Friday September 22, 2017

Success Story: Chase Enterprises, Oswego

Allen Chase continues his evolution as successful entrepreneur
By Lou Sorendo

    Chase has over 100 specially equipped vehicles.


    When Allen Chase was 15 years old, he started a lawn mower repair shop in my father’s garage.

     

    Today, the business he owns — Chase Enterprises in Scriba — features a fleet of over 100 specialized equipped vehicles and more than 85 employees.

     

    The commercial property maintenance and construction company has taken off in recent years after entering the vegetation control business.

     

    As a result, the business has achieved annual sales growth of over 35 percent per year since 2014.

     

    Chase described his business journey as an evolution. “I always had an entrepreneurial spirit,” he said.

     

    From his modest beginning as a lawn mower repairman, Chase started to snowplow neighbors’ driveways, and then parking lots of a local gas station and elementary school. “It kind of evolved, and eventually I made a real business of it,” he said.

     

    Snow removal was “our main game” back in the late 1990s, Chase said.

     

    “I was working as a firefighter-paramedic for the City of Oswego Fire Department, and plowing driveways for extra money,” he said. “In 2001, I decided to start doing only commercial work, and began looking for those type of clients.”

     

    After doing a good job for his customers, Chase was asked to take on other activities such as lawn care and parking lot sweeping. That led to his first big snow removal job servicing Lowe’s parking lot when it first opened in Oswego.

     

    The company’s biggest growth came about six years ago when Chase started doing commercial vegetation control. Much of this work involves spraying herbicides in industrial or commercial areas to control unwanted vegetation, but it also includes mechanical cutting of brush and trees. Chase started this work for several local power generating companies.

     

    The tasks involved spraying electrical yards to keep weeds down in those areas. “I found that to be a niche business and there wasn’t a lot of competition,” he said.

     

    “It certainly seemed interesting. We started to pursue that and began similar work at airport runways, wastewater treatment plants, and cell phone towers,” he said.

     

    Chase Enterprises offers vegetation control services for municipal and industrial clients throughout the northeast United States. Typically, this work is performed on public highways, railroad tracks, rivers and manufacturing facilities.

     

    “I realized early there was a steep barrier of entry into this line of work. It required highly specialized equipment with unique employee training and certification requirements,” he said. “There are not many companies pursuing this work, in part because there is not an enormous need for this type of work locally.”

     

    Nonetheless, that has become Chase’s primary anchor of what the business does.

     

    One of Chase’s first bigger jobs was spraying guardrails and signposts on all county roads in Onondaga County, now one of 20 counties in New York state the company does that type of work for.

     

    “We stumbled onto that job, and I thought, ‘If Onondaga County does this, I wonder who else does?’ So we started picking up the phone and calling different counties in New York, and before you know it, we’re the No. 1 provider for that type of service statewide,” he said. “It has gotten to the point now where our name is out there enough, the municipalities are calling us.”

     

    Chase has gone multi-state with the service, one of the company’s largest clients being the state of Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation.

     

    Chase’s company provides roadside spraying on all roads in 17 counties in Pennsylvania, including the cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

     

    It’s not just herbicide spraying that is driving growth. Chase said the company just finished a $1 million dollar tree-clearing project on 45 miles of railroad track used by the Adirondack Scenic Railroad between Big Moose and Tupper Lake.

     

    Chase says in the beginning, his company grew incrementally, adding a few pieces of equipment each year and paying for them as the company grew.

     

    “It was probably eight years ago when we really started to spike in terms of growth. That’s about when we crossed the $1 million threshold in gross sales, and then suddenly we were bidding on these larger projects that take 60, 90 even 120 days or more to collect. These jobs required a lot of equipment and payroll expenses quickly. We needed to carry that money, and that’s when things got tight financially,” he said.

     

    Chase partnered up with NBT Bank.

     

    “They have been awesome and I have only great things to say about them,” he said. “Our rapid growth needed financial backing and they came to the plate. We had worked with other banks in the past but NBT was the one that came through for us.”

     

    Chase said the business is the largest industrial herbicide contractor based in New York state. “I don’t know anybody in New York that’s even close to us in scale in this niche market,” he said.

     

    Before vegetation control, snow removal constituted about 75 percent of what Chase did money wise. The other 25 percent was lawn care, sweeping, asphalt maintenance, and site construction work.

     

    Today, vegetation control and specifically commercial herbicide spraying is at least 80 percent of the business’ total revenue dollar wise.

     

    “If we did $5 million this year, $4 million came from herbicide spraying,” he said.

     

    Chase, 46, lives in New Haven and is originally from Palermo. His wife Allison came aboard as the business began its growth spurt. She handles human resources and office management. The couple has three sons.

     

    Overhead advantages — Chase has literally gone from an Oswego-based businessman who was worried over whether he could manage jobs as far away as Fulton and Central Square to someone who has crews working around the Northeast, including a permanent 25-man operation in Philadelphia and another 20-man operation based in Pittsburgh.

     

    This has all occurred over the last four years.

     

    Chase Enterprises has the distinct advantage of having a full fabrication shop and the ability to build its own equipment.

     

    “The trucks and equipment used in this work are unique. You don’t go to a Chevy dealer to buy them,” he said. “They really have to be custom built. There’s some custom builders out there, but it takes six to eight months to get a unit built and they are super expensive.

     

    “This is another example of the obstacles for entry into this line of work, but we build everything here in house. We don’t have the time or resources to buy these vehicles through traditional suppliers.”

     

    The business is a licensed automobile dealer, and buys vehicles through dealer networks or purchases late model salvage vehicles through auctions.

     

    “For instance, we recently bought a 2016 Ford medium-duty truck that was damaged in a New Orleans flood. We bring that into our shop and take care of what needs to be done for a fraction of the cost of new,” he said. “This is part of our competitive advantage. We build out all our own trucks and spray systems right here in Oswego,” he said.

     

    In the beginning, Chase did nearly everything himself. Like any small businessman, he was the salesman, mechanic, plow operator, and sometimes still is.

     

    “I have done every role in the company at one time or another, but over the last few years, my role has certainly become much different,” he said. “I am no longer the guy fixing the equipment to use tomorrow. I’m the one planning how many trucks we will need to be purchased and outfitted for next year. I’m not teaching a new employee how to plow snow at Lowe’s. I’m developing training programs to educate the next group of 20 people about what it means to be a Chase employee and how to service our accounts.”

     

    Chase said the one part of owning the company that is his biggest weakness is the behind-the-scene’s business aspects. Topics such as insurance, taxes, regulations, and human resources have never been his strong point.

     

    A few years ago, the business hired Barry Trimble to initially work as a consultant. Trimble retired from C&S Companies in Syracuse and bought the Eis House in Mexico that his wife and son run.

     

    “I guess he was looking for something to do, and actually read an article about us in Oswego County Business magazine,” Chase said. “He emailed me and said if I ever was looking for a business consultant to let him know.”

     

    Trimble is now working full-time for Chase.

     

    “Operationally, I have a huge understanding of everything we do. But where I really lacked was on that administrative side. Barry has helped bring much-needed structure and systems to our growing company,” he said.

     

    Chase said lean overhead is the company’s biggest competitive advantage. “The lean overhead comes largely from being self performers, building our own equipment, recruiting and training our field staff, and operating out of one location here in Oswego keeps our costs low,” he said.

     

    Expenses associated with the business include equipment, personnel, supplies and materials such as herbicides.

     

    As the company and fleet grow, the company is developing relationships with manufacturers to be able to buy direct and buy in large volumes. “You try to do whatever you can,” he said.

     

    “We’re in a modest office in Oswego while most of our competitors are in high- rise buildings in major cities,” he said.

     

    Finding the right workers is Chase’s biggest challenge. The business has an $80,000 a week payroll. “Recruiting and retaining good help is by far our most challenging problem. It’s tough,” he said. “Finding help is tough. We try to take care of our people the best we can. Good employees are just hard to come by.”

     

    In Pennsylvania, Chase had to develop relationships with people in that area. “We just couldn’t find enough people locally that could or would travel for work,” he said.

     

    Chase hired from the areas where the work was and has achieved great success. “It was a challenge being based in Oswego and hiring in major cities hundreds of miles away,” he said. “We put ads on Craigslist and Indeed and we rented hotel conference rooms to conduct interviews. We ‘shook the tree’ as I call it. We even obtained a mailing list of every certified herbicide applicator in the state of Pennsylvania and we sent 3,000 letters out seeking help.”

     

    Chase said the company pays its workers well, provides health insurance and contributes to a 401K, “all the things expected of a medium-sized employer,” he said.

     

    “So far it’s worked well. We actually have more trouble finding help here in Oswego than we do hundreds of miles away. It’s probably just because of the population difference,” he said.

     

    In Oswego, Chase has a significant need for shop staff that includes mechanics, welders, and auto body workers. “It’s difficult to find skilled tradesmen in these areas, so we often settle with finding people with a good attitude and strong mechanical aptitude. We can teach them the rest,” he said.

     

    Pride in BOCES — Chase Enterprises works with the Center for Innovation, Technology & Information, the former BOCES.

     

    “I’m a graduate of BOCES and I have a great respect for that type of training. I barely made it out of high school. I probably only graduated high school because of BOCES,” Chase said.

     

    “That was my thing back then, using my hands, working on engines — English class wasn’t for me. My high school principal would have voted me most likely to fail, but BOCES was where I found a home,” Chase said. “I’ve had a good relationship with the instructors out there ever since. Actually, we sponsor a couple of scholarships for young entrepreneurs at CiTi,” he said.

     

    Chase said it’s difficult nowadays being that society pushes young people to be college graduates.

     

    “We teach our kids that if they don’t graduate from college, they won’t make anything of themselves,” he said. “There is a huge skills gap. As an employer we can’t seem to hire young people that can weld or work on engines and I don’t think it’s just in this county. [Television personality and commentator] Mike Rowe talks about the skills gap in our nation every day.”

     

    Chase said there are programs available geared to steer prospective unskilled workers toward training and jobs.

     

    “Are there programs? In my opinion, yes, But our society has made it so easy to not work. We have people apply for work every day that are looking for a pay check but not a job. Maybe it’s been that way forever,” he said.

     

    “We seem to have better luck hiring a 50 year old than a 25 year old. The older men understand a day’s work,” he said. “One of the problems I see is unemployment is too easy. We’ve taught our kids that you really don’t have to work because somebody will take care of you. I read the other day that Oswego County has the highest rate in the state for unemployment, yet I have a number of positions I cannot fill.”

     

    Chase said he chuckles when viewing advertisements that say New York state loves small business.

     

    “The red tape, regulations and taxes are just unbearable here,” he said. “With that said, we still call Oswego home and intend to for years to come. Even with much of our work taking us across state and beyond, we are committed to stay based here in Oswego County. It’s where I grew up, where my family is and where my company will stay.”

     

    All of the company’s growth outside the region feeds a need for more employees in Oswego, Chase said.

     

    “Our operational support and management is done right here in Oswego,” he said. “Our fleet is cycled through our shop and we have service trucks that travel to all areas of the Northeast to service or repair our equipment.”

     

    The company has working supervisors in each of its operating regions. Chase is looking to expand into more states and is looking for some regional managers to round out his middle management team.

     

    Chase does more than $2 million a year in herbicide spraying for PennDot alone. As that part of the business continues, he expects a need for fabricators, mechanics, office personnel, and management to help support the growth.

     

    “I refuse to quit. That’s one of the things I instill in our guys. Failure is not an option. This has to be done. Shake the tree and figure out an answer and solution,” he said. “When people come here to work, they learn very quickly. Generally, when people run into a hurdle, they just want to throw their arms up and say, ‘I can’t do it’. That’s just not an option and you have to figure out a way.”

Oswego County Business Magazine
Issue 152

Issue 152
October/November 2017

Cover Story

Profiles

Kathryn J. Connell

On The Job

“Do you encourage your employees to get additional training?”

Success Stories

Chase Enterprises

My Turn

Jobs of Yesteryear Not Coming Back

Economic Trends

The Shift in Manufacturing Jobs

Last Page

Ronald Woodward Sr.