Snow and Ice Removal

... turning that white stuff the color of money

The end of the growing season, when snow begins to fall, doesn?t have to trigger the end of your business for the year. Many contractors are able to generate an additional income source in the winter months to keep their crews running all year long, thanks to the snow. All of that white stuff can literally be turned into gold by expanding your services into snow and ice removal.

In various parts of the country, contractors are discovering this untapped gold mine. Jim Berns, owner of Berns Landscaping Services in Warren, Michigan, started providing winter services in order to have a year-round business. ?Snow is very profitable,? he says. ?It?s the icing on the cake, business-wise.? In southern Michigan, Berns says, ?We can have 10-14 snow-plow events a year. Sometimes we have nasty storms where we have to plow for 4-5 days.? His company does 75% of its business with commercial parking-lot snow plowing for doctors? offices and industrial buildings. ?We stay away from properties that are open 24 hours. Anytime there is a car in the lot, it is an inconvenient time to plow.?

For Joshua Eike, owner of Bluejay Lawn & Landscape in Omaha, Nebraska, adding snow services seemed natural, since his business offers total outdoor maintenance as well as full landscaping and irrigation services. Bluejay Lawn and Landscape plows casinos, hospitals, apartment complexes, strip malls, and other business parking lots. In Omaha?s heavy winters, Eike?s company has grown to be one of the top ten in snow removal.

Troy Clogg, owner of Troy Clogg Landscape Associates in Wixom, Michigan, started his business with a single lawnmower; he knew then that adding winter services was important. ?Snow removal was the ace in the hole I had with my competitors,? he says. He now employs a staff and crew of 80 people. ?I haven?t laid any staff off,? he says, though some of his laborers go south for the winter. His company responds to several light snow (1?") events a year and plows everything from residential driveways to parking lots for apartment complexes, condominiums, large retail sites, malls, and industrial locations.

When Bill Halpin, vice president of Greenspace Landscaping, relocated his landscaping and maintenance business from New York to Bozeman, Montana, his intention was to use the slow period during the winter to have time to incubate creative ideas for his business. However, since he wanted to keep some of his crew working during the winter, and since it snows regularly in the mountains there, he added snow services from the start. His spin on the business, though, limits his contracts to in-town snow contracts. ?The town is flat,? he says, ?and I don?t have to worry about getting stuck in the mountains.?

Unfortunately, like rainfall, you can?t always predict when or how much snow will fall in any one spot. Bryan Mours, maintenance and irrigation division manager of Bret Achtenhagen?s Seasonal Services in Eagle, Wisconsin, says, ?You can?t be dependent on snow, counting on it to fall. But, once you get set up, you can generate enough income to continue running your business during the winter no matter how little it snows.? His company keeps the crew leaders on the payroll all winter and only lays off laborers. However, he puts them on an on-call list, and when there?s a big snow and more hands are needed, he can pull out additional workers to handle it.

Bret Achtenhagen?s Seasonal Services, which rakes in $3.2 million a year in all of its landscape and maintenance operations, mainly handles commercial contracts, as well as some very high-end residential estate driveways. The company plows parking lots at industrial parks, factories, strip malls, and the large Target Distribution Center in Wisconsin.

But smaller companies can have a competitive edge if they offer personal service. Berns Landscaping Services employs one- to two-hand teams to clear sidewalks with snowblowers or machines with broom attachments. Likewise, Halpin says his company has an advantage over his competitors because his crews do sidewalks and walkways in parks using a snowthrower or a good old-fashioned snow shovel.

Advice for Starting Out
So, you?re convinced it?s a good idea. How do you get started? Clogg offers an easy entry: ?Contact a bigger contractor and offer your crew as a subcontractor. That way you lower the risk in entering into the business. You get your feet wet and get a taste for the business.?

Eike suggests looking at your customer list and finding ways to incorporate snow and ice removal. ?Start with your best customers, and see if they want to include snow services. You want to be the point of contact with them. You want to manage all their maintenance needs.?

?We recommend a flat-rate contract for the whole year,? Berns says. That way when you have a light snow year, you won?t see your accounts disappear in the spring. His company currently holds year-round contracts on half of its customers, and half on contracts per snow event. ?I tell the client that a contract is like an insurance policy against snow,? comments Berns. He combines snow removal with a range of winter maintenance services like dormant tree pruning. Eike points out that the best time to sell your winter contracts is when you service your customers in the spring.

Mours also cautions against being dependent on snow. Your business should be sound enough to handle ?soft? winters like last year (in some parts of the country) which experienced only light snow accumulations. ?Don?t go out and buy a bunch of equipment and expect it to snow,? he says.

Berns adds, ?Make sure, though, that you?re properly equipped. It can damage your reputation if your truck won?t start or it breaks down all the time. And have people properly trained on the equipment to get the job done efficiently and thoroughly.? Clogg echoes that. ?Make sure you have back-up equipment, in case of a break-down,? he says. ?And make sure you have basic replacement parts on hand for those that do break.?
Finally, don?t overbook your crews. ?You want to make money,? Mours says, ?but if you can?t get to a customer?s property on a snow day, you won?t keep that contract for very long.? You have to prioritize.

Prioritization is key,? Clogg says. ?Knowing which client needs to be done at a particular time is crucial.?
Find clients with different time needs. That way you can spread your crew around and lengthen your work day. You can have crews going out after midnight, plowing retail lots that need to be cleared by 7a.m. when the businesses open, and then bring out a fresh crew to plow apartment complex parking lots that can only be done when all of the residents? cars are gone. Eike adds, ?Overstaff instead of understaff. Use subcontractors with a handling fee.? That way you can take care of everybody?s needs, and still not overtax your crews.

Snow Equipment and Products
You can have a full fleet of snow equipment like Trogg Clogg Landscape Associates does with seven pickups, a road grater, salters on pickups, semi-loaders, dump trucks, small 5?-6? plows on tractors for sidewalks and 16?-20? plows on loaders for bigger jobs. However, most contractors just use equipment they already have in their company?s fleet when they add snow removal services. They attach either straight blade plows or V-blades to ?-ton or 1-ton pickups or put them on skid steers.

Berns Landscaping Services uses small pickups like Ford Rangers with plows, and one full-size pickup for heavy snow. Bluejay Lawn & Landscape also uses ATVs with snow plows attached.

Most snow removal equipment manufacturers make blades that fit most American-made or foreign trucks available in the U.S. Straight blades, in sizes from 5? to 24? are used to push snow into piles, which can either be carted away by dump truck or piled into snow storage areas on a property. They are good for plowing any straight path like driveways, parking lots, or malls. You don?t need huge blades to get the job done either. Eike?s company uses mainly 8?-9? V-plows on their pickups, with one truck running a 10? plow.
Rick Robitaille, marketing director for BOSS Snowplows, says his company has developed a new line of trip-edge straight plows to fit skid-steers, in addition to the line of plows for pickups they introduced last year. These blades range from 7?6" to 9? across.

V-blade plows are by far the most popular among contractors since these plows push the snow to the side, allowing you to clear a path quickly. These plows are the ones seen on big highways ? snowplows that clear interstates or city streets. They can handle heavy, wet snow or lots of lighter, grainy stuff. BOSS V-plows and Sno-Way?s Lobo plows are hinged in the middle so they can push or scoop. You can direct the snow into a holding space as you clear an area or just push it into a ditch on highways or a parking lane on city streets. These blades can also be positioned as a straight plow, making them very versatile and able to handle most snow situations.

The back plow by Snowman Snowplows is popular for contractors who need to back into a driveway or loading dock and scrape out the snow close to the building. The plow is constructed so that you lift it like a backhoe and scoop out the drift by driving straight ahead. You don?t have to turn around.

Trogg Clogg Landscape Associates also has rubber-edged equipment for plowing parking decks. Sno-Way Snowplows offers a polymer cutting edge on its Suzuki Samurai units instead of steel. D. Dwayne Shaufler, vice president of sales and marketing for Sno-Way International, says, ?It won?t damage ornamental concrete and decorative edging.?

If you are moving snow around, having one dump truck to cart the white stuff away is handy. You can also use dump trucks or large pickups as bases for mounting tailgate spreaders for salt and sand. Achtenhagen?s company uses V-box salters for residential customers, allowing his crews to control sand or salt deposited in confined spaces. Mours says his company also uses a mix of chemicals that react well to Wisconsin?s snow and winter temperatures: manganese chloride gives a quick melt, potassium chloride holds the melt, and calcium chloride makes it all work. The mix is safe to use around plant materials. Some clients request only calcium chloride because they don?t like the residue left with regular salt.

So, when the first snows begin to fall, you don?t have to worry that your cash flow will freeze out this winter. By adding snow and ice removal to your company?s roster of services, you can greet those white flakes with a grin and think about taking in a little skiing yourself ? after your crews plow your local mall?s parking lot.

October 2002