Tom Hamel started Dubuque, Iowa-based Hamel Parking Lot Service in 1968. Tom was working for John Deere full-time, but started striping parking lots on the side. He gained increasing business in that area, which prompted him to add sweeping and general maintenance to the work the company would do.
Today, Hamel Parking Lot Service has become a full-on road construction and maintenance company. The company does residential road maintenance as well as work for small municipalities. Their crews pave, repair and do concrete flat work. Most of the company’s sweeping services are done for area malls and similar businesses.
Jeff Spahn, the current owner and person we interviewed for this article and podcast, purchased the firm a little over a year ago. Although Spahn didn’t have any experience in the types of services done by Hamel’s organization, he had grown up with a family that owned a chain of 25 lumber yards in the midwest. Prior to buying out John Hamel, Spahn had been a regional manager in the family business.
“I left the family business after some unfortunate deaths in the family,” said Spahn. “I played around with a factory I owned but got kind of bored. I’d known Tom for about 25 years and he was getting into his early 80s and I started bugging him to sell me his company. I told him it was time to retire and that he needed a hobby. It took about three years but that finally worked.”
Spahn says he’s found it to be a great business, in large part because of the capable team that Hamel had created to run the operation. Although there’s plenty of work involved, he’s also able to travel around the U.S. taking skiing vacations in the winter, something he wanted to keep on his schedule.
“Parking lot sweeping is done in our area up until right around Christmas,” said Spahn. We can’t get it going again until around late March here in Iowa. During that time about all we can do is commercial plowing. All that is done not under contract [whether it snows or not,] but on a per hour basis and per ton of salt.
In our area, if it’s a snowstorm we park an employee with an end loader and a tandem axle dump truck and, rotating on and off, they might stay there for the 24- or 36-hours until the lot is clear and the storm over. We’re not using little pickups; rather, we use 10-yard dump trucks, along with large, CAT 924 loaders and similar.
“Around here it’s not like it might snow in Atlanta. When it snows we can get two-to-three feet at a time. It’s a nice tie-in to our sweeping business and our parking lot repair business. We don’t really get into any residential.”
Spahn said they do have a significant amount of material to pick up during spring cleanup as a result of the severe winter weather of Iowa. However, the clients — some of whom have been with the company for both snow services and sweeping for over 20 years — recognize that fact and are prepared for the extra fees needed to have Hamel’s employees come in and do a great job.
When asked about the ‘litigation climate’ for slip-and-fall claims against sweeping companies there where the winter season is so harsh, Spahn said that it appears that, as the years have gone on, more and more people seem to be seeing a lawsuit as an income source.
“We know the value of keeping good records,” said Spahn, “about both our salting and our sweeping schedules. We can assist our clients against any such claims by being able to tell them exactly when we put down X number of tons of salt, or when and where we swept the lot over the affected time period. That can be enormously helpful to our clients in terms of defending against those types of claims.”
Spahn also owns a GPS services company, and is in the process of seeing how they might integrate some of the surveying and farm services’ software for use in both their salt and sweeping trucks. Currently, the company specializes in making auto-steer tractor equipment more accurate, but with modification Spahn says the software can handle any of the GPS functions he would need on both his sweeping equipment and his snow abatement rolling stock. He feels this will get him on an equal footing, or ahead, of any of his competition in that regard.
“In today’s climate, I’ve been amazed at how many prospects have told me we have a leg up on our competition just by virtue of returning their phone calls in a timely fashion. From what so many people say, there seem to be a lot of businesses out there that simply don’t re-contact their prospects and customers without delay. Then show up when you say you will. Our policy is to under-promise and over-deliver.
For parking area sweeping, the Hamel organization uses the TYMCO 210 model sweeper. This isn’t a large enough type of sweeper to work around pavers and/or milling machines, of course. For those applications within their roadway operation the company employs a box broom hooked up to a CAT 279 skid steer. That handles the gross cleanup and then the TYMCO 210 is used for any fines that are left.
Spahn said he’s honestly not had any ‘hiccups’ in taking over the Hamel organization, since the previous owner had it running so well. The biggest problem is one reported by many contractors: getting people who will show up for work. Spahn is personally involved in a panel of business people in cooperation with the local Northeast Iowa Community College that is designed specifically to develop and then help students apply work ethics. These are being designed to apply to any type of contractor-related work.
“We’re teaching the kids things like you come to work every morning; you don’t talk on your cellphone while working; you do what you say you’re going to do; and, you don’t whine about what time am I going to get off tonight. It’s all stuff that used to be common sense but simply isn’t anymore. Everybody will say that my kid’s not that way, but it seems like most kids are like that these days.”
The college curriculum is a 72-hour course and Spahn, along with the other contractors participating, are awaiting what, if any, difference taking the course will provide for new hires. Although students in the course can work for them prior, they can’t be made an actual employee until after the course is over this coming spring.
At Hamel, the foreman and supervisor are supplied with cellphones that allow unlimited personal use and the foreman also has a company vehicle that is allowed to be used for personal needs. The rest of the Hamel workforce are on their own in that regard. However, Spahn makes it clear he does not want people on their cellphones while they’re working.
Right now the company employs a mish-mash of hiring techniques, from employment agencies to recommendations from current workers. It’s not particularly easy to get someone who will show up for work every day and can pass a drug test as well as fulfill the challenges of the available jobs and pass a background check so they can work in the secure facilities some of their clients have. There are a lot of people out there, says Spahn, but not all that many we can use.
The Hamel organization has found it is definitely worthwhile in the long-term to follow through with whatever safety training is required for security and safety conscious clients. Since they perform so many services, they are also one of the few companies out there that are essentially sole-source for all of their customers’ pavement needs.
“We have a number of customers who have never had anyone else do their sweeping and their plowing, as well as other pavement repair/replacement services,” said Spahn. “We know their properties inside-and-out, and that makes a big difference. Our people can spot repairs with plenty of lead time, sometimes up to five years, so the needed projects may be long-term budgeted and be fixed with minimal expense. For some of our customers, we do a formal five-year plan to help them with planning for their long-term pavement needs.”
As might be expected from someone who has previously run large organizations, Jeff Spahn believes in providing his supervisory personnel with the power to make decisions and he, himself, refrains from ‘stirring up the pot’ unless it’s absolutely necessary. “We have good people in place, ones who know what they’re doing,” said Spahn. “For the most part I do the estimating and handle the inside workload and let them do what it is they do.
“Through being a regional manager in my family’s lumberyard business I learned the effectiveness of giving people power and then letting them go and do their work. We do spot checks here and there and we do find some things. Those can typically be handled just by having a chat with the responsible employee(s), though, and we find out what we need to find out by operating in that manner.
“We’ve found that the best way to be a hero to your customers is by under-promising and over-delivering,” Spahn reported. “That’s how we operate; you sure don’t want to have it be the other way around. If you promise to get it done in three days and it takes two, customers love you. If it’s the other way around you’ll ultimately lose the contract.”
This article is an excellent example of the value in having good employee training coupled with empowerment. For Tom Hamel it meant he could sell his company and truly have something to sell. For Jeff Spahn it translated to coming into a new business and not having unexpected ‘speed bumps’ that diminished the value of what he paid for. Perhaps equally important, it has meant the company’s client base have continued to have a firm they can rely on with Hamel Parking Lot Service.
For a more complete understanding of Hamel Parking Lot Service and how it operates, including information that is not in the above article, listen to the approximately 32-minute podcast linked below. The podcast with Jeff Spahn is conducted by the Executive Director of WSA, Ranger Kidwell-Ross.