Steven Summer remembers the first time he felt like he couldn’t do his job properly. It was around when his company, About Time Snow in Huntington Valley, Pa., hit $300,000 in gross sales, and Summer began to feel tremendous pressure.
“So I went out to look to hire someone who was in the landscape industry who also managed snow,” Summer says. “After I hired them, they did a really good job at it, and then we hired more people through the years. I think it forced me, as we grew, to go out and try to get some of that responsibility off to other people -- that process of continual growth and not being able to get a handle on the books and run the business and do sales and do operations. It really pushes you out.”
Now, Summer is in a completely different phase of his business where he is intentionally trying to transition out of the day-to-day operations where he doesn’t necessarily have to be at his business every day.
“My management style is really a hands-off approach now,” he says. “When I manage people, I do it from a global perspective or big picture view. I don’t like to give a lot of details. If I’m pressed, I will get into details, but then everybody rolls their eyes and I talk for hours. So I like to stay away from the details and stay near the bigger picture and let other people figure out the details. But I do like people to follow up with me, and that’s the type of person I’m looking for. So if you’re working in our business and directly under me, I will be completely hands off but you should update me on where you’re at with your project.”
About Time Snow COO Jenn Bubba says Summer has gained a lot of respect for embarking on this transition.
“Steven recently overhauled the business to put a different management team in place, which showed a great deal of strength because sometimes, to be a good leader, you have to know when to step back and let somebody else do what they do best and let yourself do what you do best,” Bubba says. “I come with a strong management style and he comes with a strong knowledge of the snow industry and how to make things work. He knows where to put people in place when it is something he can’t do, which a lot of people forget and sometimes they have to go and do everything.”
Summer says that’s a drastic change from where he was when he started in the business in 1992. He started with a very hands-on approach with the attitude of, “I am the only one who can do it because nobody knows it better than me.”
“Then I found out, ‘Hey, a lot of people are more skilled than I am in certain areas, maybe not from the overall business aspect of it but on follow-through, detail and organization,’” Summer says. “My strong points are motivating people, producing an environment and producing a vision to follow. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know.”
Key words from About Time Snow’s mission statement include integrity, honesty, impartiality, respect, courtesy, positive attitude, consistency and dependability. Summer says his company aims to provide its clients with peace of mind when dealing with extreme weather conditions. By forming a partnership with them, Summer hopes to free them to focus on other priorities by eliminating wintertime obstacles to their business.
“It’s really about freeing the customer,” he says. “When a new customer comes on, they have such vastly different backgrounds. They might come because they are totally exasperated with another client or they might be new to the industry or they might come with preconceived ideas or they might come with control issues. Our goal is to let them trust us to do snow and be financially prudent so that when they wake up and it’s snowing, they don’t say, ‘Oh no, it’s snowing! I hate these days. I have all these clients that call and people who never show up on time!’ If they come from a background like that, they will want to control the process.”
As far as employees go, Summer works to positively impact their health and happiness, pay them a fair wage, be open to their ideas and provide them with opportunities to grow and “climb the ladder.” In return, he expects them to work hard and be respectful and considerate of other people.
Having standard operating procedures in place helps set everyone’s expectations on what they should and shouldn’t do.
“They provide a great aspect of peace or contentment because they know what is expected of them, what their job entails, the paperwork they should have at the end of the event, where they need to be and what they need to do,” he says. “That is a process that is still being refined, but there are small little steps every year, ‘OK, we found a problem here, let’s fix it.’ This is a company-wide process that we will be implementing. Being ISO 9000 helps tremendously too.”
From the beginning of his business, he says he has made sure everything was always girded with integrity and fairness in regards to customers. Now that he is pulling back from the business, he is setting an example by conveying how he wants things done and also transferring the knowledge he gains from networking.
“We currently have established with everybody on board that my goal is to spend less time with the business where I’m not running the day-to-day operations,” he says. “I’m doing mostly selling and networking, trying to understand how other businesses run and trying to find out ways to make us more efficient. Also, making sure that everyone is treated fairly. That culture spreads.”
In pulling back, Summer will leave days from October-December where he was up at 5 a.m. and working until 7 p.m. in the rearview mirror. He says his family understood that he was busy in the winter, but he would have more free time in the summer.
“I would like to come and go as needed, especially in the summer months with the family,” Summer says. “Some people work hard for 50 years, and some people work hard for five. We have put a lot of effort into this in the process of growing it, but it’s hard as an owner to pull back. You’re like, ‘What? Nobody needs me anymore?’ And in some sense, that’s also a great place for the business to be because it becomes self-run and you have more time to do the things you like to do. You can take the kids to lacrosse tournaments on weekends and leave on Friday and come back on Monday. You don’t have the strict routine of normal.”
Summer sets an example through his charity work and deep faith. His wife recently went to Nepal to assist with food and rebuilding a city devastated by an earthquake. Summer’s charitable nature extends to the snow industry as well. He has always desired to give back to the industry in order to raise its overall professionalism, which helps everyone.
“You’re setting the expectations of customers of what’s out there and also building networks of people who are moving in a like-minded direction,” he says. “Anybody who wants to learn, we try to go out of our way to help them. And we learn from them, too, even if it’s someone who just started who has other skill sets. They might have an idea and I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s a great idea!’”
He also has his people participate in the ASCA and SIMA for industry networking opportunities.
“There are peers out there with different business models they can glean stuff from,” Summer says. “It gets them aware of what’s going on in the industry so when they go out with a customer, they can better inform people not so much about the microcosm of what we do but more from a global industry perspective – even what’s going on in Russia.”
Summer believes the No. 1 issue in the industry is insurance, “because it has migrated away from service to risk management.” No. 2 is what he describes as “competing against ourselves or the appearance of ourselves as snow individuals.”
“I find myself combatting bad experiences,” he says. “You have a portion of the industry that has provided a sub-quality service that is leaving a mark on the industry that is making our customers question us in a pretty rigorous way. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it also provides a company that has a good track record the opportunity to really shine. Educating the customer and moving them out of their bad experience into a good experience has been a very big process. It takes a lot longer than starting with someone fresh and just giving them a good experience.”
Jason Stahl is a Cleveland-based writer and frequent Snow Magazine contributor.