The predictability is in the unpredictability as each winter season is becoming its own unique four- to five-month weather system. Starting your planning from there is a sentiment that is echoed across the industry and one that Jenn Hartin, owner and business manager of Agassiz Landscape Group in Flagstaff, Arizona, lives with at the onset of each winter season.
Although most people do not associate Arizona with heavy snowfall, it is the only state or province in North America that hosts all seven types of topography, and 2- to 3-foot snowfalls are commonplace in Flagstaff.
“It becomes more challenging to predict each winter season,” says Hartin. “It is more challenging for staffing, scheduling, inventory, just everything. Even in an average winter we have a lot of variables.”
Halfway across the country in Des Moines, Iowa, Phil Glaser, owner of Capital Landscaping, has to plan for a market where functionality is key to the state’s operation, but he has found that past patterns of prediction have less and less relevancy with each passing winter.
“Every winter is a whole new game now,” says Glaser. “This means that with each passing season client communication becomes even more important, whether it is about operating hours or what is in your inventory. You cannot assume the status quo anymore because there is none. Every winter is now a new learning experience, and all you can do is prepare and be proactive in planning and operations.”
For large snow removal companies, the key to their success in maintaining inventory is implementing an early buying season for salt, de-icer and de-icer alternatives, says Rafael Diaz, president of Diaz Group LLC, Chicago.
“Our biggest tip to our peers is that we never keep our eye off inventory. We keep a strict count of our salt bags, and we always keep enough inventory to take care of four or five storms,” says Diaz. “We forecast and calculate usage per event or storm, so we know exactly how much salt we use for every event.
We certainly cannot predict the storms, but we sure can be prepared for them.”
In Diaz’s world, being prepared means a year round schedule of inventory supervision and purchasing.
“In reality, the best time to start pre-buying for the upcoming winter is at the end of the winter season,” Diaz says. “We buy in larger quantities than most, so we never have had an issue with our inventories running low. It is the natural benefit of having such an early pre-buying schedule.”
Glaser begins Capital Landscaping’s inventory process by taking inventory of what was left over from the previous winter. Then the estimation game begins.
“Two years ago it snowed every third day from January through March,” says Glaser. “We got down to 1,000 pounds of salt left because the winter was so active. I am a worrier by nature so that helps me stay proactive with my inventory count. We run our salt spreader trucks at a lot of public places that stay open through the snow like gas stations. We typically have 13 events each winter, but last winter we had 20 events so you already see what we have to plan for this winter season. Nothing is predictable anymore.”
For Hartin in the northern Arizona market, where the snow season usually does not begin until late in the calendar year, or even after the new year, Agassiz Landscape Group has more flexibility about when they order. They can analyze the current winter conditions before having to splurge and make large purchases on salt and de-icer.
“We have not dealt with it that much yet because we schedule our landscape work through the week of Thanksgiving,” says Hartin. “We still buy our core supply before the season starts and then continue our buying during the season.”
Making sure the business has a standard process for salt deployment and de-icing application is key in making sure inventory does not get wasted and all materials are maximized per event. “We do a lot of contracts where even if it is just a light dusting of snow we have to cover the property. Having the proper processes and protocols set up for material distribution is extremely important,” says Glaser.
“We do pretreatments and our first application is a heavy application. Once we are done with that, we usually do another heavy application. But if it is a night storm, then everything goes out the window. We handle those on a case-by-case basis. There are too many different variables to pigeonhole that in the same process over and over again.”
To provide maximum financial flexibility in ordering materials, Diaz recommends using as wide of variety of vendors as possible.
“Last year was very heavy for us, so going into this winter season we are looking at all purchasing options,” says Diaz. “We have some vendors where we buy ahead and pay ahead. With other vendors we have to commit up front and pay later. There are different resources from different suppliers, so I strongly suggest that all companies explore all options and use several different vendors instead of being beholden to one and being stuck with one paying structure. We use regional vendors in Michigan and Indiana, and other vendors spread out across the United States. We make sure we do not limit ourselves in any capacity.”
Hartin makes an order for ice melt materials in the October-November time frame based on current inventory, and then orders as needed during the winter.
“We are lucky to have a late winter season compared to back East, so we do take advantage of that,” says Hartin. “We order knowing that we are going to have at least one multifoot snowfall in one, two or three days during the winter that we need to prepare for. Our ordering process is that we are prepared to work around the clock when that happens with a large inventory of supply so we do not have to worry about stopping.”
Glaser takes a more calculated approach when facing the daunting task of snow removal during the Iowa winters. The first statistic he looks at is the average snowfall total from the past three winters in Des Moines.
“In the last four years we have gone above 40 inches, and the usual average is between 21 inches and 33 inches,” says Glaser. “Our annual budget and revenue prediction is based on 20 inches of snowfall, so anything more than that we are making a profit.”
A large part of that ordering process for Glaser is to make sure he has enough de-icing alternatives in supply. Along with salt-based products, Glaser is using de-icers with beet or corn bases, or enhanced products for extreme weather.
“With such an unpredictable winter storm season we have to have a variety of product on deck and ready to use,” says Glaser. “Des Moines is not big, but our snowfall can be big and we have vast temperature changes in a 30-mile radius. There are no excuses out here, just solutions.”
Diaz uses liquid de-icer for about 10% of their clients and uses the traditional materials, including rock salt as well as salt with brine, for pretreatment and regular application purposes.
“70% of snow removal is preparation and the other 30% is execution,” says Diaz. “It doesn’t matter what market you are in, whether it is Chicago or Charlotte, that is always the same.”
To increase efficiency in his Des Moines market, Glaser offers his drivers monthly bonuses tied to no truck damage, no complaints and no slip-and-fall reports.
“It takes some innovative tactics to move the bar higher for on-site performance,” says Glaser.
That includes job management software, a picture submission process for before and after a job is done and a text message system that updates the staff what product and materials to use and where.
“We use text messaging all the time to eliminate phone calls where drivers can be distracted. We want them to focus on the job, not a phone call,” says Glaser. “It is the office’s job to get everything ready, and once winter starts its time for the field operations to go to work and we’re here for support.”
Contacting suppliers both before the winter season for orders and also as it begins to assure internal inventory levels are being met gives you peace of mind, says Diaz. Once the winter season begins, major and large clients should be contacted during extreme storms to see if any additional services are needed, opening an opportunity for additional revenue.
“The best thing to do is to explain possible inventory shortages and your processes for emergency situations at the front end when you are in contract negotiations and the signing phase,” says Diaz. “Set expectations early because it is hard to communicate that in the middle of a weather emergency without causing friction between you and the client. Communication may not melt the ice, but lack of communication can melt a client relationship quickly, if not handled the proper way.”
Rodric Hurdle-Bradford is associate editor for Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.