Lawn maintenance is one of the hardest working divisions of many landscaping companies. Whether it’s the star of the show or only supporting cast, lawn care is usually a tried and true workhorse of the operation.
Nothing bears the brunt of the work as much as the mowing equipment. Logging hour after hour in all kinds of conditions, mowing equipment plays a humble but vital role.
Strategic management of your equipment can determine whether it works for you or against you.
As an owner, you can invest in the best equipment available, but the machines themselves are only a small part of your investment. It’s not what you have but what you do with it that counts. Poor planning and care can lead contractors to create schedules they can’t keep, make unwise purchases, and hemorrhage money through costly repairs and, horror of horrors, employee downtime.
A systems approach
Managing your mowing equipment is about creating good systems – systems that are intuitive, easy to learn, easy to follow, and easy to track. Sometimes, good systems evolve through trial and error. Sometimes they’re borrowed from other companies, especially when a new contractor is starting out. Whatever the source, successful contractors know that developing smart systems for scheduling equipment, servicing it, and even for turning it over can keep their lawn care service on the cutting edge.
Jake Silvis, president of S & S Landscaping in Jeannette, Pennsylvania, uses Walker and Dixie Chopper ZTRs and front-mount John Deere mowers. For Silvis, effective equipment management begins with appropriate scheduling and sales. Properly selling jobs leads to properly assigning equipment and crews, smooth operations, and happy customers. Contractors who are overzealous about bidding on every job that comes their way can easily get in over their heads. This can lead to irresponsible equipment purchases and scheduling nightmares.
“Proper pre-season scheduling is critical,” says Silvis. “This starts with the person selling the job in the first place. Don’t oversell a route you don’t have enough equipment for. This will only help you develop a poor reputation. Your client is your ultimate paycheck. Only sell what you’re capable of doing.”
Silvis continues, “The person who’s doing the selling has to have an accurate understanding of the crew and equipment you have, and what the needs are going to be based on the characteristics of the site they are bidding on. For example, if you’re looking
at a thirty-acre complex and you own only thirty-inch mowers, and you don’t have the funds available to purchase larger mowers, maybe it’s not the right time for you to bid on that job.”
Contractors who overbid will quickly fall behind schedule. “We’re selling time to our clients,” says Silvis. “We’re telling them we’ll be there during their time slot. If we can’t be there when they need us to be, they’ll look for someone else.”
“It’s better to grow your business through good customer relations by providing excellent, efficient service in the kinds of jobs you can do well with your existing equipment and crew,” Silvis says. “Then, maybe a year or two from now, you can purchase new equipment and bid on larger sites.”
Tracy Sposato, who manages the maintenance department for Rood Outdoor Environments in Tequesta, Florida, agrees that careful equipment scheduling is critical for smooth operations throughout the year. The company, which employs seventy-five people, provides maintenance services for both residential and commercial clients.
Assigning the appropriate equipment for each jobsite can sometimes be a delicate balancing act that requires knowledge of each site, and the strengths and limitations of each piece of equipment. “I use certain mowers for certain applications,” says Sposato. “Part of it depends on the height I can get on a mower. For commercial clients, I can get by with higher cuts. It also depends on banks and landscaping. If there are a lot of banks, I want something that’s going to stick to the bank and not slide back into the pond.”
Proper scheduling is about making decisions that are based on reality. Knowing the dynamics of the properties you maintain, along with the capabilities of your equipment, will help you create schedules that grow your business through efficiency and satisfied clients.
The Maintenance Factor
A major factor in managing equipment is keeping it running so the company can make every hour count. Companies use many different systems for ensuring good maintenance and respectful care of equipment. The important thing is to develop a system that’s a good logistical fit for the company so that it will be practiced religiously.
For Silvis, a system that balances employee freedom with accountability works well. “Equipment is assigned per crew per truck at the beginning of the season,” says Silvis. “Each truck is set to a particular route. Each crew has sole responsibility for their equipment and operates as an independent unit. Crews each have a dedicated storage facility for their own equipment so they don’t have to go to anyone else unless something needs repair. They have the ability to swap equipment with other crews as needed, but they are ultimately responsible for the equipment that was issued to them.” This system gives employees the freedom they need to do a job efficiently and the accountability Silvis needs to make sure the equipment is cared for with respect.
LBD Landscaping in Portland, Oregon, uses a similar set-up. “Each maintenance crew has its own designated equipment, which is tracked with a color-coded system,” says owner Don Farrelly, whose company operates equipment from Toro and Great Dane. “Crews perform routine maintenance on their own equipment, keeping track of it with check-off lists that are overseen by a supervisor.” Farrelly employs a full-time mechanic for repairs.
Sposato’s company also employs a full-time mechanic who is responsible for most of the maintenance, as well as repairs, while crew members take care of cleaning. “The men come in, blow off their equipment every night, and then go through and clean thoroughly once a week,” she says. “We’ve had mowers last for over ten years here.”
A part-time mechanic is another option for many mid-sized companies. Craig Tomalak, general manager for the Salisbury Landscape Group in Belleville, Michigan, employs about forty people and performs commercial and residential maintenance using Skag walk behinds and riding mowers. “We employ a part-time mechanic who comes in on weekends and evenings as needed to do repairs, replace pumps, and other engine-related work,” says Tomalak. “Crew leaders are responsible for changing blades, air filters, greasing, and other maintenance.”
Budgeting regular time for maintenance ensures that the work actually gets done. “There are a couple of properties that we only mow every other week,” says Tomalak. “We use those slots on alternate weeks to do maintenance.”
Developing streamlined communication systems is essential to good service and maintenance, according to Farrelly. “For me, the biggest thing is documentation. I’m a big believer in check-off lists.”
Whether it’s for routine maintenance or repairs, developing paper systems that work for employees is an important part of the equation. “The crew needs to write up repair orders to the mechanic as the incident happens, not later on,” says Farrelly. “You need to have forms that the crew can easily fill out, the supervisor can easily check, and the mechanic can really use. This makes for good communication and gives you a paper trail that provides an accurate history of each machine.”
Investing in your employees is another way to ensure that equipment is well cared for. “Our men respect their equipment, so they take care of it,” says Sposato. “I have excellent foremen, and proper training is key.”
“Treat your employees as best you can and your equipment the same,” agrees Tomalak. “They are both keys to production and profitability.”
Knowing when to say when
One of the most important aspects of equipment management is knowing when it’s time to put a mower out to pasture. Successful contractors plan for equipment turnover so they aren’t ever caught by surprise.
“It’s very important to change out equipment on a regular basis,” says Silvis. “In our case, we do it on a three to five year cycle.”
“We run our equipment until maintenance costs start cutting into profitability,” says Tomalak. “We put a lot of hours on our equipment. When it cuts into productivity, it’s time. Mowing is one of the most profitable parts of our company. When you have six guys on the job, and three of them can’t do work because equipment is down, your profits go right out the window.”
Silvis agrees. “No one has enough employees in the first place, let alone adding down time on top of that. You have to be proactive about changing equipment. You have to plan for rotation or your equipment will go down right when you need it. When you need the equipment, you need to get on it now.”
Ask not what your mower can do for you…
Whether your entire business depends on lawn care or it’s just a small piece of the pie, chances are your maintenance division fills an important niche in your company. For Don Farrelly, lawn maintenance isn’t the biggest area of LBD Landscaping in terms of volume but it’s still one of the most important. It generates customers for all of the other services LBD offers. It also provides a stable work load that’s important for keeping good employees.
“I would never be where I am today without lawn maintenance,” says Farrelly. “We depend on lawn care services for our advertising; we don’t use anything else. It also helps us keep our employees busy year round. Maintenance never really stops here in Oregon.”
No matter what role it plays in your company, good management of your lawn maintenance division can make or break your success. Investing the time it takes to manage mowing equipment effectively will help build your company’s reputation and long-term stability.
Simply put, if you don’t manage your mowing equipment, it will manage you. If you don’t develop strategies to use your equipment efficiently, take care of it effectively, and retire it judiciously, it can run right into the ground and take your business with it. Intelligent management of your mowing equipment, on the other hand, will keep your maintenance division thriving and contributing to your company’s revenue and reputation for years to come.