Four years ago, Aron Rodman found himself in the emergency room worried that he was having a heart attack. As he underwent a battery of tests, the 31-year-old owner of Extra Mile Snow Specialists in West Bend, WI, had thoughts of his wife, Tiffany, and their four children running through his mind. Left alone to think and pray, Rodman realized that something had to change.
“I had to come to terms with the fact that no amount of providing will make up for my children being raised fatherless and my wife becoming a widow,” says Rodman, who had worked hard to build a full-service company that provided snow services as well as lawn maintenance and landscape design and installation. “As I sat there, I wondered whether my success was a blessing, because it felt like it was killing me.”
How did he get here?
Extra Mile has come a long way since Rodman stepped behind a $500 snowblower at the age of 22. With limited resources and no bank willing to take a chance on him, he eventually teamed up with a contractor who had a plow truck. After saving his money for a few years, he was finally able to buy his own.
“We did really well just the two of us. I was able to get a good grasp on how things needed to be done and how to set priorities,” Rodman says. “But operating with one truck is dangerous. You are one breakdown from losing clients and being out of business.”
He pushed his truck to the limit and struggled to make ends meet. With $40,000 in debt hanging over their heads, Aron and Tiffany thought about closing the doors, but they wanted to honor their commitments for the 2006-07 snow season. Rodman firmly believes what happened that winter was heaven sent.
“My wife and I are believing Christians, and we felt awful about owing our vendors all this money. We thought we would have to file bankruptcy and prayed that we could finish up the winter so we could pay our debt,” Rodman explains. “It ended up being the snowiest winter in Wisconsin, with 110 inches of snow.”
Rodman took it as a sign: “God doesn’t throw cash at you, but I believe he provides opportunities. We were able to pay off the debt, and I realized he was guiding me to take advantage of my opportunity and to appreciate it.”
Still running his one truck, Rodman was plowing snow every three days. One storm, on the last push of the last driveway, the transmission gave out. Given the winter’s patterns, he thought he was doomed, but the snow stopped and didn’t start again for two weeks - right when he got his truck back from the shop. He decided then to buy a second truck and made a commitment to stay in business.
With the decision made, Rodman was all in, but in 2008 the economy went into a free fall. Despite the downturn, Extra Mile grew in all areas, so much so that each division had enough customers to warrant having their own managers. Despite the success, he realized it wasn’t what he wanted for his company. He had maintained a tight service radius - 5 miles from West Bend’s downtown for all services except landscape, which was 10 miles - and even raised his prices in an attempt to deter clients.
“I didn’t have the desire to be a giant corporation servicing the whole state. Everyone was saying how great the business was, but no one was asking how I was doing, how my family was doing. With things growing so fast, other things can fail miserably,” he says. Hence, the life-changing trip to the ER. A shift in thinking
After being discharged with a diagnosis of a separated shoulder he didn’t realize he had, and unsubstantiated chest pain likely brought on by stress, Rodman talked with his wife and decided he couldn’t do it all. Taking a step back, Rodman began to take an honest look at the business he had built.
While he enjoyed doing snow, his passion was in building and installing hardscapes. Rodman examined each of his profit centers and figured out how much each was contributing to the business and how much time it was consuming.
“I wanted our reputation to be built on hardscapes, but I found it was consuming 80% of the business but only contributing 20% of the profit. Even though I enjoyed doing it, I had to take the personal feelings out of it and make a decision as a business owner,” he explains.
That decision was to formulate a three-year plan to entirely phase out the landscape portion of the business. The company would fulfill its long-term contracts but not take on any new jobs. It would still provide lawn maintenance for snow customers, but going forward all decisions year-round would be based on how it would affect the company’s snow & ice management business. Gaining the necessary buy-in
The decision to become a snow-focused company required Rodman to consider the impact on his employees, many who specialized in the services the company would no longer provide (with rare exception).
“The biggest keys to the success of our company are the employees. I have an amazing group of year-round guys, and I needed to find other areas to challenge them,” he says.
This season one will be taking over sidewalk operations, and two others are working to implement a liquids program. Shifting those responsibilities will free Rodman to spend more time working on the business as a whole.
“I am excited to see my employees figure it out and then tell me. Not because I don’t have to do it, but to see them take the initiative to want to do it and teach me to do it,” he says. “The other thing I’m looking forward to is just going out in the middle of the night when no one is on the phone and the radio is off and I’m in a skid loader pushing snow.”
It was hard for Rodman’s customers to accept his decision, and he found himself agreeing to do work he had sworn off and ending up back where he started. He also lamented the loss of the relationships he had established with home builders who hired him not because of his price, but because of the quality of his workmanship.
“Learning to say no is so hard. From a pride standpoint, giving up something I loved and had worked so hard to build was difficult. But it was the right decision. Now I’m able to pay more attention to detail and not be distracted,” he says. “It freed up 80% of my time, but that doesn’t mean I have that time off. Not only have we been able to focus on snow, but we’ve been able to provide better summer service to our customers. We have built the same reputation in snow that we had in hardscapes.”
It took a little more than three years to execute his transition to a snow-based company, but Rodman says it’s been worth it both professionally and personally for him and his employees.
“Looking at my wife and the kids (their seventh was expected to arrive in early December), my desire is not to be a business owner. I like what I do, but it supports the ability for me to be a father, a husband and to serve my community. It wasn’t fair for me to give my employees a lifestyle that I didn’t want for myself. It really has worked out for the best.”
Equipment reflects Extra Mile's snow focus
Since deciding to focus primarily on snow & ice management, Extra Mile Snow Specialists’ fleet has evolved to reflect that change.
“We’ve started to buy more specialized equipment geared toward snow,” says owner Aron Rodman. “If we provide service in the summer, it’s because we have the equipment and we want to be that customer’s year-round service provider.”
With a portfolio split 50% between condominiums, homeowners’ associations and apartments (plus about 50-100 houses) and 50% small commercial, Rodman’s fleet includes seven skid loaders with box plow systems, 10 trucks and three dedicated salt trucks.
“A lot of the equipment sits all summer long but they last longer. Everything we do and everything we buy has to strengthen us for winter,” he says. “I have to think that way, otherwise I’m back to running a landscape company again.”
Doing what’s best for his young family was a key driver behind Aron Rodman’s decision to focus nearly exclusively on snow & ice management. But he freely admits that striking a balance between a year-round focus on snow and family remains an elusive goal.
“Rarely will you find it, especially in this industry. I don’t have it, but it is substantially better than it was before,” Rodman says.
He notes that it takes effort, some creativity and often taking a stand, but that it is worth it if it means he and his team can at least strive for that balance. Clock management
. When possible, Rodman sets - and sticks to - reasonable hours. While all bets are off in the winter, he strives for the entire Extra Mile team to work four 10-hour days throughout the other three seasons. “I still work more than I’d like to, but setting that schedule means we have flexibility (Friday is a fallback day in the event the crew falls behind), and we don’t have to work at a breakneck pace. Contrary to what anyone thinks, there is no such thing as a lawn maintenance emergency,” he explains. “I’ve seen the benefit with my employees who are able to take a long weekend and come back refreshed, and the company hasn’t suffered from their absence.” Take your kids to work day
. Finding quality time with his children sometimes means bringing them into the field or to the shop. “The younger ones just love to ride with me, even if it’s running errands, for one-on-one time,” he says. As the kids grow older, they get to take a more active role in the business, whether they’re shoveling or even jumping into a skid steer. “Sometimes we’ll go plow a site and I’ll drive and they’ll run the controller. At the shop, if they get to move a pile of salt, it makes their day. It gives them an opportunity to be part of the business and see the good things about the industry.” It’s a date
. Whether it’s date night with his wife, Tiffany, or lunch with one of the kids, if it’s on the schedule it comes first. “I try to give them the same courtesy that I would give a customer. I block that time off, write it down and schedule around it. I’m not always great at it, but I do try.” Set boundaries
. Who hasn’t been asked to meet at 6 or 7 p.m. to walk a site and provide a quote? Rodman has learned that a little pushback and respectful request for an earlier meeting time will usually be accommodated. “A lot of people don’t want to give up that half hour out of their day; they’d rather just inconvenience you,” he says. “But I’ve found that if you press back, nine out of 10 times they’ll find a way to make it work. I’ve never lost an opportunity to provide a quote by asking for a more convenient meeting time.” Delegate
. Like many other small business owners, Rodman admits he has worn many hats and been a jack-of-all-trades but master of none. Finally taking steps to hire others to assume some of those responsibilities, whether it was a mechanic, bookkeeper, salesman, etc., was the best move he made. “It allowed me to focus on the big picture and how we as a company can do a better job for our clients. I enjoy managing that process.”
Aron Rodman gets by with a little help from his friends
Weighed down and troubled by debt, Extra Mile Snow Specialists owner Aron Rodman knew his company was racing toward the breaking point. He needed help and hired a consultant. Quickly finding that wasn’t the answer, Rodman realized the support and business advice he needed was closer than he thought as he began to meet peers (and even competitors) who were willing to share their experiences and talk through similar challenges.
His path toward becoming snow-focused actually began in 2003, when he met Roger Streubing, who owns Hartland, WI-based Grounds Keeper Inc.
“He was older and was heavier into snow. He gave me some pointers and shared with me the potential of snow as a profit center if structured properly,” Rodman says.
As Rodman has evolved, that relationship - as well as other industry friendships he has made - has become more mutually beneficial. They talk about once a month and run ideas past each other.
Rodman also found help through Mike Malicki, a customer who became a family friend. He helped transform Extra Mile from a company on the brink to one that was able to shed the majority of its ancillary services to focus on snow.
“Mike has a lot of business knowledge and had worked with other companies with regard to advertising, morale, customer service, etc. He volunteered his time as a friend to sit down with me each week for a year in 2007 to work on my business,” Rodman explains. “The snow portion of our business has grown every year since. There are people willing to help, especially on a local level. All you have to do is ask.” Cheryl Higley is editorial director of Snow Business magazine. Photos by Vito Palisano.