"One of the banks we did janitorial work for wanted us to sweep so we bought a sweeper," he says. "It took us a couple of years to get any traction with parking lot sweeping but eventually we did, and sweeping has really helped us."
Currently, Hearthstone employs 50 people and services more than 400 properties in middle Tennessee from the Kentucky border to the Alabama border. Graby says 40% of Hearthstone's work is sweeping, 40% is landscaping, and 20% is a combination of all other services. He says 2010 will show an increase in sealcoating and striping work because the company brought an asphalt contractor in-house in 2009.
Graby says that almost 300 of Hearthstone's properties are sweeping properties, and most require multiple services. He says the Hearthstone sweeper fleet contains 15 sweeper trucks (nine are made by Skavin'jer) and the contractor runs 11 routes. Four extra machines are at the ready in case of a breakdown or for special services. Properties are a mix of big box retail, shopping centers, and some office complexes, and he says the market has held up fairly well over the past couple of years.
"We've had a few clients that needed to reduce frequency of sweeps but so far that hasn't happened much," Graby says. "Our market held up pretty well."
In fact, he says the recession has weeded out some of the contractors who took properties on price alone. "My guess is those contractors got a little too far extended and ran into some problems," he says.
Two-person Teams and Four-night Shifts
Graby says that adding sweeping to the company's services was a process that took time, but now with 22 drivers he says Hearthstone has developed a system of seeking, screening, training, and compensating operators that has proved effective.
"We've gone through a metamorphosis on how best to deploy them," Graby says. "We used to use five-day shifts but that didn't work for us."
So the contractor now uses two four-night shifts of fulltime operators. One shift runs Saturday through Tuesday and the other runs Tuesday through Friday. Drivers share sweeper trucks and they overlap every Tuesday night when Hearthstone provides a home-cooked dinner, has an operator meeting, and sends the two drivers out as a team.
"With two guys in each truck on Tuesdays that becomes 'detail night' where we blow everything out of every corner and every crevice. One guy is in the truck at all times and the other guy is outside the truck blowing all night," Graby says.
"This doesn't allow them to coast the rest of the week but it does enable easier sweeping on the other nights because all the tight spots have already been blown clean. It also enables us to make sure that every corner of every property gets blown clean at least once a week."
Another advantage is the drivers become partners and they get to know each other pretty well.
"Then it's easier for one to cover for the other if one needs a night off," Graby says. "They have to let us know they're doing that of course, but they can arrange it themselves. They get to be friends and that always helps a working relationship."
Unlike most contract sweepers, Hearthstone Property Services has a waiting list of people wanting to come to work for the company.
Compensation & Rankings
Rather than pay operators on an hourly basis, Hearthstone has developed a "book rate" system that pays based on a predetermined number of minutes it takes to sweep each property plus travel time for the entire route.
"I hate to pay hourly because the drivers push it to make more money and the labor costs get out of whack," Graby says. "Book rate helps us keep an eye on labor costs and enables us to keep those costs in line."
Graby says some property and route times are determined by actual auditing where they are driven by a Hearthstone supervisor but often times are estimated using Google Earth.
"But we encourage the guys to tell us if we're not in line with the anticipated time to run the route, and then we'll review it," Graby says. "Sometimes our times aren't accurate - maybe we don't estimate traffic correctly for that time of night or something - but we will look into it and change the time if necessary."