By Cheryl Higley
While most North American snow & ice management professionals spent the winter wishing and hoping for something to plow, Jeannie Schenderline—owner of Anchorage, AK-based JEFFCO Grounds Maintenance—was wondering whether it would ever stop snowing.
At press time, Anchorage had recorded its second-snowiest winter on record with 129.4 inches—more than 54 inches above the 74.5-in. average, according to the National Weather Service. Another 3.2 inches would break the record of 132.6 inches set in the winter of 1954-55.
Schenderline, who will celebrate JEFFCO’s 20th anniversary on The Last Frontier this April, says typical Anchorage winters have been anything but the past few years. Snowfall totals have averaged between 70 and 74 inches, but the snow has been arriving later in November. Unlike past years, when 28°F usually guaranteed snow, it’s not snowing until the temperature drops to about 15°F.
“We haven’t had a season like this in six years. This season we’ve had a lot of big snowfalls, but the weather patterns have been changing rapidly. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the season pans out,” she says.
Too much of a good thing?
While lack of snow can present challenges for snow & ice management companies, the near record-breaking snowfalls have presented several obstacles for Schenderline—and she and her team have conquered them all:
Budgets. JEFFCO got its start providing plowing and snow removal services for condos and residential clients but switched to full-time commercial work about 13 years ago. Schenderline’s market leans toward monthly and per-inch snow contracts, and time and materials (T&M) for hauling.
With clients lulled into complacency by consistent snowfall over the past several seasons, this year has taken its toll. Given the amount of snow that has fallen, she says, “snow budgets are shot, and people are running out of money.”
Schenderline hopes to make her way into her clients’ budgeting process for next year to help them plan more appropriately. “I’d love to participate in their budgeting and show them the seasons we’ve had. Some are starting to question the costs, but we give people high-quality work and there is so much that goes into the service we provide that they don’t know about.”
JEFFCO has a loyal base of customers. When she added an extra loader and plow truck she wanted to take advantage of that extra capacity. She bid on three sites and lost them all because she wasn’t afraid to walk away.
“Our standard is 22 acres a night, and by going after those bids we would have doubled in size,” she says. “The bidding was very low, and then I found out why—they were bidding a low plowing price and then making all of their money in the haul-offs,” Schenderline said. “I’m totally the opposite. I give the plowing price and T&M for hauling. I know my production rates and know how fast I can move it. My bids are straightforward and I don’t hide anything from the client.”
Operations. Clients may be running out of money, but Schenderline’s other big obstacle is space. Anchorage—both for municipalities and private contractors—is running out of places to haul and store snow. Snow is piled 5 ft. and higher in many city berms. Commercial real estate is very limited on parking, so piling snow on-site isn’t common. In addition to the limited space availability on the lots, the immense snowfall has resulted in extra work of removing roof snow to help prevent collapses. “Most places in Alaska are not designed for snow storage, that’s why hauling is so important,” she says.
The city manages six snow dumps and there are about seven privately owned dump sites. With many of the dumps nearly full, the city voted to streamline the process to add temporary snow storage sites. “We used to be lucky to get 300 loads a season. This season we’ve hauled over 1,000,” Schenderline says, who tries to haul to the closest sites, but because JEFFCO runs semi dump trucks, not every dump will allow her trucks in. “I like to get the bigger trucks in because it saves the clients money. It’s up to me to know how to spend their money in the most cost-effective way.”
Staffing. JEFFCO runs a lean operation, especially when it comes to employees. In normal seasons, it’s Schenderline, her son Damen Koso and another full-time employee, plus a subcontractor who handles snow hauling and a two-person shoveling crew. This year, eight people have been working full time. Since most construction doesn’t take place during the winter, Schenderline has been able to send a lot of work to contractors whose equipment would otherwise be idle. She knows that JEFFCO wouldn’t have made it through this winter without her team stepping up and shouldering the load.
“It touches my heart to see the effort everyone has given,” she says. “Everyone is so important to me, whether they’re in a truck or on a walkway crew. Everyone is good at what they do. When I’m pulling off a site and the lots are clear and the walkways are on meltdown, I know we’re good-—and it’s because of the people who made it happen.”
Persistence pays off for Jeannie Schenderline
Jeannie Schenderline, owner of JEFFCO Grounds Maintenance, is riding high and looking forward to celebrating the company’s 20th anniversary this April. It hasn’t been an easy road to success for Schenderline, who not only built the business but did it as a single parent raising a young son, Damen Koso.
Schenderline and her husband purchased the business, but after the first winter they separated. He left the business to Schenderline, who realized she could either sink or swim. Koso was 1½, and she had little choice. Koso has grown up at JEFFCO. He started on a shoveling crew when he was 10 and has been the lead loader operator for the company since he was old enough to drive. In addition to working on a plowing crew, Koso is in charge of all haul outs.
With her husband out of the picture, Schenderline saw the business take a huge hit when the company’s clients followed suit. “I lost every job but one because they didn’t believe in me—that a woman could succeed in this business alone. But for every negative, there’s a positive. I just kept pushing through it,” she says.
Refusing to give up, she began doing residential landscaping work, and her work ethic caught people’s attention. Opportunities came, gradually, and she was determined to hold onto them. That tenacity paid off. Some clients have now been with her 18 years and she ap-preciates the faith her clients have in her and the company.
“I bring honesty and integrity to my work. My clients believe in me,” she says. “There were many years I thought about getting out. But over the last 10 years I’ve learned to really embrace it. I’m good at what I do, and I have the internal drive to live and breathe it. It is the tough times and struggles that we go through as a business owner that makes us drive harder to be more successful.”
Jeannie Schenderline’s Big Three Ideas
- Don’t get complacent. Early in Jeannie Schenderline’s career, JEFFCO Grounds Maintenance was hired to service 6 acres of condominium complexes. After a few years, JEFFCO had turned the properties around and had performed to a high level of service for the client. Schenderline realized, though, that as time had passed she was essentially giving away her profit. “We got so caught up in building the business that we never did an audit of what we were spending to service the sites. Once we did, we realized we weren’t making any money. When it came time to rebid, the price doubled. Some of the complexes went with us, some did not. You have to know the cost of doing business and know when to walk away.”
- The right fit. Schenderline says it takes a unique person to work in snow & ice management—whether you’re in a slow season or a busy season. “The biggest challenge is finding the type of people who can live up to it.” It’s tough when it’s slow—she’s seen seasons where they’ve worked four days total—but the heavy seasons take a toll. “We may have gone five days without work this year. It’s hard on the employees.” She found out the hard way when she had “employee issues” the day a 10-inch storm blew in. “That was challenging to replace people three-quarters through the season during a big storm.”
- It is never too late to learn. Schenderline is celebrating her 20th year in business but is excited to learn about new technologies or new ways of doing business. She plans on transforming how she tracks each storm after sitting in on a SIMA webinar that focused on bidding. “Since 1992, every snowfall I’ve worked is on paper. I learned on the webinar about a spreadsheet that can more easily manage all of that information. Even though I’ve been in this business for years, I have to be open to see what others are doing and how I can improve the business.”