Landscape Trades spotlight on equipment

By Chris Dennett

Serving the equipment needs of Canada's many-faceted landscaping industry has matured into a multi-million dollar annual business. With thousands of potential customers, dozens of international manufacturers vie aggressively for market share, leading to hundreds of machines and implements that address virtually every application. The catalogue of products and pricing offers a seemingly endless comparison shopping experience. On the other hand, this mechanical 'smorgasbord' can foster the car-buyer's dilemma of selecting exactly the right model from a vast array of basic platforms, options and accessories. The only questions never in doubt are colour and trim!

     The target of course, is a landscape industry that is very much on the move and enjoying some exceptional times. The national economic contribution of the industry overall is startling, according to Bruce McTavish, the British Columbia president of the Canadian Nursery Landscape Association (CNLA). He extrapolates that some $7 billion of the Gross National Product is directly or indirectly attributable to beautifying Canada's workplace, residential and community recreational environments.

     It provides employment for nearly one-quarter of a million Canadians, he says, through 20,000 independent nursery operators, landscape contractors, maintenance firms and garden centres. "And that's not counting the considerable construction, reconstruction and maintenance activities of government agencies and the outdoor recreational industry." McTavish sees workforce availability as an industry-wide challenge, but particularly in the labour-intensive growing sector that enjoys only limited benefits from mechanization.

     Landscape Ontario president Joan Johnston echoes McTavish's appraisal, admitting that the dwindling labour pool is a problem shared by all seasonal industries. She sees North American socio-economic values to be at the heart of the dilemma. "Tradesmen are not appreciated, despite the fact their education and knowledge compares favourably with other so-called high-tech workers," she says. Johnston is quick to point out also that government regulations often prejudice the industry and she decries government failure to address labour shortages through immigration solutions. "It seems that Canadians don't want to get their hands dirty," she ruefully observes. "To some extent the shortfall can be addressed through mechanization, but this option is limited by practical realities."

Ontario comprises 58 per cent of the Canadian construction, maintenance and growing industry, representing an estimated $4.5-billion in annual economic impact to the province. An estimated $500-million of this amount is devoted to capital equipment acquisition. From 20-ton dump trucks to hand-held trimmers, whether purchased, leased or rented, these transactions constitute an enormous economic stimulus. For example, specialized apparatus in the growing sector alone has aided in making ornamental horticulture Ontario's fourth most valuable wholesale farm crop.

     Some 120,000 Ontarians make their living in the commercial landscape industry broadly defined; yet there is a growing labour shortage. Fuelled by a booming economy and a renewed appreciation of nature, the provincial industry has expanded by 10 per cent in each of the recent years. Continued growth is forecast, and in the absence of a reliable labour pool, the only option for professionals is added mechanization wherever possible. Manufacturers recognize this impetus and are increasingly diligent in adapting their equipment to meet specific niche requirements.

     As employers despair over labour woes, the equipment industry is exploring every avenue of providing efficient and cost effective answers. The pace of research and development has accelerated in the quest to substitute machine for man. There are new wrinkles to old designs and original offerings that incorporate the latest technology. Imaginative concepts are on the drawing boards, and sometimes in the showrooms. In response to user needs, some mainline construction equipment is downsizing, compact equipment is shrinking still further, utility tractors boast performance improvements and mowers are benefiting from re-engineering to enhance cut quality. In the hand-held field, new or improved appliances address performance, weight and noise pollution. A common denominator among manufacturers is a focus on durability, reliability and serviceability. In the application context, suppliers strive for performance and ease of operation and produce a vast array of attachments to improve job site versatility.

     From the manufacturers' point of view, the maintenance marketplace is broadly divided between institutional/commercial/industrial (ICI) consumers and the thriving owner-operated residential market, according to Gregg Breningmeyer, marketing manager for John Deere's worldwide commercial and consumer equipment division. "Each has distinct requirements, but they are rapidly converging because of technological advancements." He notes that both sectors want larger, faster and more powerful machines. "This translates into higher horsepower to deliver speed and maneuverability, but speed compromises cut quality," he says. John Deere, among others, has introduced zero turn-radius mowers in answer to the maneuverability issue, and the company recently launched a unique heavy-gauge stamped steel deck in an effort to marry speed with performance.

     Terry Brown, product manager for John Deere's compact tractors, points to their recent focus on improving attachability. He claims their newly re-engineered product line is the industry leader for ease and speed of engaging or disconnecting the wide variety of available implements. "This tool-less system is a direct response to industry demands for increased versatility, flexibility and production," he says. He cites also the company's new low-pressure, wide-tread tires as a further example of addressing user concerns, in this case about unwanted soil compaction while mowing.

     Hank Gelderman of Burlington's Jan Gelderman Landscaping agrees there has been a "tremendous improvement" in manufacturers' response over the past 10 years. "They're visiting us, talking with us and listening to us." Nearly two-thirds of the firm's well-established business consists of maintenance clients. Gelderman is emphatic that a further increase in mowing speed is not needed. He and his customers want cut quality. International Landscaping's Baldo Gucciardi admits that equipment manufacturers are indeed improving their response to user needs. But he complains that lackadaisical dealers or indifferent sales representatives often erode this good will. "After-sale dealer interest is often wanting," he says. "Demonstrated concern and problem solving efforts are crucial to good relations and future purchases." The exponential increase of landscape construction in ICI and residential markets has been a boon to compact equipment manufacturers. Demand has driven dramatic design and performance improvements for builders of back yards and estates, and everything in between. "It's easier to find operators than somebody to work a shovel," explains John Gilliland, national sales manager for Kubota Canada Ltd. "Equipment replaces manpower, with the added advantages of increased production at lower cost and minimal environmental disturbance." One of the earliest entrants in the Canadian compact equipment market, Kubota claims the enviable position of industry leader in sales of mini excavators and utility tractors under 40 h.p. With a continued commitment to cater to diverse requirements, the company recently introduced a compact tractor/loader/backhoe, a four-wheel drive utility tractor and an excavator that can maneuver through a 32-in. doorway. The emphasis is on a unit that offers the maximum level of versatility while also offering easy transportability. It can get into tough corners and it also loads up quickly for the next job on the list.

     Komatsu Canada Ltd. is a relative newcomer to the Canadian compact equipment scene, introducing its first offerings in 1997, according to Utility sales manager Todd Bissonette. The firm is a leader in the Japanese home market, he says, and offers lengthy overseas experience and advanced engineering. In compact sales, it recognizes it faces a crowded market with a lot of established players. Sales have increased about 20 per cent annually, and he hopes several new designs will increase consumer awareness. His catalogue was expanded this year with the addition of a zero-tailspin mini excavator, to be complemented in the near future by new skid steer and backhoe models, both landscaper favourites.     

     Though users seldom agree on product trade names, or on fleet equipment mix, most generally agree that manufacturers are providing a comprehensive variety of equipment and attachments that are well designed, functional and durable. Kitchener-based Mike Franck of Alex Landscaping specializes in construction. He applauds the Japanese: "They've reinvented the standards for equipment reliability." The company mainly uses the smaller models of mainline construction machinery, meeting occasional compact equipment needs through rental. "We're looking carefully at adding a mini-loader to our inventory," he notes.

Aldershot Landscape Contractors of Burlington is among the largest Canadian construction, project management and maintenance firms. President Bill deLuca feels there is "a great future" in the industry, with youth opportunities exceeding those of any other skilled trade. He laments there are too few qualified people emerging from the educational system, and he is critical of both Canadian work ethics and shortsighted immigration policies. DeLuca acknowledges that machinery has to fill these gaps where possible, and he agrees that equipment suppliers are doing their best to address industry needs. An exception, he feels, is industry-wide inattention to anti-theft devices. DeLuca cites numerous experiences with unattended machinery disappearing from construction sites, despite the removal of fuses, tires, and even wheel assemblies.

     In Richmond Hill, Gerald Boot of Boot's Landscaping and Maintenance specializes in condominium and upscale residential maintenance. Contrary to many who insist on nearby servicing facilities, he prefers imported U.S. lawn equipment in spite of dealer and maintenance shortcomings. "The dependability and performance I get far outweigh any inconvenience," he says. Ed Zynomirski of Stihl Ltd. (Canada) couldn't agree more insofar as the hand-held segment of the industry is concerned. He says the family-owned German company has carved out a $2 billion annual market in 150 countries by concentrating on two-cycle gasoline products that deliver advanced features, and superior dependability and serviceability. Worldwide industry focus groups aid the company in product development and improvement, he says, and concerns are quickly addressed. Zynomirski points, for example, to noise abatement engineering that has reduced leaf blower engine noise by some 10 per cent. Commenting on the potential for commercial battery power packs, he says that although the technology exists, battery capacity, weight and cost precludes this option in the near future.

     Though their catalogue lists an extensive line of midmount and upfront mowers, the Woods Equipment Co. is perhaps best known for its array of implement attachments. Their assortment of rear blades, grading and plowing rakes, box scrapers, soil pulverizers, core aerators, turf renovators, rotary tillers, loaders and backhoes boast universal fittings that permit hookup to virtually any machine, by means of either a three-point hitch or direct coupling.

Woods' lawn and landscape product manager Tom Benjamin sees continued expansion in all facets of the industry, much as during the past five years, when growth often reached double-digit levels. "Larger maintenance firms will continue to want higher horsepower, speed and versatility," he forecasts, "but I think we've maximized the speed aspect, with consideration for cut quality and safety. Inexperienced operators are a grave concern. Speeds in excess of 10 m.p.h. in many circumstances simply invite disaster." Noting that the buoy­ant economy has induced large numbers of startups in the commercial construction and maintenance fields, he says these new entries with their capital investment limitations have rejuvenated the market for basic utility tractors and skid steers.

     But the adverse impact of at least some startup companies disturbs Dietmar Bischoff of Heritage Stoneworks in Kitchener. He encourages industry expansion, but Bischoff is concerned that discount pricing, substandard product and poor workmanship is a growing liability that will inevitably harm public perception. He says the problem is particularly pervasive in the decorative stonework sector and calls for provincial or Landscape Ontario standards of the type familiar to the general construction industry. Bischoff estimates an average 20 per cent increase in business in each of the past four years, illustrating, he says, that the sector provides ample opportunities for additional quality contractors. He feels that equipment available to install stonework is equal to the task, with skidsteers playing a pivotal role. A portable conveyor system to overcome grade separations would be a welcome asset, he adds.

     Manufacturers generally offer variations of lease and lease/purchase options. Experience varies, but lease/purchase appears to be the most popular. However, there is a trend toward annual lease in the commercial lawn care sector, according to Woods Manufacturing's Benjamin. "Mowers are grinding away up to a 1,000 hours a season," he explains, "and they can absorb only so much punishment. Leasing gives the operator a brand-new machine every spring, guaranteeing little or no down time." Ontario users seem to favour ownership. For example, buyer Mike Franck describes leasing as "an expensive way to rent money," and Harold Deenen of Toronto's Hank Deenen Landscaping insists on purchasing the equipment needed to support his large construction and maintenance operation. Sometimes, owners opt to lease/purchase larger acquisitions, simply to smooth out seasonal cash flow. The health of a company appears to be the deciding factor: established companies have the advantage of institutional support for capital expenditures, while junior firms rely on industry financing to provide the tools of the trade.

     Equipment and operator safety has been a preoccupation in recent years and manufacturers have devoted considerable resources to the issue. In the minds of many, everything that can be done has been done. Suppliers and users alike agree that intelligent operation of any machinery is the essential ingredient for safety, and even the government can't legislate against stupidity. Despite unobtrusive pressure safety switches, guards, ROPS and anti-tilt mechanisms, workers persist in provocative handling, hazardous operation and inattention. Or, they simply disconnect the devices when no one's watching. This is a costly exercise to the Ontario industry, which finds it paying among the highest compensation rates in the province, according to Landscape Ontario officials. Nevertheless, some users believe that manufacturers can be more proactive, to the extent at least of developing comprehensive operating and safety videos for seasonal in-service training.

     Though durability and ease of operation will continue as paramount objectives, equipment industry insiders believe downstream issues will be emission control, noise pollution and ergonomics. Manufacturers are sensitive to noise abatement, and some admit there is room for improvement. In the final analysis, legislation may well echo that for the automobile industry, compelling changes that will either diminish performance or increase costs, or both. The same can be said of emissions, particularly those from two-cycle engines, which are already targeted by environmentalists. Ergonomics and operator comfort, now a sacred pilgrimage in mainline construction equipment, will be stimulated by the dwindling labour pool and consequent competition for reliable workers.

     In the complex world of landscaping, no piece of equipment yet provides all the answers to the staggering variety of tasks. But regardless of sophistication, no piece of equipment is likely to replace honest labour in the subtext of the industry. Manufacturers nonetheless want to come close, devoting huge resources to design and engineering, committing large sums to re-engineering and retooling, and being even more attentive to the wishes of the industry. Hank Gelderman sums it up: "The problem is not getting the job … it's getting the job done™ Equipment manufacturers worldwide intend to be an indispensable element of the Canadian solution.

Chris Dennett specializes in writing about the North American equipment industry, both compact and heavy. He has over 30 years of experience serving both the media and consulting sectors on both sides of the border. Dennett lives in London, Ontario, where he operates his own communications agency.