|Many business owners eventually get to a point where they’re comfortable and content with their company. They’ve successfully taken a small, single-man show to a full-scale, booming business, and have achieved all they could’ve ever imagined. Basking in their self-made glory, they enjoy the rest of the smooth ride, with no real desire to push things to the next level.
Rich Johnston, from Westville, Indiana is not one of those people. As the owner of Johnston Landscape Maintenance, Johnston’s passion for his work and drive to succeed helped take his part-time, one-man operation to what it is now – a flourishing and growing landscape, hardscape and snow and ice management contracting company with both full-time and seasonal employees. And this has all occurred in just ten years.
“I started my business back in 2000,” Johnston said. “I always wanted to own my own company and one day I decided it was time to go for it. And I had to start somewhere so, for the first few years, it was literally just me and my lawnmower out there on the weekends.” He continued with a slight chuckle, “Of course, that doesn’t count my first business venture. Mowing lawns and shoveling snow when I was 12 years old!”
His younger entrepreneurial days were long gone, but not forgotten. Johnston had been working more than ten years in human resources at a fairly large company when he decided it was time to pursue his true passion. He started out with a few residential customers and quickly began building clientele as a reputable mowing service. Business began to grow and, in 2004, he hired his first employee. By 2006, he was offering full landscape and hardscape services, and had finally reached a point where he was able to leave his full-time job and focus on his company.
“I really wanted to grow this into a full-time venture, not just a hobby on the weekends,” Johnston said. “Thankfully, I was able to rather quickly.”
After spending about six years building his reputation and growing as a landscape and hardscape service company, Johnston – always thinking ahead – was ready to take the next step. He had been hoping to add snowplowing services and was ready to dive in.
“It just felt like the right time,” he said. “And customers had begun requesting it, so that was a major factor too.”
Johnston already had a few pickup trucks he utilized on the landscaping side of the business, so he added some standard pickup-mounted snowplows and was ready to go. Like the landscaping side, he started out with residential clients and slowly began growing, adding commercial accounts, mostly banks and small parking lots.
The company was enjoying the success of adding snow removal, but Johnston – again, always planning his next move – wanted to take it up a notch. He felt his current truck plows weren’t quite up to par, especially as he was trying to land larger commercial accounts. As a landscaper, he already owned a skid steer, so he began searching for equipment-mounted plows. While researching online, he came across one he had never seen before – and was immediately intrigued. The plow, Arctic Snow and Ice Control Products’ Sectional Sno-Plow, was an equipment-mounted box plow. But, as Johnston states, it was far from “just another box plow.”
“When I saw it, I was blown away,” he said. “I looked at the features and how those translated into benefits, and just knew there was great potential with this plow. As soon as I saw it, I didn’t even consider other equipment-mounted box plows.”
Johnston decided to follow his instincts and purchased an LD10 Sectional Sno-Plow, which is a 10-foot model, for his skid steer. The results? Johnston summed it up in one word.
“Wow,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how well it worked.” In fact, the first time he and his crew took out the plow, Johnston estimates they saved between two-and-a-half to three hours on their route. “And that was just by adding one plow,” he said.
Beyond the fact they were able to call it a day a few hours earlier, saving time also saved the company money – crucial to the life of Johnston’s business. “Snow and ice management is among the most competitive businesses out there these days,” he said. “Everyone recognizes the potential, so it’s important for us to cut time and costs whenever possible. After all, time saved is money earned!”
Johnston first noticed how well the plow cleared and how little snow it left behind, saving the crew time from re-plowing. The difference, he said, was in the plow’s design. Rather than a one-piece moldboard, the plow is comprised of multiple 32-inch sections. The sections move independently of each other, which allows the plow to essentially contour to pavement.
In Johnston’s opinion, the design was unique and very well thought out. As he pointed out, “No pavement is flat.” As an example, he described typical city streets, and how they’re often slightly higher in the center and gradually slope down towards the edges. This is called a crown in the road. “When going down the middle of the road, our one-piece pickup plows would float over the lower areas and leave snow behind,” he said. “But our new plow accommodates the crown, and reaches both the higher and lower areas. That’s a huge time saver.”
But even beyond city streets, commercial and municipal parking lots are rarely flat. “That’s why you see puddles in the parking lots after a rain storm. They’re filled with high spots, low spots, dips and uneven surfaces,” Johnston explained. “Again, a one-piece plow is going to hit the high spots, but leave snow on the lower points. This forces you to either re-plow with a smaller unit or do some extensive salting. The Sectional Sno-Plow has those smaller sections that get down into lower spots and scrape away all the snow and ice.”
The plow’s lot-cleaning results go a long way in preventing liability issues tied to slip-and-fall claims. Typically, the responsibility for clearing the lot of all snow and ice falls solely on the contractor, making it imperative for snow and ice to be removed as completely and efficiently as possible.
“The number one thing I’d say most guys overlook when they get into this business is liability issues,” Johnston said. “The plows we were using wouldn’t get all the snow and ice on the first pass, so we’d have to re-plow and put down salt. But that isn’t efficient, especially during business hours when customers are coming and going.”
He continued on to explain that salting often isn’t adequate. “You can salt and salt, but a lot of factors, from the amount of existing snow to the current temperature, can reduce salt’s effectiveness. Bottom line, if there’s any ice in that parking lot and someone slips, falls and sues you, that could be the end of it for your business.”
Johnston points out Sectional Sno-Plow’s steel cutting edges eliminate all snow and ice – even scraping and removing hard-packed snow. And it has also helped the crew cut down on salt, saving both time and money.
“We’ve seen our salt usage drop quite a bit since we’ve been running the Sectional Sno-Plows,” he said. “I would say we’ve reduced salt usage by at least 10 to 15 percent. Add to the fact that we don’t have to spend as much extra time salting and it’s just been great.”
After seeing the success he and his crew were enjoying with the LD10 plow, Johnston was eager to add another, larger Sectional Sno-Plow. But, first, he had to purchase an appropriate piece of equipment – a front-end loader.
“That was an investment in itself,” he said, “but I knew it would pay off.” Johnston then added a HD12 plow to his fleet, a heavy-duty 12-foot model. Shortly after, he purchased another front-end loader and LD plow, this time a 12-foot model. Johnston’s crew enjoys operating the new plows, not just from an efficiency standpoint, but for comfort.
“You would think, bigger machine, bigger plow, you’d probably feel more impact when going over bumps. You know, like in a pickup where sometimes you think you’re going to eat the steering wheel,” he joked. “Not at all the case.”
Johnston attributes this to several of the plow’s features, which have been designed for safety, and to ease impact on the operator, equipment and plow. Beyond enhancing safety, Johnston points out how much time these features save as well.
“Each section has a spring-loaded trip edge, and I remember one job in particular where they saved us,” Johnston recalled. “It was a new subdivision, and the roads didn’t yet have the final, top layer of asphalt, so manholes were protruding higher than normal. With our pickups, we would have had to slow down and carefully go around the manholes, then come back to re-plow and clean up any excess snow. Thanks to the trip edges, we were able to go right over them with our new plows, no re-plowing necessary.”
Like the sectional moldboards, Sectional Sno-Plow’s trip edges operate independently of one another. “When you approach an obstacle using a typical one-piece plow, the entire plow will trip and that leaves a large pile of snow behind,” Johnston explained. Because only one trip edge moves to clear an obstacle on a Sectional Sno-Plow, the rest of the plow stays on the ground to push the snow. “It seems so simple, but it’s such a huge feature and saves us time, every time we plow,” Johnston said.
He even goes so far as to attribute a recent new account to the plow – specifically, to its mechanical side panels. Unlike typical plows with fixed side panels, Sectional Sno-Plow’s mechanical side panels lift the plow up and over objects upon impact, virtually eliminating potential damage from hitting them head-on.
“We put in a bid to provide service for a large church in the area,” Johnston said. Although the company’s bid came in higher than others, the church’s administrator was intrigued by Johnston’s promises of better clearing. Johnston also mentioned that his plow was different, and would virtually eliminate potential damage to pavement and curbs.
“He had experienced some issues with the previous plowing company,” Johnston said. “That company’s equipment-mounted box plows didn’t have mechanical side panels, so they’d hit the curbs and ended up causing some pretty significant damage.”
The church had just re-done its parking lot, complete with new, expensive curbing. In order to show him what made the Sectional Sno-Plows different, Johnston directed the administrator to the company’s website. After watching the video and seeing the Sectional Sno-Plow in action, he was convinced it would prevent damage to church’s significant new investment, and hired Johnston’s crew. (See video at www.sectionalplow.com.)
“Then when we showed up for the first day on the job, the pastor to one look at the size of the plow and was a bit shocked. I think he was a little worried and intimidated by the size,” Johnston said with a laugh. “But then he saw how it worked and that it didn’t do any damage. And so far, they’ve been really pleased with our work.”
With new accounts, satisfied long-standing clients and more business on the horizon, Johnston is enjoying his company’s success. But of course, he has no plans to slow down anytime soon. So what’s the next step in his growth plan? He’s hoping to add another skid steer and plow, and continue to position the business for further growth.
“We really want to take the snowplowing side even further and get into mall parking lots,” Johnston said. “It’s very competitive so we know we’ll have to be prepared to take on accounts that large.”
But still, Johnston is very pleased with his company’s progress. Since adding plowing services, he estimates his company has grown almost 50 percent. “We’re still primarily a landscape company,” he said. “But we’re at the point where we’re fast-approaching 50/50, landscape to snowplowing.”
Johnston said he noticed another significant increase in his company after adding the Sectional Sno-Plows. “Our profit has increased about 30 percent,” he said. Johnston attributes that to several factors, including less salt usage, less manpower and less hours spent plowing.
“There’s also the little things that add up like less fuel usage,” he continued. “Because we’re just running a few pieces of equipment and no longer running so many trucks, our fuel costs have been cut significantly. Add the fact that we’ve cut our job times by up to three hours and that’s even more fuel were saving by not running the trucks those extra hours.” With fuel costs projected to increase to $5 or more, later this year, he’s especially pleased with the fuel cutback.
Johnston also points our how much his maintenance and repair costs have been reduced. The first Sectional Sno-Plow he ever bought is on its fourth season and approaching 700 hours, and he just now had to change his first steel cutting edge.
“That was so minimal, both in time and cost,” he said. Rather than replace a cutting edge on an entire 8-foot plow, which can be very expensive, he just replaced a 32-inch section.
They also just replaced the plow’s steel shoes for the first time. Again, a simple process that Johnston described as, “A piece of cake that took maybe five minutes.”
For Johnston, his success pales in comparison to the satisfaction he gets from owning his own business and doing what he loves.
“I’m like Forrest Gump,” he said, referring to the popular movie character. “I love what I do so much, I’d do it for free! But of course, it’s nice to be successful and make a profit.”
While most of his success can be attributed to his drive, passion and business savvy, Johnston remains humble and feels thankful that he’s lucky enough to do what he truly loves every day. With the idea of luck on his side, he paused and concluded with a laugh, “Maybe I should go buy a lottery ticket!”
From green to white – and then some more green: The Right Equipment Can Help Increase Your Operation’s Bottom Line
“Snow and ice management is among the most competitive businesses out there these days. Everyone recognizes the potential, so it’s important to cut time and costs whenever possible. Time saved is money earned.” – Rich Johnston, business owner