There’s no question that adding a snow removal service can be a lucrative income venue. After all, it can be an extremely sought-after service that also happens to have very high margins. That being said, it’s also the type of service that requires a lot of work in only a little bit of time. Snow removal often means difficult hours, heavy labor and investing in expensive equipment. It’s not the type of thing you just jump into. It should be added in a thoughtful and strategically planned way.
We recently reached out to some landscape contractors to find out how they got into snow removal and what they’d recommend for others who might be considering this add-on service.
Glenn Smith, president of Arrowhead Custom Lawn Care in Evansville, Indiana, says that his best advice to snow service newcomers is to “make sure you charge enough,” even right out of the gate. It’s important that you price your service competitively, but you have to make sure that you’re going to be profitable. As with any service, this means you need to figure out ahead of time how much any given site is going to cost you to plow.
Smith admits this understanding may not be easy early on, but knowing your costs means being able to accurately estimate your time to complete the job. If you’ve never done snow removal before, do some research. Starting out slow so that you can really get a sense of what’s involved is also important.
Smith says he got into the snow removal business out of necessity. Twenty-five years ago, he started out performing commercial lawn care. That led him to add on irrigation and ultimately snow removal in order to be a full-service company to his commercial clients who wanted someone who could do it all.
Though he started small with a handful of accounts, Smith says today he has six trucks with plows, a tractor, and even uses subs with backhoes for more extensive work.
Like Smith, most industry experts agree that starting slow with snow services is best. Matt Mlynski, owner of A Garden Guy Inc., in Glenview, Illinois, says that he also eased in with a few accounts. He’s found that cautiously managing the growth has been one of the only ways that he can assert some control over an inherently risky service.
“The truth is that snow removal is the ultimate gamble,” Mlynski admits. “You have to know, going in, that you could get two inches, or you could get 20. You want to take on as much work as possible, but you also don’t want to take on more than you can handle.
There’s a lot of uncertainty but if business owners know that going in, they’ll do what they can to be cautious.”
Mlynski says that one of the most difficult decisions business owners will make early on is how much equipment to invest in. The primary equipment needed to get started includes a heavy-duty truck that can deliver a lot of power, a plow, a salt spreader and likely some snow blowers.
“While this is a service totally reliant on equipment, you also don’t want to buy more than you need starting out,” he says. “You have so many per push accounts and so many seasonal accounts. I think the seasonal accounts dictate how much equipment you’ll need upfront and the per push accounts are the gravy on top.”
By starting out slow, Mlynski says they’ve been able to remain profitable and grow each year. But he says he’s heard horror stories of business owners who were overzealous and overinvested early on.
“If you overinvest in too much equipment and go all in, and then your first snow season is a bust with no snow, you’ll take a huge hit,” Mlynski says. “Given the uncertainty of Mother Nature, I think most businesses would be best served by easing into this.”
Training the crew for snow
One of the best things about snow removal work is that it can keep your team employed in the off-season. But you’ll need to consider some different training if they’re used to doing lawn care, landscaping and irrigation.
Smith says that anyone new to snow services in his business will do a ride along with the experienced crew and pay attention to what they’re doing.
Then, the driver and the student will switch positions, almost like a driver’s education class, and the driver will observe how the new team member is doing.
“It’s one of those things you can’t easily teach. You just need to get out there and do it,” adds Smith.
Of course, if nobody on your crew has ever plowed before, it might just have to be a trial-byfire (or make that ice) situation.
Mlynski admits that “nothing is comparable to snow” and there can be a steep learning curve when first starting out.
“In an industry that already has a high attrition rate, it’s unfortunate that snow is even higher,” he continues. “Even if you have a hardworking landscape worker, when you add cold and wet conditions to the mix, it can change everything. Nothing quite prepares you to lift 12 inches of snow, and we’ve had people walk out in the middle of a snowfall because it’s been too much. You have to do what you can to support your people to the best of your ability because it’s really tough work.”
Dave Jennett, CEO and general manager of Green Valley Pest Control & Lawn Care in Creston, Iowa, says that learning the equipment is not difficult, but learning the finer points of customer service can be a little challenging. As a pest and lawn care company, getting into selling snow removal services was a change. But Jennett says that he’s learned how positioning his company as a more full-service lineup can be seen as a value-add to clients. He got started in snow removal by using his database of lawn care customers and starting a conversation about year-round services.
While Jennett says that he uses the same crews and trucks, one big change was switching to heavy-duty, four-wheel drive pickup trucks. These are more than needed to tow a mowing trailer but are necessary for a snowplow. Jennett is now using the same trucks for both seasons.
Be ready to learn as you go
Ultimately, as with any service, there’s going to be a learning curve to start. But the business owners we spoke to say that you can expect to learn as you go.
Smith says one of his best pieces of advice is not to take on too many customers at once. Although this can be tempting and may even be your mindset in other services like lawn care or irrigation, it can be a major pitfall in snow removal work.
“This is not like mowing where you can schedule people throughout the week,” he says. “When it snows, everyone wants to be first on your list. If you line up too many customers, you’ll have way too many unhappy people. Our goal is always to try to get to everyone in the first 24 hours. When you’re two or three days out from a snow event and just getting to a client, you can be almost sure they’re going to be irate. So, try to only take on what you can actually handle.”
If you’re using your existing clients to transition into snow services, you also have to consider the possibility that an unhappy experience could mean losing them completely.
In terms of marketing your new service, Jennett says that it’s valuable to try to differentiate your snow business early on so that you can stand out from the crowd. Even if you’re marketing to existing customers, they may already have someone else handling their snow removal. Find ways that you can be unique.
“One thing that we’ve found is that many of the other snow removal contractors in town don’t get out of their truck and do sidewalks or scoop in front of doorways,” Jennett says. “We’re really ambitious about it and we do charge more for it, but we find that most clients are more than happy to pay that extra money and get a more complete job done. It’s also been something that’s set us apart.”
In terms of gearing up, Mlynski says that the best thing you can do is to familiarize yourself and your crew with the properties that you’ll be plowing before the snow comes. This is critical to success, he says. Make maps and mark out the site. Make sure that you know where you should be putting salt, and just as important, where you shouldn’t be putting salt, such as near plants.
“You don’t want to overapply or underapply,” he says. “Salt is one of those things you’re most likely to get callbacks about. You don’t want your site to be too slippery and have to return, but you also don’t want to lose on your margin because you’re oversalting.”
While Mlynski is the first to admit that snow removal can be stressful and that it’s not the right service for everyone, he also insists that it can be an incredibly rewarding service.
“It’s one of those services that you really feel good about when it’s a job well done,” he says. “But the most important thing is not to get in over your head. If you can avoid doing that, it can be a fantastic service to add on.”
Lindsey Getz is a contributing editor to Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.