March 1 1999 12:00 AM

By Bruce Blau

"It's hard to find good help nowadays . . ."

Yes, it's an old, tired phrase, but nonetheless true. On a landscaping project, especially, it's tough to amass the skilled manpower necessary to complete a job, according to many contractors. The fewer men that you have to complete a job, the longer the job takes, the more money it costs you.

Like any business owner, contractors would love to have an available pool of skilled people that could go out and install a landscape job. "Across the country, particularly in the landscape contractor trade," says Pat Cappucci, marketing manager of The Toro Company, "every contractor you talk to will say that skilled labor is very hard to come by and it's hard to hang on to people."
The continuous shortage of workers is expensive to contractors. "In many cases, you've got to bring them in and train them," says Cappucci. "You can't have the new workers running equipment right away, so you have them working with shovels and wheelbarrows, stuff like that."
It is estimated that about 70% of the contractor's cost of doing business is labor. Most are eager, if not desperate, to reduce the cost of labor in order to lower the bids submitted for jobs, increase the profit that comes from the successful bids, or just to increase overall profitability.
Wouldn't it be great if you could find machines to do this specialized work? If you could replace some labor with equipment that could do the job, you can utilize that labor in other sections of the project, maximizing the use of labor and equipment.

Without equipment like this, breaking concrete in small areas requires hand labor.

The Closest Thing To Automation
A solution to the lack-of-manpower woes has arisen in recent days, and has come by way of technology. Sensing the need for smaller, more maneuverable machines for landscape work, manufacturers are starting to provide the landscape and irrigation industries with compact, yet powerful tools that can obviate the need for extra workers and, in turn, bring back some of that profit margin.
One of the latest and coolest entries in this category is the Dingo compact utility loader from Toro. A landscaping version of the Swiss Army Knife, the Dingo seems to have a tool (or attachment, to be more accurate) for every task you might need to accomplish. However, as opposed to the Swiss Army Knife, the Dingo is a very powerful little device, capable of handling the work of much larger counterparts.
In designing the Dingo, many needs and concerns of the contractor were addressed. It features a 3000 psi hydraulic system, yet is small and maneuverable. At 41 inches wide and weighing only 1600 lbs, it can be used virtually anywhere. With its attachments, the machine has the ability to accomplish a boatload of tasks that previously required a handful of men and several hours, if not days. Wow! We've just added a powerful ally to our field force.
Among the attachments are: a tiller, several auger bits, a trencher, a tree spade, a leveler and a scarifier/ groomer attachment. All of the attachments can be carried on a trailer accessory, as well as the Dingo itself.
More of these pieces of equipment are beginning to surface in the market. A compact loader, the Taskmaster from Ramrod, is referred to as a 'mini-skid loader.' It boasts 20 attachments for use in landscaping and maintenance, agriculture, factory applications, and other light industrial markets. An Australian manufacturer, Kenga, also markets a compact machine in the U.S. Gehl Company recently introduced its line of 'mini loaders.'

Do the Math
The versatility of these compact machines is very attractive to landscape contractors that offer a variety of services and handle complex jobs. Robert Maffei, owner of Maffei Landscape Contractors, employs 30 people during his peak season and considers his market to be 'labor-starved.' He says, "We're turning to anything we can to reduce crew times."
Not only is the compact loader a way to accomplish the work, but it's also a motivator for crews to be more efficient. Cappucci suggests, "I may have a crew of four guys and tell that crew leader, "OK, I have this new piece of equipment and it does all this cool stuff. I'll let you have one of these on your crew, if you reduce your crew size by one person." We're not suggesting that we're going to reduce their number of laborers or employees. Contractors often re-deploy those resources elsewhere."
From there, the numbers begin to look very good. "For that guy's crew," Cappucci continues, "he goes down from four laborers to three laborers and accomplishes the same amount of work, because he's got this system that is designed specifically for the things that he does."
"If you look at a guy that makes $6 to $8 an hour," Cappucci calculates, "and you throw in benefits, Workman's Comp, unemployment taxes and all, you come up with about $11 an hour. That's 2,000 working hours in a year." That laborer costs the crew about $22 to $24,000 per year, if employed full-time.
A compact loader on a lease payment, in comparison, would cost about $700 per month, which comes out to about $8,400 a year. Calculating the above scenario, that adds up to about $14,000 in labor savings.
In practice, the picture may be even rosier. Maffei, for example, needed to replace shrubbery and trees on a recent job. He estimated the work would require two days, utilizing five or six workers. With his Dingo, however, "by the end of the first day, every single hole was dug and the trees and shrubs were placed in the holes," he said. The new equipment saved him thousands of dollars in just a day, turning hours of work into just minutes.

The Miniaturization of Power
The Dingo and the Taskmaster are smaller versions of the skid-steer loaders, commonly known as Bobcats, which are very prevalent in the industry. "Virtually every landscape contractor that does installation work has one," says Cappucci. "The skid-steer loader usually has a bucket and is typically used to load materials and move large amounts of dirt. They gained a lot of popularity in the 1970s because they can get into small spaces."
The 'skid-steer' comes from the fact that one wheel skids, while the other spins, allowing the unit to turn in its own radius. The term became common because it was very different from the original tractor loader backhoes. Tractor loader backhoes were commonly used before the advent of skid-steer loaders. Now, the majority of contractors have mothballed their tractor loader backhoes.
Skid-steer loaders are generally about 48" to 50" wide and their load operating range is between 1,200 to 2,000 pounds. However, the severe disadvantage was size. "You're also talking about something that weighs about 5,000 lbs," says Cappucci. "It does a lot of damage to turf when you drive onto landscaping and, generally, the machine is not very agile or nimble. We found that many landscape contractors had skid-steer loaders, but they still had a lot of laborers with shovels and wheelbarrows."

Maneuverable, compact equipment works well in small, tight areas.

Manufacturers finally noticed that there was a large void between a shovel/wheelbarrow and the skid-steer loader. Then, a landscape contractor in North Carolina, Roger Braswell, attended a trade show and was intrigued by a machine built by a man from Australia. The machine was the Dingo. Braswell was impressed and realized that he could plant a lot of trees with it (he owned a tree farm). He went into business with the Australian and began selling them in the U.S. and, after a short time, was noticed by Toro, who ran with the idea. "There were concepts like the Dingo about 10 years ago, but they weren't very refined," says Cappucci.

The Road to Acceptance
To those who don't understand the physics of hydraulic power, torque, and horsepower, the miniature frames of the compact utility loaders seem unlikely to perform the feats for which they were built. How could this little machine, for instance, dig a trench in really stubborn soil? How could it not get its auger attachment stuck irretrievably in clay soil-or worse? "That's what most people think when they look at it," says Cappucci of the Dingo. "They say, 'Who's going to spin-the auger or the back end?'" Everyone has told us, "It's not going to dig in my soil," but we haven't found any soil yet that we can't dig in. The system is designed to create a lot of torque to handle a lot of very difficult digging conditions."
The only real limitation of the compact machines is their lift capacity, which is simply a barrier created by the law of physics. The Dingo, for example, weighs 1,500 lbs, and there can only be so much weight in the bucket before the unit tips over. Officially, the SAE 'tip capacity' is 1,100 lbs, when there is a counterweight attached to the back of the machine. Still, considering all of the capability and profit potential that compact loaders have brought to the landscape industry, it seems a small limitation.
All in all, Cappucci expects that acceptance and full use of the small machines is just a matter of time. "People look at it the first year and say, 'Well, that looks interesting, but I don't believe it. I have my skid-steer loader.' Eventually, they begin to realize they could increase their productivity by re-deploying some of the manual labor elsewhere."
One of the significant trends is the move towards a smaller unit. Mechanization is, of course, an integral part of many other industries. The size and weight of the equipment used in construction or farming are often inappropriate for the needs of the landscaper. Small units, like those mentioned here, are able to maneuver into areas where large equipment cannot, nor does the smaller equipment cause damage to existing landscape work.
"In most cases, workers seem to really love the Dingo," Cappucci continues. "It's a fun, kind of cool way to do work, as opposed to a pick and a shovel. Most times, they will work longer and a lot harder. It's kind of a win-win situation. They have it, they're happy to use it and they get more done, faster."