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Ron and Karen Lichtenstein are the Operations Manager and President, respectively, for Algonquin Sweeping and Striping. This article is based upon the audio podcast conducted with Ron in January of 2014.
by Ranger Kidwell-Ross
When Ron and Karen were engaged 28 years ago, her father was in the garbage hauling business. Ron had worked in consumer electronics and economic development and was looking for another career. One day Ron saw a TYMCO ad in one of the issues of National Solid Waste Magazine that Karen’s dad had lying around. Immediately, he says, the information caught my attention. “One thing led to another,” Ron said with a chuckle, “and now we’re in paradise.”
When it came time to name the fledgling company, the couple went looking for a name that would put them first in the yellow pages, something with actual meaning and not “AAA Sweeping” or some such. They settled upon Algonquin, which is the name of an Indian tribe. That gave them a front-line name that was also a moniker with some meaning in the Northeast part of the country where they are located near Boston. After securing a single customer, Ron called the TYMCO factory and, like that, the couple found themselves in the power sweeping business.
“Back in those days it was really about educating the customer,” said Lichtenstein. “Just as I had looked at that ad for a sweeper and didn’t really know what I was looking at, the same was true with customers. When you went to them and told them you wanted to sweep their parking lot, they looked at you like you were from another planet. You really had to educate them as to how it was done, the frequency that was needed — even why it was important. The business was really a lot different than it is today.
“Back then, you either worked with the local store manager or with the regional office for a national chain. Word passed from manager to manager about who was doing a good job, and if that was you there was plenty of work available. Today, we have a whole different situation with centralized control and the third party vendors that are making decisions based upon price much more than on any quality considerations. The work itself, though, hasn’t changed much in the last 30 years.”
The company has remained partial to TYMCO sweepers for all its parking area sweeping needs, although Ron noted that most of the sweepers they’ve bought in recent times, especially their broom machines which are all Johnstons, have been used. The sweepers themselves, says Lichtenstein, are light-and-day different from what they were when they started out. Today, the issues are things like fuel economy; back when they started, the concerns were would the sweepers actually pick anything up off the ground.
“We tend to buy our broom sweepers when they’re five-to-seven years old,” said Lichtenstein, “and then get rid of them after using them for another five years. Our company currently has three Johnston broom machines, but will be recycling one of them out in the coming months.”
One of the Johnston sweepers, which was purchased from a major city nearby, runs on natural gas. “We thought we’d see what that was like and, the fact is, the machine runs very well and there are a number of advantages,” said Lichtenstein. “We don’t have any trouble procuring fuel, since we have several fueling stations located in the area and one in our own town. I suspect it’s probably like the early days of buying a diesel automobile; it’s not that the filling stations weren’t there, it’s that you didn’t know where they were unless you had a diesel auto. So, getting fuel has been no issue for us.”
“However, you only get about a third as many miles of travel from a tankful of natural gas because of the configuration; the tanks don’t hold as much. That said, we’ve organized our routes around fueling stations and have never run out. The good news is the cost of natural gas, on an equivalent energy basis, has been less than half the cost of running diesel. (At the time of the interview) diesel is about $4/gallon and the natural gas equivalent is about $2.35. (Editor’s Note: The chart to the right shows the prediction by the US Energy Information Administration of what future pricing will be for natural gas, as compared to diesel or gasoline.)
“The downside is that when the sweeper has mechanical issues with the fuel system then the whole process of getting it fixed can be a little nerve-wracking. The machine is expensive to fix, since you have to have licensed mechanics work on it and it’s simply more costly from that regard. The engine is a Cummins’ Westport, which is serviced by Cummins directly. The natural gas engine is not as peppy as a diesel, but it’s not like you’re going to ever get into a road race with your street sweeper. Plus, they’re fairly non-polluting. Until 2010, when the economic situation became so drastic, this was important to some of our clients.
“We sent out some fliers about the environmentalism of the purchase when we got the machine, as well as made it part of our presentation. We had hoped we could use it to get a premium price, but I’m not sure the response ever got to that point. Plus, the fact is that some of the clean diesel technology out today is just as clean-burning.”
In the audio podcast recording that is a part of this article, Lichtenstein discusses a Hydraulic License that Massachusetts requires, in addition to a CDL, for operators of its heavier Johnston sweepers. Massachusetts, he says, is famous for its “blue laws that go back to the Pilgrims.” Even though the Hydraulic License doesn’t go that far back, it’s an interesting requirement for those involved in operating equipment that uses heavy-duty hydraulic systems.
Algonquin utilizes 10-yard roll-offs for much of its debris disposal, and has a reprocessing plant where material is separated and screened. Some of the screened material the company is able to sell to contractors for use as back fill on sidewalks or in subdivisions as sub fill. This is especially true in the spring when there’s so much sand that is removed from roadways after the harsh Massachusetts winter.
“Most of the salt has already been leached out,” said Lichtenstein, “because we usually get heavy rains toward the end of winter. That usually ends up leaching out any salt component.”
The podcast also contains an exchange that involves information about small-micron, historical sweeping, with the author reminiscing about his experiences more than a decade ago with the extraordinary sweeping capability of the Schwarze EV-Series sweeper. At one point this now discontinued but extraordinary machine swept lead indoors with the doors closed while air was being monitored . At the same time, air quality monitors were deployed outside the building. The results: the indoor lead levels were not statistically different than the air sampled outside the building. Those interested in that topic will want to be sure to listen to the audio podcast for that overview.
Part of the context of the above led to a discussion of what Massachusetts DOT requires for sweeping on state roads and highways in terms of fulfilling any type of environmental mandate. Massachusetts, as far as Lichtenstein was aware, sweeps its interstates and other main roadways only one time per year. Cities and towns are, by contrast, swept more often on schedules that are determined by each of those entities. Many of those decisions are made as a result of each city’s interpretation of its storm water permit’s standing, as well as how the city managers have decided they want to deal with pavement cleanliness in their downtown core.
“Politicians aren’t interested in paying more money for sweeping right now,” said Lichtenstein. “What I believe we need to better safeguard our nation’s water supply is for water districts — the agencies charged with keeping water clean — to be the ones overseeing the street sweeping operations. That seems like the way to meet the end goals in the most cost-effective manner.
“It costs about three times more to clean the pollution out of a river than it does to prevent it from getting there in the first place. However, it seems clear that the EPA and other government entities that should be taking the lead are too swayed by large landowners to do the right thing. (The impact of lobbying) …is just too much for the government to go up against at this time, or at least it certainly appears that way.”
When the discussion turned to the relatively recent trend by large, publicly-traded, retail chains to cut back sweeping from their historical 7-days-a-week to less than half that, the discussion became quite animated on both sides. “I think when it initially started happening, back in 2007, the companies were all really afraid for the economy and how badly their organization might be hurt. Sweeping was cut back simply as a survival mechanism for many of them; however, now they don’t appear ready to get back to the previous level. Perhaps they see themselves now thriving with things the way they are, or it might be that we in the industry have to do a better job of selling the benefits of sweeping.
“I have, through the years, interrogated my daughter and her friends about what the parking lot looked like where they had gone shopping. They tell me, usually, that ‘it was a mess.’ That doesn’t mean they quit shopping there, though, and many of the stores we’re talking about cater to the younger demographic in terms of age group.
“I think something else is going on, as well. At the retail level, my guess is that 30-50% of the market is being controlled by these third party providers. In my view, the retailers used to have more local personnel handling this and now the local manager is about five steps removed from getting anything done. These days, when a manager arrives in the morning and the exterior has debris all over it, all he can do is call his own manager and tell them about it. However, it might be three or four days later before the sweeping contractor finds out what’s going on, and that’s only if the third party provider bothers to let them know. The upshot is that everyone is getting desensitized on the topic and I think most have sort of become resigned to the fact that we can’t do much to impact the situation. So, after awhile, they just quit trying.
“We have a number of contracts where we cannot talk to the property manager and they aren’t supposed to talk to us. Because we served a number of the same managers in prior years, before the third party providers got in the middle, we know some of the people very well. When they call with a bulk debris drop-off or other problem I have to tell them that, unfortunately, I can’t help them directly. I advise them to call the vendor and, if they have trouble after that, say that I’ll do the same. However, you can’t afford to do anything they ask for directly, like remove the dining room set that’s been dropped off in the front doorway of the mall, because if you do you’ll be in violation of your contract.
“And, you certainly won’t get paid for doing so. In the old days you might have just gone and picked it up and not even charged them, as an act of goodwill. However, the concept of goodwill doesn’t really exist anymore in third party vendor situations, either, since it’s not like the local manager has any say in what happens going forward.
“When you are requested to provide services for prices that won’t cover your expenses and provide a little profit, then you have to ‘Just Say No.’ For example, we had a pharmacy chain where the third party representative wanted us to sweep two nights a week for $17 each. That’s ridiculous; I can’t pay worker’s comp. and drive my sweeper there for that. And, one might think that if you have other stops nearby then why not go ahead and take it. The question is, what happens if you lose those stops and suddenly you have to drive off-route to get your $17?! Better is to just not take accounts that are too low and not to sign contracts you can’t live with.”
And, if you’re tempted to agree to provide, say, five-night-a-week sweeping at an unsustainable price, and then make your profit by not sweeping on some of those contracted nights, make sure to listen to the companion audio podcast. There are some very important reasons why doing so can create a cycle of rottenness throughout your entire business — in addition to the basic dishonesty of not adhering to your agreement — one that will affect your employees and the rest of your operation far more than you might initially think. These factors are discussed at length in the podcast.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a more competitive time in history than the one we’re now in. You have large companies with multiple units that are trying to push quality. Yet, when it comes to facilities maintenance, the same people are expected to look the other way when they come to work in a trashy, low quality environment. Even so, their training tells them that once they go through the door they’re supposed to become quality gurus who train their employees about what a great company they’re all working at and that everyone’s work product should be nothing but the best. Yet everything on the outside is telling them something different. I think in the long run these companies will find they are doing themselves a disservice. What’s going on at the moment presents a basic dichotomy that is very hard for employees to square with, and we have yet to see where that’s headed in the long run.”
For more information or to contact the Lichtensteins about their company, check out their website, which is located at: www.algonquinsweeping.com.