Saying "Yes" to Sweeping

The Parsons Group demands quality from workers to provide quality for customers.

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If you don't do the work you say you're going to do, I'm going to come and get your job. It's as simple as that," says William Parsons, co-owner with brother Dan of The Parsons Group. "If you want to keep your sweeping jobs just do what you say you're going to do and your customers won't have any reason to look elsewhere."

That approach has served this aggressive, broad-based property maintenance contractor well over its dozen years in business, and when combined with its insistence on quality control and its efforts to make property managers jobs easier has formed the basis of a strong and growing operation.

"We know good work and we make sure we do it," Parsons says. "If you're running a business you need to look at what you're doing and ask yourself, 'Am I doing the right thing? Am I doing it right? Am I doing what I said I was going to do?' If you can't answer 'Yes' to those questions then you're not doing a good job."

Originally a grounds maintenance company, The Parsons Group serviced only commercial and industrial properties. Dan and William worked all jobs alongside the crews – "We've never been desk sitters" – to assure job quality was consistent and as promised.

"We were always in the field. We're still always in the field. It's really important," William says. "If you want to be successful sometimes you have to get off your butt. You can't just leave it to your employees to do it. It doesn't matter what level you're at. If you're not committed to going out there and doing the work then you're going to fail.

"That's not knocking the employees, but it's important to them to see you out there working to get the job done the way you want the job done," he says. "That way they know what's expected of them."

When they decided they needed to expand their services to grow the company, they looked to services they could add without spreading themselves too thin among the crews. And what they discovered was parking lot sweeping, which they added three years after starting the company.

"We are already out there on those properties so it makes sense that we sweep them for our customers," Parsons says. "We told the owners, 'You're in business, you're busy, you know us from the grounds maintenance, you should hire us to sweep, too. And sweeping turned into a real sweet thing we got into."

In fact, sweeping surpassed grounds maintenance as The Parsons Group's primary service only three years after Parsons signed his first sweeping contract. Today The Parsons Group handles 68 accounts, "all of them big ones" such as Wal-Mart, Lowe's, Circuit City, and Home Depot. None of their accounts are fast-food or convenience-store type properties, and very few of them are sweeping-only contracts.

The Parsons Group's first sweeper was a Tymco 210. They added a second 210 the following year, and a third 210 the year after that, and now they own four. Three of the sweepers are out on the job every night while the fourth stays in for maintenance and to be used as a backup (units rotate).

"We spent money for a brand new 210 the third year just to make sure we wouldn't have to tell any of our customers we'd broken down," Parsons says. "All the years I've been in business I've never had to tell a customer we can't do the job."

And Parsons says that's made all the difference in the success of the company.

"In today's world you cannot drop the ball because there will be another person standing there ready to pick it up," he says. "In this bidding-war environment that's what you need."

He says sweeping contractors always will have to compete with the "mom-and-pop" operations that are able to offer low-priced services because their overhead is so low.

"There's not much you can do about that, but it's your reliability and the quality of your work that keeps you successful," he says. "You can have swept a parking lot for one hour and if the manager comes out there and sees a cigarette butt on the ground he's not going to say you did a nice job sweeping for an hour. He's going to say 'You missed a cigarette butt.' So never let a customer down and always take care of customers no matter what."

Broaden the sweeping niche

While most of The Parsons Group's sweeping is parking lot sweeping, the company recently began sweeping for pavers, which is a niche they got involved in simply because of their willingness to help out a potential client.

Milling is prevalent in the area, and pavement must be swept clean of millings before being opened to the public. Then, when it's time to pave, the pavement must be swept again before paving starts – two sweeps for every paving job.

"We got a call one night from a large paving company that did highway work. They were not a client of ours," Parsons says. "We only got the call because their regular sweeping contractor broke down. They asked, 'Can you help us out?' I told the guy we didn't have the type of machine he wanted but I'd be happy to send over everything we have and do the best we can to keep him working, and we did. It costs a lot of money to shut down a paving operation and he appreciated our help."

The following year the same person from the same paving contractor called Parsons back.

"He said 'You got us out of a jam and we appreciate it. If you go buy a bigger sweeper I'll give you the work.' So we bought the Tymco 500X and we've been able to keep that machine busy 100% of them time since we acquired it."

William Parsons operates the 500X himself because "It's easy to find a driver but it's hard to find an operator."

The 500X goes out with a 3-hour minimum and since June has more than paid for itself. Parsons is ordering another 500X for next season "because we don't want to have to tell our customers we can't be there. Having another machine will provide us with a maintenance rotation so we can better maintain it throughout the season. It allows another truck to get out there."

Parsons says while some contractors might view the purchase of a backup sweeper as a waste of money, he views it as essential to the success of his business.

"We're trying to keep that paver from going out there and buying a sweeper of his own," Parsons says. "You let him down once and he can just go out and buy one himself. By making sure you can provide him the service you promise you make it so he doesn't have to buy his own sweeper. You're taking that concern for sweeping off his mind."

He says that once they bought the 500X a whole new world of construction site sweeping opened up for them as EPA stormwater regulations require sweeping to reduce contaminated runoff from construction areas.

"Even with the slowdown of construction of houses developments are still being slowly built and the developers have to maintain all those streets," he says. "We've been able to get some of those jobs, which means we can use our new sweeper at night on paving and milling jobs and during the day on construction site jobs."

And sweeping of development streets has lead to long-term work for the 500X too.

"The homeowners association sees us out there taking care of the streets for the contractor and they ask us to bid the street sweeping for the development once the construction is done and people move in," he says. "We've already got a head start on other sweeping contractors because they've seen our work on that specific job. And they sign us to a sweeping contract where we sweep the streets monthly in the private development."

Accountability means quality

The Parsons Group sweeping operation includes Parsons himself and six full-time employees: three drivers and three assistants who ride along and perform work outside the cab such as hand picking trash, changing trash cans, and using backpack blowers to blow debris from beneath parked cars and shopping carts and out of corners. The assistants earn less than the drivers.

Parsons says he has tracked his costs and it's clear to him that two workers per sweeper are far more productive, and much more profitable, than using one person per unit to do all the work. He examined the weekly costs of a sweeper, a driver, insurance, and fuel. As soon as those costs are covered on the route he adds an assistant to the truck.

"We've been over and over this and it's very clear. Once you reach a certain point with the number of jobs you just can't add anymore and maintain the quality of the work. You need to be able to do the same quality of work more efficiently, and that's why you add an assistant to the truck."

He says as soon as the weekly costs of the sweeper, driver, insurance, and fuel are covered, he adds an assistant to the sweeper. "Then you can produce more work and you can add more jobs to the route," he says. "That's how you grow and that's how you become more profitable."

But accompanying the growth is Parsons' concern about maintaining quality – especially on jobs where he or Dan can no longer be out on site.

"As you grow you stretch yourself to the point where you can't be there on every job, but because the quality still must be there you have to have some type of accountability," he says.

"As soon as we started broadening our services we realized we couldn't be out there all night long and then work all day long too, and we started to see quality control issues. So we had to find another solution."

First they hired a night supervisor, but that didn't work. "Not only did he not do it the way an owner would, but sometimes he didn't go out there at all," Parsons says.

Eventually they settled on quality control using a global positioning system (GPS) by NavTrak. The system, which costs $500 per machine plus a monthly fee, tracks a variety of location and machine functions including speed of the vehicle, hours of operation of the pony motor, how long the unit was on a parking lot, how long it was sweeping while on that lot, and even a seat sensor that tells how long the driver's assistant was sitting in the vehicle. Each GPS unit downloads all information into Parson's computer daily, and the system alerts him if a driver is violating prescribed rules.

"If there are speed problems, for example, it will send me an alert and tell me which truck, which driver, and where and what time it happened. Then I can go talk with the driver."

In the past Parsons would only know of a speeding violation if he learned of a ticket a driver received. Also, it was difficult to keep tabs on workers doing the jobs as they were supposed to.

"Before we got the GPS I would call the drivers and say 'Where are you?' and I'd drive to the job they were on," he says. "But they'd know I was coming so obviously they started doing things the right way.

"The drivers know how the GPS units work and what they do for our company, so they keep their speed at bay and keep the quality of their work up," he says. "Because I know how long it takes to do a job like a Wal-Mart, and if you're there 45 minutes I know there's a quality problem and I know I'd better check behind you."

Parsons says he does conduct checks based on the GPS, writes drivers up if there's a problem. After two write ups the driver could lose his job.

"That might sound harsh but drivers not doing work the way we ask them to, the way we train them to, the way we tell our customers we are going to do the work, are affecting my livelihood and the livelihood of all my other employees," Parsons says. "If the other guys are doing their job, and you're not, why should my company and the livelihood of all my other employees be jeopardized?"

But just because Parsons thinks the GPS is good for his company and his employees doesn't mean they like it.

"No, the employees don't like it," Parsons says. "But you know what? They don't understand how it helps them. It helps them keep a job, and it helps us be a profitable company. If we're doing a good job for a property we'll keep that job and I don't have to fire any employee because we're losing work. It also helps keep drivers under the speed limit, which is good for them and for the company, plus it's also a safety issue."

He says the GPS easily pays for itself. "There's no question about it." He says insurance costs are reduced because drivers aren't getting the speed violations they were getting before. In addition because GPS records the hours of the pony motor, sweeping contractors can get a tax deduction for off-road fuel use of the pony as the GPS provides all the documentation. But even more important, the GPS system provides a level of accountability and security for the property manager as Parsons can tell him exactly when a sweeper was on his lot, how long he spent there, which sweeper mechanisms were operating, and even how long the assistant was working outside the unit.

"I don't think using a GPS like we do is for everybody," Parsons says. "You don't need NavTrak unless you have so many units and jobs that you can't keep control. But once you do get to the point where you need it you'll quickly realize that GPS costs are a drop in the bucket."

By design all this effort to diversify and be accountable leads directly to The Parsons Group's efforts to gain and retain clients for the long term.

"Here's how we get our jobs: First, if I want a store I'll call it every year. I'll keep on them to show them I want that job," Parsons says. "When I get the opportunity I'll walk them around their property and show them what should have been done by their sweeping contractor. I'll tell them what we do, and we do what we say we'll do."

To prove it, he provides references, but not just any references.

"I give them all the references," he says. "If I do 40 jobs in your area I could give you three references, but anyone can give you three references. I'll give you all 40 and you pick the ones you want to call. And once I give the references, you'd better look out if you're a sweeping contractor.

"I am the most expensive guy in my town, I am not a cutthroat guy. I've lost jobs because someone else came in lower, and I accept that and tell the customer, 'Okay, call me next year…and they do," he says. "Really, the only time I lose jobs is in bidding situations where the decision is made at a corporate level instead of by the local manager and I don't worry about that because I can't control it and neither can that local manager. And besides, I'll get them back every time."

And, Parsons says, that's because he and Dan are willing to do the work.

"Anyone can do what I do. The only question is 'How bad do you want it?'" Parsons says. "Will you go out there and blow off the lots for the driver? Will you wash the 500X at the end of the day? Will you get up at 3 a.m. to get the job done? If your answers to those questions are "No' then you'd better watch out for me because I'm gonna get ya."