Pro Sweep: Putting the Plus in Service Excellence

Pro Sweep: Putting the Plus in Service Excellence




by Ranger Kidwell-Ross

Joe Baumgardner grew up working in his father’s masonry supply business, which was located in Missoula, Montana. Although he was still involved in that company as an adult, Joe says he simply wanted to take on a project that would allow for more business growth.

This prompted him to start a snowplowing business in 1993 in order to make some extra money and, at the same time, “not be sitting around all winter.” After a few years of that, which also involved putting down gravel for traction onto parking lots, a customer asked him in the spring if he was interested in sweeping the material off their lot. After doing a critical survey of potential other business that would involve a sweeper, Baumgardner decided that could be a good business to go into. The year was 2000.

Johnston605To get started, Joe bought a Johnston 605 air sweeper. When he first went out to drum up business he found himself wildly successful. Everyone he talked to about sweeping for them seem to say yes and before he knew it he was sweeping every night, every day and every weekend to get the winter sand off Missoula parking lots. However, it was a slower process to turn those individual jobs into repeat sweeping contracts where he would sweep for, among others the local box stores. At the time, box stores had just started arriving in the Missoula area and, through good fortune in timing, Baumgardner was able to be first in the door to contact them.

As he grew the size of his business and learned more about sweepers, the too-large Johnston 605 street sweeper was traded for a TYMCO 435, which is the type of sweeper the company has utilized ever since. Before long, the box stores all contacted him about maintaining their lawns, too, so that was added to the company’s scope of work, as well.

SweeperAlthough Joe was the lone – and quite busy – worker for the first year his company was in business, at the end of that year he hired his first employee. His wife, Traci, handled the accounting end of things. Over the next four or five years, Joe hired on the average of one new employee per year to keep up with the growth in the company’s business.

Now that they were providing a larger package of services it was inevitable that one of his customers would if they could re-stripe their parking lot. “Although I had never done any striping, I asked my potential customer what the job would pay,” said Baumgardner. “When he told me, my response was that I would go by a striping machine and do the project for him. I then ended up striping three big malls in my first couple of weeks with my new machine. To keep rolling with that new service I then had to hire more employees.”

That was it for new services over the next couple years, but then another customer requested pressure washing. Using the formula that had worked previously with striping, Joe says he asked how much they would pay for the job. When they told him he said he’d go by a pressure washer. That’s how power washing was added to the company’s growing list of services. “It wasn’t long before we were pressure washing most all of our customers storefronts,” Baumgardner related. “We just kept growing our customer base and it all happened by word-of-mouth. I didn’t try to grow for the sake of growth, I just let our customers grow us.

“Although we subbed out some services our customers requested atView More: that point, such as adding fertilizers, it became clear that customers preferred that we do services in-house. The fact was, they had learned they could depend on our quality. So, before long we acquired our fertilizer license so we could take over that job, as well. And, it was true: that enabled us to handle all of our lawns better and come up with a stronger end product because we were doing all aspects of our lawn care services.”

From there it wasn’t long until sprinkler service maintenance was added. Today, Pro Sweep Plus has several employees doing sprinkler maintenance all summer. Although the company is still growing, Baumgardner says he has limited that to one or two customers per year. Any new customers must fit within their current driving plan for existing customers; if they’re out of the way, the business is declined.

View More:“I quickly learned that it costs a lot of money to drive across town with a couple guys and a truck,” said Baumgardner. “Right now, we literally have every major mall in town as a customer and our guys don’t have to drive more than a minute between stops, whether that is with the sweeper or a lawn care truck or whatever. Although we might have to drive five minutes to get from one area to another, we are then back to business with stops that are nearby each other. We can’t make any money if our guys are sitting behind the steering wheel of a truck – they have to be operating the equipment.

“I have built the entire company on a platform of efficiency, along with making sure my customers are number one. Whatever they want, we will do it. In the rare case we can’t do a task I will hire somebody to do it to get the job done for the customer. Many of my customers are big corporations and their managers don’t have time for dealing with little piddly stuff. They know when they call Pro Sweep Plus that we will handle it for them, whatever it is they need.”

The morning I conducted my interview with Joe, he had just finished forming up a set of concrete steps for one of his favorite customers, a local family that owns several business properties. They needed the job done right away, he did not have an employee available to do the job and it was something he knew how to do. So, the owner was also a worker on that particular day.

Although Pro Sweep Plus now has between 15 and 20 employees, Baumgardner prides himself on being willing to work alongside them on any project. “If I’m needed,” said Baumgardner, “I’ll be there working with any of my crews. Just because I show up and take part on a jobsite it doesn’t mean that I jump on the equipment, either, or take whatever the easiest job is. If they’re missing a guy on a hand shovel then I’ll grab a hand shovel in order to not mess up the flow of the job. Even if it comes down to weeding and that’s what needs to be done at the moment, that’s what I do. My employees know that I don’t consider myself too good to do anything that they do.”

Another thing Baumgardner is proud of is meeting the time frame needed by a customer. Whenever a customer calls with a new job they are asked when they need it done. If it is that day then the Pro Sweep crew handles it that day. Baumgardner credits all of these factors as being responsible for growing his company to where it has gotten to today.

More recently, the company has added sealcoating to its slate of services and now sealcoats most all of its client properties. “I consider all of my customer parking lots as ‘mine,’ and consider sealcoating just one more thing we can do to keep our client properties in top condition,” said Baumgardner. “We also needed to start patching potholes, which I soon learned was a very inefficient process.

IMG_2992“So, last year, we invested in a Kasi infrared machine. We have the only infrared pothole patcher in Montana; the next closest, they tell me, is in the Denver area. When we first got the machine last summer we were so busy we couldn’t even get it rolling until the fall. However, since that time we have been able to use the infrared patcher virtually full-time.”

Pro Sweep Plus has made his reputation on never saying no and completing jobs on time, on budget, and in just the way the customers’ request that the work be done. Baumgardner says he also uses his experience to suggest ways customers can save money in accomplishing whatever it is they need done. However, if they still insist on having a job done in a different way, the Pro Sweep Plus team is glad to comply.

Baumgardner credits his work ethic and the subsequent success it has brought him to his father, since he grew up watching and participating in how his father ran the family business. “I like to provide service to others,” said Baumgardner. “I’m one of those people who like good service, myself, and I’m not so price-oriented if I feel like I’m getting good value for what I paid for something. So, that’s what I live by. I give people what I think they want for what they’re paying and I try to provide a little bit extra all the time. It just seems to work well for us.”

View More: some contractors, all of Pro Sweep’s equipment is extremely visible while on the job and in transit. As you have seen in the accompanying photos, all of Pro Sweep’s rolling stock serves as a billboard for the company. Baumgardner feels like that’s a factor in producing good work outcomes, as well, since if one of his employees or crews is standing around on the jobsite it becomes obvious to anybody who sees them who the contractor is.

“Since I grew up in this small town, everybody knows us,” said Baumgardner. “If somebody is just standing around on the job, one of my friends is going to see that happening within a few minutes and will let me know. Then, the crew will find me stopping by just to check on things. So, our guys are very watched over and they know it. We talk about that all the time. It helps us to just keep good workers in our organization.

IMG_3265“Our entire crew of employees is great. If someone is a hard worker I’ll find work for them, that’s not a problem. Finding work is the easy part for us. I could double in size; however, the difficulty is finding the help that wants to stay with us and work to our standards. That’s our only struggle as a business. I want to hire people that want to work, like I do, because we need to be productive in order to make money. We’re not here just to have a hobby.

“In return, I pay my personnel very well and they know that we’re going to keep growing. I also don’t scrimp on equipment. When someone comes to me and says we need a new blower, or a new mower, or whatever, I go buy it. If a new or replacement piece of equipment can make our job easier then that’s a piece of equipment that needs to be purchased. My manager, Matt Watt, has previously worked for other, similar, companies. He says he has never worked for another organization that supplies their employees as well as we do.”

Baumgardner said he recognizes full well that, to be at their most productive, employees need to be assisted such that there are a minimum amount of struggles connected with any job task. That’s why his mantra is to provide his workers with anything that can streamline their process because that’s what, ultimately, makes the company as successful as it could be — with the highest possible level of satisfaction from its customers.

Another fortunate aspect of Pro Sweep’s growth Baumgardner credits to his wife, Traci, who handles all of the company’s finances. “Because of her diligence, we have been able to finance our own growth,” said Baumgardner. “We don’t have or need a line of credit and that reduces our cost of doing business, as well. We work for our own family money and I make sure everything else is taking care of before we pay ourselves. We make sure all of our bills are paid on time, including our subcontractors. I don’t make them wait until we get paid for a job, which just makes them want to work harder and do a better job for us.”

IMG_0176Over time, Pro Sweep Plus has also become the largest snow abatement contractor in Missoula, with a fleet that is probably larger than all others combined. Their equipment now includes loaders, 14-foot box plows, skid steers and more. Missoula’s code now calls for deicing and the company does more of that than anyone else in town, too.

Another emphasis Baumgardner has with operating his company is to foster a climate where his employees can have fun with each other. “This trickles down to the job they end up doing for our customers, as well. Most all of my customers I can now call friends, too, and that’s what I want. I truly want to enjoy the people that we work for. If I don’t get along with somebody – which is really hard for me to do – I won’t work for them. If it isn’t fun to work for somebody then I simply don’t want to do it. I can deal with just about anybody, but if somebody is hard to deal with then I let some competitor have the work.”

The methodology clearly is working, since Pro Sweep Plus rarely loses an account once the company starts doing work for them. Growth has been gained without doing advertising of any kind. Most new hires has also come from referrals by current employees, who know full well that if somebody isn’t willing to work hard then they won’t last at Pro Sweep. As a result, people who are not hard-working simply don’t get recommended.

The only blip in the company’s steady growth came a couple years ago when there was such a boom in the oil fields. That created a huge demand for workers in the area around Missoula and Baumgardner says he was forced to keep his growth near zero during that time simply because he couldn’t get good employees. He knew that without a strong workforce he couldn’t both grow the company and continue with the quality of work that both he and his customers expect. Since the oilfield work has busted, several of his former employees are back on the job again.

Because of the work ethic that extends across the company, productivity is high. That allows Pro Sweep to pay better than most area companies for similar work, since Baumgardner’s philosophy is that if the company is making money then the employees should share in that.

Family_3118Bumgarner’s son, Zach, is now 21 and has become the assistant manager for the company, in charge of the asphalt crew. He, too, grew up with a strong work ethic. Joe reminisced that this began when they were building their house at the time Zach was in diapers yet was helping pick up 2x4s and sticks. He also rode along from an early age in the sweeper truck.

The couple’s daughter, Alexi, Baumgardner says grew up in the same fashion. “When my kids started working for us,” said Baumgardner, “they started out at the bottom of the ladder, weeding flower beds. After doing that for a year, my son had to run a weedeater for another year until he was finally big enough that he could start mowing. I made them earn their way up the ladder, which you can be sure is something that my other employees noticed. Otherwise, they won’t respect them. Alexi is now going to college, but also has worked with Tracy to learn the accounting aspects of the business.”

Baumgardner says he has been very happy with his choice of TYMCO 435 sweepers. Since Missoula no longer allows gravel to be put down in the winter but, rather, has moved to requiring just a deicer, the TYMCO machines handle spring cleanup with no problem. “It’s been a great machine for us,” said Baumgardner. “I’ll even do the final sweep on chipcoat jobs before they stripe; we do a lot of construction cleanup during the day.

“Construction sweeping went away for about five years when the economy went down but is now back strong. I like the TYMCO 435 since it can travel at highway speeds from job to job and then has strong pickup once in use. It’s the best piece of equipment we ever bought for the company, as far as I’m concerned. We had a 210 at one point but it was just too small.

“The 210 really struggled to handle the kind of debris that we encounter here in Missoula. Although we have had three 435’s, we have only had one at a time, so far. However, the machine probably runs 75 hours per week. The 435 runs seven-nights-a-week and then, during the day, it handles all of our construction cleanup work.”

In recent years, an increased emphasis has been placed on construction sweeping in Montana. When it’s raining, many sites require a scheduled, twice-a-day, sweeping routine. If the construction site is located downtown in a busier area, this is often increased to three times per day. On days when it’s not raining or not muddy, sweepers are usually employed just one time per day for construction cleanup.

View More: Baumgardner says they try to schedule construction site work, they also get calls at 4 o’clock in the afternoon with the request that sweeping needs to be done right away. In these instances, instead of asking an employee to work late or come back in to work, Baumgardner takes the sweeper out himself, if need be. “Matt, my manager, or I will always handle a job that needs to happen ‘right now.’ There is never a time we would tell the customer we couldn’t do it. Also, we have cross-trained our employees so that most everyone knows how to run all of the different pieces of equipment. That, too, was cited as a key to Pro Sweep’s productivity.

These days, sweeping and snow plowing at most of the chain stores in Missoula are being handled under third-party management. “Working with third-party vendors is, I’m sorry to say, a constant fight,” said Baumgardner. “Typically, I’m already doing the stores and then a third party vendor comes in and wants me to do them for half the price. Although I get along with most of these companies we’ve left quite a few jobs because of the payment schedule offered by those brokers. Usually, though, I get the contracts back about a year later.

“Somebody else will get the job at the time but, because they are not getting paid enough, the properties then go downhill. Because I have a good relationship with all of the managers, they end up finding a way to get us back on the job. Although most of it has come back around, there are some places we simply won’t work anymore because we’re not being paid enough; I’m not interested in working for free. What we found is that the managers oftentimes don’t realize that their contractors are not being paid enough to do good work.”

Pro Sweep has gotten burned a couple of times because they did work for a customer before getting the PO from the third-party vendor; then, they wouldn’t get paid. It’s a tough situation, says Baumgardner, when it’s something like a main line on a sprinkler system that breaks. These need to be fixed the first day or, in Missoula’s 95-degree heat, the lawn deteriorates quickly. Yet, unfortunately it can often take up to two weeks to get a PO back from third-party vendor. This has been something the company has struggled with in terms of keeping the customer satisfied and yet getting paid for their work.

Baumgardner also cited getting burned once by a contract where there was a price per sweep listed that was okay, but the fine print later on said the contract could not exceed X amount of dollars per year – even though if all the sweeps were completed the total per year would be exceeded. Since he had signed the contract, he found himself being forced to sweep the last two months of the year without being able to bill for the sweeping. I must say that this was a clause that was new to me, even after working with contractors around the country for so many years.

In the accompanying audio podcast, which is approximately 37-minutes in length, Baumgardner also discusses the documentation system they use to keep their liability to a minimum. Especially because of the amount of snow plowing and other snow abatement the company does, he says they have developed a documentation system designed to keep them out of court. This includes when they were on the lot, when the snow came, what they sprayed down, the amount of snow on the ground at the time and the hours of snowfall.

“When we show all of the documentation we have,” says Baumgardner, “Pro Sweep has been able to stay out of most all of those situations. We have made sure we have all of our ducks in a row so in case there is a slip-and-fall we are protected. It seems like every year one of my competitors will call, though, and ask me to look up some snow fact that they don’t have available to fight some type of battle. This kind of documentation is so very important, but then of course we have to have another employee that pretty much just handles documentation, a position that brings in no income.”

When asked how he would like to conclude our interview, Baumgardner did not hesitate: “Hard work can get you any place you want to be,” he said. “If you work hard, the success will come.

You may reach Joe and Traci Baumgardner via the company’s website, which is located at may also reach them by calling 406.721.3665.

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