Leadership Replay: A Community Company

Jerry Schill's organization really is family -- but the way he sees it, his responsibility goes past business hours.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Jerry Schill was a 2011 Leadership Award recipient.

Jerry Schill never intended to be a snow removal professional. For his money, he was willing to just offer snow removal as a side service to landscaping at Schill Grounds Management in Sheffield Village, Ohio.

"I guess we've always dabbled in it, ever since we started up in 1993," he says. "It used to be a necessary evil for us. I understood the magnitude of what it could be but I didn't really give it the attention it deserved. I was focused on landscaping. People couldn't throw money at us fast enough for that."

Then, one fateful season about 10 years ago, Jerry connected with other professionals, including John Allin, just checking into an opportunity to make snow removal a bigger part of his operation. He learned how the service could turn from a necessary evil to an incredible profit source.

"We started seeing the possibilities," he says. "It was a chance we took to find out about this. We're college-educated guys. Anytime there's an opportunity to grow your own unique ability, we're going to jump on that. We're going to get out of our people what we put into them."

And he had put a lot into his people. As president of the company, he leads with a focus on learning and personal growth both on the job and in the outside community.

"He's got a great vision, a great ability to look out into the future and not just live in today," says his younger brother Jim, vice president of the company. "It's one of the reasons we've been successful and been able to grow in both the maintenance and snow divisions. We put the right people in place to grow and manage and be self-motivated to handle issues. We're hands-on owners, but we try not to do our guys' jobs."

Like a lot of professionals in the industry, Jerry sort of fell into maintenance just by following his business instincts to where it made the most sense to him. Unlike some of those professionals, property maintenance was not where he looked first. After graduating college with a business degree, he looked around for the perfect job. He had started out with a bent toward the chemical industry and found a job there, but he just couldn't find work he was passionate about. He and one of his brothers started talking about a landscaping company, just as something to make money.

"I wish I had some cool story to tell, but no," he says. "We got involved because we liked tinkering and building stuff and we'd always had a passion for the outdoors. We had that entrepreneurial spirit, so it just happened."

The company started up in 1993, a product of two brothers. In 1998, another brother came on and became part owner. Currently, Jerry and Jim help run the commercial side of the company, while Joe runs the residential component. With most of the brothers involved, it seems like keeping the family involved is part of the company's ethic passed down by the elder Schills.

"You hear all the stories," says Jerry. "We grew up normal Midwest America kids. We had the best parents on the planet. They always wanted more for us than they had for themselves. We had a great life growing up. When they came together, you got a little bit of everything they taught. The way I do things now is really because of the guidance and leadership of our parents."

Jerry's father especially had an impact on how he thinks a business should run.

"Our father was an operations manager and a vice president," says Jim. "I think our father instilled a work ethic in us where if you want something you have to find a way to work and get it done and do what you have to do. We're kind of oldschool like our dad was. When I look at Jerry from a manager's standpoint, he's almost the spitting image of our father."

And though his father still shapes the company's outlook today through Jerry, all that drive might not have been able to go anywhere without help, he says.

"It's been a hell of a ride," says Jerry. "We went from 10 years ago at $100,000 in snow to $2.2 million doing profitable work. We've kept a lot of people gainfully employed during the winter. We couldn't have done it without the right people, and I don't just mean internally. We've networked tirelessly with some of the best people in the industry.

"I think that's one of the biggest and greatest benefits to being in this industry is how open most of these people are to people who are serious about snow. We work in the worst weather conditions at the worst hours but when the pressure's on, people seem to step into it and make it happen. I don't think people outside the industry understand the stress, time and training that goes on in the background and into the event."

But it's not just about group motivation. As the head of the company, Jerry makes choices as though the company is responsible for its employees, says Lee Guggenbiller, who handles commercial sales development.

"He takes personal responsibility for these guys," says Guggenbiller. "It's a heck of a payroll to hit every two weeks, and he takes that responsibility very seriously. He knows there are a lot of people that depend on him for their livelihood, and he genuinely wants to give people the opportunity to advance when they've earned it. He doesn't want his people to just be on a lawn mower or a plow forever."

With that focus on growth and 80 employees at two locations, it's no surprise that the company has regular training sessions on equipment and best practices for the job's requirements. But Jerry's involvement with the in-house training and a tuition reimbursement program isn't as common elsewhere.

"As we continue to grow, it's easier to help a guy grow that has no experience, but you're training him in-house and you're teaching him the qualities that got us to where we are in the business cycle," says Jim. "Our goal is to make money as a business, but one of his main goals is to make sure our employees have a full-time job so they can get married, have a house, have kids – so they don't have to feel like they're going out looking for work. We've made sacrifices ourselves in the last few years to make sure we're able to hire guys and get the tools our guys need to survive."

Guggenbiller himself is getting married soon, and not only will Jerry be there, he's helping arrange for tables and chairs.

"He's really a family person," says Guggenbiller.

And that family extends beyond just the company sometimes. Jerry is involved with local youth sports and sponsorships through his kids. But past that, he's spearheaded an effort to provide meals for less fortunate people several times each year. Living close to the city of Elyria, he saw the needs of people in the community – and during a tough time, he decided to make something out of it larger than himself.

"There are a lot of people who are hurting and less fortunate," he says. "It was one of those defining moments where I had my kids and I was going through my experience, and I said, 'There are people a lot worse off than us and need more help than us. We need to give back a little bit.'"

He tried to get involved as a volunteer, but didn't find an opportunity to do everything he wanted to. So around Thanksgiving three years ago, he organized his own effort through his local church.

"I had this idea that, hell, we'll just do it ourselves," says Jerry.

He had planned to spend about $800 to feed 300 people that Thanksgiving, but once all the donations came in, they had raised $6,000 in three weeks.

"Everyone was just so overwhelmed," he says. "We just said, 'Let's keep doing it.'"

Then it happened again at Christmas, and then Easter the following year. The program serves about 300 people between each meal and take-home food, with more donations going to the Salvation Army. As he continues the effort, he hopes to make it into a full non-profit, he says, as long as the money continues to go toward feeding people who need the help.

"He's done all this on his own and put together those dinners," says Guggenbiller. "It's grown into a huge thing, but it's something he does without a lot of fanfare. He collects donations and has really built quite a project. It's very typical of what he does sometimes."

Though the project has its own rewards, it's a necessary step for both him and his company, according to Jerry.

"Being the boss, I think one of the biggest – sometimes you feel guilty about things, but you have to do it for the benefit of the whole, for the greater good," he says. "Some of these things keep us grounded and remind us that in light of the bad things that have to happen, we're a good organization and we're trying to do something good. Everything you do, your actions will have a direct impact on somebody else."

About the author
Kyle Brown is a frequent contributor to Snow Magazine.

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