Managing Your Greatest Resource

Roman Albert got into the sweeping business in the late 70s, launching Lot Maintenance in Tulsa, OK. He has diversified his business in innovative ways that have kept his company and employees going even in a soft economy.

In addition to diversity and staying debt-free Albert says the secret to success is in your employees. “In our business, everyone is their own supervisor,” says Albert. “It’s not a factory where you can monitor them. We have 25 to 30 crews that go out every day. The guys need to like each other and watch out for each other. We haven’t had a worker’s compensation claim in a long time. We monitor each other on a daily basis.

“Cleaning sewers, sweeping streets and mowing highways is a pretty dirty business. It’s a lot of tough, difficult work. These guys want to be treated with respect–this is what they do and they take pride in it. I was on a tractor with them yesterday helping them catch up. When they see that I’m out there with them, it makes a big difference to them.

“We talk to our guys every morning in the break room and go out on jobs with them during our peak season. Sometimes they have special expenses. You don’t want them taking advantage of you, but you help them out when you can. One of our guys needed to go back home for his mom’s funeral. So, I gave him some money to help out and just asked him to give back whatever was left over. It was just the right thing to do. When you do things that make a difference in your employees’ lives, they remember and tell their co-workers. It’s those men and women that are the secret to our success, and those little things matter. You also don’t ask them to do things that you wouldn’t do.”

Albert gets creative during the off-seasons to generate revenue and prevent the cycle of lay-off and re-hire, which can be expensive when you lose people and have to train new hires. “From April through October, we run two to three trucks cleaning pipelines and then in the winter, we run seven to eight when the guys come off the tractors and sweepers,” says Albert. “It balances us out and we don’t have to get rid of anyone. We also use that time to repair our equipment. We service everything—jetters, mowers, sweepers—and have eight to 10 people working on it. The advantage of having them work on it in the winter is that they know what to do if they are on a job in the summer and something goes wrong. We also do special projects such as tree clearing. For example, a customer had a problem with his fence lines, which were causing security problems, so we cleared those out. It just keeps our guys going through the year.”

Keeping those employees happy can sometimes be a challenge. “Some of our crews can be very clique-ish. If we put a new man on a crew and the foreman doesn’t like him, then we don’t make him keep him. They have to like each other. We have 20-30 crews go out the door in the morning and we want to keep them happy and looking out for one another. We want to prevent little things from getting blown out of proportion.”

Normally, the guys at Lot Maintenance just work a lot overtime, but this year has been so busy for them, that they’ve added six employees this year. “I’d rather my guys have the overtime. With new hires, you have to train them and you may go through two to three guys before you find someone. That affects productivity.”

Running Equipment

Albert buys most of the company’s equipment used. “We buy from city surplus and online auctions, and rebuild it to keep costs down. A new street sweeper can cost you $200,000, and a VACTOR is $300,000. We’ve found that new machines are not any more reliable than a used machine that has been well-maintained.”
Most of Lot Maintenance’s equipment maintenance is done in-house with several mechanics on staff to lend their expertise to the other employees. The mechanics are also relied upon to rebuild the equipment and keep it running. Although Albert loves the old Mobils, they run a lot of Schwarzes as well. “We’re trying to buy an Elgin right now because of their improved conveyor system. I haven’t bought a brand new street sweeper for 25 years. Some of those old machines are bulletproof while the new ones are difficult to work on—too much electric and hydraulic. With the older ones, you can fix something on the spot if it breaks.”

Lot Maintenance runs 10 street sweepers: seven mechanical and three air. “There is a need for each of those machines. We run mechanical 80 percent of the time because we mainly do construction and road clean up. If we were sweeping Tulsa on a monthly basis then we would use more air. You always need to have back-up equipment,” says Albert.

“But, right now, even my back-up equipment is out running most of the time. We typically keep 15-20 percent of equipment in reserve, but this equipment is busy and my guys are working 70 hours a week.”

Busy, Busy, Busy

“With this cool and rainy summer, we’ve had a big growing season. In the last three weeks, we’ve gotten four new contracts for the city and state where mowing contractors failed because they couldn’t keep up with the mowing. We just had to turn another contract down. We’ll bid on it next year, but right now, we would just be another problem, not a solution. The contract is for 250 locations and the knee high grass is causing safety and traffic problems. I understand their concern and would like to help, so we are just taking the hot spots, primarily the visibility restrictions.”

Limiting Your Liability

When Lot Maintenance is out on a job, they typically leave the big tractors on the side of the highway to pick up mowing where they left off the next day. “We’ve had some of our equipment stolen from jobs so we decided to put GPS tracking devices on all of our equipment,” says Albert. “Every tractor, trailer, skid steer and sweeper has a GPS on it. If one of our tractors fires up after hours, we know that someone is stealing it. Our insurance loves it because it gives us a better chance of recovering it. It’s great added security.

“The technology has really evolved in the past year and is reasonably priced now. There was some push back from our guys about monitoring them, but it’s been a great tool. We get reports if someone is speeding, or driving aggressively. We also get maintenance reports from the GPS system, such as when the oil needs changed. It’s one of the smartest things we’ve done. I wish we hadn’t waited so long to do this.”

Next

Albert and his team are always on the look out for emerging trends and holes in a market where they can fill a need. This ever-evolving concept has helped Lot Maintenance expand to meet the demands of a changing market.

“I think that it becomes pretty common for businesses to evolve. There seem to be fewer and fewer large sweeping companies in the U.S. that just do sweeping. I love to hear those stories about how businesses change. I have a friend back east that was a large sweeping contractor when I first got into it, and now he’s one of the largest rotomilling contractors. It’s very interesting to hear how the guys get into different areas.

“Our business will continue to change and grow as the needs of the market demands. Right now, we are transitioning the company and it is 80 percent female-owned. By the end of the year, it will be 100 percent.”

Story by Jennifer Taylor

RESOURCES

For more information:
■ Lot Maintenance, www.lotmaintenance.com
■ Elgin, www.elginsweeper.com
■ Schwarze, www.schwarze.com
■ VACTOR, www.vactor.com

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