Steve Hoogenakker "Audaces Fortuna Juvat"


Important people in our lives

Having someone with a serious medical condition is kind of like sitting at your kitchen table building a house with a deck of cards. You go along, carefully placing all the cards to build the walls and roof, and then an unexpected breeze comes along and knocks it down.

Yesterday’s news was like that. We had carefully started to organize our lives with the thought that Teri was going to be ok. This took a lot of time and faith. The news yesterday was like a gust of wind that knocked most of the house down. Now, we will start the task of slowly putting the house back up again. Re-ordering our lives. We know the wind will knock our house down again, we can only hope that they are light breezes, so we can rebound each time.

I don’t know how Teri does it every day. How she keeps a positive attitude, keeps juggling 18 balls in the air at all times. The doctor said she’s incredibly tough to be walking around on legs that are about to break. I know she’s one in a million.

Is she any more brave than the other people we know struggling with ALS, MS, Alzheimers, Cystic Fibrosis? Probably not. They seem to be brave and incredible too.

I guess it’s one thing to talk in an offhand way about how someone reacts to being dealt an unfair hand, and quite another to witness the bravery, hope and determination in person. I don’t think I have the strength that Teri and these others show every day, but it seems like a good idea to talk about the good things today instead of waiting until it’s too late.

Well, I have to go now, All the kids are here and we have to get our cards ready to put up another house.

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The Primal Instincts of Customers and Boards of Directors

Mastering Skills in Personal Relationships by Steve Hoogenakker

Have you ever been impressed by a property manager who was thrust into a difficult situation or conversation and been amazed by how well they handled it? This article aims to teach you some of the skills of a “conversation master”.

I recently attended a CIC Midwest meeting about “Negaholics” and how to deal with negative people. The importance of mastering relationship skills was so apparent that I found myself inspired to write this article.

Honing & perfecting your relationship skills is probably the most important skill you’ll ever learn and one you can use every day of the rest of your life.

Let’s discuss Primal Instincts and what happens when we get into a critical conversation with others.

A critical conversation happens when 3 things are present:

1) Stakes are High,

2) Emotions run strong, and

3) There are differences in opinions.

A critical conversation can occur spontaneously and catch us off guard. When we are in a stressful & important conversation, our body pumps adrenaline.

We didn’t ask our body to do this, but it’s hard wired into our system.  Blood is sent coursing to arms and legs to fight or flee, and our higher reasoning centers are starved of blood and oxygen. It’s our primal response.

We are then forced to think on our feet with the brain equivalent of a poodle. (I have a 90 pound poodle, so I’m qualified to say that) and we’re stuck with the consequences of our words and actions. In our doped up, dumbed down state, when we need our intelligence most, we’re at our worst. Add to that our learned responses from watching our parents or co-workers deal with conflict, a few Jerry Springer shows and we can be in trouble.

OK, so we understand what is happening to us during this critical conversation. This is important, because we want to listen to our own bodies so we can stay in dialogue, but just as importantly, we know what’s happening with the other person in the conversation.

We have 3 choices when faced with an important conversation.

  1. Ignore the problem, go silent and hope it goes away.
  2. Deal with the problem poorly
  3. Deal with the problem well.



We apply the most basic of primal reactions: WE CREATE SAFETY!

Safety short circuits the primal response. Our number 1 goal is to make people feel safe in the conversation. This means they feel safe in expressing their true feelings or thoughts, even if they are angry. We’ve all had phone calls where we the other person shouts at first. Many times, they are reasonable after their initial outburst. Up until recently, most people believed that this is because they get a chance to blow off steam, but, a conversation master understands that safety has been created by not attacking the caller, & has made them feel they have been heard, allowing their adrenaline to come down.

Other times, you will have to work hard to draw the thoughts out of the other person. Drawing out their feelings to create safety allows people to contribute to the conversation, and keeps their adrenal glands in check.

If we don’t provide safety, then an individual WILL provide their own safety by clamming up and going to silence, or they’ll resort to verbal violence as another defense for personal safety. Learning to look for safety and create safety will greatly improve your personal and professional life.

We create safety by following a few simple principles.

1. Check YOUR motives at the door.

You should already know what you want out of the relationship or conversation. So start with heart. Stick with what’s important. In a heated conversation, you might subconsciously want to be sarcastic, humiliate them or put them in their place, especially if they you’ve been verbally attacked. If you start to feel this way, take a breath and remember what’s most important by asking these 4 questions:

  1. What do I want for myself
  2. What do I want for others,
  3.  What do I want for the relationship, and most importantly,
  4. How would I behave if I really wanted these results?

Regularly asking these 4 questions outside of important conversations teaches you about your goals, what’s important to you, how to stay focused and clear.

2. Stay Focused. Crucial conversations have a way of taking us off of our game. “Once we name the game, we can stop playing it.” If our goal is to get residency rates over 95% and we’re in disagreement about billboards, newspaper ads, or internet ads to get there, then the name of the game is “Residency rates over 95%.” If the other party says

“You are wrong about the newspaper ads just like you were wrong about which landscaper you hired.” That’s a primal instinctive defense, a suckers choice and off topic. Stay above the fray, and on the topic at hand.

3. Create safety for the other individual, even if they don’t “deserve” it. You should always be looking for safety for the other person. Safety is like oxygen, you don’t notice it when it’s there, but when it’s missing, it’s all you can think about.

You create safety using 2 principles:

1. Mutual Respect. If they don’t feel respect, then they won’t trust you and vice versa.

If you think respect is lacking, use something like this: “I feel like we’re both trying to force our views on each other. I commit to staying in the conversation until we can reach a conclusion that both of us can agree on.”

2. Mutual Purpose. If they don’t believe you are both striving for the same end-result, then how can they trust you or how can they feel safe in the conversation? Mutual purpose creates safety because it’s much harder to share the mutual purpose and have a winner and a loser in a heated discussion. With mutual purpose, you’ve taken care of the WHY, you just need to answer HOW.

A master starts a crucial conversation by creating a dialogue with:

1. A clear goal

2. Honest motives.

Then he/she:

Watches the conversation

Creates safety

Thinks about their own style of conversation and what their own body is doing

Stops problems BEFORE they become BIG problems.


A skilled professional will find a way to get all of the free flow of relevant information out into the open, It’s the principle of the “Shared Pool of Meaning”. This is the synergistic pool of ideas and feelings of the entire group

Getting ideas into the “pool” have 3 major benefits:

  1. The larger the Pool, the better the decisions.
  2. The time you spend up front is more than made up by faster, more committed action later on. An extra 20 minutes spent drawing thoughts out of reluctant individuals might save hundreds of hours over the next few years.
  3. People who don’t get their ideas into the pool are rarely committed to the solution & silently criticize the decisions. People that have at least a small part of the decision will work harder to make it succeed.

Let’s think of this with a planned board meeting. Whoever makes the decision will benefit by having the most information available. We aren’t saying we want a consensus opinion, or that the president doesn’t make the final decision. As a matter of fact, a good idea is to state up front that there will be 2 phases to the conversation. First, a Discussion or Dialogue phase where all of the ideas are added to the pool of meaning. Second, after all ideas are shared, discussion is shut off and the Decision phase begins with decisions made by whoever is in charge.
Using these skills will make you a better communicator and leader in the Multi-Housing community. It will give you insights into others that you never would have received any other way. It will help you to listen and respect others in ways that 99% of the rest of the population never truly understands.

 This article written by Steve Hoogenakker of Concierge Landscape. Steve has 20 years in the leadership, management and landscaping field.  He can be reached at 763-213-2410 or by email at Steve@Landscape.Pro.

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Making the most of your vendor relationships
There are four critical steps to consider before you request bids from vendors.

1. Set your Internal Goals
2. Decide on “Best of Breed” vendors versus a generic vendor
3. Review Proposals and Contracts
4. Work with your vendor

  1. Set your Internal Goals
    The first step is to learn what homeowner expectations are, because expectations of a vendor/CIC relationship will be the hardest to change. Education is key. You can do this by reviewing the history of past vendor results. If it’s a lawn maintenance contract you’re looking at, there’ll be email, phone messages and snail mail correspondence between homeowners, the property manager and the vendor. You can also review newsletters and minutes. Any “hot spots” in your association will be revealed here. The other method of setting your internal goals is to ask vendors about the new trends with products and services.
  2. Decide on Best of Breed Vendors vs. a Generic Vendor
    If we study two landscape maintenance vendors, Best of Breed vs generic vendors, we can clearly understand the differences between the two.

    1. A general landscape vendor will have to be good in 5 or 6 fields. They will have to be able to handle lawns, snow removal, irrigation work, landscape installation and tree and shrub care. The advantage to using this contractor is there’s one contact to handle all aspects. You also save time evaluating bids, because you’ll only have 3 bids to cover all the areas listed above. If you hire this single vendor, you’re putting your reputation on the line if they fail on two or more items. Even the best landscape companies are going to be stronger in snow than landscape or tree care vs. irrigation.
    2. A Best of Breed vendor (let’s use irrigation). While irrigation work is considered landscape work, it’s highly specialized work. It involves electrical circuits, plumbing, dealing with city ordinances, and keeping up on amazing new technologies. Here are the characteristics of a best of breed irrigation contractor:
      1. You’ll get the best service
      2. You’ll get expertise, which is imperative for complex problems
      3. You’ll probably be paying higher upfront prices, but might save money long term
      4. Hiring best of breed means more upfront work for the board and property manager, sifting through bids and specifications, checking references, etc….
  3. Contracts and Proposals
    OK, you’ve determined your internal goals, you’ve researched past successes and failures, measured vendor results from the past and made a decision regarding best of breed vs. general vendor. You’re ready to get contracts and proposals.The biggest mistake I see property managers make is not having a set of specifications of their own. If you ask three vendors to bid, you’ll be looking at three sets of major pricing, plus exclusions of service and prices for extra services. One vendor might prune trees to 6’ and another to 12’. How will you know these apples/oranges bids are going to meet your CIC’s needs? In addition, having different vendors on your properties with different specs, how will you know the work is getting done? You probably aren’t going to remember the pruning specs for site A and site B.

    The solution? Set up your own specifications. CAI vendors would probably be happy to help you setup new specifications. We’ve all got standard boiler plate contracts that we use. Ask the vendor questions about each section, so you understand it. Remember that you’re looking for the vendor to help with the specifications. She might have payment or cancellation terms that are not in your best interest, so check with your attorney.

    The last step to consider is optional add-ons. Include a blank sheet in your specs with the title of “Extra services suggested but not included in contract” with 4 columns: Name of Service, Why it’s needed, Price, and Month/Year the service or product should be delivered. This can be good information to work into future budgets.

  4. Work WITH the Contractor
    The honeymoon is over. The giddy excitement has subsided. Your relationship is comfortable, but growing routine. Now, you and your service provider are left to figure out how to keep the flame burning.A soured relationship with any of the assorted landscapers, accountants, community managers, bankers, roofers, insurance specialists and others who serve your community could spell more than heartbreak. So these bonds need to be nurtured and taken seriously. Take your contractors for granted and pretty soon they’ll be taking you for granted.

    1. Make your expectations clear. The first impression a vendor has of you is the RFP. If it’s good, it tells us you’re serious about getting first rate results. If it’s poor, it says this really isn’t that important.
    2. Monitor but don’t micro-manage. Homeowners always want to tell a contractor how to do the job, but don’t have experience. Instead, homeowners should focus on the quality of WHAT gets done.
    3. Establish clear lines of communication. Many times, contractors work independently and without direct supervision, so a little extra effort communicating will produce excellent results and create a long-term, trusting relationship.

Maintaining solid vendor relationships is a rewarding and valuable skill set. Following these principles will help you to be the best manager/board member you can be.

Steve Hoogenakker  Concierge Landscape



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Bass guitars are so much cooler than 6 strings

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Best "kids", ever

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Besides posts about Mark Wirkus and Ole, this is the most painful post I’ve done.

It’s no surprise really. When LandCare first took over my business, (the wallstreet firm), they had a better idea of running an entrepeneurial organization. Their plan was to leave the strong owners in place, share information and best practices to improve the organization. This was short lived of course, as ServiceMaster bought out LandCare on March 19, 1999. Soon, it all changed. The strong owners were not welcome. 3 of my salespeople, all making in excess of $100,000 per year were considered overpaid, even though their sales were in excess of  2 million each annually. (What would the lesser salesmen think of their outrageous pay?) and everything was boiled down to the lowest common denominator. They destroyed the company. The average branch did about 2 million per year. Mine did $13.7 million my first year with 1.7 million in net profit after paying for all the extra corporate overhead. The mistakes are too numerous to mention here. The branch ended up doing somewhere around $3 million about 4 or 5 years ago.

About that time, they had decided to sell LandCare to a private investor group of experienced managers.

They contacted me.  I was struggling with my current partnership at the time and agreed to fly to Memphis to meet with a V.P. and 2 other people to interview for the Mpls-St Paul branch manager job. I was excited. I wanted to hear that they had realized their mistakes. I was hoping they would tell me they were going to focus on employees and customers, motivation and satisfaction. Extremely happy people, internal and external customers. After 2 hours, it was apparent that they hadn’t changed much at all. I was told that they now had collected so many numbers from the branches that they would be able to manage the business to a whole new level. My heart sank. After I started realizing that they weren’t going to be successful, I’m sure I did not seem excited at the prospect at all.They asked me if I was really interested in the job and I said i didn’t think so. 

I remember it was a rainy day. I love rainy days, but the drive back to the airport seemed especially dreary and gray. I get the numbers part of it. Knowing your costs, being efficient, getting higher gross margins, knowing which type of landscape work is the most profitable so you can pursue it are all important things to know.

There was a day around that time where the surprise announcement came that Denver and Chicago Landcare offices were being closed effective that same day. LandCare had paid really good money for the  Church rollup ( a founding member)and we had purchased the Tandem company a year or so later.  (Tandem seemed like a pretty well run company to me).

We acquired 20 million dollars in landscape business from Church and Tandem, then a bean counter decided a few years later that they couldn’t make it work so just shut it down. What a waste.

The reason I left LandCare was I was doing acquisitions for them in the central U.S. Three of those acquisitions were in the final stage. We had Letters of Intent and in one case had the employees of the incoming company meet our management staff. (My mistake). It was a Monday morning when I got a call from my superior saying they were pulling all deals off the table. The reason? “We don’t even know how to run our own branches, why should we acquire more branches to mess up? That was very good logic and accurate, but I had a good name nationally and this was going to tarnish my reputation with the 3 business owners I now had to call and give the bad news. Again, the decision was solid on paper, but the human costs were incalculable.  I can’t put a number on my reputation and my principles.

So, with the news that LandCare will probably be sold again, I wish I could still  have the chance to show that a different path can be taken to success. My guess is that an investment group won’t buy it, they’ll just sell the accounts to Brickman for 40 cents on the dollar with the promise that Brickman will give TruGreen Lawn Care the chem work. ( I don’t actually know, just a guess)

I feel badly that I let my employees down by selling to TruGreen in the first place just to have everything and everyone spread to the 4 winds.

There are two things that make the whole “numbers” approach doomed to failure in a service business.

1. Efficiencies and prices don’t build relationships with customers. Yes, a low price might get you in the door, and maybe they’ll even re-up the contract another year even if they’re not happy because the price is lower than anybody else, but it’s transactional business, devoid of emotion, an analytical’s dream and everyone else’s nightmare.

2. Employees. They didn’t want exceptional employees. I mean that seriously. I was told something to the effect that they hired for positions and that the employees should be “plug and play”. I don’t think that term was around at that time, but you get the drift. If an employee quit, you should be able to plug another in their place, give them the rules to follow with little or no drop-off. 

Are you familiar with Maslow’s Heirarchy? Landscape employees are not paid very much.Let’s take it from the employers standpoint:

1.  It doesn’t cost  very much to ensure their rise from the first stage Physiological needs like food and water to the second stage, safety and security.

2. Then to get to the third stage of Love/Belonging like friendship, family, that doesn’t cost anything! Team building, get togethers and consideration of each other probably cost less than the uniform cleaning budget/

3.  Getting to the fourth stage, Self Esteem, confidence, achievement,  respect of others, that doesn’t cost much either.

Now we’re mostly up the Pyramid.

The final step, Self Actualization contains terms like morality, creativity, problem solving, lack of prejudice and acceptance of facts. These traits do cost some money because management needs to lead the way by operating morally, playing  fair and maybe champion a few charities of interest to the employees and customers. Money has to be spent to live to a higher code, but it’s really not that much more.

OK, but what’s the payoff? A landscape business is SO different from other businesses. Not only does mother nature affect every aspect of their jobs, but employees have hundreds of decisions to make every day! It starts out the night before. Going to a job where they are self actualized, they care enough to get a better nights sleep, come in more prepared, come in with a better attitude, which improves the performance of the 3-5 people they work with all day. Another benefit of an employee in this zone is the spousal and family support. If they love their job and have connected with others, they are much more likely to be supported by their spouse and family members. Ever had to deal with an employee whose wife hated the fact they worked at your company? Wow, bad news.

It continues with how they load up their equipment, how they treat the equipment. When they’re carrying a weed whip, it’s the difference between scalping the lawn around the trees  to an even cut. From mowing over garbage, creating confetti, to picking it up and stuffing it in a pocket or bag. It shows up how they talk to customers. You see it when they take the time to note landscaping problems like insect and irrigation problems without being asked. It shows up in the amount of themselves they pour into every aspect of their day. 

See, hundreds of decisions that a spreadsheet can’t manage. hundreds of decisions, each one costing or saving the company maybe 20 cents to $5.00 each time, but added up in total, cannot be overcome by managing by numbers.

Balance the numbers with the interests of the people involved. If it were simply about the numbers, than the millions of numbers compiled by TruGreen LandCare that managers could wring their hands over would have ensured fantastic success.

I’ve had more than my share of failures in business. The fact that an uneducated person like myself cleary saw a problem costing tens of millions in sales two years ahead of time is sad. Do you know what’s humorous? The thought that a ServiceMaster employee reading this doesn’t think that the human cost was the problem at all. “If we just had more numbers……”

  Good luck guys, I sincerely hope someone restores the lustre that a well run landscape company can generate.

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It’s time. There is only 40 days until first applications start and 45-50 days til spring cleanups and sod repair. It seems like winter will never end, but I know better. I’ve been working on a gantt chart to prepare the companies for spring, and thought I’d share it with my contractor friends. It’s not complete by any means, but the functions are all there and there’s a solid framework to begin.

The first sheet is a good starting point for any landscape contractor. The second sheet has the directions and explanations for changes.

If you happen to make positive changes to it, please share it with everyone orsend it back to me and I’ll share new versions on the landscape linkedin website. Here’s the link for the planner:  MNLA SPRING PLANNER

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Steve –

I was responsible for researching and selecting the GPS system we currently use, which, as Christy mentioned, is provided by a company called “Discreet Wireless.”  We have been happy with the performance of this company and their system, and I would recommend it to others. What follows may be more information than you really want, but I found that the GPS marketplace is a tangled mess of fly-by-night companies and thorny technical issues. After researching about a dozen GPS providers, this is the outline of issues and questions I used to select our system:

 -The cost/unit of the actual GPS devices (the hardware) that are installed in vehicles. This can vary widely. I was quoted anything from $200 to $1000/unit. Discreet was one of the most affordable.

 -The cost/unit for installation, and whether the company will allow you to install the devices yourself. Discreet allowed us to install the units ourselves, avoiding costly installation fees.

 -The cost/unit/month for the GPS service.  This cost/month can include service fees and, for “Active” systems, data transmission fees.  Also, what type of service contract is required with the GPS company? (much like the contract you sign with a cell phone provider). Discreet requires a 2 or 3 year contract, but their monthly service fee is one of the lowest I found.

 -Is the GPS service Active or Passive? “Active” indicates the GPS units use a cellular service to constantly send data to a central location, regardless of where GPS units are currently located, resulting in “real time” GPS data; “Passive” indicates GPS units must return to a central location, like your shop, in order to “download” the data before you can access it. We have an “Active” system from Discreet, because we want to be able to view the location of all our trucks in real time.

 -If the GPS service is “Active,” does the system require a secondary cellular provider and “data plan” in order to send the GPS data to you? (if they do, it can be a hidden cost; unless you ask, GPS companies won’t tell you that in addition to their fees, you’re going to pay AT&T a big monthly charge for data transmission). Discreet includes all data transmission fees in their own monthly fee; we do not have to pay a separate cellular provider.

 -Is the GPS company an “end to end” provider? Many GPS companies act as brokers for several different GPS manufacturers. They cobble together systems by providing GPS units (hardware) from one company, data processing and transmission services from a second company, and software and mapping systems from a third company. Discreet is an “end to end” provider; they design and manufacture the entire system in-house, which makes their system one of the easiest to install and use.

-Is the GPS system “web-based?” The upside of web-based systems is that you can access your company’s GPS data from any computer via the internet, with a simple login and password, and you don’t have to worry about computer compatibility issues or purchasing/updating special software. The potential downside of web-based systems is that the GPS provider stores all your GPS data. Questions to ask with web-based systems: how long does the GPS company retain your GPS data, how long you can access that data free of charge, and how much will it cost to access older data? Discreet is a web-based system; we can go on any computer with an internet connection, log in to Discreet Wireless’s website, and view our truck activity in real time. Discreet gives us access to our GPS data for 90 days, and if we ever need older information for legal purposes, Discreet will provide it for a small fee.

-Does the GPS system require special software to be installed on every computer? This is closely related to the “web-based” question. With non-web-based systems that require special software, you will have to install the software every time you want to connect a new computer to the GPS system. The downside of these GPS systems includes software licensing fees (charged per computer), periodic updates, and potential service charges if problems arise. The upside of non-web-based systems is that you store and control all GPS data on your own computer/server. Discreet requires no special software to be installed.

-What mapping system does the GPS system utilize? We like the fact that Discreet Wireless maps all of our GPS data onto Google Maps, which are constantly being updated and are very easy to use. Some GPS companies require you to purchase and install special 3rd party mapping software. A lot of 3rd party mapping software is not user-friendly and is not routinely updated.

-How many “PTO’s” are included on the GPS units (the hardware in each truck)? A “PTO” is basically an input that can be connected to different parts of a truck to tell you things like whether a salter is running, whether a snow plow blade is positioned up or down, or even when a door has been open or closed. The range of these extra “inputs” is 5 or 6 on the high end, to zero on the low end. Discreet GPS units provide 2 PTO’s, though we haven’t found a need to use them.

-Do the GPS units monitor and transmit engine data? Discreet’s do not. This feature tends to be more important to trucking companies than landscapers, but if you want it, you can find GPS units that will track detailed engine performance such as fuel efficiency, air filter function, emissions, and acceleration/deceleration rates. It tends to be an expensive addition.

Thanks again to Jason Sloat at Christy Weber Landscapes, Chicago, IL

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Lessons from this winter, by Steven Hoogenakker

Besides the metrodome collapse, surely a ploy to get a new stadium, HOA’s have found this winter to be one they won’t soon forget. So what really happened behind the scenes? What can we learn from it and what does the future hold?

First, let me say that CIC’s are a special group of customers to “Snow Fighters”  The vast majority of CIC’s pay contractors a set monthly fee. From the CIC side, budgeting is the main reason. From the contractors side, monthly accounts allow a contractor to have equipment and personnel ready over the winter months.
This was a strange winter. With the first snowfall around Mid-November, there were contractors not ready for the snow. After Halloween in 1991, there was no excuse to be unprepared this late into the season. The turf wasn’t frozen yet and a lot of sites weren’t staked yet. I saw plenty of sod rolled up at the end of finger streets that will have to be fixed this spring. We had a high number of regular snowfalls up until the “Snonami” of 17 inches on December 10th. The 5th heaviest snowfall in Minnesota history! Many associations did not get the service they expected during this event. There were some obscure reasons why this was the case. We’ll talk about the idea of expectations later in the article.

I’m sharing the following so that thoughtful people can make better decisions for the next snow contract. There were no good reasons for a contractor to be unprepared, but many were caught unawares. Insight about what happened behind the scenes will help you make better decisions in the future.

1.       Associations have been built to maximize use of the land. This means crowded drives, tight sidewalks with shrubs alongside. After the earlier snows, there was already minimal room to pile the snow, and 1 ½ feet of snow on a 20 x 40’ driveway means 1200 cubic feet of snow. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that there is not room next to each drive for that much snow.

2.       A good contractor might have equal numbers of skid loaders and pickup trucks for associations. A plow blade on a truck is 29” high. When lifted, the blade gets to about 45”. When the plow trucks got out to the sites after the skid loaders had been through once, there was already 5-6 feet of compacted, icy snow. A truck trying to push more snow into these piles was running into an unmovable object and couldn’t find a place to place the snow. From a practical viewpoint and a surprise to some contractors, their plow trucks were now useless. Half of the equipment was not going to help for the next month until payloaders and tractor snowblowers were brought in to make more room.

3.       The night of the big snowfall, temperatures had fallen drastically and winds had picked up making for very dangerous conditions for crews. The DOT, local counties had pulled their equipment for the rest of the night. Many contracts have a clause that extends deadlines by the number of hours that the DOT is off the road. A bit of a surprising effect was getting  shovelers to the sites. Why? Because they couldn’t get out of their own complexes and because they couldn’t get through on the highways.  Only a fraction actually made it in. The guys doing the walks were actually pretty amazing, working for -12-20 hours sometimes. A few shovelers got in serious accidents trying to get to the office or to the site.

4.       Money. As mentioned earlier, most sites needed big expensive equipment to come in to blow back piles. In many cases, this is not included in the contract because if the contractor were to bid in this big equipment every year for an event that happens once every 20 years, the pricing would be 50% higher for each of those 20 years.

5.       “The Fog of War” After the second day of the big storm, confusing reports were coming in hot and heavy. A resident would contact a board member. The board member would contact the property manager not actually seeing the residents problem. The property manager would do the same with the contractor. The production manager would blindly communicate the same to the operator and by the time the operator got out there the situation was different than what was told to him by the boss. Nobody saw anything and you know who really paid that price? The board, the office staff at the management company and the office staff at the contractors, none of whom could actually perform the work that needed to be done. Absolutely helpless to improve the situation except to take the phone calls, the heat and pass messages on.

6.       Subs & Temps. Because of the problems listed above, contractors had to use more subcontractors who weren’t familiar with the site and temp workers for shovelers.

I had a very nice interview with David Schultz of New Concepts Management. He had some ideas of how things should’ve been handled and lessons for the future. Remember earlier I said that the idea of expectations was the key? Well, it’s true. David and I agreed that managing expectations of the homeowners was of singular importance. Educating the homeowners about their expectations & understanding how it all works together makes for a happier association, board and property manager.

This doesn’t mean lowering your standards for the contractor. You can keep the same high expectations of your contractor and still manage expectations inside the CIC. Using this approach gives some cushion for everyone involved to keep the relationships solid. An example might be telling the residents that deadlines can be extended when windchills reach -25 below or when DOT pulls it’s equipment. Fact of the matter is some contractors will have problems bringing people in. If we assume the contractor will have this difficulty, the only 2 choices are to prepare the expectations of the association ahead of time or prepare for many phone calls. A homeowner can ask to change the terms of the contract for next season, but reasonable clauses will reduce the daily calls once the homeowners understand. Nobody wants to see people who desperately need a paycheck to end up in the hospital anyway.

What happens when all parties aren’t thoughtful and considerate of all sides when a contract comes up? I think the contractors who only think of their side will continually struggle with customer satisfaction and getting paid and I think the CIC boards who don’t manage expectations and don’t have some cushion to protect all parties will continue to be disappointed with contractors and should plan on being in the middle of many future fights between contractors and homeowners.

Some of David’s recommendations for a better snow season:

1.       Educate homeowners about the possible changes in response time and extra costs for hauling of snow after a large snowfall.

2.       You’ve hired a multi million dollar snow removal company. Use that expertise you’ve paid for to help the board to make better decisions.

3.       The best snow contracts say “Contract Hauling available at these rates…” Make sure the contractor isn’t raising the bids to the association with hauling rates automatically figured in. That’s a waste of money for most years.

4.       Where properties are functional, the board will ask “What are the costs going to be for the next 3-4 snowfalls?”

5.       This winter was a wake up call for boards. If you live in an association cramped for space, you know it now. It’s just a matter of time before the big snow event affects you again.

6.       Contractors & Boards, stop dealing with snow averages and start addressing future big snowfall events.

7.       There needs to be better communication from the contractor to the board & manager.

I was amazed at the heroics and dedication of some board members. I was amazed by the hard work and 20 hour shifts that many people worked. Find a good contractor that you like to work with and be fair.  Life is too short to work with contractors you don’t like or can’t trust. This simple principle can take stressful situations and make them pleasant and rewarding again.

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The vast majority of property managers think of only 1 or 2 ways to specify snow removal services. This article talks about the good and bad of some interesting methods!
The best methods to budget snow removal for your sites this winter: 

There are innovative ways to budget your snow removal that most property managers are unaware of. They are (in order of wildest swings in meeting budget to most conservative):These methods will have the BIGGEST impact on whether you beat or blow your budget this year.

a) Snow billing by the hour. This is the riskiest plan in order of maintaining your budget. Good contractors billing by the hour are fine, but if you don’t know them, it’s also the easiest for a bad contractor to overbill you and your clients (tenants). Also something that many property managers fail to include in their strategy is to know if your snow contractor is using all or mostly subcontractors. Now you have TWO entities that could overbill. Unless the general is out there every night, it’s nearly impossible to verify each subs hours. If they can’t verify it, you’ll probably pay extra. This isn’t all bad though, if we have very light snowfall this winter, you can save considerably over other methods.
Think about this though. Snow fighting is all a skills game. When you have skilled employees, isn’t the worst method to gauge their success by the hours worked? Wouldn’t it be better to pay based on the results? I don’t mean to insult, but paying hourly is the lazy way for the manager and the contractor, and I believe it leaves the residents, tenants and owners paying for the lack of upfront effort.

b) Snow billing by the PUSH. This is the newest method of determining pricing. Let’s say you have a retail site and you have a 1″ trigger. You need constant service to keep drive lanes open and ice free. Once the site gets to an inch, the contractor will start snow removal operations, even if snow is continuing to fall. When they’re done, if there’s another inch or two on the ground, they’ll go through the entire process again.
You have one price per push, which is MUCH less than a per “event”
and gives you some control
c) Snow billing by THE EVENT. You’re probably familiar with billing “Per Time”. Usually this is broken out at 2-4 inches, then a higher price for 4-6 inches, etc…The plowing usually includes a breakout at 4″ where the contractor will clear the drivelanes, then come back hours later and finish the entire job. Then you get charged once per snow event
d) Snow billing by THE INCH. This is another new method of budgeting for snow. You receive a bid for $200 per inch of snow. The snow can be measured on site over the season, or if you’d like numbers with no argument, go with the snow totals at the Chanhassen Weather Service. At the end of the season, if we’ve had 48 inches, then you would have been billed $9,600.
e) Seaasonal billing. When you absolutely need to be on budget, a seasonal bill consisting of 5 equal monthly payments will keep you there. What are the downsides? If we have a winter with light snow, youi’ll end up paying more than you could’ve by taking a chance on any of the above methods.
This is the favorite method of townhome associations. I think it’s because no board wants to get beat up by being way over budget. At least when the price is decided in September, the residents know what to expect.
Let’s touch on subcontractors again. One of the real life problems with using subcontractors is that many times they sign up for a site with the “general contractor”, but have 3-5 of their own sites that they have a personal stake in, and almost always pay better. So, are you going to get service when you expect it? Good question, but many property managers are now adding “no subcontractors” to the bidding process.
This is the preferred method of the largest snow removal operations. They can use up to 95% subcontractors, and may offer a lower price. Their success is determined by how well they can find and retain great subcontractors who can’t sell their own work.
Check on references of course, and spend a little time getting to know your bidders in person. They’ll be the ones you count on to keep your clients happy and your phones quiet for 5 months, and that’s darn important.
 If you are in need of a snow removal bid, call me at 763-213-2410, or email me at Steve@Landscape.Pro and I’ll give you a no obligation property evaluation and snow response plan.Email steve at Steve@Landscape.Pro to get your free snow response plan.

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