2011 Leadership Award Recipient: All in the Family

Bill French Jr. says family touches every aspect of Boston-based W.L. French

Bill French Jr. draws on what he learned working winters with his father to help his family’s business grow.It's family first at W.L. French and Bill French Jr. has followed nicely in his father's considerable footsteps. Bill Sr. started the company in 1972 in the Boston area and his son learned by watching and lending a helping hand, often going along on various jobs.

"Working with him was always exciting and a highlight of my winters as a young child," Bill Jr. says. "Packing food and going out to work for a few days – even missing school to work in the snow – was an amazing experience and certainly had an impact on my career early on."

Those days provided him with the drive and determination he utilizes now, he says, as he realized snow and winter could be a way to earn and save money. He eventually bought his first truck with the money he made working in the snow as a teenager.

Having continued to grow and diversify the business, Bill Jr. keeps family close to him on a daily basis.

"My father led the way with his word, honesty, blood sweat and tears for this company," he says. "My Uncle Frank also has run a major snow operation in Boston for decades and he has been, and continues to be, a mentor for me. He is an excellent businessman."

Family touches every aspect of the W.L. French business.

"Being in a family business means that everyone plays a role – whether it's my wife supporting me at home or recording radio advertisements, or my uncle offering me advice and assistance if we need to borrow each other's equipment," Bill Jr. says. "My sisters offer support by soliciting work and even keeping me company while visiting each snow contract [during] storms.

"This past winter was long and people grew tired," he added. "Having the support of the entire family and knowing that there was no let up of slack in other areas of the business ... to ensure that we do not skip a beat with our other divisions of work or managing our other client's needs while we managed the snow is something I am grateful for."

When it is time to get away from work, it's a good bet you'll find Bill Jr. on the water.

"The best place for me to relax to is Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire," he says. "It is a place my family and I have gone to for years and a place I find both fun and relaxing. I enjoy boating, fishing and enjoying everything the lake has to offer, but most of all it is the time away from it all with my wife Christine and my children, Cameron and William."

The last decade has been a mixed bag during winters, according to Bill Jr. There have been winters where they didn't focus as much on the snow, but in 2007 and 2008 they really wanted to increase their share of the market - seeing an opportunity with the equipment they own to be utilized on larger volume contracts. With that, he took on more and now has a serious snow division.

The W.L. French fleet consists of tractor trailer units (mainly Peterbilts, but several Kenworths, as well), approximately 25 tractors, 40 Trailers, 60 pieces of heavy equipment and many other pieces such as plows, pushers, crushers, graders, ATVs, water trucks, and pickups.

The unpredictability of the season makes New England winters anything but "typical," so Bill Jr. has an eye on snow even during the warm summer months.

"It's almost an all year process," he says. "Contracts can start as early as mid October and can last through May. This is New England so you never know what you are going to get."

"But if we are not actually plowing or hauling snow, we are tweaking our craft, soliciting and seeking new contracts, evaluating what worked and what didn't work the previous year, assessing employee performance, assessing equipment performance, output and of course the financial impact of the season," French adds.

It has not been all perfect, of course. Bill Jr. sees mistakes others are making – some of which W.L. French has made in the past. He understands that no good business has gotten where it is without error and acknowledges it is often the best way to learn.

While they are not concentrating on snow removal, W. L. French is a commercial site contractor that specializes in site development and site remediation. The company also is a hazardous-waste transporter and specializes in hauling a range of construction materials – from clean aggregate the firm produces to hazardous waste.

In 2010, W.L. French trimmed down its workforce to adjust with the economy and workload and now employs about 85 employees – all of whom provide an important role/piece of the puzzle to ensure the company is successful on every contract it performs on, according to Bill Jr.

"Expect nothing less than stellar," is Bill Jr.'s management philosophy. "I have high expectations of my crew and them of me. I rely heavily on their reliability, decision making, their efforts and skill. I manage my team as a team – everyone is as vital as the next.

"There is a strong camaraderie during days and nights out plowing and that keeps a team strong," he adds. "Everyone is needed to get the job done and everyone is needed to get the next guy going."

It makes perfect sense that the thrill of a storm exhilarates Bill Jr.

"The best part of the seasons is the start of the season – gearing up – waiting for the weather and that first major storm," he says. "Everyone is enthusiastic and excited.

"The ability to turn a profit and keep other businesses operating during states of emergency is rewarding," French adds. "Not a lot of people look forward to the Nor'easters and major storms that we can get here in Boston – but we do."

Conversely, the end of each season isn't always easy.

"Because there are other aspects of our business – the spring clean up/wind down is always a challenge," Bill Jr. says. "Sights often shift toward starting site work and the snow season is over – yet there is still a major role in our contracts to our clients to manage spring clean up."

He says seasons when it does not snow as much can be disappointing, but sees those as a reminder that this is a business and a market that has no guarantees. Companies have to adjust to whatever comes and make sure other work is lined up to keep the ball rolling.

Giving back to the industry is important to W.L. French, which treats the business as a cooperative effort.

"One of our niches is that we often work for our competitors," Bill Jr. says. "We may lose a portion of a project and end up working for our competitors in another way. This speaks volumes of our integrity and honesty – something that translates to everything we do – including our snow work."

In keeping with the helping-hand vibe, French offers advice for anyone looking to get into the snow business.

"Be prepared for peaks and valleys. It is seasonal, unpredictable and things can change in a minute," he says. "You can gear up and mobilize for a storm that may go out to sea a matter of hours later. You need to be prepared to work long hours, time away from your family - the works. But in the end, we wouldn't do it if it wasn't worth it."

Quality is a part of every aspect at the business, according to French.

"Our high standards that we maintain our equipment are higher than industry average. Our employees are fully trained – much more than the average snow contractor," he says. "Most employees have OSHA 10 / OSHA 40 / HAZWOPER – our foremen are OSHA "Competent Person." Safety training is a part of all the work this organization does and, to that end, the level of work we perform and the standard of which it is done is nothing but a class act job – including safety.

"Our employees are outstanding," he adds. "Through their hard work, personalities and drive, they represent us on every project we perform on and they make the company proud."

Giving back to the area in which he serves is just as important.

"W.L. French has a nice role in our local community," he says. "Whether we are donating our property for the local fire department[s] to conduct training, running coat drives, collecting and distributing Toys for Tots for our two local towns – we are involved.

"What was once an obligation of writing checks to various charities – WLF has become more active by actually doing more," he adds. "The office has prepared and served food at local shelters, the company has sponsored trips for Habitat for Humanity – and, of course, charitable donations to the local police, fire departments, YMCA and other local scholarships. WLF feels it is important and a privilege to serve the communities we work in and we make every effort, whether it is sponsoring a young sports team to make it to a tournament or donating stone to a new playground, we find a way to quietly give back."

October 2011
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