Enjoying the rush

Features - Cover Story Leadership 2017

While his hallmarks of leadership are faith in his employees and a commitment to ethics and fair business practices, Chris Senske will always love the rush of battling the big storm.

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September 26, 2017
Rob Thomas
Photo:trevor hooper

Out of demand, comes supply. When Chris Senske’s clients requested snow service, he responded. Senske Services of Kennewick, Wash., dabbled in the snow industry in the early 1980s, but took a “hiatus” until 1990.

“The driving force was customer requests for service,” Senske says about his return to snow-and-ice management. “These were customers that we were already doing some kind of work for, particularly grounds maintenance.”

The core business for Senske Services remains lawn care and pest control, but also includes grounds maintenance, tree service, irrigation service and holiday lighting. Their typical snow season starts around the first week of December and goes through mid-February. The latest snowfall that required any action occurred in mid-to-late March.

Today, Senske does anything but dabble in the industry. The company has 77 plow trucks – all equipped with salter spreaders on the rear. They also have five CAT skid-steers with 10-foot push box snow pushers and a couple of dedicated salt trucks.

“And when it works out right we have a fleet of tanker trucks for liquid spreading, but have avoided that in the recent past because of the cost of liquid mag chloride.”

While total employment at Senske Services peaks at about 500 in summer, it dips to around 350 in winter.

Tony Fisher, Senske’s general manager, landscape maintenance, has been an employee and friend for the past 25 years. “I started my employment with Chris as a young 19-year-old just [out of] high school,” Fisher says. “I would have to say he is the best employer I have ever had the honor to work for. His leadership style is that of encouragement and support and one who is always available to listen. Always asking your opinion, your plans and your solutions. He allows you the room for success and failures and congratulates you in your successes and supports you through your failures. He has made it his mission to continue to improve, develop, strengthen and build a brand that strives to be one of today’s top industry leaders.

“His commitment and faith in his employees is second to none,” he says. “His commitment to being ethical and fair is in everything he does.”

Vice PresidenDan Warehime has known Senske since February 1977, what was then Senske Weed and Pest Control. “Chris had graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in chemistry a few years earlier. At his parents beckoning he joined them in running the then mom-and-pop operation,” Warehime says. “Chris brought a strong desire to grow the operation. Not too long after joining them, Chris opened the Kennewick branch and moved his family from Spokane, 140 miles to the south. As his parents retired from day-to-day operations, his passion for and ability to grow the business gained momentum. More branches were opened, more lines of business were started.

“Chris now operates 11 company-owned branches in four states,” he says. “Chris remains actively involved in day-to-day operations with an emphasis in marketing and acquisitions. His passion and drive for growth remains. His inspirational leadership promotes growth and cultivates an environment with risk taking as a needed element of it. Riding along on this incredible adventure as Senske Services has grown from six employees to well over 450 has been exciting.”

What drives Senske during the winter months when the hours can get very long and unpredictable? A number of things, including a revenue stream in the winter, providing a service his clients want ... and an adrenaline rush.

“The action and excitement when the storm is coming in,” he says. “It is a rapid response; it is kind of like being a fireman. You are out in the battle of the storm while everyone else is sleeping and in some cases,a don’t even know what took place. This is my personal favorite.

“Now, on the management side of things, my favorite reason for snow is it keeps my employees on staff,” Senske added. “It has turned a seasonal lawn care profession to year-round work and employment for people.”

Considering the demands of the job, finding capable employees isn’t always easy.

“One of the toughest challenges is to find the number of qualified snow plow operators you need to be fully staffed,” Senske says. “It is becoming more and more difficult to find folks with good driving records that want to do this work.

“Another large challenge is finding a reasonable insurance provider.,” he added. “We’ve had to go to a non-admitted carrier that charges extremely high rates to cover the risk.

Giving back

Sharing success is rewarding and fulfilling. Senske has not only given back to his community, but also the snow-and-ice management industry.

“We hold to the standards of the ASCA. By doing this we are continuing to help educate other contractors to perform quality service that matches the ASCA standards,” he says. “We work with 11 subcontractors to continue to educate and train them to the standard of ASCA.”

In the community, giving back continues throughout the year, but is most noticed during the holiday season.

“Besides all the contributions of services to various charitable organizations, we provide the community a free animated Christmas light show that has become the highlight of the holiday season,” Senske says. “The thousands of attendees donate thousands of dollars for the local food bank, along with thousands of pounds of nonperishable food items.

“The light show has about 500,000 lights and 600 channels of dancing lights set to music,” he continued. “Tens of thousands of people come to the light show between Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

Family

Considering all the enjoyment he has provided to area families, it’s not surprising that his family played such a huge role in creating the man Senske has become.“My dad taught me some very valuable lessons of the joy of hard work and a ‘start now and the job will be done sooner attitude,’” he says. “Most important lesson, ‘do it right the first time and you won’t have to do it again.’”

Warehime has seen the influence of Senske’s father firsthand. “Chris brings a drive to be the best and a passion to always be on the cutting edge of what’s next,” he says. “He has driven technology in the business forward at a blistering pace. He has tackled and succeeded at introducing new operational techniques, equipment designs and business strategies. Senske Services was [an] early adopter of handheld devices, the utilization of GPS technology, call center implementation and the use of aerial imagery for mapping, measuring and pricing. The company developed in-house software that early on touted things like texting notification and the capturing photographic and GPS evidence of services.

“Chris, the man, is a humble loving husband, parent and grandparent. He and his wife Catie have opened their doors and their lives to many folks in need,” Warehime adds. “From welcoming out-of-country transfer students to taking in family and friends in need. Chris, the businessman, is a driven leader that recognizes the need for, and the development of, people within his organization. Growing companies offer expanding opportunists. Developing, educating and mentoring future leaders has been his priority as the business has required a constant influx of talent to fulfill these expanding opportunities. As a result, most promotions have been, and continue to be, from within. Chris takes a huge amount of pride in this.”

Bob Tippett met Senske through a Christian fellowship more than 20 years ago. Over time their families have become close friends. Tippett’s company and partnerships own several office buildings that utilize Senske for snow removal and landscaping.

“Chris is a visionary with the unique ability to diversify and grow his business through changing economic conditions,” Tippett says of Senske. “The enthusiasm and joy by which Chris approaches his business is contagious.

“Chris uniquely shows respect for everyone he meets,” he says. “This is noticable with his competitors. Chris is known for his integrity and quality of service and the willingness to creatively solve problems that arise. I deeply value and trust my relationship with Chris.”

Sharing Knowledge

Tippett, Warehime and Fisher have all taken away valuable lessons from their time with Senske. From the outside, looking in, Tippett sees how Senske handles those who work for his company.

“The importance of placing employees in their positions of giftedness, empowering them to do their jobs and then believing in them to contribute to the success of the company,” Tippett says.

Fisher says Senske has taught him the value of working hard, going after your dreams being true to yourself, as well as others. “Leave a good legacy and treat people with kindness,” he says.

Warehime focused on one word when it came time to reflect on his employer and friend – trust.

“Takeaways that many of us have received through our tenure with Chris – have a trust in people,” he says. “Chris has always believed that everyone is honest and committed, until proven otherwise. This trust and belief in people has produced a long-tenured team of folks that are passionate about working for Senske Services. He is outspoken about, the way you care for employees and clients has everything to do with how long they stay with you and how passionate they are.” While Senske has passed along a wealth of life and business lessons to employees over the years, he shared a little advice to anyone considering a career in snow.

“When you decide on snow, go all in,” he stressed. “And by going all in, I mean learn as much about the business as you can from others in the business. Network at ASCA or SIMA meetings and participate in their programs. Make your insurance guy your best buddy and keep him on speed dial – year-round!”