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Surviving the death of a leader

  • SIMA
- Posted: August 1, 2015
By Greg Stacho

It will never happen to us. It’s the furthest thing from our minds. And then last year it happened - suddenly and without warning.  

It was July 4th weekend when I received a call from a fellow employee. As he spoke I could tell something was wrong. He asked if I had heard that our boss, Brian Akehurst, had suffered a heart attack and passed away. I could not believe what I was hearing. It was a tragic day for his family and everyone who knew Brian, a man who had a huge impact on the industry and was a long-time member and past SIMA president. 

Picking up the pieces
On August 1, we held a management meeting to discuss how we were going to move forward, knowing that Brian was “the snowman.” All of our operations from routing to billing came through him, and we had a huge void to fill. With snow season approaching, our first thought was “How are we going to put this all together?” when we didn’t know where information was or even where to start. As part of the rebuilding plan, the management team chose to hire a snow operations manager to handle subcontractors, routing and material ordering. Upon filling this position, it was the team’s task to dig into all the logistics and come up with a plan. 

Management and operations began the exhausting task of compiling routing sheets, equipment needs, subcontractor forms, and contracts. By the end of August we had created master spreadsheets. The calls we received offering to help were amazing. Vendors, SIMA members, and contractors in the area contacted us to offer to help in any way they could. We had all the information; we just had to dig for it and compile the data. We were following Brian’s trail of crumbs and putting all the pieces together. As we continued to discuss the snow operations during weekly management meetings, it was not only difficult but also different not having our seasoned leader with us. 

After spending weeks pulling data and plotting strategy, things were looking good by the end of October. Getting proposals out took much longer than expected, but we got it done by working six to seven days a week, sometimes 18 hours a day. As mid-November came upon us, most routes were planned, equipment was being finalized and salt was staged. Our weather service report was calling for a late-month snow event. When we held a final preseason meeting with account managers to review the new plan, I could tell the toll it had taken on everyone to pull this all together. It was truly a team effort. The plan was finished - routes were set, laborers were lined up, and the finishing touches were nearly complete.

Putting the plan in motion
The November 25 weather report called for snow that next morning. Emotions were running high. Was everything covered? Did we forget anything? The team seemed excited to see everyone’s hard work come together. The morning of November 26, snow moved into the area around 8 a.m. Crews were dispatched to sites where they waited, anxious and ready. 

 As the snow started to pick up, I looked out my window that overlooks our facility to the now snow-covered tree line and reflected on all that had happened. This was our first storm without Brian. How could we have planned for something like this? As I continued to look out the window, the snow became heavy and I heard a loud crack of thundersnow! To me this was someone’s way of saying: “Let the season begin.” 

Prepare for the unexpected
Being prepared for tragedy is never on anyone’s minds. We need to remind ourselves that anything can happen at any time. A key employee can quit, get injured, or suddenly pass away. There are many ways to prepare for such an event with a little upfront planning. Training should always focus on the “What ifs?” Is there someone that could step into your position or fill that key person’s role if something did happen? Will you be ready for “what if?”

We never know what tomorrow holds. What we can be certain of though is that things will change. So we must properly account for today and plan for tomorrow. Keeping accurate records lays a foundation to review and build upon. Creating a plan and process gives you a map of what to do, where to go and how to get there. Working the plan together with your team brings everyone to the same page of understanding, allows for cross-training, and makes it somewhat easier to fill the void not only if, but when something happens.

We miss Brian dearly, but he left us with a good foundation to build upon, something we could use to move forward successfully. This single event of loss and the plans and processes that followed helped the team come together to press through the loss to successfully accomplish what was needed.  This became a great lesson that we all should consider for every area of our business and lives. Lesson learned.  

Plan for the unexpected
Master lists that document procedures and personnel can help keep operations moving in the event of a sudden personnel loss: 
  • File and back up your information on your company hard drive for others to view as well as a thumb drive. Redundancy counts when there is catastrophic failure.
  • Compile a master client list with all properties serviced, contact information and billing addresses.
  • Document all properties with maps to highlight snow staging areas and special requests. Create binders for account managers as well as a company file.
  • Have route sheets for account managers, foremen and laborers that include square footage, subcontractors and equipment needed, salt quantities per property, hours to service, and order of service.
  • Gather all contracts into binders that are easily accessible at your office as well as in a file folder on your computer.
  • Create a master list of which account managers service which properties so that calls can be directed appropriately.
  • Create a master list of subcontractors, including manpower and equipment needs, and service areas.
  • Create a master spreadsheet with all square footage per property, including sidewalks, drive lanes and parking spaces. 
  • Create an inventory master list of in-house equipment, including ID numbers.
  • Have an equipment assignment sheet that includes trucks and other equipment for employees.
  • Master salt tracker to include vendors, salt used per property/area and materials in inventory.
  • Master day-laborer phone list to organize all potential day laborers for storms. 
  • Location to store all snow training videos and handouts to review.
Greg Stacho is snow operations manager at Akehurst Landscape Service Inc. He also is a member of the Snow Business editorial advisory committee. Contact him at
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