2015 Leadership Award Recipient: It’s all about culture

By running a professional snow business and emphasizing industry and community involvement, Chad Oberson has created a happy place otherwise known as Oberson’s Snow and Ice Management.

You’re never going to find a beer can in the garbage can at Oberson’s Snow and Ice Management in Cincinnati The reason is because owner Chad Oberson has established a culture of professionalism, pride and responsibility at his $7 million snow and landscape business.

“In 99 percent of landscape companies, when they’re done at the end of the day, they get together and have a beer,” Oberson says. “That’s the atmosphere a lot of these companies portray, and that’s fine, but we just don’t let that go on at our company.”

Oberson says his employees accept the culture and are very happy. Proof, he says, is that most of his laborers have been working for his company for 11 years.

“They love it and try to get their acquaintances to come work for us,” he says. “We have a very different culture than most companies in our industry in that it’s very structured and safety conscious. Our industry is very blue collar, but we have a lot of policies and procedures in place regarding safety, alcohol, smoking and tobacco. There is a financial reward system, and it works well.”

Oberson leads by example, being present at the shop at 6:15 a.m. every morning, seven days a week, putting in 10-hour days. He visits with all his employees, making sure everyone is happy and supplied with what they need.

“A lot of times, all the interaction happens between 6 and 9 p.m. when guys are rolling in,” Oberson says. “I’ll see a truck pull into the nursery and I’ll hop in my golf cart and run down there to see how the guys are doing and how their day went to make sure everything is good. That’s what I do. I want them to know I am part of every part of the business and want to make sure they succeed. I will take care of whatever they need.”

And it’s easy for Oberson to check in with his crews in person that late because his main location is also his home, as well as the homes of his H2B workforce. Being so dedicated to the job and having work so close to home has led to having to make a lot of sacrifices, but Oberson doesn’t mind a bit.

“I’m 39, and I’m going to work seven days a week,” he says. “I love my job and I love what I do almost to the point where it doesn’t seem like work because I have such a good staff. It does take time away from my wife and family. My wife is wonderful and helps run the business as well as our household. I am not the dad who takes their kids everywhere or the dad you see at school functions because I simply don’t get to do that. It’s just not going to happen with the type of business and workforce I have.”

Oberson’s business and work ethic has also robbed him of his favorite pastime: snow skiing. He used to ski out West and up East all the time. In fact, he still has a season pass to Stowe Mountain in Vermont. But his snow business has kept him from getting out in the winter.

“I can’t do that kind of stuff anymore,” Oberson says. “You never know when it’s going to snow. I can’t get out in wintertime. I physically do not get out in a truck anymore; there is way too much management needed in the office to be going out and plowing snow and putting down salt. Still, I can’t get away because I have my hands around the operation so much. We’re just so lean. If it snows two to three inches, no big deal. But eight inches is a big deal.”

Seventy-five percent of Oberson’s gross sales comes from snow, servicing 100 percent high-end commercial properties. Fifteen years ago, when Oberson first started his business, it was largely autocratic, although Oberson hates to admit that. But over time, out of necessity, it has transitioned to more of a democracy.

“We were a small company back then, so it had to be autocratic,” he says. “The first 10 years were very autocratic, with me and me only making all the decisions. In the last four to five years, it has become more of a Democratic leadership style where my key people are involved in a lot of the decisions, not only daily ones but long-term ones as well.”

One of those decisions was the recent purchase of a $9,000 piece of equipment Oberson needed to grade out a property.

“Instead of me doing it, and I really didn’t know what they needed, I asked one of my superintendents to do it and he told me what they needed,” Oberson says.

On a daily basis, superintendents are empowered to determine if, for example, they need more people for a project.

“That is delegated now and I don’t manage that on a daily basis,” Oberson says. “But I am still involved and they see my body every morning at 6:15 getting out there, and they know I’m available to coach, mentor or help. But I’m not always the one making up the schedule or deciding who’s going where every day anymore.”

Another example of employees taking control is when one of Oberson’s foremen told him that his laborers were on the phone too much. They knew they weren’t allowed, but there was nothing in place to stop him. So the foreman came up with idea to give them an initial warning, then fine them $10 every time they were caught using their phones. The new policy has worked so well, Oberson says, that the laborers don’t use their phones at all anymore.

“He thought it up and made it happen, putting it on paper and posting it up by their timecards,” Oberson says.

Oberson feels his change in management style didn’t come from some aha moment, but rather was purely the result of his business growing in size.

“When you’re small, you feel like you have to make all the decisions,” he says. “You really don’t have any upper level management. You might have had some people fit for that role but didn’t realize it, and they probably didn’t know they might be in that role someday either. It happened simply because of the size of the company.”

Laborers in the summer become foremen in the winter and take leadership of the subcontractors. For Oberson, it’s a 250-body operation in winter versus 25 in summer.

“It made me change the way I do business to understand that my staff sometimes knows stuff I don’t know to help me with decisions,” Oberson says.

Oberson says he expects even more change when the company gets to the $10 to $12 million mark, something he expects within three years.

“To get over the $10 to $12 million mark, there would be have to be a fairly large change into some more managerial positions,” he says. “Our superintendents now are definitely in managerial roles, and that will always stay, but above them, there are very few people. There is one operations manager and then myself, and that would have to change drastically. We would need more upper level management to be successful and provide the service I want to provide. I would have to be even more democratic than I am now.”

Oberson earns the respect of his employees not just by being involved in the business but also in the industry and community. On any given day, his crews can see him in workpants and a work shirt and then later in a suit due to his duties as a local city councilman. He is the past president and a current member of the Fairfield Rotary Club, a member of two chambers of commerce, and a parishioner at Sacred Heart Church. He estimates the company donates more than $10,000 per year to various charities.

“The name of my business is my last name,” Oberson says. “When I ran for city council, there were a lot of guys who ran and I won by a lot, and looking back, I think that was because my business is my last name and we are so involved in the community.”

Charitable giving has included: Cincinnati Hebrew Day School (landscaped school at no charge); Sacred Heart Festival (sponsor); Fairfield Youth Baseball Teams (sponsored 10 teams); SIDS Network of Ohio (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome - sponsor); Hamilton Mission Trip (landscaped homes at no charge); Camp Swoneky (donated plant material and landscaping services); Fairfield Rotary Auction; Friend of Boy Scouts (donated money and materials to help with many Boy Scout/Eagle Scout projects); and First Industrial – One Way Farm Christmas project donation.

“My mom and dad were big on giving back,” Oberson says. “It’s kind of what I knew. And then I started doing it, and I enjoyed seeing people enjoy what we did for them. I had to take care of myself first when we started in business, because you can’t give away a lot of stuff if you aren’t making money yet, but now that I’ve been doing it for eight years, it starts giving back to you, sometimes two or threefold. People appreciate what you do, and you appreciate doing it.”

Industry involvement has also been important for Oberson, whose high-end clients expect credentials and something behind his name.

“We want to be excellent at everything we do,” he says. “Our customers are not one-off places; they expect credentials. And I have everything from the Certified Snow Professional designation to ISO 9000. I don’t know if customers really understand it all, but they know I’m involved and truly love the industry.”

Oberson believes the No. 1 issue in the industry is liability. The slip-and-fall situation has completely gotten crazy, he says, and he has some advice for snow companies to deal with it.

“Really make sure you have an insurance company or agent who has a backbone and understands what you’re doing,” he says.

Oberson’s own personal adjuster is a friend of his who truly understands his business. He is also the mayor of his town and a councilman, too, so they have a personal, city and business relationship. That relationship, plus lots of documentation, has really worked in Oberson’s favor regarding liability.

The No. 2 issue in the industry, Oberson says, is employment, particularly that people who work seasonal jobs can’t work for him in the winter because they can’t risk losing their unemployment compensation.

“That’s a huge flaw in the unemployment system in America,” he says. “There would be so many people who would be able to work. They’re all on seasonal unemployment, and they all know what day they go back to work. And when they go back to work, they’re making $1,400 a week building highways. That all ends at a certain time because you obviously can’t work on roads when it’s snowing, so they would be the perfect people to work in the snow industry. The problem is that the snow industry only lasts as long as there is snow. If I had 40 hours a week to give them, they would do it.”

In the end, through running one of the most professional businesses in the snow industry and giving back the community and the industry, Oberson feels his company is living up to its mission statement of offering superior quality service at competitive prices with the highest standard of excellence to customers, the community and employees.


Jason Stahl is a Cleveland-based writer and frequent Snow Magazine contributor.

September 2015
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