Hunting Big Game

Features - Cover Story

There’s a lot on the line when pursuing large, complex properties. Our experts outline what you need to know before placing a big-game property in your sights.

July 29, 2021

In the snow and ice management industry, the average contractor starts out small tending local gas stations, pharmacies and the occasional church parking lot. But if they stick with it long enough and enjoy success, contractors being to set their sights on more ambitious properties such as HOAs, retail centers and modest business complexes.

The next point in a snow pros evolution is to lock in on big game (or big fish) properties. Sprawling medical campuses, complex manufacturing facilities, mega malls, cargo and shipping depots, and even stadiums and metropolitan airports provide the unique opportunity to both propel the professional snow and ice manager into a new revenue bracket and secure their reputation in his or her market. The challenging properties also, according to industry experts, are by their nature high-risk endeavors and can potentially devastate a newcomer both financially and professionally if they approach these properties unprepared and without the correct mindset.

Here's what you need to know before attempting to secure and retain a big game winter services contract.

Are You Ready To Hunt?

The biggest question a contractor will wrestle with is whether they’re ready to go after big game. At the very least, before considering a large, complex property make certain you already are performing at a high level managing the properties already under contract.

“You must know the dynamics of what it takes to service a commercial property in the winter,” says Mike Jones, founder and president of True North Outdoor, Kansas City. “If you don’t know how to catch a bass, then you can’t go out and snag a whale.”

Know Your Numbers

Snow professionals who have managed big-game clients agrees that, first and foremost, a contractor must have a solid handle on what it takes to be profitable. This is especially important in a weather-dependent industry like snow and ice management where the amount of billable snow and ice events can vary drastically from year to year. Maintaining a solid grasp on winter numbers allows a contractor to extrapolate from the start what the numbers needs to be to service a larger, more complex property.

This includes a number of important variables. For example, what pieces of snowfighting equipment will be required to most efficiently and effectively service the contract? Will you need access to capital to purchase additional equipment and material to manage the contract? How many crew members are required to service x-number of square feet of pavement and walkways? How much rock salt and chemical deicing materials will be required to meet the client’s expectations? Will you crew needs to clear a security background check?

Failure to answer any of these questions prior to the initial meetings with potential big-game clients will quickly place your company out of contention.

Contractors must understand these variables acutely because if they get to the end of the contract process they want to make sure their numbers are solid, says Josh Flynn, CEO of Seabreeze Property Services, Portland, Maine. “If you don’t analyze every asset, then you will either set yourself up for failure or sticker shock,” he says. “The worst thing that can happen is to lose money in the first year and then you can’t take [the contract] on again in the future.”

With big-game clients, contractors must ensure they have the resources in place for whatever weather comes their way. “The higher the dollar value of the contract the less tolerance there is with the client,” Flynn says.

Don’t Oversell Yourself

There’s an inherent danger of overselling your abilities when pursuing big-game clients for the first-time.

“It’s a very scary thing to do,” says Brad Frank, director of snow and ice management/services at David J. Frank Landscape Contracting Inc., West Bend, Wis. “It’s tough when you believe in something so much – whether you’re the owner, a founder, or a director of operations – and to have so much pride in [the job] you do that it’s hard not to oversell yourself. So, you need to be careful.”

If you oversell yourself, then you’re only setting yourself up for a quick turnover with that customer, Frank adds. “If you end up nailing that contract, then you want to make sure you perform to the promises that you made before the winter season starts, he says. “And this is key to going after these big-game clients because they analyze every last part of their facility. They’ll break it down to a tee and then start nitpicking every little detail. So, if you said you could do these things, then you better be sure you can deliver when the time comes.”

When hunting big game for the first time, a snow professional must consider the scale of who they’re pursuing. “If you’re used to doing $30,000 seasonal contracts, then don’t go out and try to land a $500,000 account,” Flynn says. “Instead, go after a $100,000 opportunity and see if you can do it. Get your foot in the door and build your reputation and your references.”

Be prepared that a big-game or big-fish client prefers to test a newcomer first with a something that is a much smaller part of the overall winter services proposal.

“Frankly, getting the smaller first sale is often the tipping point that gets you the bigger deal and longer-term money [later on],” says business coach Jill J. Johnson, president and founder of Johnson Consulting Services. “If you can, break your proposal down into several component parts or additional optional services. Give them choices in how to work with you.”

Landing a big-game client is just like any other sale, Johnson adds, and it is always about the client and their expectations. “Keep your focus on that,” she says. “It is all about their needs, their desires, and their problems. Focus on how working with you will solve their critical issues within a budget amount that works for you both.”

It is often extremely intimidating to sell to a big-game or big-fish client. Therefore, sell as part of a team and assign aspects of the various aspects of the contract to different people. Then you can "tag team" your presentation to reinforce the value you bring to the client and best respond to client questions and objections during the sales presentation, Johnson says.

And don’t leave anything to chance, Frank warns. “Share with them all of the details like certification, training, equipment make-up, event plans, how you’ll address worst-case scenarios, etc.,” he says. “This shows the client what type of snow and ice management firm you are, and in the end, it really helps out.”

Allocate And Dedicate

The best advice veteran snowfighters have for managing big-game properties is to approach the logistics – equipment, materials, staff, etc. – as if that was your only contract.

“Put together a dedicated team of supervisors, crew leaders and members just for that one job,” Frank says. “The client will prefer seeing and dealing with the same people all season long.”

A common mistake owner-operators make with big-game clients is believing they can both closely manage this client and run their business. While it’s important for an owner or ops director to have a relationship with the big-game client, they shouldn’t be the individual the client is texting that a section of sidewalk was missed.

“You’ll end up pulling your hair out because you’ll be dealing with a thousand other issues during a major event and you’re also focused on running the business,” Flynn says, “

Another key is dedicating enough dependable equipment to do the job. “With equipment, one of the biggest issues about pursuing large contracts is [big-game clients] often have very low tolerances for mistakes or delays by the snow contractor,” Flynn says. “So, there is very little time for the contractor to recover [from equipment failure] unless you have the ability to pull resources from a different site.”

To remedy potential equipment failures, Flynn recommends allotting newer equipment to high-profile clients. “We combat this issue by leasing all of our [heavy] equipment,” he says. “Last winter we didn’t put out a piece of machinery into the field that had more than 400 hours of service already on it. And none of our trucks were older than 2017 or 2018.”

And to keep from being overwhelmed by the size or complexity of the property, True North’s Jones suggests dividing the area up into various, smaller zones. Then attack each zone with dedicated crews following a specific procedure, he says, which is very similar to how a contractor would approach smaller, less complicated properties.

“Divide and conquer,” Jones says. “Breaking a large property down to smaller zones allows you to maintain an operational perspective.”

This strategy is also effective in managing client requests or possible site problem during winter cleanup.

Meeting Demand

Big-game properties come with a whole new level of clientele for professional snow and ice managers. Since this caliber of client is spending more money for winter services, they’ll expect their contractor to exercise the professionalism to satisfy their needs. Contractors will find big-game clients are often more demanding than the average client.

“The worst scenarios are always handed to us as snow contractors,” Frank says. “So, if you promise one thing [to big-game clients] then you need to be sure you can see it through. A lot of smaller businesses can be more forgiving … and they’re more sympathetic because they are dealing with their own [logistic] issues running their own businesses. But these big-game clients don’t forgive or forget so easily.”

Sales coach Johnson says with big-game clients, it’s not unusual to have many decision influencers working behind the scenes who are pushing for their own preferred vendor to secure the snow contract.

“Remember, your prospect is also dealing with an internal power structure,” Johnson says. “Be on the lookout for those people on the inside of your prospect’s organization who may help you better understand what it will take to secure the contract. They may be able to give you the fundamental insight that will help you reel the big fish in to close the deal.”

This is one of the biggest shocks most newcomers experience. “Larger, more complex properties are going to have larger, more complex management structures compared to the smaller retail property managers and owners that a contractor may be used to dealing with,” Jones says. “Contractors are often surprised they’re dealing with multiple executives or managers on the contract.”

Likewise, be sensitive of the internal politics at play with a client, Frank warns.

“Urgency is everything, especially if there are many different divisions to the company or the campus,” he says. “Everyone sees themselves as the most important person on that campus and they often have their own internal disputes about property management. So, when dealing with the snow contractor they feel they’re the most important person.”

Mike Zawacki is Snow Magazine’s editor.