Let It Snow
|By DANNY FASOLD|
It should go without saying that winters can be tough for the landscape industry. Trees become more and more barren, turf stops growing, flowers aren’t even in season— to recycle a tired pun, come winter, the landscaping season becomes virtually frozen. You run the risk of losing valuable employees as they look elsewhere for a steadier income, and without any landscape services to perform, your company comes to a complete halt.
Offering snow removal services can be the key to turning your business from a threeseason service to a year-round operation. You might not have lawns to tend to, but if you’ve got a few snow plows lying around, come that first snowstorm of the season, clients will come banging on your door.
Finding customers shouldn’t be an issue; just look at your existing clientele. As far as equipment goes, you have enough of it to get started. It should take only a relatively small investment on your part to buy the blades and the salt. Pickup trucks and skid-steers—even lawn mowers—can be converted into plows simply by attaching the necessary blades or blowers.
Salt, although a hot commodity at the moment, can be secured and stored away for a reasonable price if you’re smart about how you buy it. But simply having the materials you need isn’t enough. Snow removal also involves a good deal of preparation. “People get into this business with misconceptions,” says Brian Birch, assistant executive director for the Snow and Ice Management Association (SIMA). “They think that if you have a plow, that alone will do the job. But there’s a lot more to it than that.”
First things first: You need the training to know what you’re doing. Whether you’re out in the field plowing the entryways or managing a team of employees to do it, you’ll need a certain set of skills in order to plow efficiently and maintain a healthy customer base.
You might want to get involved with SIMA before you start plowing. As the trade organization serving the snow industry, SIMA offers courses and has certification programs. These programs can better prepare you for the ins and outs of snow removal.
“The best thing anyone just getting into snow removal can do is join SIMA and get a mentor,” says Birch. “You’ll find people there who have been in the business for 10 to 15 years.”
Birch recommends that landscape contractors do the research before first performing snow removal services. “Do your homework. There are a lot of things you need to think about,” he says. “Determine who your target market is going to be. Are you looking to plow residential neighborhoods, commercial properties, or a mix of both?”
Safety is also very important and something you should keep in mind when operating a plow. Snow plows operate under extreme conditions when the roads are at their most slippery. Blizzards can also make it difficult to see where you are on the road. “We’re talking about a 2,000- to 3,000 pound chunk of metal that goes down the highway,” says Birch. “Your people will need to learn how to handle it and how to park it when it’s not in use. In order to achieve this, you’ll need to have a proper training system in place.”
Furthermore, you want to make sure a thorough job is done. Shoddy work behind the snow plow can not only make things unsafe for drivers and pedestrians alike, it can also hurt your reputation. “No one wants to be known as the laziest dog in town,” says Dwayne Parris, northern regional manager at Chapel Valley Landscape Company in Woodbine, Maryland. “You need to know what you’re doing. I’ve seen snow piled on drains so the water has nowhere to go when the snow melts, sidewalks that weren’t completely cleared that refreeze the next day; things that are so easy to avoid. People just need to use common sense whenever they’re pushing snow.”
As far as materials and equipment go, it all depends on the type of work you’re looking to perform. Some companies only plow parking lots. Others may only tackle driveways for residential neighborhoods. But if you offer full service, you’ll need snow-blowers, shovels, salt spreaders, sanders and, of course, a plow.
There are two different kinds of blades available for your snow plow, straight blade and multi-positional, or V-plows. Straight blades are the classic snow-plowing tools, able to angle either left or right. Multi-positional blades have added cylinders and hinges that enable them to form a V-shape when plowing, allowing the plow to move through deep snow more efficiently. Multi-positional blades can also operate in scoop mode, moving large piles of snow from point A to point B.
“You can be more productive with V-plows,” says Patrick Dietz, product manager for Western Plows, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “With straight blades, you’ll always have snow trailing off the sides of the blade. V-plows will barely give you any trail-off, and you’ll have an easier time breaking open deep snow.” Multi-positional plows also reduce the rows of snow that build up under the bumpers of parked cars during daytime plows, making it easier for you to keep your lot clean.
In addition to blades, there are other accessories that will come in handy. Snow deflectors prevent snow from piling up on your windshield, and back drab edges can allow you to plow snow in reverse—a handy tool for plowing near garage doors and loading docks. Curb guards are another good accessory. Bolted to the sides of your plow near the cutting edges of the blade, they’ll buffer your blade as you plow up against curbs and other tight spots.
Depending on the site you’re plowing, you might want to use a skid-steer instead of a pick-up truck. “Skid-steers are perfect for sidewalks and congested parking lots,” says David Blair, director of sales at Arctic Snow and Ice Control, Frankfort, Illinois. “They turn around and maneuver easier than pick-up trucks, so in areas like residential condo complexes, they’ll work well because there are so many cars there packed so tightly.”
One of the first challenges in the snow removal business is developing a solid contract. Whenever you sign with a client, you’re agreeing to how you want to be paid to plow the client’s property. There are several different models you can follow when it comes to payment, and depending on the size of your company, the location of your clients and the amount of snowfall you expect for the season, no one model is a good fit for every client you have. With an hourly contract, you’ll be paid a set rate per hour. “It’s good in guaranteeing payment, but it’s not a good motivational tool for your employees because the longer they’re on the site, the more they’ll get paid,” says Birch. “It gives them an excuse to take their time, so there’s little incentive to get better.”
A per-push contract guarantees a flat fee for every site you plow. This contract will determine the trigger depth, or the amount of inches of snow on the ground that have to fall before your company plows the snow. There’s also the per-inch mode, which will establish how much money you charge the client for each inch of snow you remove. The downside to signing per-push and per-inch contracts is that you’re dependent on snowfall. If the total snowfall that season amounts to a few light flurries here and there, you’ll be wishing you’d looked into other types of contracts.
A seasonal contract might be a safer bet. This contract sets a fixed rate as to how much it will cost to service a site for one season. Usually developed based on the average amount of snowfall each year, this contract offers contractors an advantage during seasons that are light on snow, as they’ll be guaranteed a profit. “The disadvantage is that if it’s a snow-heavy year, your staff will kill themselves trying to get all the work done while not making a profit,” says Birch.
A mixed model contract combines elements of all the contracts listed above. Business-savvy contractors will usually opt for the mixed model to avoid putting all of their eggs into one basket. “What smart contractors will do is mix it up,” says Birch. “For example, two-thirds of their contracts might be per push while the other onethird might be per season. What they’re doing is playing the law of averages, trying to offset things so it accounts for either a heavy winter or a light winter. If they play that law well, they should turn a nice profit.”
Being on call 24/7 during the winter season can be a huge challenge, particularly if you’re not prepared. If the big one hits, you want to make sure you have the manpower and the equipment to tackle all of your clients’ properties. Being caught off guard in such a situation can ruin the integrity of your business, so it pays to have a good communication plan in place between you and your workers at all times.
Larger landscape companies such as Chapel Valley, which covers central and northern Virginia as well as parts of Maryland, puts a team of “snow chiefs” in charge of one region each. They communicate with their branch managers every time there’s a forecast of snow to make sure that the branch manager has a team of workers ready to plow the roads when the storm hits. “Our snow chiefs will call and make sure everybody’s where they’re supposed to be and that everything’s going according to plan,” says Parris.
At the end of each snow event, Parris says, his company holds debriefings to reflect on what went well and what went wrong. “We had an incident where two or three trucks broke down on one site in one day,” says Parris. “We went over the incident in the debriefing and discovered one of our guys, who was also a mechanic, lived only an hour away from the site. So we had that mechanic onsite for future snow events in that area, and we made sure he had all the tools he needed in case of repairs.”
Another strategy worth employing is assessing the site before you service it. Once you and your client have signed the contract, walk the property to get a feel for what to expect when your teams are out there plowing. Taking a blank sheet of paper, you might map out where the curbs and speed bumps are, mark the best spots for where to windrow snow and where there’s existing damage to the property.
Preparing for the worst is also necessary. In the snow removal business, slip-and-fall cases are common occurrences, and if you don’t have liability coverage included in your insurance policy, your business can be forced to fold overnight. Property damage is also crucial in your insurance coverage. If you accidentally cause damage to the curbs on the property you’re servicing, property damage will take care of a portion of those repairs.
Although the degree of preparation that goes into snow removal can be quite extensive—most snow experts agree that landscape contractors should begin preparations three to four months before the snow season begins—the pay-off can keep your business afloat at a time when the danger of sinking is at its highest. “If it’s planned well, it usually goes pretty smoothly,” says Parris. “It’s when you don’t have all of your ducks in a row that it can become a big challenge. Just stay the course, and you’ll be glad you did.”
SOWING THE SALT
LAST YEAR, AREAS IN THE NORTHEASTERN UNITED STATES SUFFERED RECORD snowfalls. Dick Hanneman, president of the Salt Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting responsible salt usage, says that in 2007, more than 20.3 million tons of salt were sold in the U.S. This is a drastic increase from 2006, when 12.1 million tons of salt were sold.
But there are enormous variations. In 2005, for example, 20.5 million tons of salt were sold—even more than 2007!
The point of all these statistics isn’t just to buff up your trivia skills— it’s to demonstrate just how erratic and unpredictable the winter season can be.
The more snowfall the winter season brings, obviously, the more salt will be in demand. As a result of last year’s record-setting winter, many landscape contractors and municipalities alike started gearing up for this season as early as December 2007 to make up for any potential shortfall of salt. Consequentially, by March, customers were already screaming that they couldn’t purchase any salt, even with added efforts within the industry to produce more. Those who were behind the curve and are only now putting in their salt orders will find that the demand for salt this year is so high, prices have sky-rocketed. Already, salt prices have increased by up to 50%, and that number continues to grow.
“Because of the variations in the salt industry, you have to take a lot of risks,” says Hanneman, who offers several solutions for being savvy when it comes to purchasing quantities of salt. “Our customers are at risk because they don’t know how much they’re going to use and they want some certainty as far as costs go. I think understanding that there is a risk factor will help you deal with procurement. If you can take delivery as early as possible, or at a time that’s most convenient to the salt supplier, you’ll find yourself in a better position come winter.”
One strategy you can employ is to create a salt storage area where you can store the previous year’s salt during the off-season. In addition to your extra warehouse space, your trucks might provide ample storage for salt.
Another strategy is simply to use as minimal an amount of salt as possible. “We’ve cut salt usage in half because when we plow, we’ll scrape right down to the pavement,” says David Blair of Arctic Snow and Ice Control. That said, don’t skimp too much on salt. If you don’t put enough salt on the pavement, you’re likely to have more slip-and-fall cases on your table.
Perhaps the smartest move you can make when it comes to purchasing your salt supply is to keep an eye on the market. For example, if you ordered salt at the beginning of 2007, when the winter was wrapping up and there was still plenty of salt available after a slow season of minimal snowfall, chances are you were able to procure salt for low prices. This is because the demand for salt at that time wasn’t high. “If you’re asking for salt at a time when they have plenty in supply, that sounds to me like the perfect time,” says Hanneman.
As fuel costs continue to rise, so does everything else. This does not exclude the cost of transporting salt. Whether the snow season is light or heavy, it wouldn’t be the least bit naieve to expect higher salt prices in the following years. That said, it’s smart to be prepared when entering the winter season.