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Better together

  • SIMA
- Posted: April 1, 2014
By Cheryl Higley
Spend a short amount of time with Ian Ashby, owner of Arbutus Landscaping in Calgary, Alberta, and you’ll find that he’s a straight shooter when it comes to the importance of safety and professionalism in the snow & ice management industry. He’s brutally honest when it comes to contractors who put their clients and the public at risk by being unprepared or unwilling to create a true snow business.

“You can’t do this business with smoke and mirrors. It’s a business that will separate the good from the bad quickly - some not as quickly as we hope - but it always does. It’s the hardest business in the world to do well,” says Ashby, who was the 2013 SIMA Volunteer of the Year.

That honesty is tempered with encouragement that success can be had, but it takes work. “Can you educate clients on safety and the core principles involved in snow?” he asks. “If you want better clients and better contracts, your first step is to identify the 10 best people you can talk to, learn as much as you can, and then go to your clients armed with your new knowledge.”

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“Everything I do in the snow business is for one reason: my personal satisfaction. I work with the best clients and suppliers, have the best relationships, and have access to the best people and advisors in this industry. I sleep like a baby every night.”

Changing landscapes
He’s been in the industry for over 30 years, but Ashby has spent the past 14 building a better company with the knowledge he’s acquired.

“The dream of putting in your 40 years and retiring doesn’t really exist anymore, so I decided I was only going to do what I love. I wanted to be outside, make a difference, and control my own destiny,” he says.

That meant adapting to his clients’ changing needs. Ashby says 14 years ago snow services were a four-month extension of his year-round business. Now snow dominates seven months out of the year.

“More intelligent clients with more to lose realized they were possibly not going to receive service if it snowed outside the season and they had hired a contractor who only pushes snow four months a year,” he explains. Such a scenario likely would have proved costly this past season, in which Calgary endured the snowiest winter in the last 100 years.

One standard of service
While his expansive business now includes residential, municipal, commercial and industrial clients, Ashby got his start by serving senior citizens. Whether they needed a lightbulb changed or their driveway shoveled, it was done.

“We quickly found that we were often their only human contact of the week,” he said, adding that he made sure the staff took time to speak with every resident and give them the personal attention they deserved.

By building those relationships, word spread about his service, and the business grew. While his portfolio has expanded, one thing that hasn’t changed is the focus on relationships and safe sites. Whether they’re a senior citizen or a multibillion-dollar conglomerate, Ashby promises every client the same standard of service.

“I have set the standard for our service. If you, as a client, don’t want to pay for that standard - and many don’t - find someone else. The expectations and realizations must be the same for every client and each member of my staff. When they are the same, it’s easy to manage,” he says.

What’s the plan?
Planning to ensure that those expectations and realizations align is a key differentiator for Ashby. When clients hire Arbutus Landscaping, he says they’re not hiring Plan A or even Plan B. It’s Plan C that gives his customers ease of mind.

“No client or member of our staff cares about or lives for Plan A. When a customer hires you, they’re hiring you for Plan B. We give them Plan A, Plan B and Plan C,” he says. “If you go in only with Plan A and I come in with Plan A, B and C, even though it costs more, clients know that I am the person with the ability and backing to perform that contract to the highest level of service.”

Peace of mind for the clients starts with peace of mind for Arbutus’ employees, who are well-trained in safety, operations and client expectations.

“I’ve made a commitment to my employees that they’ll come to work in a safe environment and go home to their families with a check that is spendable and enjoyable,” Ashby says. “Our only obligations are to our clients and our employees. It doesn’t matter to me how anyone else does it, but for us there is no other option. If we fail to deliver the service we promise in the safest manner possible, we’ve failed our clients and we’ve failed our employees’ families.” 
Driving forces: Family and community
Ian Ashby has built an extremely successful business - both financially and in the relationships he’s built with his staff, his clients and his community. That success has allowed him to donate hours of time and resources as well as monetary gifts to help others, which he does willingly but quietly, since he’s a firm believer that to whom much is given, much is expected.

“The accomplishments and achievements...everything that we’ve achieved and built is just stuff,” he says. “But when we have the ability to donate a million pounds of potatoes to Alberta food banks, donate to the Calgary Zoo’s Conservatory & Gardens, or build a serenity garden at Ronald McDonald House because of who I am...what I am is blessed.”

Giving back is Ashby’s way of honoring those who have helped him build Arbutus Landscaping, including associations like SIMA and his clients. Safety is paramount to Ashby, and he’s putting it to charitable use with a program that donates the proceeds from the sale of safety gear to the Ronald McDonald House in Alberta. In the last three years, $40,000 has been donated on behalf of safely trained and appareled workers.

Ashby knows that his good works in the community represent not only Arbutus Landscaping, but also his loyal customers, staff and vendors. He insists that in any of his charitable works there’s no aggrandizement of him or his company.

“It is a privilege to be able to do what we do. I’m not building a serenity garden with my own money. It’s our clients’ money that I am the purveyor of by privilege - never by right. I earn their money by trying to provide a better, productive, safer workplace where I can have an impact on improving our environment.”

While his clients have afforded him the financial ability to donate so generously, the truest motivation comes from the deep love he has for his wife and partner, Penny.

“You asked me what role Penny plays in the business? Penny is my business. The accomplishments and all the enjoyment I get from running this business...all of it is Penny. Not only is she smart, but she has a heart and soul that defies my understanding. I am humbled by her beauty, her intelligence, her presentation, her business acumen, her kindness. The biggest reason I’m allowed to be who I am is Penny. What she’s doing with me, I have no idea!”

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Penny Ashby is a hands-on, driving force in the success of Arbutus Landscaping. Key parts of that success are the company’s fleet and its loyal suppliers.

A project close to Ian’s heart, and one he plans to expand upon, is the serenity memorial garden he and Penny built at Ronald McDonald House in Alberta. The garden honors their daughter, Samantha, who passed away five years ago at the age of 16. His goal is to partner with local contractors to build a similar garden at each of the 16 Ronald McDonald Houses in North America.

“If you’d ever met my daughter, your life would be forever was mine. Because of my family and the relationships and success I’ve built, I am allowed to be a better person.”

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Ian and Penny Ashby built a serenity memorial garden at Ronald McDonald House in Alberta in honor of their daughter, Samantha.

Insight: Symposium tip changes Ashby's business forever
Ian Ashby has been active in SIMA for more than a decade. He’s served as a mentor, committee member and was instrumental in shaping the new Advanced Snow Manager program. He believes that information is available to anyone who’s willing to seek it, but they must engage to get the most out of the information: “You can short circuit the process a bit by going to SIMA, but you can short circuit it a ton by participating and listening at SIMA.”

As an example, Ashby points to a lesson he learned at his first Snow & Ice Symposium. After years of post-storm billing, he started invoicing on the first of the month, with payment due on the 10th. But he was still servicing clients on the 30th, whether payment was received or not. Sitting in on a residential account billing snack and chat opened his eyes to the possibilities of pre-billing. He now invoices for the season, and contracts not paid in full by Oct. 1 are null and void.

“My capacity is sold on a year-round basis. My staff and suppliers have to be paid, and my clients have an expectation that they’re going to be safe. When they sign my contract they know that whatever they need it’ll be done.”
Managing equipment as a profit center
or Ian Ashby to provide the service he’s promised his customers, he relies on his employees and suppliers to keep all of the equipment in immaculate condition. By looking at the equipment as more than the tools to get the job done, he can reassure his clients that when it’s blistering cold and 10 inches of snow is falling, Arbutus Landscaping will get the job done.

“This is my chosen business, and I want to be around forever,” Ashby states. “For me to do that, I need my equipment to exceed my expectations. The only way I can guarantee that is to manage it as a profit center.”

Upping the ROI: If you’re in it for the long haul, you need the best possible return on investment (ROI). That starts with making the correct level of investment in equipment up front, and then investing in restorative maintenance to keep it in the field longer. Doing so allows Ashby to substantially extend the life of his equipment. “Do you want to be in the snow business, or do you want to be a snow guy? If you have good contracts but your equipment is falling apart, you won’t be in the business long because failure is inevitable,” he says.

Parts and service: Ashby only uses original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts and trained technicians to service his equipment. He’s built relationships with some of the best equipment manufacturers and suppliers in North America to ensure that he buys quality equipment and that it’s taken care of. Building that supplier network is another safety net to ensure Ashby’s team can service their clients. “The newest supplier for our company has been with us for 13 years,” he notes. “I’m intensely loyal to the people who support my business. When I sell my service, I have all of those suppliers standing behind me.”

Dry runs
: Ashby isn’t naive enough to think that nothing can go wrong despite the company’s best efforts, which is why he insists on pre-event checklists for every piece of equipment. For his commercial and industrial sites, the teams visit each site, fire up the equipment, and make a few passes to ensure that not only does it start, but that it’s operating as it should. They will also take equipment from another site and do a dry run with different operators so that in the event of an illness or equipment issue multiple operators will know how to service every site.

These dry runs not only benefit the client, but also the employees. “There’s no pressure to be perfect when it’s not snowing. Why not build up the relationship with the client and your staff in a nonconfrontational, no-stress environment? If you teach people to succeed, they will,” he says.

Ashby says that level of preparedness makes a difference: “The client might have been happy last year if the guy showed up and the equipment started. It’s not even snowing and he sees us doing a dry run. How much slack do you have with your client if something goes wrong after multiple events? If they get even a minor complaint, they will go to bat for you.”  

Cheryl Higley is editorial director of  Snow Business magazine.
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