New Year – New Insights From Minnesota

In the search for a Minneapolis area sweeping businesses that stands out from the rest, we notice the name Dakota Sweeping & Maintenance Company. After all, Minneapolis is in Minnesota, not in the Dakotas, of course. But, the Dakotans and Minnesotans share the same spellbinding countryside, so we were naturally curious about the motivation for naming the business. We also wonder what’s with that cool bird flying on the logo. Then, entering the Dakota Sweeping website, we find on its Home page something more unexpected and immediately recognizable as something unique.
We asked Peter LaBerge, owner of Dakota Sweeping, why the business was named Dakota, and we also asked about the feature photo on the Dakota Sweeping homepage, which is of Martin Luther King Jr giving a speech outdoors. The answers we got were not at all what we would have imagined. The reason for the MLK photo goes directly to primary business management principles directly tied to the impressive long-term performance of the business. But, more on this later.

Basics About the Business
For background, Dakota Sweeping & Maintenance Company has been operating in Minnesota for more than 20 years. For the past seven years, the company has been under management by its third owner, LaBerge. Through all of its births and rebirths, the Minneapolis sweeping business has continued to grow year after year. Dakota’s primary service area is within about a 60 mile radius of the twin cities.
Currently, the company has about 20 seasonal employees and more than a dozen service vehicles. The majority of Dakota’s clients are national property management companies, local investment property owners, construction companies, school districts and municipalities.

Performance Pride Philosophy
The first thing we asked LaBerge about in the interview is the prominent display on the Dakota Sweeping website of the King photo. We find out that it’s actually much more than a photo. It’s accompanied by a link, which we’d overlooked earlier, to a YouTube video of MLK delivering his famous inspirational speech about mastery of life in quality fulfillment of one’s chosen purpose. The image creates quite a distinctive impression for the website. Peter matter-of-factly explains the inspiration for that choice, as below.
Well, I’m a child of that generation. I’ve always thought that if someone like Martin Luther King Jr is going to talk about such a basic service as sweeping, he may have been talking about sweeping by hand. There’s been some amount of sweeping involved in most jobs I’ve had since I was a young. I thought the sentiment he expressed on the point was something unique, and it resonated with me personally. So, I decided to put it on the website. (Hear King’s timeless, deeply moving “Street Sweeper” speech, accessible through the link above the photo of MLK, on the Dakota site.)
So, we have the expression of a profound philosophic view of the choices an individual makes of a life endeavor just right upfront on a sweeping company’s homepage. This is a rare outright offering of insight into the spirit of so many successful entrepreneurs we’ve talked to. There’s a deep connection with the concept of quality.

Life Leading to its Purpose
What did you do prior to buying the sweeper business, we asked Peter? I was primarily in the white collar business world. As many people realize when they get on toward middle age, it can become time to ask yourself, “Do I want to keep working for others, or would I rather go out and work for myself?” So, my wife and I discussed it, and I exited my employment and came out on my own.
I had been working for accountants. So, I was taking an inventory of my skills and was looking at how they applied to various options for being an entrepreneur. I heard from a friend that this business was for sale. It’s something I thought I could learn and succeed with, and the rest is history.
In college, I worked in a foundry. We did a lot of sweeping in the foundry. Everyone had to do it. It was a noisy, loud place with relatively dirty equipment, and I got the experience of working second and third shifts. I also had a little background in mechanics. I had always had an interest in doing that kind of work through the years. During school, I had jobs at three separate service stations where I worked on cars, and at the foundry I did some work in the mechanics shop.
I have a law degree and practiced law in small firms prior to going into business. I still maintain my licenses, and still have that opportunity to practice law. If we’re fortunate, we have an opportunity to in life to gravitate to what we most enjoy. That’s how I’ve arrived where I am now, in a business that integrates the skills that I’ve found I’ve most enjoyed using throughout my life.
In my white collar work, I picked up a few things about business, like working with people and understanding what our clients have to do to run their businesses. Like in any small business, as the owner, you have to wear many hats. I didn’t realize how much my background had prepared me for this business until I got into it.

Organic Growth as a Strategic Model
Can you talk about the kinds of growth that your business realizes? In our case, our growth is organic. We continue to acquire equipment as we have people to run it. There is more demand for sweeping in our region than can be met by the sweeping industry locally. We do turn down business, almost on a daily basis. But, we take care of our loyal customers. Some have been with us almost twenty years. As they’ve grown, we’ve grown to take on their needs as our first priority.
National and local property managers are the clients we take care of as our number-one job. The power washing and gum removal are ancillary services we provide. The previous owners started those, to meet the desires of clients to have those services provided by as few vendors as possible. We also work on indoor parking spaces and executive parking. Clients wanted us to provide those additional services, so it’s just naturally expanded with the portfolios of our clients, as new buildings are being built.
We’ve found the sidewalk service to be very popular in the nicer developments. Many properties have a steak house or another kind of nice restaurant, so we’ll often clean up that area and provide the sidewalk services for class A and mixed-use developments.
Asked if his company might consider offering portering services, which seems closely related to the sidewalk service, Peter explains that that work, which usually involves picking up trash and emptying trash cans, etc. is normally done by landscaping companies in the Minneapolis area. It’s very rare here in our area for sweeping companies to provide that service. We do power washing, but very little.
So, we’re growing organically. That’s always our plan. We’ve grown at a rate of about 10% per year. There’s certainly a lot of potential in this market for a company to continue to grow. Besides adding to accommodate growth of existing clients, our new business usually comes by referrals from our clients, stripers or other contractors, vendors or other local businesses who are aware of the quality of our services.
In like manner, we refer business out to a couple of other sweeping companies in town that we feel will take care of the client. There’s a trust level, and we want to make sure the clients will be taken care of.

Challenges for Dakota
What are the most challenging aspects of your business and industry? Operating in the upper Midwest presents several challenges to sweeping companies. The weather is a dominating factor for all outdoor services in Minnesota. There’s a short sweeping season, bookended by 4 to 6 months of non-sweepable freezing winter conditions.
Frozen snow packs curb lines, debris is frozen to pavement. Intermittent snow usually results in complete shut-down of outdoor sweeping in winter. The amount of sand, gravel and salt put down for traction throughout the winter by snow removal companies requires heavy broom sweepers and dump trucks to remove winter debris in spring.
Also, more labor staff and heavier backpack blowers and shovels are required. A 300-car parking lot can yield over 16 cubic yards of sand and sweepings in the initial spring sweep. Because of corrosive salt and snow melting agents put down in the winter, optional stainless steel hoppers and sweeper parts are used more frequently, which drive up equipment costs. Heavier landscaping rock is used here, necessitating the use of more heavy-duty, powerful air sweepers.
The result is that sweeping companies who want to service all customers’ needs, must have both broom and air sweepers on hand resulting in large capital equipment expenditures for relatively less ROI and less use.

The Dakota Brand
How have you created a unique image for Dakota? One of the reasons I purchased the business was its reputation. It’s outstanding in this market, so we’ve never had to advertise to get business.
How do you find new customers? I felt we should have a website, but we don’t need to use it as a marketing vehicle. We do belong to associations that we feel we can benefit from for our own education and for a bit of marketing. IREM is one that we belong to. It’s attended by property managers in our market. And, there’s BOMA. It supports our clients and supports the causes they support. But, we don’t have overt marketing. We do have shirts, and we have our name on all of our equipment, per DOT specs. But, word-of-mouth has proven to be the best way to market a small business, in my experience.

Dakota Day to Day
How are day-to-day operations organized at Dakota? Like many small business owners, I’ll wear any hat that I have to. I do most of the client contact. Key people on the staff also have client contact, to field phone calls for various needs clients have.
I do have a commercial license, and I know how to run every piece of equipment. But, we rely on the good people we hire and train and who deliver the excellent service that we have a reputation for.
We pride ourselves on doing a good job at a fair price. We take pride in not being the lowest priced vendor, because we know that expensive sweeping machinery cannot be properly maintained and staffed with capable employees at the price point many other vendors use.
We also provide ramp and garage sweeping, power washing and wet-scrubbing, to even out our workload and provide the services our larger property management clients request from us. (Minnesota winters result in hard salt stains building up under parked cars as the snow melts off, which can only be removed by pressure washing.) We carefully coordinate services with our clients’ striping, plowing, landscaping and other vendors, to provide a better result and convenient, hassle-free service.

Today’s Great Challenge of the Sweeper Industry
Of course, finding and keeping quality employees is an industry-wide problem, so we asked Peter for any insights he could offer for readers on this issue? He jokes, I don’t have insights on that. I need advice on that. The reality is that it’s an employees’ market. But, he then actually offers some of the most important advice that sweeper business owners can receive on this critical point:
Work with those with whom you’ve built your industry relationships, to help each other in this regard. My approach has been just putting the word out in our industry about our need for workers. We try to help each other find people would be the best fit. Asking people to work nights and weekends, especially people with families, and keeping people who can do that long-term is the challenge.
I can suggest that people who are very flexible and who do not have a very rigid schedule at home or otherwise may be more likely to find this kind of work to be a good fit for themselves. And, when you do find people who are doing a good job, they need to be shown that they’re valued and they need to be compensated well for their efforts. All that being said, we’re paying some positions 50 percent more than we were six years ago.

Vehicles and Technology at Dakota
Do you use any newer technologies to enhance services or management efficiency? Training and experience makes the best sweepers. We do tend to buy newer equipment and upgrade more frequently than the industry average. That’s just what we’ve decided to do to prevent downtime. Newer equipment might contain newer technology. Downtime is more expensive than a payment.
The Minneapolis / St Paul area has a good network and availability of equipment repair businesses. Beyond what we can handle in-house, our local dealer and repair shop network for repairing our trucks and sweepers is strong. (For example, the word-wide headquarters for Tennant Company is only 5 miles away.)

Upper Midwestern Sweeper Industry Business Environment
It’s a tough business, and we’ve seen some just quit functioning, not because there isn’t work, but, in some cases, because of the shortage of good labor. They’re are not enough people who really want to make it a career. Between the lack of surplus of pool of candidates, the seasonal nature of the workload, and the higher cost of living in this area than national average, the difficulties add up. In fact, due to the costly and demanding nature of the sweeping industry in our area, we have seen long-term competitors go out of business every 24 months, on average.
There were a couple of cases in which it looked like a lack of succession planning resulted in closure. A couple of others were probably companies that had an issue of bidding too low and couldn’t cover costs. But, I do think the situation may also generally point to the additional challenges of sweeping in this particular environment.
For one big example, as I mentioned, you can’t run an air sweeper 12 months. So, for some months, it’s not generating income but you still have some carrying costs. And, people who do snow plowing, the snow plows are sitting all summer not in use.

Advice for New Sweeper Business Owners
What advice would you offer to new entrants into the sweeper industry? I would say that if you have no experience in the industry, it might be a good idea to try working as an employee for a short period time first, and take that opportunity to make sure you’re a flexible person who can work various hours under various conditions. If you don’t like what you’re doing, you can become dissatisfied pretty fast. If you know you’re doing a good job that very few people could do well over time, that brings its own satisfaction.
Among the many successful sweeper business owners we’ve spoken to, like Dakota’s Peter LeBerge, they come onto the business scene with little more than a developed array of strong fundamental skills and discover those as a set that fits proprietorship in this industry. They end up parlaying their experience and desire to both manage and be involved with the mechanics of things into highly-profitable sweeping companies that continue to grow over decades.
Further, leaders in our field are increasing understood as an especially introspective type, living well self-examined lives. That brings us back around to our original curiosity about the business name. We’ve learned from Peter that the original owner named the company Dakota. The succeeding two owners, including Peter, had no reason to change the name, given its excellent reputation. Simple. We’re glad. It’s a great name that draws us to reflect on where the business’s operates, in the region of the great North American prairie shared by Minnesota and the Dakotas.
As for the bird on the logo, Peter explains that the pheasant shown flushing from the emblem signifies both the vast flat prairies found in Minnesota and the Dakotas as well as all three owners love of hunting.
Hearing that sentiment expressed of a business’s connection to the lovely land of lakes and the mesmerizing Dakotas, and to the natural way of life that has defined the generations across the area is like a breath of fresh air. We think it makes Dakota Sweeping & Maintenance the perfect business for us all to take some fresh inspiration from going into the new year.
Congratulations to Dakota Sweeping & Maintenance Company as they celebrate 20 years! (1998 – 2018)

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