“It’s a proven fact that most of the damage to pipelines is caused by third parties. For example, let’s say a property owner is digging a swimming pool and hits the pipe with a tooth bucket. It might not burst the pipe right then and there, but it could cause some serious damage that creates a problem, maybe even an explosion, down the road. That’s why it’s in the public’s best interest to keep these pipelines clear.”
And that’s why the key to retaining this business comes down to one simple word: safety. “Safety is by far the biggest issue,” says daughter Mary Huston. “That one moment when you’re not being safe could cost you everything.” “Our pipeline customers demand zero accidents,” Terry Sr. adds. “We are definitely in a high-risk business.”
But the Dinkelmans knew they would be when they made the foray into right-of-way maintenance back in 2005. “I knew I had to immediately bring my employees up to ‘operator certification standards,’” Terry Sr. tells. “That means they’re recognizing pipeline hazards and understand how to place markers.”
Dinkelman employees also had to go through significant DOT certification training. Furthermore, the company had to write its own safety program and submit it to the pipeline companies in order to be awarded a contract. Once awarded a contract and out on a jobsite, an employee had better never get caught without his personal protective equipment (PPE) in place—including fire-retardant clothing and a hardhat.
Getting employees into a “safety first” frame of mind wasn’t all that difficult, Terry Sr. says, but keeping them there takes a lot of repetitive training. “We have safety meetings every single day. We show safety videos from the equipment manufacturers, and things of that nature. Safety is the most important thing in this business.”
Quality work is an extremely close second. “The right-of-way business is very price-competitive,” Huston says. “You got a bunch of different contractors chasing the contracts,” Terry Jr. adds, “but in the end it really comes down to quality.”
That’s exactly why Dinkelman Landscaping, although much smaller than many of the right-of-way maintenance companies out there, has been able to secure such a foothold in this market. While Dinkelman’s right-of-way division was launched on a single contract with a single pipeline company back in 2005, the company’s quality work fueled that precious word of mouth—and several more contracts with other pipeline companies soon followed. “Today we’re booked about a year ahead, and already have several bids out for 2010,” Terry Jr. points out.
The backlog of work in the company’s landscaping division is fairly deep itself. “Even though landscaping only accounts for a third of our total business, sales are considerably higher than they were a few years ago,” says son Shawn Watts, who heads up the landscaping division. “In fact, our landscaping business grew 30% in 2008 alone.”
The right-of-way division has helped spur some of that growth, as some property owners ask Dinkelman Landscaping to come back and perform restorations. For example, the easement maintenance contract may require some trees to be taken out, so the property owner asks Dinkelman to replace them with flower beds, stonework or fencing.
Speaking of property owners, that’s been another challenge Dinkelman and crew have learned to overcome. “If you’re a property owner with a pipeline running through your yard, and some contractor comes up and tells you that three of your trees have to go, you’d be pretty mad,” Terry Sr. relates. “That said, we’ve become pretty good at dealing with customers.”
With respect to landscape maintenance, most of Dinkelman Landscaping’s customers have been with them since the beginning. Watts says they haven’t really tried to grow their landscape maintenance customer base.
“We want to keep it pretty simple—focusing on those accounts that are willing to pay for our high-quality work,” Watts explains. “There are plenty of maintenance contractors around here, so we don’t want to go chasing after every single property. Most of our long-standing accounts want much more than just mowing; they want trimming, edging, detailed pruning, lawn care and fall cleanup. They want a full-service landscape management provider, and that’s what we do.”