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Niche markets: homebodies

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  • SIMA
- Posted: June 16, 2017
By Cheryl Higley

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Site Complexity: Multifamily residential snow services often involve detailed sidewalk work and door-to-door service.

Working in the multifamily residential snow and ice management market isn’t for the faint of heart. If you’re working for a homeowner or condo association, for example, you may also be serving as the development’s public works department. You’re hired by one entity but you’re really answering to several, even hundreds, of “customers” - the residents. Given the complexities involved in servicing these sites, closely considering every possible aspect of the site’s size and complexity and the labor and equipment needed is essential.

Site size and complexity

Angela Cenzalli, CSP, is a branch manager for Fairway Landscaping and Lawn Care in Massachusetts. The company manages one homeowners association and two condo owners associations within a five-mile radius. All told, those properties equal more than 725 homes, 25 streets and 10 road miles. Not only do they maintain residents’ drives and walkways - and common areas, pump houses, corner drains, walking trails, fire hydrants and more - but they also clear private roads like a municipality.

“It is amazing the things on a private site that need to be considered. It’s a whole other world of snow removal,” she says.

Many complexes are not designed for easy snow storage, which requires solid site engineering and planning.

Catherine Nickelson, president of Horticulture Services in Minnesota, says: “We strategize in the fall where snow storage will take place, mark it on the map and inform the association. Care has to be taken in planning where to store snow because in many cases it is unlawful to push snow across city roads or into wetlands.”

Many areas, however, do not allow stacking on site. Grant Harrison, vice president of maintenance and snow for Gelderman Landscape Services in Waterdown, Ontario, says new condos in his market are packed with residential units, which allows no place for snow storage.

“To successfully bid, you need to know ahead of time where to place the piles or if hauling will be required, which is an additional revenue opportunity,” he says.

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Private & public access: Companies that service HOA/COA complexes play the role of private snow contractor and public works department.

Equipment
The site’s layout and complexity will determine the type of equipment that can be used for service.

“Townhome associations are often built without regard for snow removal equipment. We primarily use skid steers, which provide mobility and speed to efficiently clear driveways,” Nickelson says. “Handwork is done with blowers and shovels and in some cases backpack blowers. Heavy wet snowfalls present a difficulty for clearing stairs. We are still searching for a piece of equipment that will assist in this process.”

Cenzalli says Fairway dedicates equipment (and labor) to a site for the winter. Tractors with plows and blowers and plow trucks and spreaders work in unison to clear the roads, and smaller tractors and skid steers clear the drives.

“We made the switch to tractors because we were getting a lot of turf and shrub damage during heavy snow years. The decision has nearly eliminated the need for hauling and stacking,” she says. “Some would say that it is a loss of revenue, but that revenue generated more headaches than anything else. It infuriates people when damage is done with a front end loader because you stacked snow in their yard.”

Harrison says the nature of the market they’ve chosen has made it difficult to find the right piece of equipment to do throughways and driveways.

“The driveways in a townhome complex are often narrow and short, requiring a smaller machine. The overall size of the complex often necessitates a larger machine. Ideally, we would like one machine that is able to do both,” he adds.

Working close to garage doors and ornamental displays can leave a company open to damage complaints. Exercising caution and using the correct equipment can help mitigate damage costs.

“I feel like you’re open to more damage possibilities with these properties. If you have 600 homes and have 10 storms, that’s 6,000 opportunities for you to damage a door,” Cenzalli says. “Garage doors are lightweight, and you can easily dent or scratch a door with a shovel. You can put a plastic shovel through a piece of molding when it’s below freezing. The client has no tolerance for that. You have to train your team to avoid those costly mistakes.”

Start/stop times
The level of service in this niche tends toward higher tolerance for snow accumulation given associations’ budgets, which are driven largely by the set amount of dues collected. Fixed-price contracts are the norm.

“Our townhome snow removal is included in the year-round landscape maintenance contract. Our clients appreciate being able to budget and it provides a steady income for us during the winter,” Nickelson says.

Working with that fixed income means service for the residential components may not begin until a specific trigger depth or even until after the storm is over to mitigate labor costs. Many associations also restrict operations overnight to avoid noise complaints. Between delayed starts and hours restrictions, it is common and expected that residents may have to navigate before sites are cleared.

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Equipment: Servicing sites during the day gives operators the chance to clear snow with fewer people around. Trigger depths may result in residents having to navigate to cars before the snow is cleared.

“We begin plowing when the snow has stopped or has reached a depth of 3 inches,” Nickelson says. “Our HOA contracts do not include a ‘babysitting clause,’ which would require us to clear the snow while it is falling. This service is often beyond a HOA’s budget.”

Harrison says Gelderman’s contracts require operations to be completed a certain amount of hours after services commence but notes that customer expectations are changing.

“Our trigger depth is 2 inches according to our standard contract, but that’s not realistic anymore. Some of our customers’ expectations are that we come as soon as a flake of snow is in the air. Managing those expectations is difficult, which is why communication is so important,” he says.

Jill Beasley, property manager for FirstService Residential, says communication is her No. 1 requirement for the snow and ice management professionals she works with.

“Gelderman provides excellent communication of what they are doing to deal with impending inclement weather. Service guidelines are clear and I am updated by email when crews have visited the property letting me know what has been done and what will be done,” she says.

Cenzalli agrees, noting that her company invested in a web-based communication platform for these large communities to increase the level and effectiveness of communications.

Harrison says Gelderman began sending out operational updates to property managers and as many residents as possible a few seasons ago: “These updates stop most of the ‘Where is Gelderman?’ emails we get during the event. If clients know what to expect, we can mitigate complaints.”
Building a better price for service
For multifamily clients, including homeowner and condo associations, site size and complexity, start/completion times, equipment, and services needed all play leading roles when creating an appropriate price for service. As you build your proposal, consider the following:
 
Labor
Staffing is heavily dependent on the scope of work, and size and complexity of the site. When bidding, make sure to consider whether you will dedicate labor to each site or if it will be routed; if you have enough sidewalk crews to safely work; time for staking, if applicable; whether you can use subcontractors; and that you have backups for your backups. Spotters are recommended given that residents may be coming and going and children may be present.

Start/completion times

While some clients may require service completed before residents leave for work, this is an anomaly. It is more common for service to start either after a storm is complete, at a specific trigger depth, or during the day while residents are at work. Companies who service sites that have public roadways as well as residences may have separate start/completion expectations, which should be factored into the cost.

Services needed
Depending on the property type, snow clearing may include private roads, individual driveways and sidewalks, public walkways, and visitor/ancillary parking. Ice management, hauling and ice watch are also potential service requests.

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Sidewalks: Factor in whether you will need to service common walkways and/or individual drives and sidewalks.

Cycle times

Consider whether your crews will remain on site or be routed to other locations, and the size and complexity of the site. Those interviewed for this piece indicated at least 8 to 18 hours to turn over a site, depending on those factors.

Equipment
The type of equipment needed for multifamily sites will lean toward smaller pieces that can operate in tight spaces and/or efficiently service driveways. Public roads and open parking lots will trend toward bigger equipment. HOA/COA work is more prone to the possibility of damage so consider equipment that will mitigate that possibility whenever possible (don’t use metal-edge shovels, opt for snowblowers and tractors with blowers, etc.).

Site size & complexity

Considerations should include whether you’re asked to service residents’ driveways and sidewalks, common areas, visitor lots, public roadways, ancillary buildings, etc. The answers to those questions will directly impact labor, equipment, cycle times, etc. Staking (if allowed) and efficient site engineering is essential. Also consider whether there will be space for stacking snow or if it must be hauled.

Marketing strategy
Property managers and association boards are the key decision-makers in this niche. Likely they will seek a contractor who can provide year-round service so that they can better manage budgets. Communication strategies are essential and should be built into your plan. Successfully communicating event strategy so they can relay information to their homeowners and tenants will go a long way toward relationship building and repeat business.

Cheryl Higley is editorial director of SIMA and Snow Business magazine. Email her at cheryl@sima.org.
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