By Cheryl Higley
About Silvis Group
Location: Mt. Pleasant, PA
Clientele: Homeowner associations, medical, commercial, industrial facilities
Employees: Approximately 75 in winter
Snow revenue: Approximately 35% of total revenue
Jake Silvis, President and founder of Silvis Group in Mt. Pleasant, PA, enjoys a challenge. A rural home base, micro-climates generated by the company’s location at the base of the Laurel Highland Mountains, a shortage of people willing to work in a demanding field, and end users who want to dictate terms are just a few of the challenges he faces. But Silvis uses his homegrown, farm-raised work ethic to succeed despite them.
“‘Can’t’ isn’t a word we use. You can be dealt anything and you have to find a way around it or through it,” he says. “On the farm, the cows still need fed even if you are tired, hungry or sick - managing snow is no different. My grandfather taught me to grow from your experiences and to never quit.”
That mentality has helped Silvis grow his company from “a farm boy with a lawnmower” to a full-service exterior design and maintenance company that last year generated $5 million (about 35% of revenues are snow-related).
Silvis Group serves clients within a 60-mile radius of the company’s headquarters. The region averages 65 to 75 inches of snow with upward of 60 salting events and 10 to 15 plowing events. Because of the terrain, Silvis targets clients that are close to major interstates. The company has six salt depots strategically located throughout its service area and teams dispatch straight to those satellite stations.
“As we grow our market area, we can’t be traveling 45 minutes each way - especially in the winter - so we don’t travel too far into the country. We stay tight to the main arteries and create more route density,” he says.
Silvis started out servicing about 300 residences while he was completing his education at Penn State University. After picking up a few commercial accounts due to contractors’ service failures, the company switched gears to homeowners’ associations and commercial work - but only on Silvis’ terms.
Silvis Group will only accept clients that will allow the company to take full responsibility on when and how the site is serviced. He also won’t sign per-storm contracts because it places too much financial risk and liability on the company. It is a process he put in place more than 20 years ago.
“We serviced a property back in the mid-1990s and the property manager said he didn’t want weekend service. During one weekend storm, we got about 6 inches of impermeable snow and ice. We couldn’t even break it with a loader,” Silvis recalls, noting the customer learned his lesson and said “never again.” That customer remains loyal to Silvis to this day. “That opened our eyes to who the expert really is. It’s us. If the client wants to call the shots, we respectfully let them know that we’re not the right fit for them and move on. We’ve walked away from more jobs than not because they wouldn’t relinquish control.”
Silvis also isn’t afraid to walk away from work that isn’t in the company’s financial best interest. With 25 years of snow experience under his belt, Silvis says he knows his numbers and what it takes to get the job done.
“We gave up $200,000 in property management company work because there was no interaction and the numbers weren’t there. Since we know our numbers and margins, we are not willing to work for less,” he says. “You have to know your numbers and have the backbone to walk away, or you will continue to take lower dollar margins.”
Cutting edge equipment
One way Silvis protects his margins is by using the best, most efficient equipment available. He has team members who excel at building and renovating equipment to match the company’s needs. Preventive maintenance and a schedule for replacement is key.
“Every year we look at how we can save on salt, scrape cleaner and give our team the best tools for the job. We use a lot of agricultural tractors that sit eight months out of the year because we know the value and cost of operating that type of equipment. Our sites are not that big where we can stage massive pieces of equipment, so we need to balance our site needs with the legal transport limits,” he says.
Silvis Group team members will always have the best tools to help them do their jobs effectively and efficiently.
The company also finally began to embrace the use of liquids, and Silvis expects says 50% of this year’s ice management will be liquid-based. Silvis admits he was hard headed when it came to using liquids. But advice from Dale Keep, who is an industry expert on ice management, finally got him to see the light - even if it took 15 years for it to come on.
“We definitely fought it but the turning point for me came in the last two years, and we’ve since gone full bore into brine. We’re actually building our own brine system to meet our needs. We’re setting up our trucks to pretreat at the spinner, which will help minimize our salt use. We have so many occurrences, that if we can keep brine down between storms it allows us flexibility,” Silvis says.
An A+ team
Like many companies, Silvis Group has been impacted by the shortage of quality labor in the industry. Silvis says more effort has to be given to finding the right employees and then training them for continual improvement.
Jake Silvis believes in hiring the right people with the right skill sets and a passion for the industry. Jay Bell, right, is one such person. Silvis calls him the company’s “sales rock star.”
Thinking outside the box is essential, says Silvis, who recruits heavily from nearby universities and relies on the H-2B workforce.
If you look at Silvis’ team, you’ll see a litany of Penn State Nittany Lions, West Virginia Mountaineers and graduates from local trade schools. While an industry background is a plus, he also has hired those with important business skill sets.
“You have to hire the right person with the right attitude in the beginning and it will pay large dividends in the end,” he says.
Silvis also puts a lot of stock in the use of H-2B workers, who he says are dedicated, loyal, hard working, and willing to perform tasks that many Americans simply don’t want to do.
“The government is trying to ruin a system that works. We need that workforce because we’ve lost our American workforce. It doesn’t matter how much you pay, they are going to give you the effort they give you. If someone wants to be successful, they will prove it. Employers and managers shouldn’t have to beg their staff to do their jobs. Self-motivation is the key to success,” he says. An issue this spring resulted in the company not receiving its full stable of H-2B workers. “We had 30 guys who understand our business, run our hardscapes crews, are CDL drivers, etc. That workforce was pulled out from under us and we had to scramble to fill positions.”
Once he has those great workers in place, Silvis makes sure he gives them exposure to training and networking to help them expand their knowledge and see how they can grow not only within the company but also in the industry. He routinely takes at least five employees to the Snow & Ice Symposium and encourages them to get involved on committees. The goal is to build a better team that will not only allow them to grow but also allow him to step away from general manager duties and focus on his passion - operations and processes.
“Invest in your team. The greatest success of any company is its ability to develop its team and create a culture that encourages them to grow, which allows the company to grow organically. I can only do what I can do in a day. With great people, you can conquer the world.”
Powered by LandOpt, Silvis Group takes it to the next level
In 2008, Jake Silvis and his management team turned to LandOpt to provide what Silvis believed would be the missing piece to his company’s growth.
“Our processes weren’t scalable, and that was inhibiting our growth,” he says. Silvis was one of the earliest adopters of the LandOpt System and in January 2015 renewed its license agreement for an additional six-year term, extending the exclusive LandOpt license rights for the Westmoreland County territory through 2020.
As a LandOpt licensee, Silvis and his team have learned process-driven fundamentals in sales, finance and operations that have propelled it from $1.8 million to $5 million in revenue.
“Each segment of the company is run from proven methods and each team member is trained to focus their energy on what they were hired to do,” he says. “This transformation has been a work in progress over the past six years. Now we have a good foundation and have our sights on growing in a profitable manner in other locations in our region.”
As a LandOpt licensee, Silvis Group has learned processes that affect every area of its company. Combined with a company culture that demands accountability, the team works together to help the company grow.
David Gallagher, director of success for LandOpt, says Silvis - like most of its licensees - was initially lacking structure, consistency of action and the correct sales culture.
“Most are good at solving an immediate problem in the moment, but not often good at recognizing that they’re consistently solving the same problem or haven’t put a process in place to prevent it from happening in the first place,” he explains.
Gallagher says sales is typically the No. 1 hindrance to growth: “As an industry, we continue to approach the marketplace that if we put our message out there people will decide if they’re the right customer for us,” he says. “We have to shift from waiting for clients to seek us out to one in which the service provider decides what its customer should look like and put a sales discipline in place to go after that business. Silvis has done that exceptionally well.”
Gallagher says LandOpt isn’t a match for everyone, and the company is selective about those it accepts as licensees.
Two of the most important criteria are management’s willingness to implement LandOpt’s processes and an existing company culture that demands accountability and embraces transparency.
“Leadership has to work alongside the team - it can’t be ‘Do as I say and not as I do.’ The culture component is just as important as the system component. We can provide the components but it’s the people in the organization and their attitude that will determine the company’s success,” Gallagher says.
Silvis admits it hasn’t been easy and has required him to step outside his comfort zone, but the investment has been worth it.
“I’m a farm boy. I grew a $5 million company with a lawnmower. I understand people, processes, and productivity. But you can’t be an expert at everything. It’s still work - and you have to train yourself and your team to do things different and better than before.”
For more information on LandOpt, visit www.landopt.com.
Last words with Jake Silvis
1. I wouldn’t be where I am today without… the support of my wife Jenifer and my team.
2. My ideal day is… when things are running smoothly.
3. In five years, Silvis Group will… be known as a premier leader in snow and ice management.
4. In five years, I hope I will… have a better way of life with my family.
5. My passion is … operations and creative thinking. Cheryl Higley is editorial director of Snow Business magazine. Contact her at
email@example.com. Photos by Chris Boucher