By Cheryl Higley
Suburban Snow Plow, founded by Lawrence Oelschlegel Jr. (right) in 1973, is a family affair. (Clockwise, far left) Erich Oelschlegel, Eric Urschel (son-in-law), Heidi Urschel and Zach Oelschlegel manage departments in the company, and Ian Oelschlegel (next to Lawrence) leads the charge as chief operating officer and co-owner. The Suburban team is showcasing some of its equipment, which is a key differentiator for the company as it focuses on building mass through route density in urban Philadelphia, PA.
Don’t tell Ian Oelschlegel you can’t be everything to everybody. As chief operating officer of Suburban Snow Plow in Philadelphia, PA, he - with the help of his father (and company founder) and siblings - has made it his mission to cover a lot of real estate in a compact geographical footprint. Name the property type, and the company likely services it.
Suburban expects to service about 200 properties and 10 miles of sidewalks in the 2018-19 snow season - 80% to 90% within a five ZIP-code radius. Route density is central to the company’s business model. It allows for crew overlap and on-call assistance when needed. The company’s garages and equipment are less than two miles from 90% of its properties, which improves response time.
Oelschlegel says he would rather service 30 to 40 diverse properties in close proximity, regardless of whether it’s a flower shop, church, hospice center or apartment complex, than to focus on select property types farther apart.
“There could be a property that has a bigger revenue pull than a church with a small congregation. It doesn’t mean we go for one over the other. I know which properties to go after based on margin,” Ian says.
To help in the route planning process Ian plots existing routes and properties on a large map. He can then look at each route and determine which can absorb new clients. On average he starts three routes a year.
“I can look at the map and see where we can pack the routes tighter and gain customers. Then we can spend the off-season trying to win those accounts,” he says. “Why seek a client three miles away if we can do one next door? Some of our routes started with one client 20 years ago and now we have the whole block.”
Suburban tracks clients and routes on an intricate map that shows the areas that can be targeted for growth.
Spreading the word
For years, Suburban did little in the way of marketing, growing by name recognition and referrals. But as the Oelschlegel team saw the opportunity to expand within its existing footprint, it upped its game, taking a tactical, boots-on-the-ground approach to capturing those clients Ian has identified.
“We market to properties in and around our existing sites. It takes a lot of time and diligence to continually seek those customers; but we find that we can secure about 80% of those leads,” Ian says, adding that Suburban will even service an adjacent property for free to show the prospect what they’re missing. Many times, that client will sign on with Suburban the following winter.
Suburban’s methodical approach to customer selection is mirrored in its equipment selection and purchasing. Ian says the company looks backward to move forward.
“We identify what we could have done better, faster or [where we could have] provided a higher level of service,” he says.
While they review for efficiencies, Ian and Erich are also looking ahead to newer technologies and/or anticipating equipment needs for as yet unsigned customers. As an example, when the company added brine in 2016, they didn’t know on which sites they would use it or when, but Ian knew it would make a difference down the line. Same with the expandable plows, steel-edge pushers, rotary brooms, ATVs, compact sidewalk plows and more.
“As we approach customers who are adjacent or in those five ZIP codes, we simultaneously look for equipment that we need to service them. You have to be prepared,” Ian says. “We may not have an immediate need for a piece of equipment but with Erich researching equipment and Heidi and I working on sales, we know we have a high potential of winning that customer, whether it’s in a month or three years, and that our diverse fleet will help seal the deal.”
Those are risks Ian is willing to take since bringing the equipment on board not only benefits Suburban in the long run but also its clients.
“That equipment might cost more but it can do the job twice as fast. That allows us to offer a lower price and sign our customers to longer deals to spread out the investment,” he says.
Proof is in the details
With as much forethought and planning Suburban puts into its equipment and client acquisition, it’s no surprise that same level of detail is built into its service planning process.
In June, the Suburban team took first place in SIMA’s Best Practices Skills Competition, due largely to its performance in the site engineering challenge. Ian says the level of detail the judges saw is built into every layer of the Suburban process that starts with their proposals and includes communicating service plans early, verifying service and following up post-storm.
“Our site engineering usually blows our competition out of the water. Prospects recognize that if we’ve spent that level of detail planning before the storm, they’ll receive that same level of effort when it’s snowing,” he says. “Site engineering is good for giving your crews what they need to do the same job that you sold.”
Despite its tight hold on the market, Suburban Snow Plow leaves nothing to chance because the stakes are simply too high.
“Our customers are relying on us. Once that weather alert comes, you’re on the edge of a risky situation. We prepare constantly, ensuring we have the materials, the equipment and a good backup plan. We miss one storm, and our client is looking for a new contractor.”
Drones show promise
Suburban Snow Plow has been experimenting with drones to capture data for estimating and site engineering, particularly for larger sites where taking multiple photos would be too time-consuming (and not exceptionally helpful without aerial views for context).
“When you have sites that exceed an acre, you cannot take pictures of every single spot on that property,” says Ian Oelschlegel.
Using “active track” technology, the drone can fly above the person walking the site and capture details. Suburban can then upload video of each site to YouTube, where crews can access via their mobile app.
Suburban is working on the first phase of implementation and hopes to use drones on certain sites this fall. Next, Oelschlegel says, would be to test drone footage for post-storm service verification.
Manager of Technology Erich Oelschlegel is testing the use of drones that would benefit Suburban Snow Plow in the estimating and site engineering processes.
It’s all relative(s)
Suburban Snow Plow was founded in 1973 by Owner and President Lawrence Oelschlegel Jr., who ran a one-man snow plow side business with a handful of clients to complement his successful construction company.
His four children - Ian, Erich, Zach and Heidi - grew up accompanying their dad during snowstorms, shoveling and learning to plow.
As the oldest, Ian, co-owner and chief operating officer, took an early leadership role, learning the business at his father’s side even while he was attending college. After graduating, he jumped in full time, taking on roles his dad wasn’t interested in or where Ian was better suited, such as marketing.
The other siblings went away to college or to the military but made their way home gradually, each with degrees and life experiences that have helped fill a crucial niche in the business.
- Erich Oelschlegel manages technology, including the company’s social media and website, mobile applications, and software and customer communications.
- Zach Oelschlegel is manager of personnel and leads the hiring, onboarding and training for more than 90 Suburban team members.
- Heidi Urschel manages administration, including insurance and invoicing, and is the face of Suburban Snow Plow (along with Ian) when it comes to customer engagement. She and Ian also work together on site engineering.
- Heidi’s husband, Eric Urschel, manages equipment, maintenance, brine manufacturing and salt distribution.
Lawrence is still involved in the business but is letting his children lead the charge.
“We aren’t ready to see him step away. We enjoy working with him and learning from him,” says Ian. “At the same time, he’s going to be 70 in September. It’s up to each of us to build on his legacy.”
The close-knit family lives within a few miles of each other - three of them within three blocks. The challenge is to establish boundaries between business and pleasure.
“I think we work well together because each person knows their strong suit,” Ian says. “The challenge is to be open to a different perspective. If you’re open to those ideas and learning, it may lead to winning more customers. We have a level of respect for each other and that starts with our dad. Whether we have five or 20 years of experience, each of us is doing our part to build on the momentum he created.”
Suburban Snow Plow continually reviews operations and purchases equipment to give its team the best tools to get the job done. As the company has grown, so too has its investment in and diversity of equipment.
Cheryl Higley is Director of Education and Content for SIMA. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photos by Dave Moser.
- 2009: Purchases first hydraulic expandable plow. Today the entire fleet has them.
- 2014: Invests in sidewalk machines to handle the additional load after Philadelphia receives 75 inches of snow (nearly 4 times its average).
- 2016: Begins making salt brine in a custom-engineered and built system.
- 2017: Implements mobile application technologies to simplify routing, and manage payroll and operations logistics.
- 2018: Adds ATVs with hydraulic plows for sidewalks. Hooklift trucks capable of skid steer transportation, brine application, municipal-sized stainless V-box salt spreaders, and snow hauling containers are in production.