By Cheryl Higley
Scroll down to the end of the story to view a video interview with Paul.
What’s in a name? For Déneigement Vanderzon, Inc. in St. Bruno de Montarville, Quebec, Canada, it’s what the family business is built on and what 2012 CEO of the Year Paul Vanderzon guards as his most precious asset and legacy.
Started by his father, John Vanderzon, more than 50 years ago, Paul and his brothers (and equal partners) Tony and John continue to build on the foundation their father built. Paul has worked in the company since he was 12, when he would shovel walkways, help with routing and maintain equipment. His dad bought him his first ag tractor when he was 16 and he hasn’t looked back.
“My brothers and I were taught at a very young age to work hard, never to be complacent and to always be honest-—even if it costs you monetarily,” Paul says. “He created a great name, which is well respected; and he instilled in us that all of that hard work could be destroyed if you lose focus on integrity.”
The brothers took his advice to heart, and those character traits are behind every decision they make. Paul knows his father, who passed away in 2000, would approve. “I wear his ring to remind myself that he is with me always,” he says. “I know how proud he would be of us and where we’ve brought the business.”
Growing through residential
Many in the industry have scoffed at residential service as a profit center; but for Déneigement Vanderzon, there is no place like home. Residential work makes up the bulk of the business. When John Vanderzon died, the company had about 900 residential clients. That number has since grown to more than 3,500 thanks to acquisitions and airtight processes that make it hard for competitors to infiltrate the company’s territory.
At the heart of that growth is Paul and his unquenchable passion for snow. But he gives just as much credit to Tony and John for allowing him to follow his dream while still keeping his feet on the ground. Paul oversees the residential snow division, Tony oversees the commercial side, and John literally keeps the wheels turning by ensuring all the equipment is in top shape.
“When it comes to snow, I am the most involved and the most passionate, but they keep me real and grounded,” Paul says. “There is no way I could ever have the success we are enjoying without them.”
New friends lend a hand
A love for snow will only get you so far, which is why Paul constantly seeks new ideas for building efficiencies into the residential niche that has proven so successful for Déneigement Vanderzon.
From an early age, Paul learned that there was more to running a business than just operating equipment. He spent hours watching how his father would track the financials and look for ways to improve productivity. What Paul found he was missing was someone in the industry who was willing to share ideas and experiences ... and then he found SIMA.
“Six years ago, we had the opportunity to increase our snow revenue 70% by acquiring a competitor. We added 1,100 new residential clients and ended up having the largest snowfall season in 30 years. It was a huge challenge,” Paul says. “I tried talking to others in the industry, but no one was interested in discussing and sharing how and what they do.”
That all changed five years ago when Paul attended his first Snow & Ice Symposium. He found others who were more than willing to share their stories—and listen to his—not as competitors, but as colleagues who experience many of the same challenges. Paul attributes the company’s ability to nearly double its revenue in five years and increase net profit to lessons he learned through networking and education through SIMA.
“I finally had a place where people understand what we do. The exchange of ideas with successful business people in the industry is invaluable.”
Changing for the better
One of the biggest takeaways Paul has gained from his involvement with SIMA is to finally step out of the tractor and into a managerial role that allows him to look less at the day-to-day operations and focus more on the big picture. That means placing more responsibility on the company’s employees.
He has long relied on Lucia Branco Vanderzon (John’s wife) to run the office effectively and to be the “voice of the company” when people call. This past season he completely reworked the routing system and promoted four employees to area managers. They now service a route of 150 accounts and manage employees servicing other routes in their section. “The system worked flawlessly and allowed us to make more money without cutting back on service,” Paul says.
That is one example of how the company continues to innovate and, he proudly mentions, has allowed it to turn a profit since it started 52 years ago.
“I can breathe a little more now and not be so distracted by what’s going on in the field ... though I do miss the fun of plowing,” he says. “It’s hard to let go of that control, but when you do and see the benefits, it is so powerful. It is nice to see the employees that you give this trust to take it and run with it.”
Letting go a little at a time has also made the Vanderzon brothers realize the importance of crafting an exit strategy, especially in a market where it is the equipment and not the snow business that has the most value, Paul explains.
“If you don’t have snow experience in this market, it is going to be very hard to step in and continue to succeed. Gaining a footprint is extremely difficult, so we are limited with our options. We are already looking at all of the scenarios, whether it’s selling to an outside company, to our employees or to succeed it to our brother Rob, who is not currently a partner but works full-time in the business.”
Family Affair: Vanderzon matriarch Maria L'Ami Vanderzon still keeps an eye on her sons and makes sure they're ready when the snow flies. Paul says his dad, John, would be proud of where they've taken the business he started 52 years ago.
Relationships and community
When it comes to living life with honesty and integrity, it doesn’t stop with clients and suppliers. It touches every part of Paul’s life, whether it’s serving as a father figure to many of his younger employees, the give and take of surviving the dynamics of a family business, interacting with his competitors or serving the community. “Our name means something. It’s not just a business. It’s everything we are,” he says.
Giving back to the community is ingrained in the Vanderzons’ philosophy. Tony is involved with a teen suicide prevention group, and together the brothers raise money for the cancer ward at Montreal Children’s Hospital through a group called Curling for Kids.
That cause is deeply personal to Paul, whose daughter Julie was diagnosed with cancer six years ago. She is cancer-free today, but the diagnosis rocked his world. He had to make a choice—his daughter or the business. That crisis opened Paul’s eyes to how blessed he is to have a family that stepped up to shoulder the burden and to the importance of establishing a balance between work and family.
“Being in a family business can be challenging because everyone has their set way of thinking. But we listen and respect each other. When my daughter got sick, my brothers have no idea how grateful I was to be in business with them. I’ve said it, but I’m not sure they really know just how much it meant for them to be there when I needed them most.”
Paul has a sense of calm that has come, he says, from a life filled not only with great success but also with heartbreak and disappointment: “Out of what you think are insurmountable circumstances comes the ability to be a better person. My company is thriving, my children are healthy, and I’m married to a wonderful woman, Jocelyn Earl Vanderzon, who supports everything I do,” he says. “All of my experiences have made me who I am today ... and I love who I am. There are things I wish I had done differently, but my experiences have made me who I am. I’ve embraced that, learned from that and have absolutely no regrets.”
Since joining SIMA five years ago, Paul Vanderzon’s dedication to the industry and the association has resulted in several honors and accolades:
- 2012: CEO of the Year
- 2012: Recruiter of the Year
- 2010, 2011, 2012: SIMA Safety Award
- 2011, 2012: Featured in Pro-Tech’s “Project Sno Fighter” Seasons 1 and 2
- 2010: Volunteer of the Year
- 2009: Excellence in Business Award
In Quebec, innovation and a more professionalized industry
Thirty-five years ago, John Vanderzon set his sights on a piece of equipment that would transform his company forever. Already using agricultural tractors and conventional snowblowers to clear sites, he tested an inverted snowblower and found it improved efficiency. The manufacturer had gone bankrupt, but Vanderzon was able to find another company to produce the blowers. Implementing the ag tractor/inverted blower combination revolutionized the company’s residential business. For years it seemed to remain a well-kept secret until his son, Paul, began touting the benefits to anyone who would listen. The biggest advantages, Paul explains, are efficiency, greater visibility, better placement of snow and lower maintenance costs:
- Ag tractors provide 360° visibility.
- Inverted blowers allow the operator to place snow where it needs to be without damaging property, and “a good driver can do an average driveway (40 ft. long, 2 cars wide) in under a minute.”
- Amount of snowfall doesn’t affect the combo’s efficiency. “An 8-inch snowfall doesn’t take that much more time to do than a 2-inch snowfall.”
“At my first Symposium, many companies thought I was nuts. They stayed away from residential, thinking the accounts were demanding, time consuming and not worth the effort.” Undeterred, Paul spoke at roundtables, presented a webinar and this year gave a Symposium session on succeeding in residential.
Paul Vanderzon has created dense routes to allow his operators to service their residential territories efficiently.
“Since our company joined SIMA, many companies have shown great interest in how we service our residential clients,” he says, adding that use of the equipment is spreading. He knows of more than 20 companies who have embraced the business model. “In sharing how we service and handle the residential market, more contractors are implementing our ideas and succeeding.”
Quebec trade show
Vanderzon’s first visit to the Symposium had a profound effect. He was impressed by the trade show, which brings vendors and end users together, and wanted to do something similar in Quebec. With no trade show experience, Paul partnered with a vendor and staged an event that attracted 50 exhibitors and 1,500 contractors.
“Suppliers stepped up because they had heard good things about our company. They signed contracts and paid deposits trusting that I would put on a good show. It was a great success, but it was a lot of work,” he says. “I hope to do it again sometime.”
Anyone who wants to talk snow need look no further than Paul Vanderzon. His passion for the industry and willingness to share his expertise is one of the many traits that set him apart. He is active on GoPlow.com, Plowsite.com, is a SIMA Buddy and committee volunteer.
“As a professional, it is my duty to improve our industry, whether it’s speaking professionally on a chat forum or telling our clients what I have learned and how that knowledge can help them.”
He says he has spent countless hours talking with more than 30 companies across North America who had questions on how to improve their business. He doesn’t hold much close to the vest: “I will share what makes my business succeed with anyone who asks. I feel so good when I hear that someone I talked to and mentored has succeeded in improving their business.”
Eleven candidates were nominated for this year’s Snow Business CEO of the Year award. Based on the selection criteria, six finalists were chosen and the winner selected in an anonymous vote by the Snow Business Peer Advisory Committee, two members of SIMA’s Board of Directors and 2011 CEO of the Year Sam Granados, CSP. Thank you to Western, Fisher Engineering, and Blizzard for its support and sponsorship of the CEO of the Year award.