Allocating extra money for quality equipment, like the right shovels, will lessen the fatigue of the snow season and add to employee productivity.
Photo courtesy of Precision Snow Removal

Precision Snow Removal began in 1992 as a landscape company with a focus on landscape overhaul and construction. But, about six years ago, the company transitioned to primarily offer snow removal.

“Landscaping is such a seasonal business, and at the time we were having a fairly large turnover in staff,” says Kent Peddie, president of Precision Snow Removal, based in Ottawa, Ontario.

With the change in business model, Peddie has less employee turnover. “It’s a fairly different skill set,” he says. “When you’re doing landscape construction work, you need staff members who probably have been in school for one or two years.”

Then field experience is required.

“With snow removal, you need to have a strong back if you're doing a lot of the hand work or otherwise it's mostly equipment operation, and that's a much easier skill set to pick up and to learn,” Peddie says.

Changing gears.

Precision Snow Removal has an annual revenue of $800,000 to $1 million with about 85 to 90 percent coming from winter work. The remaining revenue comes from the green season, during which the company will do some landscape construction, subcontracting for other companies. In addition, Peddie says he earns some off-season income through equipment rental.

Customers are split half and half between commercial and residential. The commercial side is primarily condominiums, homeowner associations and businesses. Peddie says he plans to further grow the commercial side.

“For us to expand our residential work, we would have to then enter into a new neighborhood which already has some large players that have virtually control of the whole market,” he says.

To compete in that market, Peddie says he would need to sell mostly based on price – which is not a business move he wants to take.

“Our superior training methods and our emphasis on keeping up to date with current technology and best practices – that will give us a leading edge moving forward, marketing to the larger accounts,” he says.

Prepping for the season.

Customer contracts usually begin in November and end in April, Peddie says.

As soon as the 18-week season ends, preparation for the next season begins – including meetings with property managers seeking quotes for the next season, Peddie says.

“Starting at about mid-June, we'll start putting a push for new quotations and starting in July, we'll begin the recruiting processes,” Peddie says.

Commercial contracts are sent out before residential contracts, as commercial customers usually plan ahead a little more. Residential customers usually make a decision by the end of September to early October.

This past season, snowfall was nearly twice the average in the region. “We needed additional staff to handle all of the snow,” he says. “Our recruiting and hiring process was virtually ongoing.”

Instead of wrapping up recruiting and training in the fall, Peddie says he was still hiring new workers in February.

On top of that, customers were hit with extra bills due to the higher-than-average snowfall.

Intensive training.

During peak season, the company has 48 employees, including six full-time managers. The remaining staff are seasonal hourly employees who come from landscaping backgrounds, roofing, renovation or the military.

“Anything we can do prior to the first snowfall that would make our job easier during the first snowfall, will be a huge benefit for us,” Peddie says. “Training is just critical.”

Classroom training includes slideshow presentations of equipment features and operation. Another class focuses on customer relations. And there is training for specific operational techniques – such as how to clear parking lots and driveways, and best practices for snow removal, Peddie says.

After the classroom training, all employees take a written exam. The exam is not a pass or fail exam but it is useful for revealing employee strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, exams reveal which employees need more education.

“What we did learn from the tests, some potential recruits and potential team members really don't have the best reading and writing skills,” Peddie says. “That was good for us to know, so that if we gave them detailed documents in terms of what to do at each job site, we would realize they probably can't read this.”

Finally, field training begins.

Fleet structure.

The Precision Snow Removal fleet is structured uniquely – there are 27 skid steer loaders – along with three other machines. There are also 14 to 18 pedestrians removing snow with shovels and snow blowers.

Teams operate from three different sites or hubs – or storage equipment sites.

“Then even if they have to drive a machine for half an hour, 45 minutes to start getting to the route, it's more efficient for us to do that than have them self-dispatching out of locations that might be closer,” Peddie says.

The hubs provide support and accountability.

“If machines have a hard time starting, they're able to help each other,” Peddie says.

A few pickup trucks are driven by managers to inspect commercial properties, and trucks are used for salting as well. Pedestrian crews also use the pickup trucks equipped with shovels and snow blowers.

“A lot of our market is in urban Ottawa. The streets tend to be narrower because they're old cities and that's why we use skid-steer loaders. We specialize in these unique and tight areas,” he says.