The driving force behind any successful landscaping business is its fleet of vehicles. Having the right vehicles allows a company to run smoothly and efficiently, and in the long run, can save landscape contractors time and money. With the wide range of commercial trucks on the market today, from small pickups to those with high gross weight (HGW) capacity, it is vital for contractors to map out exactly what duties the vehicle will assume before they reach a purchasing decision.
?There is no one truck (for every job),? says Dean Snodgrass, vice president of operations and co-owner of Dennis? Seven Bees Landscaping in Portland, Oregon. ?You have to be careful to match the vehicle with the type of crew and work they are doing.?
Jim Galligan, editor of the monthly trade magazine, Light and Medium Trucks, says the popularity of certain vehicles among landscapers is determined by their application and use as well as where they operate their business. ?From what I have seen, they are looking at the light to medium duties, and very often they cover the whole range of providers and manufacturers,? he says.
Contractors operating in urban areas are looking for a tight turning radius, and in these instances, Galligan says, contractors tend to go with low, cab-forward types of vehicles typified by trucks manufactured by Japanese companies, such as Isuzu, Mitsubishi Fuso, Nissan diesel and Hino. ?These are the four principal Japanese nameplates and they produce a range of good vehicles from about 10,000 pounds up to about 26,000 pounds gross vehicle weight (GVW). I would imagine landscape contractors go for the light/medium weight vehicles from 10,000 to 19,000 pounds,? Galligan says.
This GVW is generally sufficient for carrying the equipment landscape companies will use, Galligan adds, and allows them to attach small trailers to these vehicles as well.
If landscape contractors have a little more freedom in terms of where they are operating, says Galligan, they might choose trucks with a conventional nose or conventional cab. ?This is the typical cab you see with the engine in front of the driver,? he explains, adding these trucks tend to be manufactured by such companies as Ford and International/Navistar. ?The conventionals tend to be a little heavier, so if they are being used in a more rugged, rural or off-road type of operation, sometimes they will go for the heavier vehicles, which will give them greater carrying capacity, heavier components, heavier axles and springs.?
Galligan says the best advice he can offer when purchasing vehicles is to work with the dealer to develop the specifications for the truck. ?I presume most landscapers travel locally, they don?t put a lot of miles on the truck, so they need to (think about) where they are going to be traveling and how much weight they are going to be carrying. That will impact the size of the engine, the transmission and other components. ? The best thing they can do is sit down and work out the specifications with a local dealer.?
Jim Carr, manager of General Motors Corporation (GMC) sales at Dovell & Williams Truck Center in Glen Burnie, Maryland, only sells commercial vehicles. He deals with many of the area?s landscape contractors. He says the biggest mistake contractors make is waiting until it?s too late in the year to spec a truck. ?They think it?s just like a pickup truck where you can just go (into a dealership) and buy one?pick a color, pick a price?but it doesn?t work that way.?
To put together the right truck, particularly for a landscape operation, takes time. It means sitting down and figuring out what the customer will be doing with the vehicle. Will he be doing a lot of mulch work? Will he be doing a lot of planting? Will he be doing mulching and mowing? After addressing these factors, he can make a more educated choice. In many cases, it then takes time for the body to be manufactured and put together as a complete package.
?Plan ahead,? says Carr. ?You can order a vehicle and have it ready but you don?t always have to take delivery (right when it comes in).?
Carr says a popular trend right now in the landscape business is the conversion out of the conventional cab trucks, over to low?cab, forward type vehicles. They are doing this for maneuverability, to get in and out of people?s driveways, especially in residential applications,? he explains.
?These types of trucks are easier to handle and more efficient,? says Carr. ?And they really aren?t that much more expensive than a pickup truck with a dump body on the back.?
How many payloads a vehicle can handle is another aspect to consider when choosing the appropriate truck for a business. Exactly what are you going to haul?
Landscapers might think they need a vehicle that will haul 20,000 tons,? Carr says, but he adds it is very unusual that someone actually will need to do that. ?A lot of times they don?t realize what dirt weighs, what mulch weighs and things like that,? he says, adding that landscapers often overestimate the actual payload they will be hauling. ?It?s overkill.?
The GMC salesmen try to figure out the average weight of the materials landscapers will haul in an average week and how often they will be hauling certain materials, such as heavy sod as opposed to lighter items like wood chips.
?Once we get them to narrow down what they need, then we can make recommendations,? he says. ?The heavier the vehicle the more expensive it?s going to be.?
Landscape contractors are generally looking for vehicles with 6,000 to 8,000 pounds of payload, says Carr. For a flatbed diesel truck, it will cost around $30,000.
Diesel versus gasoline trucks is another choice landscapers will have to make, Carr points out, adding that the cost of diesel fuel has come down in this class of truck and the efficiency of gasoline has gotten much better. ?In the case of Isuzu, they now have a gas chassis that can save contractors about $3,000, so what you have to do is sit down with a landscaper and determine how much mileage he is going to do a year,? he says.
If a landscaper isn?t putting on a lot of mileage, the higher cost of diesel really can?t be justified, Carr says. ?Oftentimes we see guys driving the wrong truck. They buy too much truck, and, of course, they find that out too late.?
One other option is between automatic and manual transmission. Carr says. ?We sell far and away more automatic transmission trucks, no matter what the payload, than we do sticks because it is easier to find a qualified driver for an automatic vehicle. In the initial purchase, it will typically be $2,100 more for an automatic transmission?but what it saves you is transmission maintenance work.?
Finally, Carr says a landscape business owner must decide between leasing or buying a vehicle. ?There are some commercial leasing packages that are beneficial that some operations might want to use,? he says. Smaller down payments and tax deductions make leasing more advantageous, particularly for smaller companies.
Dennis? Seven Bees Landscaping has been in business for over 20 years, so Snodgrass has the specifications he needs for his company already worked out for his 75-vehicle fleet, which includes only Ford trucks. ?We have had good luck with them and a good relationship with a dealership,? he says. ?It?s important to have a dealership that is geared to the commercial market.?
The vehicles in Snodgrass? fleet range from Ranger pickup trucks to F-800 series. Snodgrass? philosophy differs a bit from Carr?s when it comes to what a vehicle will be hauling. ?For carrying capacity, never underestimate what you need,? he said. ?Plan for the maximum, not the average.?
His fleet is comprised mostly of trucks within the Ford F-Series and breaks down as follows: F-250, for the company?s irrigation and repair crews; F-350 crew cab pickup, a four-door pickup that carries six people and incidentals, used mainly to carry personnel; F-550 series crew cab, used to bring personnel and materials generally to residential sites; and F-800 series truck, used for heavy work?excavations, site preparation and for delivery of large dry goods to sites.
Snodgrass says the Ford GVW fits well with the landscape industry and with the types of loads his company carries.
Snodgrass also uses the company Workman Truck Beds in Redman, Oregon, which does special modifications to the hoist, the tailgate and the latches.
In the past, Snodgrass says, he strictly went with gasoline vehicles. ?The engine would outlast the truck and the chassis,? he says. ?I had a difficult time justifying the cost of diesel. ?Recently though we have gotten into diesel. The way we service the trucks and the quality of the ownership has improved greatly over the years, and we get enough years of operation, so it is justified?. Diesel gives the trucks more torque and more pulling power.?
Snodgrass says his company hasn?t done any cabovers. ?We realize these (with the conventional cabs) may be a little more difficult to maneuver, but we haven?t had a lot of problems,? he says. ?We are fortunate to have really good drivers.?
Ron Kujawa of KEI (Kejawa Enterprises Inc.) of Cudahy, Wisconsin, has a fleet of approximately 50 vehicles for his full service, four-season company, 30 of which are used for landscaping. His fleet consists of vehicles from several manufacturers?Chevrolet, International, Ford and Dodge.
For landscape maintenance jobs, Kujawa says his company uses one-ton, four-wheel drive vehicles. These trucks mostly have eight-foot dump boxes, although there are a few with 12-foot dump boxes, and can pull trailers from 18 to 22 feet. He also has one-ton trucks with the two-yard landscape bodies and he has a three-quarter ton truck. His fleet also consists of a few trucks with extended cabs.
Kujawa says with the trucks he uses for construction-type jobs he limits the GVW, so anyone can drive them. These vehicles tend to be International trucks with a GVW of 26,500.
Kujawa says the biggest factor with his fleet of vehicles is that they are all diesel and all have automatic transmission, and he classifies his vehicles as basic work trucks.
The biggest mistake landscape contractors make when buying vehicles, Kujawa says, is buying them as if they were for personal use. ?Ours have air-conditioning, but we don?t have a lot of the creature amenities. ?We aren?t interested in fancy paint jobs or excessive chrome,? he says.
Kujawa, who is the chairman of KEI?s board but considers himself retired, says he buys all the vehicles in his name and then leases them back to the company. ?That entitles me to the depreciation, deductions that come from the interest. ?At the same time the company can write it off as a lease,? he says.
David Fiveash, former owner of GrassMaster Lawn Service in Albany, Georgia, offers some safety tips. One of those tips comes down to a familiar subject for landscapers; the size of the vehicle. He says having the right size vehicle is important. ?You can damage what you?re hauling trying to pack and stack your goods and also lots of times it is very unsafe (to over-pack small vehicles),? he says.
In addition, a smaller truck might initially be less expensive, but it also means more trips, Fiveash explains. ?Those extra trips can cost you a lot of money,? he says.
Another safety issue Fiveash sees concerns trailers. His company used dual axle 16- to 20-foot trailers with square tube frames. ?These were a lot stronger than the angle iron frames,? he says. He strongly suggests contractors buy trailers with electric brakes. ?These trailers weigh a lot when loaded. A trailer with good brakes will stop quicker than a truck with no trailer on it,? he says.
After all these factors are taken into consideration, the biggest decision a landscape contractor will have to make, many experts agree, is choosing a dealer. ?It is important to pick a dealership geared toward the commercial market,? Snodgrass emphasizes. ?They are accustomed to dealing with (landscape) ownerships.?