Sept. 1 2003 12:00 AM

Little Johnny used to love the snow. As soon as the fall leaves would begin to float to the ground, he?d start wishing for a foot or two of the stuff. Many a Sunday night would find him perched in front of the television watching the local forecast, praying for enough snow to cancel school.

Of course, that was a few years before Johnny got a job on a landscape crew; long before Johnny got married and had a couple of great kids to support. And years before he even knew what a mortgage was. Now, the onslaught of winter means a drastic reduction in Johnny?s paychecks. He?s much more likely today to sit in front of the television, holding his head in his hands and moaning low as he calculates the wages that just got whitewashed by winter precipitation. Unbeknownst to his supervisor, Johnny ? who?s an excellent worker and an asset to the company, by the way ? has been taking evening classes at the community college, preparing for a year-round steady career in radiology.

Hence, another good and faithful employee lost to Old Man Winter?s influence on the landscaping profession. Fortunately, this is a resourceful industry, and a lot of CEOs are deciding to brew the proverbial lemonade from the weather that?s handed out in December, January and February. As an example, go to the ALCA Web site (, click on ?Find a Landscape Contractor? and then choose ?Snow Removal? from the ?Areas of Expertise? menu. Almost 600 companies in the organization currently offer some degree of snow or ice removal.

Says John Allin, president of Snow Management Group in Erie, Pennsylvania, ?By considering snow as a profit center, not only will cash flows increase, but money will be added to the company?s bottom line, too. Contractors from around the country that view snow as a profit center report gross profits in excess of 65 percent ? a healthy margin, to say the very least.?

While snowdrifts and planting beds appear to reside at opposite ends of the spectrum at first glance, snow removal fits nicely into a landscaping company?s repertoire. Logically, existing customers will provide a firm foundation for marketing. On one hand, a contractor who offers snow services means a one-stop, exterior care source for clients. Not only that, but a company that handles shrubs, irrigation and other landscape features during fairer weather will understand that valuable things lurk beneath the surface of the snow and, hopefully, will cause less damage to underlying plantings and hardscapes. ?We have found that our clients like the idea of working with the same service provider all year round, and we can build very strong relationships this way.

Landscape professionals are much more sensitive to the landscape during snow removal than excavation contractors,? says Ed Sinnott of Clearwater Landscaping in Sun Valley, Idaho, ?and their equipment is more in tune to snow removal than a five-yard loader.? That?s the benefit to the customer.

The benefit to the contractor is that those long, cold winters don?t seem quite so long; the company suddenly has the means to generate revenue during the dormant season. But, cautions Sinnott, it doesn?t solve all one?s winter woes. ?Snow removal helps bring income during the winter,? he explains, ?but the contractor has to be prepared for a bad snow year.

This means budgeting most of your overhead into the summer business and not relying on snow removal to balance your books. Snow removal needs to be the gravy for your company.? (In other words, unless a contractor has enough voodoo in his closet to make it snow whenever and wherever he takes a notion, it won?t be wise to depend too heavily on snowfall. If the last few years have taught us anything, it?s that weather can be insanely unpredictable.)

That being said, however, landscape professionals who are willing to add snow and ice services to their companies ? without sticking their necks out too far ? can and are making money in the winter. ?Some companies have been very successful at snow removal,? says Sinnott. ?It has been a good, income-producing business for them. I believe they are doing this by getting guaranteed monies whether it snows or not.?

Getting started

Vice President of Farmside Landscape & Design in Wantage, New Jersey, Lisa Kuperus says, ?The size of the contracts will determine the equipment you?ll need. We have been able to take our ?seasonal? summer equipment, such as loaders and skid loaders and use them for moving snow.?

Kuperus recommends a solid truck with a good plow and good sanding/salting spreaders. Of course, the size of the sites the company will be servicing, as well as the maneuverable space and whether or not the snow has to be removed from the property also figure into one?s equipment requirements, she says. An efficient set-up is critical, and to this end, the leadership at Snowman Snowplow offer this advice:

?Use a reliable full-size truck rated for snow plow use. When it snows, there is a very short window to get the work done. The contractors that get the job done quicker and cleaner make the most money and have more satisfied customers. Secondly, contractors should evaluate each job site to see where they can cut time: if they?re plowing drives, do they have to back-drag the snow away, then turn around to push the snow out? Can their plow clean the snow close to the garage door, or do they have to hand scoop in front of the garage?

If so, consider adding a back plow so the operator can back up to the garage door and drop the back and front plows, thus eliminating back-dragging and turn-around time. Contractors using a back plow indicate a productivity increase of 100?200 percent when plowing driveways.? An assortment of products are out there to maximize the efficiency of the snow removal process. President of Blizzard Corporation, Cal Niemela says, ?Snow plowing profitability is about efficiency, and efficiency is about controlling snow. If an operator can control the snow, his efficiency is greatly increased, and his profitability is further enhanced.? Niemela explains how the company?s Blizzard Power Plow incorporates a straight blade design with extendable and pivotable wings on either side to improve the effectiveness of plowing. The wings are independently controlled from the truck?s cab so that narrow spaces like ATM drives can be cleared with the same equipment used to plow a large parking lot. As far as the initial investment to make a company snow-ready, that will vary widely.

We use loaders ($55,000) with snow blowers ($7500), but we get six to twelve feet of snow during the winter,? says Sinnott. ?In some areas, truck plows work great because you can be so mobile, but then truck plows get bogged down in twelve inches of snow.? For the sake of maximizing equipment lifespans, it?s important to remember what salt can do to machinery. Therefore, Kuperus underscores the importance of washing trucks and equipment after each and every service call. As in any other phase of the business, it?s a good idea to define snow and ice removal services in the beginning, before the first blade full of snow is ever pushed. Will you serve only existing customers? Only residential clients? What steps can you take to stay two steps ahead of fly-by-nighters armed with little more than a truck, a blade and time on their hands? Kuperus explains that Farmside has opted to sell snow services only to commercial clients. Furthermore, because finding employees willing to shovel snow is a challenge, the company has narrowed its focus to those properties with limited walkways. ?It makes for a nice routine schedule and keeps things manageable for our crews,? she says. ?When we go out, there is no question about when to service them.? She offers these additional tips for making snow removal services fly: ?A professional company sets themselves apart by being timely and responsive to the clients? needs, without over-servicing them. Follow-up phone calls and constant communication with your client are always helpful and professional.?

Challenges of snow business

Snow and ice removal, while potentially profitable, has its own set of hurdles as well. In some regards, it?s necessary for the contractor to mentally change gears between summer and winter. Then again, some challenges remain constant year-round. Sinnott ranks customer expectations at the top of the snow removal challenges list. ?They used to be glad you showed up,? he says. ?Now, they want you there by 7 a.m. Or if you are there too early and wake them up, they get mad. The days of enjoying a snow day are gone. Now it?s go, go, go.? And speaking of challenges, Sinnott lists four tongue-in-cheek reasons a contractor might choose the snow removal route:

1.?To provide income to seasonal workers who might otherwise leave the area; this helps you attract a more experienced and stable workforce;?
2. ?You are a masochist and want to abuse your equipment, wake up in the middle of the night, work 20-hour days when it snows and then wait for it to snow again;?
3. ?You want to become a weather expert, endlessly watching the Weather Channel and surfing the Web for countless sites about the weather;?
4. ?You want to talk to your clients in the middle of the night.? All kidding aside, Sinnott offers these words of wisdom to newbies: ?Do not underestimate the wear and tear on people and equipment. Do not under-price yourself to get work. If you do a good job, show up. You will quickly get more work. Understand that you will have to equip yourself for snow removal with bigger and heavier trucks, different tires and trucks to haul snow. It is an expensive business. And don?t forget to get plenty of insurance.? Says Allin, ?As for training, it?s not as easy as it looks, and attending snow industry seminars can help greatly. SIMA has a symposium every year. This year, GIE has an education session devoted to snow.? Given that challenges exist, many companies can smooth out the peaks and valleys during the winter months ? if the region in which they?re located has the snowfall for it. As Kuperus says, ?There?s no business like snow business.?

September 2002