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.”

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