The Hearthstone Group: Comprehensive Services Combined With Technological Prowess

WideInfoBar by Ranger Kidwell-Ross The Hearthstone Group has developed from the house cleaning  service started by Sandra Graby in 1983. A sideline hobby for her and her husband, Scott, was investing in real estate. As commercial properties were added to their portfolio, about 15 years ago it simply made sense to expand the company into a full-service property management firm. Power sweeping was added early on as a natural expansion for the company’s slate of services. HearthstoneLogoToday, The Hearthstone Group (THG) has a fleet of 40 vehicles that provide services not only the couple’s own properties, but also those of a wide array of commercial clients. As Scott relates, their firm’s role as the overall property manager for their own properties positions his company as an ideal provider for other property managers. “We know how our own needs are prioritized,” says Scott, “as well as what it takes to keep our centers looking at their best and how to maximize the overall value of the property. The Hearthstone Group’s mission is to provide the same quality level of services to its clientele.” Many readers may recall when THG came out with the Green Sweeper several years ago. This was a parking area air sweeper that operated via a fan system powered by a three-phase alternator electrical arrangement. Although the company used the Green Sweepers on its own nightly routes successfully, some difficulties unfortunately cropped up when they tried moving the machines into commercial production. TruckLineup“Like many other sweeping contractors,” said Graby, “we’re constantly trying to see what will be next for sweepers as the amounts being paid per sweep continue to go down. I still haven’t quit thinking about the concept of the Green Sweeper and now drive a Nissan Leaf (electric vehicle), which helps me to assess the current state of the technology. That is especially the case now that sweeping is becoming a commodity and tends to be at the mercy of low bid. You have to find ways that the client can’t do without you and a lot of that comes down to what else they can get when they call your phone number. “If they have a pothole, or a broken curb or an HVAC down and they can get those things resolved with the same phone call, that ties you in a little tighter. It’s hard to fire someone as your sweeping contractor and still call them to say ‘I’ve got a pothole; can you help me?’ [Providing an extensive slate of services] makes it a little harder to go with a lower bid. We saw some crazy low numbers during the recession and then there have been reverse auction bidding situations that have accelerated the race to the bottom. Plus, now we have all of the third party vendors taking their toll [on profitability]. You have to find other services besides just sweeping to retain profitability.” Although Graby is quick to say that having a clean property is one of the most important components of a well-run center, when he is wearing his hat as property manager of their own commercial properties he says the decisions can be difficult — especially when you have tenant vacancies or need major repairs or taxes are coming due. That’s when, as a property manager, you have to look for the low hanging fruit and sweeping is one of the services, along with landscaping, that often bears the brunt of c3Sweepersutbacks. “Unfortunately,” said Graby, “sweeping is often in the first round of cutbacks. Right now, we find that sweeping is marginally successful but that we need to make our main profits elsewhere. I don’t know if that will change, or if at some point contractors will decide they’re not going to sweep for free anymore. We’ll just have to see where the market goes.” Those are some of the reasons why the philosophy of The Hearthstone Group’s management has long been that the best way to become successful would be to provide a comprehensive array of property management services. Here’s how far the company goes in that regard: After a list of the major services the company provides on its website is placed the following statement under the heading ‘General Maintenance:’ StopSignProof“There are an almost infinite number of problem variations that can happen on a commercial property, many of which don’t fit into a particular niche. These are the ones written on sticky notes on your wall because you can’t even define the best solution, let alone know who to call to fix it. This is where Hearthstone excels. We enjoy untangling the seemingly intractable problems, and finding creative and sustainable solutions. Got a sticky note that’s got you perplexed? Bring it on.” And, while we’re discussing the company’s website, their site offers a number of other areas of note. The home page includes a welcome from an attractive woman who tells a bit about the company. This is produced via software called ‘Net Greeter,’ which is produced by Scott’s brother Randal’s company, Straightedge Marketing. Another component of the software is a pop-up that is set to appear on different of the web pages if someone lingers on them. That one offers to connect the viewer to the company’s help desk to get their questions answered. WatchdogNeverWorryIn addition, the company employs a ‘watchdog’ theme throughout the site. This takes the form of a cartoon caricature dog that appears on several pages of the website. For example, on the site’s home page, the dog goes across the screen with the backdrop you see in the image to the right. In addition to the sweeper, the watchdog also is seen running a mower and operating a pressure washer. Then, on the sweeper information page the dog rides across the page of type on a sweeper. This does more than insert a bit of levity into a typically stuffy industry. It also provides increased branding and increases recall for the company’s overriding philosophy of being a ‘watchdog’ for client properties. SweepingProofThis system, which is detailed in the accompanying audio podcast, is done via the most automated process I’ve ever heard of by a sweeping contractor. Graby, who says he tinkers with software as another side hobby, employs iPhones throughout THG’s workplace. These contain an app that provides various employees with powerful tools for their job. For example, included on sweeper operator phones are all they need to complete their nightly routes. One tab has the route; another includes a map of each property with an indicator of where sweeping and other services are to be done; yet another is where the operator logs-in/logs-out of each job. Supervisor iPhones are loaded with all routes and it enables them to view where everyone on the THG team is operating at the moment. All properties are reviewed on a routine basis by Hearthstone inspectors, with scores being given that reflect how good a job the employee is doing.  Inspectors have a similar software package that lets them see what properties were done the night before. Properties are graded by them and the rating system entered and posted.  These ratings are converted to a points system that is tracked for each operator. Also included is the reason for the particular grade given to the property. The inspectors are also the lynchpin in the ‘watchdog’ part of THG’s service. TGuaranteed to Pleasehey scrutinize each property for repairs that might be needed. Their app includes a sophisticated photo feature that allows them to take photos of any areas of a client property that needs attention. These are transmitted to the person in charge of estimating repairs before the package of information is forwarded on to the customer. As you might imagine, this is a welcome service for Hearthstone Group’s clients and, at the same time, generates significant additional revenue for the company. “When clients get the information about what is needed, with a picture attached, the potential job and notification information has been automatically entered into our database,” said Graby. “If the client clicks ‘handle it,’ the job is marked as approved, the work order is updated in the Hearthstone Live portal and the needed job information is transmitted to Tiffany, who assigns the project to the appropriate maintenance person to handle it. “Clients appreciate it when you have their back, and we do that through constant touching in ways that show them how their property is looking and making sure to let them know about anything that needs to be done. When you have someone who you know will tell you ‘we just saw this and thought you would want to know,’ how do you fire them if they’re doing that regularly? As a property owner, that’s gold information .” Although THG does much of the work besides sweeping in-house, they also have enough total volume to enable them to be the only client for several other contractors who are kept busy just via the volume of work they do for THG. Again, for more complete information be sure to listen to the podcast. HearthstoneLive While onsite at client properties, in addition to the rating and property evaluation process, inspectors take four photos of each property they visit and these are posted online to the THG property tracking portal. This customer portal, called Hearthstone Live, is available to customers via a unique log-in. Customers receive an automatic email notice whenever their portal information has been updated. Their customer portal allows them to view the most current four photos of each of their properties that are being swept and information about the last 25 sweeps that have been done on the property. Their Hearthstone Live account also enables them to track and monitor progress on any repair jobs that are taking place. (To see how the Hearthstone Live portal works, click on the logo above and use the username and password of ‘demo.’) Again, for more information be sure to listen to the approximately 40-minute accompanying podcast. THG’s employees are paid per job by what Graby calls a ‘book rate;’ that is, by the account swept. Each property has a target number of dollars assigned to it based on the bid price. If the sweeper operators do the job in an average amount of time, this will net them an average of $11/hour. Doing the job in less time ups their wage rateClock-in-1, but THG’s oversight is strict so as to not allow any reduction in quality to the customers. Operators must maintain quality or risk probation and then, ultimately, loss of their jobs. On the other hand, there’s no downside to stopping to take a nap, get some coffee or take other actions that could increase operator safety. This is seen as a big plus to the THG management team. Operators work, on each 7-day route, a rotating 4-day workweek followed by a 3-day workweek. This allows a mix of full-time and retired personnel. When schedules are posted, anyone wanting to trade days — or work just three days instead of four — are able to list that they’d like to have someone else work the shift. The people who want fewer hours are typically the retired workers who are at THG to earn supplemental income. Others on the workforce want to get all the hours they can, so it not only works out well but adds some camaraderie to the THG team. HearthstoneCafeAnother benefit of working at THG is the company has a cafeteria where breakfast is provided to employees. This also becomes a venue for mingling of the workers, with sweeper operators coming in from their night’s work at about the same time that day workers are coming on-shift. In addition, the workers can watch sports together and this brings in personnel and also serves to encourage better overall team development. Although all of THG’s alternator-powered Green Machines have now been retired, the company still makes its own sweeper fleet. Graby says the hoppers were co-designed and made by a friend with a large metal-working shop. THG employees then mount the hoppers onto chassis and outfit the machines with fan systems and auxiliary engines. Instead of using curb brooms, Graby says they opt to blow all the curbs by hand. Although this takes marginally longer, he believes they can do just as good a job without the high cost of broom replacement and are able to provide a more cost-effective service in these times of downward pressure on pricing. “We make all of our sweepers the same and can move the sweeper bodies between trucks as needed, as well as move operators from sweeper-to-sweeper because we’ve idiot-proofed the process,” said Graby. “There’s nothing high maintenance. We came to the decision that we were paying more to fix and maintain curb brooms than it costs to just blow the curblines clean. That point could be argued multiple ways but we’ve gone as simple as we can. Everything is done in-house and we rarely have to take a truck out of here for repair. Although we love the $80,000 sweepers [on the market] we just can’t figure out how to make them pay for themselves.” “Our personnel are uniformed and look sharp,” said Graby. ” We don’t hire scary-looking people, someone you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley next to a shopping center because, if you think about it, that’s where we operate at night. Our personnel are on the property more than anyone else. We are a professional organization staffed with professional people. Our claim to fame is that we utilize that fact and are the watchdogs for our customers’ interests.” PhotoOfTeam For more information or to contact Scott Graby, use the contact information link at the company’s website,