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Shaping the landscape

October 10, 2023
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Contractors who construct aesthetically pleasing outdoor environments engage in work that demands precision, speed, and an unusually wide variety of machine tasks. To understand how this impacts equipment requirements, we connected with two SMS Equipment sales representatives: Ian Webster, a specialist in light construction, and Jeff Martin, a specialist in smart construction. Below are five main points from our conversation.

1. Job requirements are diverse.

1. Job requirements are diverse.

Ian: Landscaping is a very broad area these days, and many landscapers are very diverse in their jobs. So, their range of services could include complete design and construction of a yard space, landscaping a commercial property, planting trees along a highway, or constructing walkways in a park. The tasks include softscaping – topsoil, sod, mulch, flowers, trees, and hardscaping – interlocked brick paving, patio stones, firepit areas, ponds, decks and fences. They’ll do the whole gamut.

To meet this demand, landscapers need machines that can do many different things. A typical example is a compact track loader. It’s small enough to fit into any job situation, and the amount of attachments you can get for it is virtually limitless. The same is true with compact excavators. You can get attachments for lifting and setting large boulders, you can get broom attachments, you can get tampers – anything you can imagine to help them do these jobs.

We’re very active in supporting that. If we sell a machine with a package of attachments, each attachment gets installed and tested before it leaves to ensure everything functions properly. We also provide technical guidance to help our landscaping customers select their attachments.

2. Creativity is expected.

2. Creativity is expected.

Ian: The standards for landscaping work are quite high, and the sky seems to be the limit in terms of what they are capable of. Some of them have incredibly talented people in their organizations who can come up with amazing designs and features. Sometimes, they have to build components like retaining walls that are highly functional and decorative.

Landscapers often have a very personal relationship with their clients, so expectations are high, and being able to do precise work is essential for them.

3. Experienced operators are hard to come by.

3. Experienced operators are hard to come by.

Jeff: There are a lot of applications in landscaping where smart features can be really economical, so we’re getting more and more calls about that. For example, having a base and rover (GPS) system for grading is really productive when you’re building a golf course. Or, if you’re planting trees by the road in a subdivision, using a machine that will automatically dig holes to the proper depth from the top of the curb can help make a job more competitive.

One of the drivers here is that landscapers have a tough time finding skilled equipment operators like all contractors. The labour challenge is in some ways more urgent than what other contractors experience because landscaping requires a lot of precision work that you would typically only get from an operator with years of experience.

I should mention that the smaller machines that landscapers use, typically don’t come with factory-installed smart features. We believe this is coming from vendors like Takeuchi and BOMAG, but in the meantime, these systems will involve retrofitting. Fortunately, we do a lot of retrofitting and have a deep bench regarding the skills required, plus solid partnerships with our vendors.

4. Jobs are smaller.

4. Jobs are smaller.

Ian: Compared to other contractors that use heavy construction equipment, landscapers do relatively small jobs. This means that margins of error are small, budgets are limited, and often, timelines are tight.

So, the strategy that Jeff mentions of adding smart features incrementally by using aftermarket kits makes a lot of sense for them. Similarly, landscapers expect to do a lot with their machines. For them, a machine has to be somewhat like a Swiss army knife.

5. Downtime is intolerable.

5. Downtime is intolerable.

Ian: Reliability and uptime are tremendous for our landscaping customers. In our Canadian climate, they only have a short window to do their jobs, and when you factor in things like delays from rainstorms, they can’t afford to lose any time. So, they need reliable and durable equipment and speedy turnarounds when they are experiencing equipment issues. Access to a service department as we have with parts on hand and experienced technicians is essential for them.

Many of them, beyond maybe a simple oil change, don’t do much on the maintenance side of things, so they need someone who can do the more major services – changing out tracks or installing and setting up attachments.

Another aspect of this is that many landscapers use their equipment in the winter for snow removal, which forms a substantial portion of their business. These operations require year-round support, and services such as preparing equipment for the winter or spring seasons are essential.

The Bottom Line:

Landscapers have unique equipment requirements due to the need for diversity, reliability, and economy. “It’s a pretty demanding industry and an intricate one,” says Jeff. “Landscapers must diversify to capture as much of that business as possible. And we’re just happy that we have the right equipment and attachments that we can provide them that helps them do that.”

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