2015 Leadership Award Recipient: It pays to know

Jeannie Schenderline stood up to the challenge, using her drive for education to build Jeffco Grounds Maintenance into a leader in the Alaska snow pro industry.

Jeannie Schenderline didn’t mean to end up at the head of a growing snow and ice management company, much less leading the whole state of Alaska in industry education. But when the challenge presented itself, she stepped up, just like she’d been doing since she started working.

Currently, Schenderline runs Jeffco Grounds Maintenance out Anchorage, Alaska, but she built her business chops while working at accounting alongside Linda Gorman.

Gorman was her “first boss outside her mother,” she says, and Schenderline worked as a file clerk for her at Morrison Knudsen, managing project files for capital improvement projects. But even then, Gorman could tell Schenderline was aiming for bigger goals.

“She was one of those people,” Gorman says. “You could tell she just has the drive to learn. She learned and did well. She had a drive for knowledge.”

Even when Schenderline left after four years, they remained friends, and Gorman continued to see that eagerness for knowledge and a challenge. When the Exxon Valdez spilled millions of gallons of oil at Prince William Sound, she was working as an audit assistant for Exxon. People were needed to set up processes during the worst environmental disaster at the time, and she jumped at the opportunity.

“I was offered the chance to go. They said, ‘Do you want to work on Valdez?’ and I said ‘Yes!’” Schenderline says. “When you have a crisis like that, there’s a lot involved in setting up the internal part of it. It was a lot of work.”

An even bigger challenge was on the way. In 1990, she and her then-husband purchased a grounds maintenance company to take a shot at building the business, the same year she had their son, Damen Koso. Jeffco was already established with a reputation in the Anchorage area, and the project looked like a solid investment.

But what she couldn’t account for at the time was she and her husband separating in 1992, leaving her at the head of the company, alone. A commercial fisherman, he died not long after while king crab fishing. Schenderline was on her own with the company and a young boy to care for.

“When you’re a parent and you’re in that type of situation, what are you going to do? What are you going to do with your child when they don’t have another parent?” she says. “I walked into it. Right from the get-go, it was ‘I have to make this work.’”

The first step to doing that was finding out just how to run a grounds maintenance company. She had spent most of her career in the office working in accounting, but if she and Koso were going to survive, she had to face that challenge. “I was scared,” she laughs.

Scared or not, she started covering accounts and working out in the field whenever she could. She subcontracted for others and job by job she started to learn the industry from the ground up. Money was coming in and she fought to keep moving up in the industry. She looked for expertise where she could find it, such as her friend Gorman.

“Back then she was doing a lot of yardwork, but she had all these projects she was interested in,” Gorman says. She asked me about bidding and we talked about things like that. It was really fun getting to watch her transform into the businesswoman she is today.”

Part of that title was its own problem. Being the head of a grounds maintenance company wasn’t a big deal in Alaska, but being a woman in charge of one was different. Even though she sees women behind a snowplow occasionally now, Schenderline says at the top, the industry was almost exclusively male, and definitely not a single mother with a young son.

Schenderline has been at the head of Jeffco for as long as Koso can remember. It meant a lot of sacrifice, and it was a different family life than he saw others living, but it was theirs. It wasn’t easy making friends and keeping up with school with a plow schedule to work around. But some of those things “get thrown out the door when you have to put food on the table, and you have other staff who have to put food on the table to make sure their families are taken care of, too,” he says.

Koso grew up working alongside his mother, where sometimes having family together time mixed with work.

“Running a family business to me meant a lot of long nights. It also meant that spending time with my mom might mean spending time in the plow truck with her and telling her how school was that day,” he says. “But now that I look back on it, I feel like I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Carrying her family alongside the company made Schenderline even more of a rarity in the industry, though.

“This was unheard-of, a woman doing snow removal and landscaping,” she says. “The hurdle was trying to get people to believe that this company could do quality work, being woman-owned.”

But many people in the community and industry didn’t realize she was at the head of Jeffco. The company wasn’t large, but there were already contracts in place. Some customers continued on their contracts as if there hadn’t been any change, she says, and the name had an established reputation she could work with. Where she could’ve embraced the new challenge with a name change, she showed her business savvy by leaving the name alone.

“Originally, I didn’t want anyone to know the company had been sold,” Schenderline says. “It was an already established name, and it already had a reputation. So, my thinking was, ‘OK, let’s leave the company name as-is.’”

She built on that name quietly, and what customers she lost from finding out who was at the head of the company only pushed her on in that struggle. She still faces sexism occasionally in the industry, she says, but now she can point to the company she built. It wasn’t easy bringing in new business as the only woman running her own business in town, but it paid off when she teamed up with a property manager who was willing to give the new Jeffco a chance with a six-acre homeowner’s association.

With that contract, Schenderline knew she could handle whatever the industry threw at her. Coming onto that property, her viewpoint wasn’t about making bank or fear for survival. She was ready to put what she had learned about grounds maintenance to use.

Once she had shown what a difference her company could make for a property, more work started to come in, and she made commercial properties her focus. The structure of the company started changing as she started bringing in more contracts, including adding employees and equipment.

But each step gave her more goals to reach. When she bought a loader in 2000, she was determined to add more loader jobs in the upcoming year to make the purchase worthwhile. When she had to take a hard look at whether some of the contracts were making money for the company, she leveraged her accounting skills to make the right choices about where her prices should be set, even if it meant losing some customers near the beginning of the season and facing a lean season after one of her biggest. When she was facing a slip-and-fall claim, she looked for the resources she needed to defend her work, and came across ASCA.

She connected with Tom Canete, who directed her to John Allen Consulting and the Snowfighters Institute, and the snow removal industry changed completely for her.

“I had a slip-and-fall case going on from that big season, so right away I reached out to John, and I asked him a ton of questions,” she says. “He answered all of them. I started going to Snowfighters then the following season, about three years ago. And I just keep at the education now.”

With all the added education, Schenderline has seen a five-fold growth, she says. She’s always been the kind to give on-the-job training for her employees, even if it means getting out in the field and showing how it’s done herself. She’s walked crew members through the best routes and using the equipment.

But now there’s additional training for her entire crew with videos showing how to get the most out of equipment, so everyone is aware of the latest techniques.

She hasn’t been content just to improve her own team’s understanding of industry standards. She’s worked with other snow management associations in the past, and she’s the first ASCA member in Alaska.

“Jeannie is the mother of snow in Alaska,” says Kevin Gilbride, executive director of ASCA. “She’s the go-to person for fellow Alaskans to ask questions or bounce ideas off of. She’s been a trailblazer in her market, bringing innovation to all aspects of the industry.”

Schenderline has been instrumental in working with ASCA’s Governmental Affairs committee, and has pushed for legislative changes for the snow industry in Alaska. She brought the Snowfighters Institute to the state as well, so even other companies get the benefit of the extra education.

Any additional education will help in Alaska, though. There’s no local trade show or state association, and the Alaska Snow Symposium she’s helping get off the ground is the first event to bring local snow professionals together for industry education.

“As crazy as it sounds, there’s almost a sense of arrogance within this industry sometimes here in Alaska and you get this feeling of ‘I already know how to do that,’” says Schenderline. “I just keep pushing, saying, ‘Check this out, check that out.’

“I just became thrilled with all this education, because this is what we do. This is what’s going to make us more professional. This is what’s going to give us better business sense. So I’ve just been chasing after it.”


Kyle Brown is an editor at GIE Media and frequent Snow Magazine contributor.

September 2015
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