Weathering the peaks and valleys Featured

9:49am EDT July 22, 2002

The first major snowfall of 1999 was an avalanche for Rick Winnestaffer, president of WinnScapes Inc. landscape services business.

“Our phone rang, on the average — for about four days after the first 9-inch snow — once every 15 seconds from 6:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. each day,” Winnestaffer remembers. “We had to hire a receptionist for the receptionist to screen out the calls of existing clients vs. potential clients.”

That’s not all he had to hire. Seeking out temporary employees and even friends and family, he increased his staff from its normal of 46 to 150 — and he could have used 250 to handle all the work. He ended up turning away many would-be clients in order to service his existing clientele.

Of course, the weather also meant a windfall: During 14 days of snow in January, he brought in $600,000; his normal month is $165,000 in revenues. By Jan. 10, he had met his profit prediction for the entire year.

Then came February. Work was comparatively sparse and he lost $50,000.

His roller coaster ride continued the rest of the year.

“In July and August, given the drought that we’ve had, our lawn service part of our business went down,” he says, “but it will be made up by doing additional lawn restoration in September and October.”

Winnestaffer expects to come out ahead in that scenario, given that lawn restorations carry a higher premium than lawn maintenance services.

Winnestaffer is used to dealing with the four seasons of change, and in 20 years of business, he’s learned to handle them as well as any curve balls Mother Nature throws his way.

Keep looking ahead.

Winnestaffer budgets conservatively and keeps an eye on the weather to try to establish trends as quickly as possible.

“We project our work load out two months in advance, and we tune that on a weekly basis,” he says.

Know your peaks and valleys.

When certain services are expected to be in low demand, Winnestaffer looks at his other offerings and works harder to sell them.

“We know that in the spring, all of our services are peaked. We know that July and August aren’t as good planting months. So we try to schedule what we call ‘hardscapes’ — paver patios, masonry work, landscape lighting, projects like that — for July and August,” he says.

Vary your service mix to fill the voids.

About 10 years ago, for example, Winnestaffer got involved in snow removal to supplement his landscaping business. To even out the peaks in the snow removal aspect, he soon added salting services.

This year, the financial boon from January’s peaks enabled him to purchase Schmidt Nursery Co., which should further help him even out the ups and downs of his business.

“We were 75 percent maintenance, 25 percent installation,” Winnestaffer says. “They were 25 percent maintenance, 75 installation.” Now he expects his mix to be more even, allowing him greater flexibility in scheduling.

“They had a strong third and fourth quarter, where we had a weak fourth quarter,” he says.

Have a contingency plan.

Winnestaffer keeps in contact with a list of workers available after normal business hours and on weekends, as well as people in other construction trades to access when he has a higher need, such as during heavy snows. Cement contractors and roofers, for example, won’t be able to work at their own business during that time.

“We had a couple of firemen that were able to take time off, and friends we convinced to take vacations from their normal jobs,” Winnestaffer says. “It was crisis management. But a weather pattern like that happens once every five years. If you staffed for it to happen every year, you would go broke.”

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN Columbus.