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Profiles in Parking Area Sweeping


Professionalism in the Current Millenium

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David Ross is the principal of Massachusetts-based Millenium Maintenance and Power Sweeping, one of the largest, most professional sweeping companies in America. Here's what he has to say when asked to speak on the topic of pricing sweeping services, as well as what it takes to run a successful, growing company in today's marketplace.

by Ranger Kidwell-Ross


WORLDSWEEPER: In your opinion, what are the basics a newbie contractor should consider in order to price their hourly rate realistically?

Ross: Try to figure out all of your costs. I try to break it down by the week, because I've found that makes it easier to understand. Figure out how much it costs you to run every machine in your fleet. Believe it or not, with a Schwarze double-engine machine, for example: If you run a couple of guys in the truck (one as operator and the other as a hand-pick/backpack blower operator) your costs are going to be in the range of $40 to $45 an hour.

That's after figuring your $5 million insurance umbrella, which most customers require these days, plus workmen's compensation payments, maintenance, brooms, fuel, dumping, and whatever else you have. With a single-engine you might lower that to $38 an hour, but it won't be $10 an hour's worth of difference.

You then have to determine how long it will take to clean a given parking lot. The fact is, most people figure it will take longer to sweep - on average - than it really does, especially if you know what you're doing.

WORLDSWEEPER: What's your preferred tactic to figuring how long it will take to sweep a new account? What's your process to come up with a good figure for that?

Ross: These days, a lot of the bids are by the square footage. I am very comfortable with that since I've been doing it for so long. I use Google Earth, which allows me to use my computer to zoom in to view almost any parking spot. I can see behind the buildings, and at any area I need to view.

That has become an important tool, even more so because so many bids these days are for multiple portfolios. When someone who manages a dozen properties across New England calls for a bid, it would be much more costly if I had to physically drive to look at each and every property. We can use the square footage to come up with the figures we need. Also, pricing for multiple locations is going to be much lower than it will be if you're bidding a single shopping center.

We can use the square footage to come up with the figures we need. And, the pricing for multiple locations is going to be much lower than it will be if you're bidding a single shopping center.

The places where I still go to take a personal look are any of the bigger centers that I'm bidding as a single account. I go out and ride the property, looking at the condition of the pavement, check the islands and their layout and any other factors I can see that might increase the time it takes to clean it all up.

Typically, the biggest thing to do is look around at the surrounding neighborhood. The trend in development has been focusing on mixed-use sites.  These days, they're putting big centers right in the middle of residential areas. When you're trying to build up a route, the last thing you need is a handful of stops that all have to be done at 7 AM because of local noise ordinances.   You can’t bother the neighbors.  When I visit a property where it looks like there will be noise restrictions, I have to ask myself if I even want to do it. Then, if the answer is yes, the price has to be higher because I know it will cost me more to service it on a modified schedule rather than as part of normal routing.

At the right price, I'll manage to do it. What we might do in these cases is have the night supervisor go through the center at night and pick up all the big stuff, change out all the trash can liners; in short, do everything he can do quietly. Then, we'll have the sweeper run through in the early morning hours as people are getting up anyway.

My experience is that it can be a good thing to have clients see the sweeper at work. They like seeing the sweeper come through with the lights on, the driver in a safety vest, everything getting clean as a result. Let's face it, in this industry they're accustomed to sending in their check every month and never seeing you on the job. Some of that visibility can be of value.

That's something I play off of when I'm going after new accounts, as well.  Since we're quite good about keeping in contact with our customers, I'll ask a prospective client, "When's the last time you spoke with your sweeping company?"   Most of the time, the answer is "Never." We make it a point to go overboard, if anything, in the other direction. We send them items to help them remember us, mouse pads, pens, and so forth to keep our name in front of them all the time. That makes a big difference since our industry is filled with contractors coming in to do the job for a few dollars less.

WORLDSWEEPER: What is your response when you get clients who call and say they're considering changing providers due to price?

Ross: When they tell me that I consider a few things.  First it depends on how many properties I do for them. Other factors are what kind of customer they are.  If it's a single property that is difficult to work with, one where they're constantly calling us when they find a gum wrapper on the loading dock, etc., then I'll just let it go and wish them well.

One of the ways we're different from most everyone else in our area is that we operate with two employees in the sweeper. Although it costs a little more, in my opinion we can do a better job that way. I have no problem with telling them why I've priced them like I have: Here's the cost of the machine, this is the labor, the workmen's comp. costs, etc., and show them that the fact is, they might be able to do it at that price for awhile, but not in the long run. When you've been treating them right and doing a good job, most of these managers don't want the hassle of switching back and forth when the new contractor doesn't perform. There's a cost to that, as well.

If you're forced to meet a lower price because of competition, one way to up sell the account to keep at the same profit level per account, is to get them to agree to let you do more of their non-sweeping work. That's the kind of stuff that brings loyalty, anyway. We'll agree to reduce our pricing, perhaps, if the manager puts us in charge of doing the pothole repair, power washing the sidewalks, the line striping or any other exterior facilities maintenance work that needs to be done over time.

When there's a big gap in what a new guy comes in at -- say you've been at $65/night and they're willing to do it for $35/night -- then my inclination is to let them have it.   If not, there's a credibility issue; even if you know the lower price isn't sustainable.  If you met the low price to keep the account, the customer is liable to think you've been 'taking him' at the old price.

That's yet another advantage of truly knowing your numbers and knowing you've been doing a great job at a fair price. You know with relative degree of certainty there's no way your competitor can do a property at a significant discount over what you've been doing.

In those instances, I do not burn any bridges. I remind them we're a professional contractor with $5 million in insurance coverage, uniformed workers, well-maintained equipment, up-to-date work methods, a proven track record.   I also ask for permission to check in with them every couple of months, in order to make sure they're happy with the job being done by the new guy. When the answer is yes, which it usually is, I do follow through with doing that follow-up.

WORLDSWEEPER: Let's say the new guy doesn't do a very good job. Would you consider taking digital pictures of the dirty property and sending them to the property manager?

Ross: No, I wouldn't consider being what amounts to a 'tattle-tale' as a professional. What I might do is, during one of those follow-up calls he told me I could make, request a personal meeting at some time I'm going to be in the area. At that time, I could say that sort of thing, but I wouldn't take pictures and pass them out. I want to always emphasize our professionalism.

It's about relationship building: That's more of a key than sweeping the parking lot. I'm always calling to make sure everything is fine with our relationship. Toward that end, we provide all of our clients with a monthly inspection report. We generate those reports internally with our supervisory personnel, anyway;  it's not like it's expensive to provide the customer with a monthly report that shows how we've rated the job we've been doing for them internally.

Our night supervisor is onsite at each of our regular accounts at least once per week. We use the rating he gives the site to keep our guys on their toes all the time, so it's not like any of the reports are going to be very bad. Wherever the work could be better, we make that happen immediately by meeting with our guys and making sure they know how they need to improve the work they're doing.

When we send a monthly compilation report to our clients, they see their property, they see proof that we care, and our name is in front of them once again. The fax goes into their folder and as they stack up they showcase the consistency and professionalism we provide. This makes an easy reference for them and is a great tool when property managers change at sites.

If you aren't building a relationship with the customer, you can be out-the-door whenever the next sweeping contractor steps in to cut your price. When client call and get a live person, when the appropriate people call back when they say they will you establish professional credibility. In short, we do what we say we will, when we say we will, and we document our work both internally and to our customers. Those types of factors have been, in my opinion, a key to the kind of growth we've had.

WORLDSWEEPER: What is the size of Millenium currently?

Ross: We're running 25 sweepers. A dozen of those are parking lot machines and the rest are municipal and construction sweepers of some type of other.

WORLDSWEEPER: Is there anything else you do that might be helpful knowledge, or unique?

Ross: Well, we don't like to take accounts where we're only sweeping a site day or two per week. The client may think they're saving money, but what ends up happening is that much of the time their property simply doesn't look its best, and we're the ones that are seen as responsible for that. I don't want that kind of blemish on my record. When a customer wants three sweeps a week and they need five-to-seven, I'd rather let someone else do that.

WORLDSWEEPER: In closing, any last pieces of advice?

Ross: You can sum it up in one word: Professionalism. There are a lot of people who talk about it, but just don't follow through. Develop a system within your company that emphasizes being as professional as possible at every level and at every job in your company. When you identify any area of your company that isn't as professional as it might be, fix it.

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During our conversation, Ross also offered an idea that is now part of our Tip Clipboard. We invite you to take a look. David Ross may be reached via email sent to dave@mmpowersweeping.com.

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