Oct. 1 2001 12:00 AM

Robert Maffei entered the landscape profession eleven years ago in a relatively unconventional company vehicle: an 86 El Camino. Along with some fellow football players from his high school, he started a lawn care service to earn college money. Business grew.

During his junior year of college, Maffei gained a major account with a Massachusetts golf course community, and his employee base jumped from six to 15 crew members. A second golf course community account pushed that number up to 22.

Today, Maffei Landscape Contractors in Marstone Mills, Massachusetts, is powered by up to 65 employees at the height of the season, yearly sales approach $4 million, and the El Camino has moved aside for a fleet of 40 trucks.

An open trailer carries a ZTR mower. Tacks for shovels and rakes are
built up on the sides of the trailer.

Currently, Maffei uses a mix of machines, including two refurbished 1986 Chevrolet C30 dumps, a 1992 Ford F250, a 1994 GMC 3500 HD diesel dump, 1994 F250s, a 1996 Dodge diesel dump, a 1998 GMC 2500 four-wheel drive, a 1999 GMC extended cab foremans truck, a 2000 F350 with a dump body and a 2001 F350 with a dump body. The fleet also includes a Nissan 2600 UD, an F450 and a few F150s. The vehicle of choice, however, and one that Maffei says his company is currently converting over to is the Ford F550 diesel, a super-duty truck that he feels can meet the demands placed on it by his company.

As for trailers, Maffei Landscape Contractors uses two enclosed units in the lawn maintenance division and a smaller enclosed one in the horticulture division. The rest are open trailers. Also, with the exception of those hauled by the mow trucks, single-axle trailers are used with a special box welded on each for hand tools. A shelf inside each trailer is used for blowers, gas cans. Pre-fabricated racks are used for weedeaters and edgers.

Saving time/saving money
Like Maffeis growth from his car to his present-day fleet, a landscape or lawn care company may spend years trying out one truck after another until finding the one that best suits its needs. Others may abandon the notion of looking externally for that perfect truck and come up with their own modified solutions.

It was during a six-month sabbatical in 1992 that Tony Bass, president of Bass Custom Landscapes in Bonaire, Georgia, had an epiphany. During this time of working on the company instead of in the company, Bass watched his crews carefully, conducting time and motion studies of their performance, and was shocked to learn that 80 man-hours per crew per year were devoted to the simple task of refueling.

I imagined myself standing at the back of a truck for two solid weeks, pumping gas, he says.

The revelation was a breakthrough, inspiring Bass to look for ways to reduce so much downtime not only where fueling was concerned, but also in regards to other fleet management issues. For example, Bass believed that the proper hooking and unhooking of trailers took a significant amount of time and instruction, and that a pickup/trailer combination was too cumbersome on the highway, especially in urban centers. In addition, theft was a problem, costing the company an average of two pieces of two-cycle equipment and $600 to $800 annually. So, along with his father, Bass (who has a background in agricultural engineering) designed solutions to meet his companys needs.
One of Basss inventions was a hydraulic ramp system mounted onto the trailer door of an Isuzu NPR forward-cab truck. The ramp allowed easy loading and unloading of mowers and other equipment, and because the closed ramp served as a locked door, theft was no longer an issue. And because the need for a trailer was eliminated, maneuverability was improved.

Bass also designed a tool storage system to be mounted within the trailer and a tank system with a capacity for 15 gallons of mixed fuel and 39 gallons of regular gasoline. The latter invention allowed for once-a-week fuel stops.

While landscape contractors need not be graduate engineers to solve their fleet management challenges, Basss case illustrates a very important point: you cant find solutions until you know what your problems are. Therefore, landscape contractors should strive to become intimately involved in their companys logistical issues, incorporating a thorough knowledge of load, route and fuel challenges into their vehicle selections. Only then will they be able to choose the trucks that serve their needs most efficiently.

In Maffeis lawn maintenance division, pickup trucks with dump bodies are the rule, and because these sometimes double as snow plows in the winter, four-wheel drive is another preferred feature.
Weve always said [to] put four wheels on the ground instead of six for lawn mowing, he says. You dont need a six-wheel dump truck to pull lawn mowers. Maffei believes the conventional pickup with the dump feature hosts all the capacity one needs for a days worth of grass clippings or so forth, plus gas mileages and maintenance are more tolerable from an economic standpoint.

Tips for truck/accessory shopping
In Maffeis experience, the Ford F550 is an ideal professional machine (and incidentally, a huge step above an El Camino!) Bass, on the other hand, sings the praises of the Isuzu NPR heavy-duty diesel for a variety of reasons, including a three-year, unlimited mileage warranty. Whether a company sees the benefits of pickups and trailers or chooses to eliminate this combination altogether, certain buying tips apply universally:

Only buy the trucks you really need.
According to Maffei, some of his competitors have fewer employees, but more trucks. Our trucks work every single, solitary minute of the day, he says, and while this means a degree of hardship when repairs are needed, he has found more cost-effective means of dealing with maintenance issues. For one thing, he utilizes rentals when necessary. Furthermore, he has worked out arrangements with local mechanics to do weekend repairs, and he relies on an onsite lubrication service to handle oil changes and other upkeep outside of business hours.

Recognize the truck as a true business expense.
Its a common misconception among contractors, explains Bass, to think that the truck is something you have to have anyway, when in fact, that truck exists because of your customers. Its a true equipment expense, he emphasizes, and it should bring back X number of dollars each day.

Purchase the right truck for the job.
Maffei divides his crews by distinct specialties edging, mulching, horticulture, etc. and then matches these jobs with the trucks that will best serve in that role. This means that a six-wheel dump truck wont be seen pulling a lawn maintenance trailer, as Maffei has seen other companies in his area do.

Dont use a truck thats underrated for the capacity youll need.
Early in the companys development, Bass relied on Ford F150s and F250s, but was dissatisfied with the degree of maintenance that was needed, especially brake work. In his opinion, a capacity of 3500 to 4500 pounds is a minimum for carrying mowers and other equipment, and for this reason, he doesnt agree that a pickup is always the ideal option for a contractor, as a tremendous amount of wear and tear is placed on them.

While many may consider such a position an extreme point of view, the underlying concept is one to bet on: if a heavy load will be the typical haul, a more powerful truck will compensate for its higher price tag in terms of long-term maintenance savings.

Its possible to purchase for the long haul.
By Basss estimate, a landscape contractor based near a metropolitan area will put, on average, only 10,000 to 15,000 miles per year on a truck. It isnt that hard, therefore, to keep a vehicle as a productive part of ones fleet for ten years or longer, assuming the purchaser doesnt put greater expectations on the truck than what its design will allow.

Consider an enclosed trailer.
Enclosed versus open trailers is another point of disagreement for contractors. While some may argue that open trailers suit their equipment needs very well, Bass expresses a dislike for them. He encourages other landscape professionals to consider enclosed trailers because of the difference in the image conveyed to the public. An enclosed trailer, he says, simply looks more professional and makes the whole industry look better.

Image concerns
And image is a very real piece of the trucks and accessories whole. In Basss case, the van body of the Isuzu serves as an effective advertising tool. You cant buy a billboard in a residential neighborhood anywhere in the United States, but your trucks are certainly going to be parked in neighborhoods if youre doing landscape maintenance work in residential areas.

Maffei equates his black trucks, chrome wheels, chrome diamond plates and flashy logos with the positive image that customers have of his landscape contracting business. Its our biggest sales tool, he explains. People know us because of our clean, black trucks with our very sharp, catchy logo, and it really says a lot about our company. Our trucks are very classy looking.

Keeping those trucks looking their sharpest is a priority, and factored into the first twenty-minute stretch of each workday morning between 7:00 and 7:20. Before Maffeis crews hit the road, designated people are washing and maintaining the vehicles. For instance, one person is delegated to check the oil in every truck every morning between 7:00 and 7:20. Three other crew members wash certain trucks on certain days trucks 1, 3 and 5 on Mondays, trucks 2, 4 and 6 on Tuesdays, etc. during this same time frame. Such a system, explains Maffei, allows problems to be caught early, and helps instill a sense of truck/equipment care in his employees.

It wasnt so very long ago that the major item of disagreement between U.S. truck owners was Ford or Chevy? Its certainly a different game today, though. Within the financial grasps of many successful landscape contractors is a wide range of manufacturers, an overwhelming number of features and specification lists that look more like a script from Star Trek. To choose wisely, contractors need to know their transportation needs inside and out. Otherwise, a dream machine could turn out to be a high-maintenance, gas-guzzling nightmare.

October 2001