Parking lot sweeping is often a service unknown to people outside of the industry, and Windell Brent was originally a member of that group. Now, nearly 24 years since opening Commercial Property Maintenance, Brent has built a successful business on "Quality through dependability, pride and communication."
Brent began CPM, located in Albuquerque, NM, in 1988 after a friend was looking for a reliable sweeping and landscape maintenance contractor. "After 13 years I was terminated from the electric utility in Albuquerque," he says. "My friend was a property manager developer for office buildings and malls. They couldn't find anyone that would show up two nights in a row."
With a business degree, Brent felt confident in opening a business and decided to start a sweeping company. He originally completed all of the sweeping and landscape maintenance for his friend's five properties. In three years, CPM had grown into a decent sized company purchasing its first Tymco sweeper in the early 1990's.
With 30 employees, CPM has a service area of the Albuquerque Metro area and surrounding communities. CPM offers services including 60% parking lot sweeping, 20% commercial landscape maintenance, 15% exterior pressure washing and 5% other services.
Setting a standard for equipment
Within the first five years of operation, Brent implemented an equipment plan that regularly updates units and monitors equipment performance. By following the various parts of his procedure, Brent has been able to develop and maintain efficiency. Currently, CPM operates one Tennant, two PowerBoss', seven Tymco Model 210s and one Tymco 600.
Every 16 to 18 months, CPM purchases a new Tymco Model 210 selling the oldest piece of equipment keeping the fleet rejuvenated. With this purchasing schedule, CPM is currently on unit no. 21. "We maintain our equipment diligently," Brent says. "If we take care of it our machines will last longer and do a better job of meeting our customers' needs. We work hard at maintaining and keeping it functioning properly. You won't have to go back and re-sweep the area if the machine is picking up the debris properly."
Maintaining an inventory stock of parts has been one benefit for CPM. "It is easier and more cost-effective to stock spare parts as we grew and stayed with similar types of equipment," Brent says. "This allowed us to keep the inventory lower."
CPM also has a maintenance program and an in-house mechanic. "He takes care of a majority of repairs and maintenance," Brent says. "If he is too busy or is uncomfortable with repairs we will farm them out to a repair company."
Another critical piece of equipment for sweepers is a backpack blower. "In the beginning, we would assign each employee a numbered blower," Brent says. "We found a lot of damage to blowers and no one owning up to the damage." To resolve these issues, Brent installed a rack to hold 12 blowers with chains welded into each slot. Each employee was given a key to access only his blower.
Successfully managing growth
Maneuvering through years of growth can be challenging for all types of businesses. With 24 years of experience, Brent has experienced his share of growing pains, but he took several steps to properly manage the changes to his company. "Once we started growing, I didn't want to grow too quickly," he said. "I think a lot of companies get too excited about all of their new business. Growing too quickly is the demise of a lot of companies."
One way to manage the growth of CPM, Brent would monitor his bidding. "If I'm getting more than one out of three bids I go back and look over my bids to see if the price is too low," he says. "If my bids aren't producing work, I rethink my bids because they may be too high."
Brent stresses the importance of watching your cash flow and knowing your overhead. "You can't properly bid a job if you don't know what your cost is," he says. "How do you know if you're bidding enough to cover your costs?" To figure out this information, Brent made a matrix to show his profit margins for 10%, 15% and 20% profit margins. He calculated this by evaluating how long it took to sweep a job, travel time, fuel and employee costs with benefits. By looking at those calculations for a specific time period it gave Brent a guideline to bidding jobs.
Cultivating seasoned employees
In an industry where owners can experience a high turnover rate in employees, Brent has been fortunate to maintaine his employees. CPM's day foreman has been employed with the company for nearly 22 years, and he is followed by other employees who have been with the company from 8 to 18 years.
Brent credits several aspects to the task of developing seasoned employees. "We are fortunate to be able to offer employees vacation, personal time and health insurance," Brent says. "We pay for 100% of the cost for each full time employee and they are responsible for family coverage. We also have a retirement plan with a matching contribution. To afford them we must be profitable. To be profitable, employees recognize they must do their part."
Employees must provide quality work, work quickly, safely and thoroughly giving customers what they pay for in the most efficient manner possible. "Drivers must also take care of their equipment and sweepers to minimize damages and expensive repairs," Brent says. "Therefore, if we are able to train and keep experienced drivers our repair bills will decrease."
Another important dynamic of the employees at CPM involves Brent's succession plan. Although he is unsure when he will retire, he is already working on his succession plan. By giving his higher level employees more responsibility, he is able to travel for a few weeks at a time working strictly via email and phone. To ensure the employees skill-sets are up to par for the added responsibilities, Brent completes one-on-one training with the higher-level employees.
Adjusting to the economy
Similar to most sweepers in the industry, CPM has also experienced several cutbacks from its clients due to the current economy. "It's hard to totally cut out a service, but they will cut it back," Brent says. "We are seeing people who used to sweep seven nights cut back to five or three nights. They are doing everything to cut their overhead because they have vacancies or tenants are paying less."
Brent has also witnessed clients cancel their services with CPM for a competitor with a cheaper bid. Despite losing some clients to a low bidder, Brent emphasizes the importance of maintaining professionalism. "Anytime we've lost a customer it's been on good terms," he says. "I've found that it is important to not burn bridges and hope they come back."
Brent notes that leaving a business relationship on good terms allows him to possibly obtain the work in the future should the low-bidder not meet the client's standards. His view on parting ways has allowed CPM to win back some clients that left for the low bidder.
Efficiency is critical for CPM when adjusting to the cutbacks by clients, and Brent has been able to ensure his crews efficiency without using GPS or other programs. "We've been proactive with monitoring the routes and providing quality control," he says. "If they're doing their job properly, minimizing customer complaints, and minimizing damage to the trucks we don't feel the need to spend the extra money on monitoring equipment."
While cutbacks occur with his clients, Brent looks to make the difference in revenue by recruiting new business and offering additional services. "We are always on the lookout for new niches we can add without spending a lot of money up front," he says. "I bought a power washing business 10-15 years ago. That part of the business has grown for us, and it's been profitable. I look for things we can do and do efficiently."
Along with power washing, Brent tried his hand at striping. "We striped parking lots at first," he says. "I couldn't do it as well as other people, so we stopped striping. What we did was refer to certain stripers we respected, and in turn they started referring sweeping business to us. We each work on our own expertise and refer to help each other out."
Offering top-notch customer service
Since CPM began offering both sweeping and landscape maintenance, Brent has always emphasized the importance of offering clients more than just a clean parking lot. "We try to educate our people in the field to look for things anytime they are at the property," Brent says. "We may see the parking lights on during daytime hours and send the property an email. We do some handy-man stuff on the exterior of the property. The more we can report, the more potential revenue we have."
With several clients who manage their Albuquerque properties from other locations, Brent has seen several benefits from the additional attention to detail on properties. "I am kind of their eyes and ears in town," Brent says. "They will call me if they need any work completed. If I can do it, I'll take care of the work, but if I can't do it I will give the client a list of other companies or subout the work for them."
Brent follows a few steps when working with clients from out of town. "We don't manage their properties, but anything pavement maintenance related we will recommend to them," he says. "If they want us to get a couple of bids to stripe a parking lot or add a speed bump then we will get them bids. We make sure the work is done right and send them photos after the work is completed."