By Cheryl Higley
Seabreeze Property Services CEO Chris Bright sees synergies between snow and ice and military operations, making his transition to the industry much easier.
Chris Bright’s first week on the job at Portland, ME-based Seabreeze Property Services got off to a rocky start - four people who had planned to stay on after the company was purchased by a private equity company abruptly left; another went into labor a month early; and then a Nor’easter blew into town. All he could do was stand back and try to stay out of the fray.
“During that first storm, I added no value. All I could do was drive around to the properties and see the team in action,” says Bright, who is a West Point graduate and U.S. Army veteran with an MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
What he saw was raw talent, informal field leadership, sagging morale and substandard equipment that made the employees’ jobs more difficult than they already were. He quickly became convinced that he could have an impact by taking a military mission approach to improving operations.
“I had never been in snow and ice management but was a combat engineer officer in the Army. There is a lot of synergy between the military and the type of employees and the work that is done in this industry.”
Bright’s first move was to implement a company structure modeled after the Army’s engineering corps and to articulate a vision for the future.
Next was to address a 70-piece equipment fleet that had no standardized branding and whose average age was 10 to 11 years old, which resulted in significant maintenance costs. Bright sought a capital investment commitment from company ownership; and by securing creative financing plans with key truck and equipment vendors such as Bobcat Co., he was able to significantly upgrade the equipment.
“We can’t be a best-in-class company without quality equipment. By continually improving the fleet we have been able to cut maintenance costs in half and become more efficient,” he says.
One of the issues that jumped out at Bright as he evaluated Seabreeze’s operations during that first storm was that every person was in a truck pushing snow and no one was overseeing the big picture.
To address that shortfall, Bright established the Seabreeze Winter Operations Center, which is modeled like a military central command post. The SWOC is staffed by Tom Bryant, a trained meteorologist and longtime Seabreeze team member, and outfitted with multiple monitors, weather forecasting and GPS tracking.
“Having someone coordinating the whole operation and moving the chess pieces was phenomenal,” Bright says. “Our overall customer complaints are down, as are injuries and damages. Year over year we are ahead in earnings coming out of the winter, and I attribute that in part to the command center.”
One of Chris Bright’s first moves was to establish a Winter Operations Center, staffed by Tom Bryant (foreground), to manage storms more effectively.
With logistics in place, Bright has turned his attention to building leaders and empowering them to execute the vision he has laid out. It is in this area where he believes he can make the biggest impact. And it again goes back to his service as a combat engineer, where he not only learned about equipment, building infrastructure and negotiation skills but also how to connect with people, build respect and bring differing sides together for the common good.
“Every day, I use what I learned at West Point. The Academy was a remarkable experience that provided us with world-class training so that we were well prepared to lead soldiers in the U.S. Army. The process made you a self-aware, confident and humble leader,” he says. “I’ve used my training and experiences in my military and civilian careers to try to make the best impact I can on the organizations I have been fortunate enough to command and lead. I try to be genuine, thoughtful and decisive while always putting my company and people first.”
Bright says his military training translates easily to the snow and ice management industry, whose employees often have traits similar to those of a soldier.
Central to Bright’s leadership and organizational structure is the implementation of the commander’s intent. As described in the Army Doctrine Reference Publication (ADRP) 5-0, the commander’s intent “succinctly describes what constitutes success for the operation. It includes the operation’s purpose, key tasks and the conditions that define the end state. It links the mission, concept of operations and tasks to subordinate units. A clear commander’s intent facilitates a shared understanding and focuses on the overall conditions that represent mission accomplishment.”
The vision starts at the top, and as the commander’s intent drills down to the lower units, they’re expected to write statements for their part of that mission. “We don’t want to tell our teams what to do, we want to teach them how to think, to take advantage of opportunities and to address challenges,” Bright says.
As a result of the changes, better data tracking and a firmer grasp on expenses, the company has significantly grown revenue and is on pace to hit its earnings goals for the year. All of the credit, Bright says, goes to the team.
Ready for the next step
Under Bright, Seabreeze has ambitious goals to expand down the East Coast by 2020, growing into select cities. He believes that the company’s solid foundation, a strong business plan and a growing emphasis on career and leadership development for the Seabreeze team will unlock the company’s untapped potential.
And as for being named this year’s Snow Business
CEO of the Year, Bright says he is grateful and humbled but he’s just getting started.
“It means a lot that [Senior Vice President] Bill Eklund nominated me. I see how hard the team is working for me. Since I left the military I have been searching for a place where I can make an impact and change people’s lives,” he says. “To be recognized by the industry standard for what we’ve been doing puts wind in your sails and affirms we’re on the right path. Wait till you see where we go from here!”
Seabreeze makes health and wellness a priority
A new Seabreeze fitness program puts team members through a 4-day workout regimen with trainers who focus on nutrition, exercise, and injury prevention.
The state of Maine has not been insulated from the opioid epidemic that has swept across the United States; and Seabreeze Property Services has seen the devastating impact up close, losing three employees and almost another to overdoses.
“You feel helpless, and their deaths haunt me,” says CEO Chris Bright. “I don’t know how to fix this, but I knew we had to do something.”
Hoping to get those with addictive personalities “addicted to something good,” and using his own experiences with health issues from working long hours as an example, Bright has built a health and wellness program open to all team members.
He converted two garage bays into a fitness center and has partnered with coaches who will teach nutrition, fitness training, yoga, active recovery and more in an effort to get his employees to commit to a healthy lifestyle.
Twelve employees are enrolled in the first session and must commit to participating four days a week. The first three days are fitness-based, and the fourth focuses on nutrition, stretching, yoga and increasing range of motion. In addition to building health and wellness, Bright believes it will also help cut down on injuries in the field. If they participate in three out of the four days, the employees will be paid for their time in training.
“When I committed to my own health, I had better energy, and my work performance and personal life got better,” he says. “We are committed to this. We piloted the program this summer and it was well received. I am excited to implement this for my team.”
Hope in the darkness
Although Bright hopes that the wellness program takes off, he is realistic about the fact that clean living isn’t always easy. The company has implemented a drug testing program that commits resources to those in recovery or who relapse.
“If someone struggles, we are going to put them into rehab with an open-arms policy that if they complete the program and submit to random drug testing for two years that they will be welcomed back into the position they were in,” he says. “I don’t want to punish anyone. We want good, honest people who are struggling to have a path forward.”
Employee development takes center stage
Chris Bright realized early on in his tenure that Seabreeze Property Services was blessed with a lot of raw talent that, if developed properly, could be the catalyst for the company’s growth. Having spent the last year and a half implementing a company structure and articulating a vision of what Seabreeze can be, Bright has set his sights on building programs that will develop the company’s next group of leaders.
“I was told when I got here that we didn’t have the right people in the company to execute my vision, but I witnessed a lot of informal leadership in the field and people who took pride in their properties and themselves,” he says. “Listening to them and meeting with them individually changed my thinking.”
One of his goals for Seabreeze is to have all work done in-house. To accomplish that, Bright is taking a tactical approach to hiring, leadership development and retention to keep team members engaged and challenged.
“We want to recruit specifically and strategically, train relentlessly and retain thoughtfully,” he says, noting the company has established an onboarding program and is starting to measure average tenure to determine where to focus recruiting efforts.
The key, Bright believes, is for employees to see snow and ice management as something more than an hourly job and that the company is invested in providing the training and resources to build a career. These are tenets he learned at MIT, while being mentored by former GE CEO Jack Welch.
“His advice was to work your [butt] off, make your boss look good and always be ready to leave,” Bright says. “I thought that was harsh and questioned the lack of employee loyalty until I realized that it’s up to the company’s leaders to give them a reason to stay. It’s up to us to provide progression, education and training.”
Following the path to a career in snow
Bright and his senior leaders are building career paths for each position in the company built on two educational platforms.
- Seabreeze Management School. Bright designed a 54-hour program that teaches leadership, branding, personal communication, project management, time management, customer service, financial understanding, sales and more. Each employee must complete a Capstone project that identifies an aspect of the business and how it can be improved.
- Seabreeze Leadership Development Program. Plans for this program are underway. Bright will recruit candidates with corporate experience to complete a two-year leadership school that encompasses landscape and snow and ice management training from the ground up. Once they complete a summer/winter cycle, they’ll begin working with project managers to learn that side of the business. At the end of two years, the goal is to be able to let academy participants take the reins and help expand the business into identified growth areas.
“A lot of people look at us as dirty laborers and don’t inherently respect what it takes to work in this industry. It frustrates me to see that. I want to show people they are wrong,” Bright says. “We have big plans for this company, and I’m determined that we are going to be good at coaching and development. That has driven me, and where I see my role in the next year or two is teaching my team to lead, to do well, and to be healthy and safe. That will translate into happier employees and a stronger company.”
Rewarding jobs well done
Once leaders have given the team the tools and resources to succeed, seeing it in action is rewarding. Chris Bright makes it a point to acknowledge those efforts, believing that it builds trust, makes management more approachable, and provides incentive for others to follow in the footsteps of those team members leading in the field.
Taking a page out of his military training, Bright has 100 “challenge coins” custom minted each year. The goal is to recognize 100 employees for exemplary service, whether it’s great curb-shoveling work or helping someone who is behind. “I want them to know how much their efforts mean. No one wakes up every day and says ‘I’m going to go screw something up.’ Public recognition for a job well done creates a desire to do well.”
Bright created the Order of the Blue Vase to honor those in the field who have gone above and beyond. The company’s project managers nominate employees for the award. The nominees are recognized at the all-hands staff meeting each quarter, and the winner receives an engraved blue vase, $500 gift card, parking space and induction into the Order of the Blue Vase. Winners from all four quarters are collectively treated to a special luncheon. “It’s a good way to get to know the rock stars who are in the field. Their colleagues see the accolades and it encourages them to strive for greatness.”
Thirteen candidates were nominated for this year’s Snow Business CEO of the Year award. Members of the SIMA staff selected four finalists, and the winner was chosen by the Snow Business
Editorial Advisory Committee, a member of SIMA’s Board of Directors, a sponsor representative and 2017 CEO of the Year Jason Case, CSP, ASM.
Thanks to Western Products, Fisher Engineering and SnowEx for their support and sponsorship of the CEO of the Year award.
Cheryl Higley is editorial director of Snow Business magazine. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photos by Kevin Brusie.