by Ranger Kidwell-Ross
Beth Krueger had 18 years of experience in working with the sweeping operation of Browning Ferris, Inc. (BFI). However, knowing that BFI was downsizing, she chose to quit her job there and move to a small, privately held sweeping company called Interstate Sweeping. Krueger says she performed many of the same types of job functions with that company over the next 7 years and, during the process, learned a lot. Perhaps the most important area of knowledge was how to run a business so as to avoid the major financial problems that Interstate Sweeping had gotten itself into by the early 2000s.
By the time Interstate closed its doors, Krueger — who was the most prolific salesperson for sweeping the company had — decided she had the knowledge needed to start a successful sweeping company of her own. In 2002 she founded Allstate Sweeping, LLC. Since part of her job description was selling sweeping services for BFI, she naturally figured she could do the same for her own firm. Armed with Interstate’s client list, Krueger says she started calling on past customers. At first, all the actual sweeping was subbed out to another sweeping company in her market area. Then, once she’d amassed enough business, she went to the bank for a loan to purchase her first sweeper.
“We continue to be cautious in the way we are growing Allstate Sweeping,” relates Krueger. “One of the problems I could see was a downfall with Interstate Sweeping was that they tried to grow too big, too fast. They became overextended and did not calculate for the down seasons that can be encountered in the Colorado sweeping industry. We have structured our company so as to minimize downtime. We have also added snowplowing services to our service list, which is something that typically needs to be done in our area any time we can’t sweep. Although we are busier in the Spring, Summer and Fall, we still have a lot going on in the winter.”
Although Allstate Sweeping has tried some other manufacturers for its all-broom sweeper fleet, through the years Krueger says they’ve settled on Elgin Sweepers products to handle the company’s sweeping tasks. Krueger’s analysis is that the Elgins, as far as their personnel are concerned, are the ‘Cadillacs’ of street sweepers. They also feel that the Elgin line holds up better in all types of debris. The company management’s preference also is to run one type of sweeper, if possible, in order to leverage on the economies of scale provided by having an inventory or cross-fit replacement parts on hand.
“We do as much of our own repair as possible,” said Krueger, “and keep a good-sized stock of repair parts onhand. We have also done some designing of parts over the years, manufacturing the needed items ourselves. We also have a good relationship with our Elgin dealer, Faris Machinery, here in Colorado. We primarily use Elgin Eagles as well as some Broom Bears.”
Although Elgin does offer its Eagle for waterless/dustless operation, and water-based dust suppression systems are a significant wear item, Krueger said they continue to use water to keep dust down except in the very few instances where customers request that sweeping be done without water being put down. Although she says they have seen the machines operate without water, in their opinion dustless sweeping has not been perfected so they continue to utilize water-based suppression throughout their fleet.
Krueger further reports that the EPA requires that sweepers be present on most all highway construction sites in Colorado. OSHA also requires that dust be kept down to maximize air quality and minimize related health issues. The agencies do not want pollution in the air and the legislation is strict and oversight maintained. When asked if more emphasis is placed on air quality or more on water quality, Krueger said “Both; however, because we’re in a valley then if there is air pollution then it hangs in the valley and so air quality in our area gets the most emphasis.”
Shortly after Allstate Sweeping was begun, the company also was in the parking area sweeping business, in addition to its main core of street sweeping. However, about 4-5 years ago they sold that part of the business to another sweeping concern. The reason, says Krueger, is that in their area that segment of the market didn’t pay well in any event. Also, there were a number of ‘ma and pa’ companies that were doing much of the sweeping of that type.
“Everything in the [parking area sweeping] sector was bid so low that we couldn’t pay enough to get the quality of employees that we insist on having,” said Krueger. “That, combined with our higher overhead as a substantial company and the fact the drivers for those machines didn’t have CDLs, which the rest of our operators have, just combined to make us re-think being in that marketplace. It got to the point where we felt it was bringing us down, moving us in the wrong direction. By contrast, we were trying to do a lot of certified payroll and move toward getting more government contracts and so sweeping parking lots just seemed not to fit.
The company had gotten out of air sweeping prior to when the recession hit in 2008, which was fortunate. As a result, the firm saw few repercussions from the recession, unlike most business. Allstate Sweeping’s biggest client is RTD, the area’s primary public mass transit system that does all the rail systems as well as bus transport. Due to the sweeping needed for this large organization, as well as DOT work, the recession largely passed the company by unscathed.
“We were headed more and more to government work at the time of the recession,” Krueger said. “[During the recession] they were still building highways and bridges. At the time, they had put out money to try and keep the highway systems going and help the economy and we got quite a few jobs through that.”
Allstate Sweeping is a certified woman-owned business, which has assisted the firm with its government sector business model, as well. The company is entirely woman-owned, with Krueger having two thirds and her partner, Barbara Hollis, retaining the remainder. The two have been friends over 20 years and have maintained an excellent working relationship, with Hollis handling the office and paperwork end of the firm’s needs and Krueger more in charge of the sales and support side.
“I belong to a lot of [organizations] and go to a lot of meetings to make sure everyone knows who we are, although now that I have been doing this for 30 years that’s pretty well known. I do more of the outside, customer contact work and Barbara [Hollis] takes care of the inside needs of the company. Because in Colorado quite a bit of emphasis is put on working with minority firms, that factor helps us, as well. Plus, there’s the fact that we do a quality job when we’re sweeping. That’s the most important part.”
Most of the company’s work, around 90%, is done at prevailing wage. That also allows Allstate to hire and retain better quality operators, since someone who’s pulling down around $30/hour will be much more inclined to want to keep their job than the standard crop of sweeper operators available to parking area sweeping companies that can only pay in the $12/hour range.
Krueger also discussed the value she’s found in belonging to organizations and then attending the meetings and participating in them. “Putting a face to the name of a person someone talks to on the phone all the time makes a huge difference,” Krueger said. “You get kind of a personal aspect going with that. We belong to RMCCA, which is the Rocky Mountain Minority Contractors Association, where I used to be on the Board. We also belong to Comto Colorado, which is nationwide but we are part of the Colorado Chapter. I’m on the computer quite a bit to make sure of what’s going on with any group we’re part of; for example, I have three meetings of that sort just tomorrow. Being out there and being involved in those ways over the last 30 years has helped us tremendously.
The company also currently has an A+ rating with the Denver/Boulder Better Business Bureau.
“We’re not the lowest in the marketplace by any means, but we do our best to be where we have to be and our customer has to have it to make it all work. Our clients are people who want a quality job they can count on and that’s what we provide at Allstate Sweeping. I had a customer tell me just yesterday that their organization would pay us $15/hour more than a competitor just to use us because he knows the quality we provide. That’s what we want to hear.”
With most of their contracts, debris disposal is the obligation of the client. That’s what Allstate strives for and, in most instances, that’s what occurs. When clients require that Allstate take care of debris disposal, though, the company adds a handling charge per load and then disposes of the debris for the customer.
To make it easy for the company to track and allocate fuel expenses, all of Allstate’s operators are assigned their own fuel card. Whenever they have a longer term contract, Krueger said they include a fuel escalation clause that allows them to increase their pricing in the event fuel rises over a certain amount. That’s the way to make an agreement fair to both their company and the client.
Krueger stressed the importance of working with organizations that have realistic understandings of the costs involved with running sweepers and who want a quality work product. When asked about municipal sweeping, she said there appears to be a movement away from using contractors for municipal sweeping, in favor of cities having their own in-house sweeping fleets. Even those smaller cities in their market area that have bid out sweeping seem stack their proposals toward doing their own sweeping, with unrealistic sweeping miles and other expectations included in their external RFPs.
“When we’ve reviewed the proposals we’ve gotten from municipalities in our area,” said Krueger, “we didn’t care for what requirements and specifications they included. Plus, I took a look at what contractors had been doing their sweeping previously and saw a pattern of financial instability. It’s not something we need to be doing; we prefer to work with our clientele of organizations like CDOT, RTD and a group of larger construction firms that have a better understanding of what it takes to provide a quality work product and who want consistent, top-level results from their sweeping contractor.”
Allstate Sweeping is in the fortunate position of having employees who have been with the company for years. Even the new marijuana legalization statutes in Colorado haven’t been a problem to date, even though the company does do random drug testing through a service that chooses who will be tested. No doubt the company’s success in this regard has to do, in part, with the relatively higher wage rate their employees enjoy due to the prevailing wage contracts that make up most of Allstate’s service agreements.
“We have a very good team here at Allstate,” said Krueger. “And, since they are in $30/hour jobs, not $12/hour, I think a big factor is they don’t want to screw that up by smoking pot. They have a lot to lose and we provide as good a workplace for them as we can, besides. We have grown quite a bit this past year and so have been faced with adding more people. Still, to date, we haven’t had difficulty finding good people and keeping them with us over time. I think most all of our people have decided that they’d rather make in the high $30/hour range than smoke pot. Most of them have been with us at least five years on up.”
Allstate Sweeping does most all of its repair and preventive maintenance work in-house, with a three-person team of full-time mechanics. They’re available 24/7 in the sense that if a breakdown occurs in the middle of the night someone will come in to handle the situation.
In wrapping up the audio interview, which is linked below, I asked Beth Krueger what she felt her company’s competitive advantage was that had allowed their growth and success. Her answer holds some clues as to why her customer base is loyal to the organization: “I think the competitive advantage for us,” said Krueger, “is that we are very, very down to earth. We call back; we see how our jobs are doing; we do a lot of follow-up work and pursue relationships with people. I think we just have such a great working relationship with people, too. If we do have a complaint — and I bet we have only one or two per year — then we follow up and find out what we can do to make that person happy.
“Everybody doesn’t always like everybody. Maybe it’s a personality conflict where someone just doesn’t like that driver. If that’s the case, we change drivers. I believe that the customer is always right; we go with solving any problem with the presumption that they are in the right.”
In addition to road sweeping, Allstate Sweeping offers power washing and snow abatement and removal services. For more information about the company, or contact Beth Krueger, through the company’s website located at AllstateSweeping.com.