Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Past due blues

It was brutal winter in most areas of the country, tons of snow, freezing temperatures for extended periods of time, lots of thawing and refreezing, which conspired to make snow removal and maintaining clients’ properties, both commercial and private, a challenge for snow removal contractors.

Oh yes, the rough winter also meant many clients were not prepared for the financial implications of almost daily attention to their properties by contractors struggling to keep driveways, parking lots and walkways clear of snow and ice.

“We had a tremendous amount of snow last year,” says Stephen Summer, president and CEO of About Time Snow, “and clients were overwhelmed with bills if they aren’t on a seasonal contract and they had to bring back upcharges to their tenants. It doesn’t make the tenant happy and that’s where conflicts come into play.”

Except for the Pacific Northwest, the above normal snow, ice and cold temperatures had a national footprint and affected pretty much everybody. “This was an unusual winter and nobody got a break,” says Kevin Smith, COO of Ferrandino and Son.

Contractors were left chasing the money, never a fun task when they have already transitioned into warm season tasks of landscaping, lawn and property maintenance.

By mid-summer, Mark Krog, president of KCG Management, was still dealing with the ramifications of the challenging winter for his clients.

“Some efforts to collect are still ongoing and other clients are paying very slowly. We have a customer who has been with us for three years,” Krog says. “We never heard a complaint, but as soon as we went over our cap and had to bill the client extra we were told after the event that they were not happy with the service and did not feel that they should have to pay for it.”

The uncomfortable situation happened three times in a row and the fourth event had Krog personally going to the site and helping the crew.

“Everything went flawless,” he says. “I was not expecting a phone call and my guys said there was nothing different they were doing. Two days after the bills were sent I got the phone call and the customer stated we were late, had missed areas, and he did not feel that it was a good job. He even said there was a different truck on site and that’s probably the reason that it did not go the same way. I explained to him that the odd truck was me that I wanted to see for myself the `bad work.’ He was sort of speechless, needless to say, and we continued to do the work.”

Long story short, Krog discovered the client simply didn’t have the money to pay nor wanted to pay extra. The matter will likely end up in court and the customer removed from the client list. It’s a worst case scenario, certainly, but it happens.

Summer shies away from suing a delinquent client, but will begin the process if need be. He uses what is called a mechanic’s lien against a property, which provides him with some leverage because the lien handcuffs the property owner to some extent.

“The owner gets a notice of a lien and gets upset and hopefully the issue gets resolve,” he says. “Suing is a big headache. Occasionally, if there are no issues between ourselves and the client, we will negotiate from time to time on payment.”

Summer estimates only one percent of his clients become dangerously delinquent or unresponsive to their contractual obligations.

Snow and ice contractors have an obligation to both their employees and their vendors to pay them in a timely manner so they can supply quality work and supply product as needed in these crisis situations, says Tom Canete, owner of Canete Snow Management.

“Customers may not be aware the impact it has on a company when they do not pay in a timely manner,” he says. “So, yes, it is very frustrating on all levels.”

Summer finds dealing with clients delinquent on payments personally and professionally disturbing.

“To me, I get a sense that they are saying they don’t have a regard for your business, what you do and how you do it,” Summer says. “They are saying they want to hang on to their cash.”

Krog concurs, “Yes it can be frustrating, but through the years that we have been doing business we have come to the realization that there are very few customers that pay on time. I’m asked why some customers are put at the top of the list. Well, these are the ones who are like a clock in payment. We service all the same but some are put in front of others.”

There’s a fine line between demanding payment and wanting to keep the client happy and on their client list.

“This line is finer now than 15 years ago,” says Steven Jomides, CEO of Lawns By Yorkshire. “It is not common to be paid in 60, or even 90-plus days, but it does occur and at times from someone who may be a good client. Once budgets are hit, the client needs to scramble for a solution that not only suits you, the vendor, but themselves first.”

Okay, so how should contractors deal with clients reluctant to pay?

“Snow removal payments for clients who need snow removal must be like paying for a root canal,” John Debold, a consultant with BCA Financial Services and a past president of the New Jersey Association of Collection Agencies. “You’ve got to pay it and you don’t have really much to show for it--the pain stops. When you buy a television set at least you sit there and watch it.”

Timeliness and accuracy of billing (and a dose of communication) is what will work in contractors’ favor.

“I shout about being timely with billing because there is no set time a person tends to bill,” Debold adds. “Think about it. That Visa bill, that car payment and that electric bill are there all the time, every time, on time.”

By the second month of non-payment “red flags” go up. As to getting paid, Debold says you get more flies with honey than with vinegar.

“Be firm with a smile,” he says. “You need all your ducks in order for all your accounts so you’ll be ready for the few who default. If a debtor finds a loophole, he will crawl into it and sit there.”

Debold recounts an applicable personal story. “Some of the collection process is to appeal to a client’s good conscience and honesty as a businessman,” he says. “I was at a very wealthy man’s house for a Christmas Eve party. His wife had a phone call while she was in the kitchen. It was the landscaper. He wanted to know if the Christmas decorations he put up were working fine. Contractors should make that follow up call. When it comes time to pay the bill, clients will remember that.”

Krog says he had a “good amount” of his customers who spent well over their expected amount for snow removal this year.

“If we don’t hear responses through email or phone calls then we need to take a different approach,” he says. “Nine out of 10 times if your customer is not responding to late notices or emails or phone calls it more than likely means that they are not going to pay. When we have these situations I always like to hear from the customer that either they’re out of money or they don’t expect to pay for the services provided. In the past, I have made the assumption that they were not going to pay and put it with the lawyers for collections. Later I found out that the customer was sick for a long period and that I had just ruined a relationship.”

Krog and his staff are now always polite to their customers. “In my earlier years of doing snow I would get on the phone and lose my cool, which ended up with us not getting paid at all and leading to court proceedings. That took all the profit out of jobs. And even if you get a judgment that still does not mean that you’re going to get paid.”

Smith says spending a few dollars on a part-time employee dedicated solely to billing and accounts receivable can be a matter of being penny and pound wise.

“If you are a small contractor you are probably doing a lot of the billing yourself, all the while being out in the field doing work for clients. All of a sudden, you get behind in your billing and that means it will take longer to get paid, especially if it goes two or three months. The longer the bill takes to arrive at the client’s desk the longer it takes to get paid. It might be a good investment to pay someone in-house to take care of invoices and chase the money, even if you are a small operation. It would be money well spent if it saves the owner-operator time and worry and the employee is good at his or her task.”

Canete’s firm requests payment in a non-aggressive yet professionally assertive way. “We have a mixture of per occurrence and seasonal contracts. Seasonal contracts will obviously help to ensure that the customer is properly budgeted for the season. Our company keeps not only financial records but operational records including, but not limited to, equipment used, labor hours and snow amounts. So any information that a company can’t access internally to help their budget process, we can assist them with our record keeping.”

Constant communication with the client is vital to a respectful relationship, Summer says. In the end, having the customer see the value in your work and paying on time or close to it.

“Around Jan. 1 of this year we expected some extreme weather in the Mid-Atlantic, snow but on top of that close to zero temperatures for three or four days,” he says. “We went to the phones to let our customers know that there would be a horrible event happening and salting at those temperatures doesn’t work. In essence, we lowered their expectations. But what we did was actually go beyond their expectations and had phone calls raving about our service. If we hadn’t been pro-active and in touch with them it could have turned out miserable for us.”

Smith’s firm engages its customers often, sending invoices, then following up with phone calls on a somewhat regular basis to determine if the client has received the invoice and when his firm can expect payment.

“You make them validate your work, you engage the customer to make sure they have no questions as to what they received for their money, and also allow them to ask questions,” Smith says.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

“But when an asset and or property manager is looking to balance a budget, fluff is often eliminated,” Jomides says. “I would assume many managers could be thinking this way; two years ago was an average to slightly above average, last year was defiantly above average, so we are trending toward a below average cycle coming up. This thought process would steer them away from increasing snow budgets. Not to say this is for all, but if I were on their side of the fence, I may hedge toward a below average winter as well for 2014-15.”

Of course, predicting the weather months down the road is a dicey proposition

Some clients will cite property damage as a reason for negotiating a snow removal bill down. “We always take photos of the property before the winter, so any damage can be clearly seen and shown the customer if there is a complaint that our crews did it,” Summer says.

Ask questions of your customers, Krog say, including: “Will your budgets be okay?” “Will this limit the amount of payments we will receive?” “Will our payments be delayed?”

“If we don’t ask then we can only assume, and our assumptions can be completely wrong,” he says. “I would rather know I’m not going to be paid before I spend my monies on labor and material then after its already done and it will only cost me more to receive pennies on the dollar.”

Being open and in touch with customers, asking them to budget realistically, pushing seasonal contracts, meeting and exceeding expectations, following up billing with phone calls, and having someone in-house to chase the money could well make next spring and summer less stressful.

John Torsiello is a writer based in Torrington, Conn., and a frequent Snow Magazine contributor.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Reputation Matters

The year was 1976. America was celebrating the Bicentennial, Gerald Ford was President, “Rocky” was the silver screen’s hottest movie and David Dudash was beginning a business that would help lead the snow removal industry into what it has become today.

In his early 20s, Dudash and friend/coworker Guy McIntyre worked together at a landscape company in Northeast Ohio. They’d go out after a day’s work and talk a little about work and a lot about family. Confident in their knowledge of the job, they knew they had the skills to break out on their own.

“No fear,” Dudash says of their decision. “We just jumped in.” Now in his 35th year as the boss, his business – Green Estates Inc. – is an industry pillar and Dudash is recognized as a member of SNOW Magazine’s inaugural Leadership Award class.

“Being recognized by your peers is the most gratifying honor that we can receive,” Dudash says, comparing it to the feeling he felt when Green Estates received the Snow and Ice Management Association’s excellence in business award in 2007 or when the company was prominently featured in various publications for outstanding service over the years. “We have been very fortunate to grow the way we did and maintain the business relationships that we have maintained – from employees to vendors to customers, many over 20 years and one for the full 35 years.

“The only really meaningful thing that Guy and I have to show for ourselves after 35 years in business is our name and reputation,” he adds. “To be recognized by others in our industry for that accomplishment affirms our belief that you lead by example, and that if you don’t have your name, you really don’t have much of anything.”

Building a company
Based out of the Cleveland area, Dudash and McIntyre started with nothing, but bid some snow work and began to grow slowly.

“We starved the first couple years,” Dudash jokes.

According to McIntyre, the early years included Dudash driving while he sat in the back of a pickup truck, holding onto a fertilizer spreader and distributing salt. The company – and equipment – has evolved, but the two of them remain the same.

“I don’t think we’ve changed much,” McIntyre says. “We’ve always done what we says we would do.”

In a career flush with accomplishments, Dudash says his toughest challenge came early, but helped establish a blueprint to succeed.

“We were doing big properties and struggling to get through,” he explains. “That led to the development of what it took to get our business to where it’s at – the right equipment and right people. We’ve now got systems in place.”

Those systems include a comprehensive walkthrough of each property his team plows prior to the start of the snow season, which generally goes from Nov. 1 to April 30. With the client’s representative participating in this information-sharing session, the route foreman and all team members are able to hear the client’s concerns and requirements first hand. Any Green Estates expectations are addressed, as well.

This is an excellent opportunity to provide input and suggestions to best make the operation efficient.

Known as the “snow belt,” the area east of Cleveland often sees storms continue for several days, which can place an incredible burden on equipment and team members. By keeping equipment in top working condition and having dedicated and knowledgeable employees – many have an average tenure of 10-12 years with the company – Green Estates has developed an uncommon connection with its clients.

“Our relationship with the client has developed a level of trust that allows the property owner’s representative to talk directly with the route foreman during the course of an event to ensure that all areas of concern are being addressed,” Dudash says. “We want the customer to expect the highest level of concern and service from our company.”

Green Estate’s employees understand the need to meet and exceed client expectations, as well. Dudash says they sleep when they can and will make up for it later. After all, no one sleeps less during major snow events than the company’s owners.

Because Green Estates customers demand 24/7 wet pavement, Dudash says it is their goal to be on site prior to a call for service from a client. If there is a potential snow event around rush hour traffic, he will have the salt trucks sitting in position on site, allowing no chance to miss a service call due to stalled traffic conditions.
“Our business model for the plowing operation has as a goal ... to have all sites plowed within a three-to-four-hour window,” he says. “Our salt is stored on site and each team is self-sufficient. We do not depend on help from other teams.”

It is those storms, which present the most formidable challenge, that lead to Dudash’s favorite part of the job. And he’s not referring to the “light, fluffy stuff.” He’s talking about being hit with a half a foot of wet, heavy snow at 5 in the morning and need it cleaned up by 8 a.m.

“When the last bit of work is done, after a really challenging snow ... you’ve been on the job for two or three days ... the positive feedback from the customer,” he says. “It’s a great feeling.”

With its three largest clients – a pair of upscale shopping centers and Progressive Insurance company’s two campuses and multiple satellite lots – encompassing approximately 6 million square feet of plowable surface, Green Estates stands at the ready with a fleet of vehicles including: 11 dump trucks with plows and salt spreaders, four 4x4 pickups, a Ford Ranger service vehicle, five skid steers, two offloaders for box plows, and Dudash’s favorite, a 924 CAT Loader.

In addition to 10-12 full-time employees year-round, Green Estates hires approximately eight additional people during peak season and works with 30 subcontractors – each with up to five pieces of equipment.

“We’ve developed a nice network of long-term, reliable subcontractors who are part and parcel to the way we do business,” Dudash says.

Brian K. Smith, grounds manager for Progressive, is entering his 10th winter working with Dudash. When he first started in his position, the company’s policy was to split the bid in two – not allowing one company to handle the large account, which required 24-hour availability. This redundancy policy worked fine, provided both portions were handled equally well. In this case, however, the other half never lived up to to the standard set by Green Estates. It wasn’t long before Progressive changed its stance and awarded Dudash and his team the entire contract.

“We couldn’t get another company to provide the level of service of Green Estates,” he says.

Excellent work is a staple in this relationship, but it is also the personal attention to detail that makes Dudash stand out, according to Smith.

“The fact that he wants to listen to you,” he says. “He likes to resolve issues, rather than just put the fire out.”

While his customers have grown to know him over the decades, Dudash has also been very visible with his colleagues throughout the industry. He has been a presenter at the Snow and Ice Symposium, spoken at a Michigan Green Industry Association function, sat on a panel for the Ohio Landscape Association and has worked with the Gates Mills Horticulture Center – a vocational education facility where high school students interested in a career in landscape attend hands-on training – for 20 years. He estimates he has employed about 50 of its students over the years.

Family and Community
Being dedicated to growing the business and giving back to the industry is plenty on its own. Throw a family into the mix and you’ve some very difficult decisions to make. Work has caused Dudash to miss his fair share of holidays and birthdays, but the family understands it is part of the job ... a job that has produced a very nice lifestyle.

“You hate to do it, but you make it up,” he says of sacrifices. “When it’s time to do what you’ve got to do, you do it. You make up for them when it’s done.”

He’s been fortunate to be in a position to include his two sons – as well as McIntyre’s – in the business. They worked for Green Estates during the summers of high school and college.

Making up for lost time with the family has included coaching his three children (two boys and a girl) in everything from tee ball to Catholic Youth Organization basketball. While his sons are now out of the house, he still takes his daughter – now 16 – kayaking. Driving to Vermont and Cincinnati to visit the boys at college is also important.

Though three-to-four-day vacations – like they’ve taken to Lake Chautauqua for the last 10 years – may be the norm, it was about a decade ago when Dudash loaded up the family and drove across the country. They spent 22 days touring the national parks.

Because he and his wife both come from large families with many siblings, they also spend quite a bit of free time visiting to keep in touch with brothers and sisters, as well as both their mothers.

Giving back to the community means a great deal to Dudash, too. He’s headed the building and grounds community and has served as parish chairman at St. Francis of Assisi. He’s a lifelong blood donor at the American Red Cross and has been a platelet donor for the last 20 years.

He even grants employees use of the company’s equipment and vehicles if they are helping at their church or a community venue.

Most near and dear to his heart, however, is working with (and spending time as president of) Friends of Adoptive Families, a nonprofit organization formed by adoptive parents whose main function is to raise funds for medical and play equipment for the organizations from which the children were adopted. You see, two of Dudash’s children are adopted. He’s take six trips to Korea, where he escorts children back for adoption.

While “lead by example” is Dudash’s style of management, his philosophy goes much deeper than that.

“It took 25 years to develop,” he says. “Start with the right equipment and right people, listen to the feedback of the people who do the work ... Let your good people run with it. Divide and conquer and trust the people you have in place.”

Being friends for even longer than they’ve been partners, McIntyre knows this philosophy is a product of Dudash’s character.

“Dave is fair and honest,” he says. “He does a lot on handshakes, still. His word is his bond.”

As for his advice to someone looking to get into snow removal as a career, “Going in, project yourself to the end of your career,” Dudash says. “Your name and reputation is all you have.

“When you start out, whatever you do, make sure you do what you says you’re going to do and at the quality you says,” he adds. “Pay attention and listen to the customer. Stay one step ahead and anticipate their needs. Customer service is the most important aspect of the business. If you don’t know that and have that in your package, then somebody is going to take them away from you. You’ll always have more work than you can handle if you do it right.

“All we do is about relationship building and looking toward the long run,” he continues. “Places we’ve maintained and taken care of in the past know who we are. The level of service ... I’d like that to be copied.”

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Timing is everything

It’s hard to believe, but the snow has finally melted, the sun is out and the flowers are blooming. After what seemed like a never-ending season, who wants to think about winter already.

For smart snow removal contractors, though, the time to secure contracts for next winter is now, before last winter becomes a distant memory.

That’s what Tom Hougnon, chief operating officer of Reliable Property Services, says. Until six years ago, the Minneapolis-based company was strictly a snow removal company and had been so for the past 25 years.

Realizing that some of the company’s competitors were landscapers who moved in on their snow clients while working for them in the summer months, Reliable expanded into landscaping work so the company could be visible to customers all year.

“Many customers were looking for 12-month vendors. They wanted one service provider for summer and winter,” Hougnon says. “Part of it was a business decision to become a more predictable, viable company and make money each month.”

Last year, Reliable’s service mix was about 60 percent snow removal, 40 percent landscaping. Reliable also has branches in Des Moines and Racine.

Reliable employs 65 year-round employees that can ramp up to about another 400 seasonal employees in winters. The company yielded $27 million in revenue, with snow revenue another $2 million higher than the previous year.

“That’s a big change for us,” Hougnon says. “We really work to balance out our business model. Last year was the first year we made a profit every month of the year.”

Early and often
With Reliable being in contact with clients throughout the year, it has led to procuring snow contracts earlier in the year, well before Labor Day, which had been typical. Now, Reliable’s company retreat in early May focuses on the winter sales cycle.

“In effect, we’re putting that sales season into the late May time frame, especially on renewal customers,” Hougnon says.

He says the company usually has 20-25 percent of next year’s business locked up by the end of the winter season. “We are pushing three year contracts much more in the past few years,” he says.

Nonetheless, he says not every customer will want to think about winter that early.

Also, Hougnon says that many larger companies are pursuing multi-year contracts using in-house procurement departments, which has led to contracts being signed earlier in the year.

These can benefit the client, Hougnon says, as they often lock in the price for the first two years, leaving open a fuel and a salt clause if prices climb. “We are seeing more customized contracts than we used to see, so it is important to be more flexible with the customer,” he says.

While it has worked for Reliable, nationally recognized snow industry consultant John Allin of Erie, Pa., says that a year-round business isn’t necessary to keep in contact with clients.

“Keeping in touch on a more personalized basis is just as effective and doesn’t give you the added strain of trying to make another profit center work, though I’m not saying it’s a bad move,” he says.

Still, no matter how they are procured, timing of contracts is critical, and is often dictated by the attitude of the client or potential client. “Some very progressive companies will have the contract signed by mid-summer,” Allin says. “Progressive contractors know and understand, like any other business, that running a snow business requires planning. Those who wait till October/November aren’t planning, they are scrambling.”

Such planning includes material purchases and training staff, Allin says, as well as drafting preseason documentation.

“If you wait until two weeks before the first snowfall, it is almost impossible to get your preseason work out of the way in time. Then you are working from a position of weakness than a position of strength regarding planning for the season.”

Located in Oak Creek outside Milwaukee, Kujawa Enterprises (KEI) is a four-season landscape management company with 120-150 regular employees.

Depending on the year, the snow removal portion of its business comprises about 35 percent of its annual revenue.

Like Hougnon, KEI’s Executive Vice President, Chris Kujawa, says that his company has changed its practices regarding timing of snow removal contracts, from Labor Day/October to earlier in the spring.

“Nowadays, it’s really a year-round proposition to try to solicit that kind of work and lock it in place,” Kujawa says. “The whole industry has matured quite a bit, and that’s one of the results of it. You get out there early and get contracts and people in place and get equipment out early.”

Allin says contractors aren’t the only beneficiaries of early contracts. “There is no question that a client who signs up earlier will get a much better pricing structure,” he says.

The best time is between April and June, Allin says, both to get them out of the way and to get a feel for what kind of work they can take on. Customers who wait until winter will pay a higher premium.

Some of Kujawa’s clients still wait until August or even later. He says that KEI doesn’t do a lot of incentivizing other than bundling services with summer landscaping, for example.

“That cuts down on the number of contracts you need,” he says. Hougnon says clients like the single point of contact for all their services. “The players remain the same, expectations remain the same and you don’t have to repeat that learning curve all the time, he says. “That’s why it is very attractive to clients and to us.”

He says Reliable may offer a discount for early sign-up, but doesn’t guarantee to hold the pricing the same as the previous year. Hougnon says when it comes to renewals, the company will check profitability to make sure it makes fiscal sense to offer a discount.

“We also may try to incorporate a summer ‘coupon’ for some services, flowers, plant material, even if they are not a summer customer,” he says.

Hilary Daninhirsch is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Build Relationships

A man who retires from nearly 40 years in snow removal, yet spends every day still going to work, must love his job. Listening to people who have worked for Ron Kujawa at Kujawa Enterprises, Inc., in Oak Creek, Wisc., love for the man is mutual.

Tom Jurasinski, director of exterior operations, would correct one very important item in the opening. “You work with Ron, not for him,” Jurasinski says. “You know he means it, too. They’re not just words.”

With “family” as an overriding theme in everything about the company, it is not surprising that Kujawa would share the spotlight of his success. “KEI has been delivering snow and ice control services since 1970, but we would not be where we are today if not for my son Chris leading our business development efforts and Tom,” Kujawa says. “They have built a team of loyal employees and subcontractors that can consistently meet the demands of our clients.”

After more than 20 years with the company - he joined KEI as a college student and went full-time upon graduating - Jurasinski agrees with the familial feeling. “Ron has been more of a father to me than an owner or boss,” he says. “He’s a moral compass to me. He reminds us that morals are not something you can bend or twist.”

Delivering what he and KEI say they are going to deliver has led to long and fruitful relationships with their many customers, which has, in turn, led to Kujawa being included in the inaugural group of SNOW Magazine’s Leadership Award winners. “We’re extremely happy and honored to be recognized by the industry’s leading trade publication,” Kujawa says. “Our experience and the expertise that we’ve shown can be recognized by the tenure of our clients.”

The work
While KEI can trace its roots back to the 1920s, when Kujawa’s father opened a business selling agricultural seeds, supplies and equipment to area farmers, KEI began forming into a landscaping company in the 1960s and 1970s. A snow-removal arm was a natural fit with the other seasonal activities. “When we started, we were looking for winter work to supplement revenue,” Kujawa says. “We started doing sidewalks for some local businesses and hauling snow for our local municipality. It opened our eyes to the opportunities snow services offered.”

The typical snow season in southeastern Wisconsin begins in mid November and ends in early April. According to Kujawa, the heaviest snowfalls occur in December and January, followed by February. They have had measurable snowfalls and/or ice storms in late April or even May, but those are fairly uncommon.

April through October is busy for KEI, too, as the company is a four-season, full-service landscape management provider – also doing design and landscape construction and installation, interiorscapes and holiday decorating. KEI employs a staff of approximately 40 full-timers and adds between 50 and 60 seasonal workers, as well as snow subcontractors. The company boasts approximately 65 pieces of equipment – primarily Chevrolet 4x4s with some Internationals and UDs.

Being a child of the Great Depression, it is no wonder Kujawa considers the country’s worst economic periods his toughest challenges. Managing and leading KEI through the early 1980s recession and advising through the current one top his list. Keeping people’s morale and spirits up and managing controlled growth were (and are) key, he says.

Giving back
Kujawa’s contributions to the industry are as impressive as anyone’s. A member of Associated Landscape Contractors of America/PLANET since 1972, he served as president in 1989-90 and received the ALCA’s Lifetime Service Award. He also served on ALCA’s board of directors for nearly 30 years. Kujawa was in the first group of contractors certified as professionals (Charter Certified Landscape Professionals) and in the inaugural group of ALCA’s Industry “Trailblazers.” He served as president and director of the Academic Excellence Foundation and as chairman and director of certification, board of governors. Further sharing his knowledge, Kujawa has authored numerous articles for most major trade publications and has contributed many chapters for industry manuals.

According to Kujawa, his single most important contribution was uniting the three trade groups – ALCA, Professional Lawn Care Association of America and Professional Grounds Management Society – to create the Green Industry Expo, which, since 1989, has become the industry’s preeminent educational event and national trade show.

If you’re looking for a testament to Kujawa’s popularity and recognition within the industry, look no further than that Green Industry Expo, according to Jurasinski. He says attending one of these shows with Kujawa is like walking along with a superstar. Everyone, young and old, is trying to get a minute with KEI’s driving force. “He’s got this ease about him that makes it so comfortable and easy to work with him,” says Jurasinski.

Proving the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, both of his sons – Chris and Joe – continue to serve the snow and green industries. Chris was the force and founder of the Academic Excellence Foundation of ALCA/PLANET and just completed a two-year tenure as president of Project Evergreen. Joe has served on the PLANET board and currently serves on its Landscape Management Specialty Group.

As for the community, Kujawa is responsible for two endowed educational scholarships, one from the AEF and another at Marquette University. Numerous annual charitable contributions are given anonymously and the company is involved in providing service to veteran’s organizations, school and church activities, community functions, blood banks, and more.

Away from work
While Kujawa’s successes in snow removal might lead one to believe winter is his favorite season, those who know him will not be surprised by his autumnal preference. “Personally, I like fall the best,” he says. “Football, hunting, fishing and the beautiful weather in Wisconsin.”

A doting grandfather to 13 and an avid fan of Green Bay Packer football and Marquette University basketball, Kujawa has also done a great deal of traveling – rattling off Africa, Europe, South America, New Zealand, Russia, Canada and Alaska as some of his many stops. A lion hunt in Tanzania and being on safari with wife Sally sit atop his list of those experiences.

The dichotomy of being a gentle, loving family man on one hand, while on the other hand being such a powerful presence and a person who tracks and kills big game for sport isn’t lost on Jurasinski.
“He’s got this unbelievable knack of not only being a strong man, but also kind,” he says of Kujawa, noting how rare it is to find the two traits in one person – at each end of the spectrum.

Chris, who shares his father’s love for fishing, has also pulled something else from Dad’s DNA – brutal honesty ... with the emphasis sometimes on “brutal,” he says with a laugh. “You always know where you stand with him.”

Jurasinski echoes the sentiment, though sees the kinder, gentler side of the man who sat him down after college and told him there’s only one thing that’ll jeopardize his career at KEI – not asking for help when it is needed. “If there’s a problem, don’t try to solve it by yourself ... Let’s solve it as a team,” he remembers Kujawa saying.

“With Ron, there is no gray, only black or white,” Jurasinski says. “And when he addresses you, there’s never even a bit of negative spin.”

Management philosophy
Kujawa handed over day-to-day responsibilities to sons Chris, who is responsible for sales, marketing and business development, and Joe, who handles operations and administration. Chris’ wife Judy is the office manager and Sally is the company’s president, CEO and CFO. Though he is no longer actively managing the operation of KEI, he is always available to offer support or consult on a project.

“I believe in leading through ‘big-picture vision,’” he says. “Get good people and let them loose with few, but firm, parameters.” All too often in today’s business atmosphere, companies are over-promising and under-delivering. Customer service is suffering. That doesn’t sit well with Kujawa. “Service cannot be purchased like a commodity,” he says. “It’s nothing more than the delivery of a promise. That can only be measured at the time of delivery. Everybody can promise, but who can deliver?”

The three tenants of Kujawa’s success are simple and straightforward: Don’t promise what you can’t deliver; if you see yourself getting into trouble, ask for help; and always represent the company with integrity and honesty.

Jurasinski admits that the term “open-door policy” is an overused cliche, but it is so incredibly accurate with Kujawa. “He takes great pride in mentoring us. It’s all about trust and his word ... his honor,” he says. Ron lives to be a good example and to him, you’re only as good as your word. It is all about integrity.”

While his family is aware of his undying affection, his customers never have to guess, either, thanks to wisdom gleaned from Kujawa. “Make sure the client knows how important they are to us,” he says. The KEI website, in fact, stresses that sentiment on its home page: You are why we exist.

For those looking to follow in Kujawa’s footsteps, he offered this advice.

“It takes more than being a good snow plow operator to be successful ... you must be a good business person,” he says. “Read Michael Gerber’s ‘The E Myth’ and other good publications. Join trade groups with peers, especially those in other market areas for a free and honest exchange of information, and give back.”

Sound advice and a recipe for success, but more telling, perhaps, are five simple words: “Don’t make sales... build relationships.”

Kujawa looks back on a life that has touched so many. No man escapes life without certain disappointments, but he chooses to embrace the positive. “No regrets,” he says. “Everything seems to work out one way or another, usually for the best.”