So what do successful contractors look for in their fleet? What types of trucks make a good business better? The consensus can be summed up in four words: finances, function, fit, and form.
The immediate financial concerns of the company tend to play a much bigger role in equipment decisions for landscape businesses that are just getting off the ground. Let’s face it, in those early years, capital can be the limiting factor. But experienced contractors warn against putting too much emphasis on saving money up front.
“Cheap is not always the best way to go,” says Jaret Bishop, owner of Custom Lawn and Landscaping in Washington Courthouse, Ohio. “Price is always an issue when you’re starting a company, but usually a little more money up front will pay off over time. Take a look at diesel for example. It costs more but it will definitely save you money.”
Like many contractors Bishop started out with a mower in the back of a pickup truck. Now his company, which specializes in commercial installation and maintenance, operates with a fleet of eleven trucks in a variety of makes, models, and sizes.
Bishop recommends looking not only at your company’s current needs but looking ahead at least several months, if not years. Even if you think you can get by with a light-duty truck now, he cautions that you might over-extend it much more quickly than you anticipate. “Heavier-duty trucks are simply going to last longer,” says Bishop. Buying a truck that will last not only saves you the cost of buying a new one before you’re ready, it also saves you the time and hassle it takes to shop for one.
Bishop points out that an inadequate truck may also compromise safety and cost you money in fines. “Departments of transportation are becoming much more strict when it comes to load restrictions. In our area, we see more people being pulled over for unsafe loads. This can waste time, not to mention money in fines.”
|Photo courtesy: ValleyCrest|
Some contractors opt to buy used vehicles. This can be a good way to deal with budget restrictions, especially in the early years. But Dan Sell, owner of Big Horn Horticultural Services in Cody, Wyoming, reminds us that there are no free lunches. Sell has grown his company with many used vehicles over the years, but cautions that this option takes extra care and planning. “You have to recognize that you’re kind of taking a stab in the dark when you buy used,” says Sell. “You have to budget a couple or thousand or more extra for any used vehicle you buy. So far we’ve found it to be economical for us, but you have to do your homework.”
Sell started his business with a Dodge one-ton and a Ford three-quarter ton. His fleet now includes a two-ton Mitsubishi cabover, a Hino cabover, a bucket truck, and a one-and-a- half ton dump truck that is used primarily for tree work. Ten additional pickups of various sizes round out his fleet.
“There are some good deals out there in used vehicles,” agrees Michael Hommel, owner of Designs By Sundown, a design/build firm based in Englewood, Colorado. But Hommel stresses that the way you buy your vehicles can be almost as important as what you buy. According to him, developing a good relationship with a dealership is an investment that can pay off for years.
|Photo courtesy: ValleyCrest|
The process of shopping for a truck can be a huge time-hog. Wasting time on endless research can cost a company money. “One of the best things we did early on was establish a good relationship with a fleet manager,” says Hommel. They help us find exactly what we want, customize it to our needs, get it to us promptly and at a fair price. All without a lot of headaches. I’m too busy to be calling around.”
Putting the dealership to work for you is a great way to save time, agrees Maurice Dowell, president of Dowco Enterprises in Chesterfield, Missouri. “Developing a relationship with a sales rep can save you hours of sitting in dealerships. With the last fifteen trucks I bought I never set foot in a dealership. We knew what we wanted and they found it for us. They delivered it to us outfitted with the equipment we needed. You can do your homework and they’ll do the rest.”
Function & Fit
Financial considerations don’t end with the purchase of a vehicle. A truck’s ability to function efficiently over its lifetime and fill an important niche in your fleet determines whether it’s a good investment. You can count on it making money for you if it functions the way you expect it to and solves problems instead of creating new ones.
Function often starts with efficiency. Fuel efficiency is playing a huge role in truck purchases today, and it isn’t just about the vehicle’s mpg. Soaring fuel prices are causing many contractors to rethink the way they do business. In addition to opting for more diesel trucks, many contractors are investing in larger vehicles that can get more people and equipment to the jobsite in one trip. Though a larger vehicle may not be as fuel efficient by itself, the reduction in trips saves the company money.
“We’re changing things around due to the cost of fuel,” says Bishop. “We’re looking to convert more to diesel and are also purchasing more trucks with crew cabs. Eventually all our trucks will have crew cabs and diesel engines. One of the major goals in the landscaping industry is to get all the guys and as much equipment as possible in one truck.”
|Photo courtesy: Brickman Group|
Bishop’s company is also using more box trucks in order to haul more, protect the equipment and eliminate the time spent loading gear on and off a trailer. “With a box truck, the equipment is out of the weather, it’s always available and ready to go, and there’s less time wasted on loading and unloading.”
The durability of your trucks also impacts efficiency. “We’re leaning more toward diesel because of the life of the engine,” says Russ Southard of Dahlkemper Landscape Architect and Contractor in Erie, Pennsylvania. “We’re able to hang on to our vehicles for a long time.” The company, which specializes in commercial and residential landscape maintenance and construction, operates with a fleet of around eighteen that consists of pickups, and one-ton and five-ton dump trucks. “We use our one-tons in the maintenance side mainly because of the amount if equipment we have to drag around. Our five-tons are used more for the construction side. We can haul more equipment and cut down on trips.”
Bill Phagan, business consultant and president of Green Industry Consulting, sees diesels increasing in popularity. “I predict,” he says, “diesel trucks, and possibly hybrid vehicles when they come out, will be getting more attention due to the fuel situation.”
|Photo courtesy: ValleyCrest|
Dale Micetic, president of Grounds Control in Phoenix, Arizona, expands on this idea. “With the diesel,” he says, “we don’t have to worry about people siphoning gas out of our tanks, since most cars don’t use diesel. They are high-torque, low-speed engines. The diesels run and run.”
Southard stresses the importance of choosing vehicles that are versatile enough to fit a variety of needs instead of spending money on more trucks. He points out that the increased cost of owning another truck extends well beyond the day you purchase it. “Don’t get in over your head,” says Southard. “Having more vehicles means you have more equipment to buy for each one, and more to maintain. There’s always something to buy for them. If you have several trucks, just the tires alone can be a huge expense.” It pays to streamline your fleet and focus on versatility.
So what is the most versatile truck? Of course it depends on the type of projects you do and where you do them. Many contractors who frequently work in urban settings or in areas that require a tight turning radius prefer a cabover or cab forward design. These also allow for better visibility in some applications.Contractors who have more room to maneuver often prefer those with a conventional cab.
For many, the company workhorses are medium to heavy-duty pickup or cab and chassis trucks. “I started out working out of my parents’ garage with a Ford pickup,” laughs Hommel. Now his company’s fleet of 70 trucks relies heavily on Ford F-350s, F-450s, and F-550s with power stroke diesel engines. “These are not too small and not too big,” says Hommel. “They’re heavy duty enough to accommodate dump bodies, but are still economical.”
Dowell agrees. “I use the Ford pickups from the smallest to largest and everything in between. The staple of his fleet is a three-quarter ton truck. “At that point you get breaks that are substantial enough, a transmission that will pull, and the cargo capacity you need, yet it’s still not a flagrant over-user of fuel.”
|Photo courtesy: ValleyCrest|
The key is to closely examine your company’s day to day operations so that you understand your current limitations and logistical headaches. Then work up a wish list with your dealer to design a truck that will erase some of those headaches. Make sure it’s versatile enough and big enough to allow a little room for expansion.
Balancing function with form
One factor that new contractors sometimes ignore when it comes to trucks is company image. While the consistency or color scheme of the fleet is not important to every company, many contractors rely on their trucks to help with marketing. Some use their vehicles to transport clients.
When you’re make decisions about trucks to purchase for a newer company, it pays to consider whether you might want to come up with a color and stick to it. “I wish I had paid more attention to color schemes early on,” says Dowell, whose company now uses white trucks with green lettering. “When we first started out, we were just glad to get a truck,” he laughs. Dowell’s experience is a common one and over time, it is something that can be corrected as new trucks are phased in. But contractors who factor color consistency into their choice from the start will quickly be able to use their trucks to present a professional image.
Successful contractors treat their trucks like the rest of their equipment. They look at their purchase as an investment and weigh the costs and benefits of that investment. They examine their fleet on a regular basis to determine whether it’s keeping up as the company changes and grows. They recognize the fact that a well chosen fleet of efficient vehicles can help drive their company to long-term success.