"If I can figure out a way to go to a property manager and take away the bulk of his headaches, he is going to do business with me for a long time," McCaskill says, a fact borne out by the fact that Southco still has its first customer from 17 years ago.
Currently Southco has five locations: Florence/Darlington, SC, which is the home base; Camden, SC, which is the administrative headquarters; Myrtle Beach, Charleston, and a new branch in Raleigh, NC. McCaskill says Southco focuses its efforts in South Carolina but will venture into North Carolina as accounts need the service. Southco operates 20 trucks, all manufactured by Schwarze Industries.
In 2006 sweeping generated 45% of sales, maintenance generated 35% of sales, and landscaping generated 20% of sales. He says 80% of sweeping is done on parking lots with 20% being some streets, light construction site cleanup, and a variety of other work.
"I'll take any of the other work, but it all dovetails nicely together and they all start with sweeping," McCaskill says. "Sweeping is the means to the end, without a doubt. If I can get in there to clean your property that opens up a lot of potential work for us because we're out there every day and we see things as they happen, as they come up, and when they're just starting to become an issue. And if we do quality work for you on the sweeping side then you're going to be very likely to give us the repair work or the landscape work to do for you. But sweeping is where it starts. We're sweepers first and foremost."
Fighting low-ball pricing
McCaskill says Southco's full-service approach to its business also helps defend the contractor from the low-priced competitors many contract sweepers have to contend with.
"Anyone with a pickup truck can now become a sweeper and that keeps driving the price down, and it's very hard to compete with that," he says. "There are guys out there, not just in the Carolinas but all over the country, who lease a sweeper for $1,400 a month, and if they generate $2,000 a month they go 'Hey, we've got $600 profit. We're a successful business!' But it doesn't work like that and the professional contract sweepers know that, and that's what we're fighting."
McCaskill says he and his employees have worked hard over the years to educate their customers about what it takes to run a sweeping business and sweep a parking lot. "A lot of our customers know they can solve more than their sweeping problems with a phone call to us, and that's something these low-priced sweepers can't offer. That's a value to the customer, and if we do a good job helping selling to them, they know it," McCaskill says.
"It helps that we keep our customers savvy enough about this around here. They don't want to lose that service, and that's worth something to me. I know of more than one of our customers who has told a low-priced contractor 'I can't afford to take the chance with you even though you're half the price'."
He says that as a result of sweepers who compete only through low-ball pricing, the sweeping industry is not as strong as it could be.
"I know how much it costs me to run a sweeping truck, right down to the penny…including insurance, training, wages, everything. If I know my cost is $55 to $60 an hour it's easy to figure out what I have to charge to cover that and make a profit for my business," McCaskill says. "If I have a competitor who is charging $25 an hour for his sweeping, how do I compete with that?
"We sell quality and we sell service, that's how. Now if we lose a customer or if we lose a bid to a contractor who's charging half of what we charge, we often get that business back, eventually. But even if we get it back it's awful difficult to get that price back up to where we need it to be, so that's what erodes the pricing in the market. It's not that the professional contract sweepers don't get those accounts back; it's that even when we do get them back we can't price them the way they should be priced. That's how the sweepers who compete on price damage the market."
They also damage the market by not providing quality work and not providing the work they promise.