’re not just competing with other snow and ice management firms. We’re competing with a lot of different industries. Much of this competition isn’t asking their people to be on-call 24-7. They aren’t asking their people to work in some of the worst weather conditions imaginable. They’re not asking their people to work tremendously long shifts with little to no sleep. They’re not asking their people to offer unwavering commitment and dedication, without any guarantee of consistent earnings.

All of this is true. It’s a tremendous challenge, perhaps greater than ever before. That’s not to say however, it’s not an excuse when used to explain less than desirable results. Our clients aren’t buying excuses, they’re paying for results. It’s our job to deliver safe conditions and mitigated liability, not to make excuses. Most clients aren’t interested in the challenges and circumstances that make our jobs difficult, nor should they be.

If the labor market is negatively affecting your bottom-line or the level of service you’re providing, then that’s your fault as a business leader. What concerns me the most isn’t industry discussion about the challenges before us, rather it’s how many otherwise strong organizations seem to have taken a “complain and wait” approach. Let me be clear. The labor market isn’t going to rebound to what it used to be. Waiting is a suicide mission.

We know this is a significant challenge. The question becomes: What are we going to do to not let this challenge own our results? Unfortunately, many are doing what they’ve always done when the labor market was different and proclaiming to be doing everything they can. I may not know you personally, or your business, but I’m comfortable saying you’re not doing everything you can. None of us are.

What are you doing to differentiate yourself from competing employers? What are you doing to get in front of more candidates? Are you a highly sought-after employer? Be brutally honest with yourself. If you were a job seeker, would your company be your first choice? Times have changed and so must we. Well-qualified candidates want more then competitive pay and job security.

Are you treating recruiting like a sales function? Meaning, are you selling your company to job seekers, or are you only making them sell themselves to you? Is your whole team involved in recruiting efforts? Does your entire team, from the front-office to the guy on the shovel, truly understand the shared benefits of being fully staffed with top-performers? Does your team understand all the shared drawbacks of being short-staffed? Does your entire organization recognize this as a shared challenge, or is this just something the folks at the top are trying to figure out?

Weather

I hear it all the time. “Profits are down because we didn’t get hardly any snow.” Or, “We’re upside-down because we had a brutal winter. I say nonsense! If we don’t have enough control over reasonably accurately forecasting our annual revenue, margins, and profit – then shame on us. Not shame on the weather. I’m a control freak like you’d have to see to believe. But I know I can’t control the weather. I also know, there’s way too much at stake to let the weather have significant control over our results. I realize that pricing structures can vary by region. But here’s a few things to consider. Are you offering “per-service” or “time-and-material” pricing without being compensated for equipment and personnel that you have allocated, dedicated, and leave on standby? What if it doesn’t snow enough to cover those expenses? All-inclusive contracts are especially popular in some markets, such as Metro Detroit. What if you get a brutal winter with a significantly higher accumulation than the range of average? Are you being compensated to insure your client’s risk against very active winters? Have you ever stopped to think of yourself as an uncompensated insurance carrier when you do this? Do you require a long multi-year contract when you sell all-inclusive deals to level the playing field over a longer period? What about partnering with a weather insurance company that actually makes their living mitigating financial risk from uncertain weather? What about a cap on the all-inclusive? Think about it. Material Prices

Here let me say it. Salt and deicer prices are another challenge for contractors, but it’s our clients’ problem, not ours. Unless you have equity in the properties you’re servicing, why would you let a commodity price affect your margins? This is a financial burden that should be primarily shouldered by the client.

With that said, we do have a responsibility as the professional to secure enough product to provide adequate service as promised. We do have a responsibility to make early, well-negotiated purchases or arrangements to purchase, to avoid running out before the season concludes. Furthermore, we have an undeniable professional responsibility to educate our clients as to the real situation and do so long before the season begins. Clients shouldn’t be blind sighted or first hear about higher than expected material costs at contract signing. They need to be afforded adequate time to budget and make adjustments. As soon as you know, they should know. That’s being a partner and a professional.

© dacasdo

Are you offering alternative deicing products and methods to help your clients achieve their objective without eroding your margins and their budgets? Are you staying current and well-educated on deicer market conditions. When you meet with your clients to discuss, are you a wealth of knowledge, or simply providing pricing? Are you educating on alternatives? Are you evaluating and considering changing your operational plans to be consistent with current material availability and pricing?

No BS

If we want consistent and predictable positive results, we need to take a no BS, no excuses approach. We need to take control of our results. We can’t control the weather, but we can decide not to leave our fate with something out of our hands.

Most of us can’t control salt and deicer prices, but we can become incredibly educated about these commodity markets and do a good job of educating our clients. We can evaluate the way we’re doing things and change for the better. There are always alternative ways of getting something done.

We can’t change the labor market, at least not overnight. And even when it changes, I promise you it won’t be like it used to be. We can, however, acknowledge and accept that it will never be as it once was. We can decide not to let it own our results. Being short staffed and complaining about it isn’t the only option.

I believe the snow and ice management professionals that rid these three BS excuses from their vocabulary, stand to be much more prosperous. Take ownership over your results. Your clients, employees, and bottom line will thank you.

Don’t let challenges and circumstances define your outcome. You have total and complete control over your results.

Mike Voories, is the Chief Operating Officer at Brilar, a commercial landscape & snow maintenance firm with locations across the Midwest. He is also a consultant to the service industries and a frequent Snow Magazine contributor. Contact him at

mvoories@brilar.net