Equipped with strict procedures and a highly-organized workforce, snow contractor Tom Canete tames the big storms.
Canete Snow Management
Tom Canete, owner, president; Joe Porta, vice president of sales, general manager; Christian Proodian, equipment maintenance manager.
50 year-round, 55 seasonal
Very competitive. Located about a half-hour outside of New York City, Canete Snow Management covers a five-county area that extends in a roughly 40-mile radius from its Wayne, N.J. headquarters. Inside that area, Canete competes with roughly two dozen reputable snow removal contractors and countless small, cut-rate operators that have recently begun to team up and merge to increase their sizes and consolidate resources.
Despite an unseasonably warm winter along the Atlantic Coast, Wayne, N.J. typically receives 40 inches of snow, resulting in four to five plowable events and about a dozen salting events each winter. Likewise, the area receives a significant blizzard about every other year.
Everyone has a job function before, during and after a snow storm.
Tom Canete learned the hard way.
While it didn’t seem so at the time, losing some significant accounts during the Blizzard of 1993 to poor planning and inadequate storm management was the best thing that could happen to his Wayne, N.J.-based snow removal operations, Canete Snow Management.
Pushing snow since he was a teenager, Canete had overextended himself and his fledgling business, committing to more jobs than his resources and systems could handle.
“It was a nightmare,” Canete says. “When it snowed it felt like I was out there for days. I knew there had to be a better way to do this.”
When he returned to his office, the volume of angry client messages literally overwhelmed Canete’s answering machine.
From that storm on, Canete committed himself to the development of more efficient snow-removal procedures. Today, Canete’s finely tuned system allows him to battle anything Mother Nature hurdles at his five-county territory.
“It took a lot of years, mistakes and problems to get them to this point,” Canete says. “But we have our procedures extremely well organized to the point that it all runs like a clock during a snow event.”
At the core of Canete’s snow-removal system is the philosophy that everyone on staff plays an instrumental role in managing a storm before, during and after the event runs its course.
A few days before a sizable snow approaches, a weather service gives Canete the heads-up that a storm is on its way and his crew springs into action. Solid preparation, says Canete, can take the fight out of a snow storm, so he uses this time wisely.
“Every little thing you can think of we’re doing to prepare for this storm,” Canete says.
Canete and his snow crew consult a pre-storm list that details everything that needs to be reviewed, checked, completed and accounted for in preparation for the storm. In addition, each plow truck has its own list that outlines what needs to be checked and what equipment should be loaded onboard.
Likewise, all drivers and shovel crews are contacted two days prior to an event to make sure they’re ready and healthy for when the snow begins to fall, Canete says of his pre-storm procedure.
“I’m very thorough,” Canete says. “I don’t want any surprises.”
Lastly, before the snow event is under way, customer call sheets, containing particular storm notes and client comments or requests are distributed to drivers. In addition drivers are given clipboards with pens tied to each to ensure checklists are completed.
FAX FAUX PAUS
While the local Yellow Pages directory has consistently generated new business for Tom Canete, in the past he has experimented with other marketing venues.
For example, last year he hired an outside marketing company to conduct a fax solicitation to property managers located in a 20- to 25-mile radius from his snow removal operations. Each campaign cost about $800 and included 20,000 faxes, Canete says, from which he generated 10 new accounts. He felt he was on to a good thing until he received the lawsuit.
Canete was unaware that the law prohibits unsolicited faxing without prior permission. Someone on the receiving end of those faxes had taken the initiative to sue Canete for $5,000.
Luckily, after some negotiating, Canete was able to settle out of court for $2,000, half of which the marketing company that had conducted the fax campaign covered.
Canete budgets about $5,000 annually for marketing, none of which now has anything to do with unsolicited faxes.
As soon as snow begins to accumulate, plow trucks are out salting client properties with rock salt. Canete believes salting is most effective until snow accumulation reaches about 1.5 inches, at which point it just wastes resources.
“The salt starts getting hung up in the snow and it’s really not doing much for you anymore,” he says.
Back at the shop, General Manager Joe Porta is Canete Snow Management’s central command during a snow event. Porta is well suited for this dispatch position because he is the firm’s sales rep, knows every client and is a good point person to handle their requests and needs during a snow event.
“Joe troubleshoots problems and is entrusted to make the snap decisions that must be made during a storm,” Canete says.
At 2 inches of accumulation, Canete’s crews start pushing snow according to their assigned routes.
While on site, drivers must complete a thorough checklist of duties, which includes in-and-out times. Once a property is clean the driver radios Porta at Canete Snow Management headquarters with a status report before leaving for the next job site.
“I want to let my customers know exactly when a plow has been on his property and how long we were there,” Canete says. “If we clean a property five times to remove 11 inches of snow, I want my client to know that in detail.”
One important detail is drivers must mark “a.m.” or “p.m.” on their checklists. Failing to meet this requirement is one of Canete’s pet peeves. “We’ve had to include a big note that reminds everyone to write down ‘a.m.’ or ‘p.m.’” he says. “Doing this has helped us defend against some past slip-and-fall claims because we can definitively prove when we cleaned a client’s property.”
Likewise, each driver is outfitted with a yard stick to record snow depth when they arrive at the property.
“Each time a driver visits a parking lot we want them to tell us just how much snow there was on the ground when they arrived,” Canete says. “It protects us if a client wants to question a snowfall. For example, you have a customer who is paying you a certain rate to come out and blow when it snows between four and seven inches. Sometimes the local weather guys will ballpark their weather reports and the client hears that less than four inches fell. By taking the measurements we have proof that, in that particular area, more than four inches did fall. By not being able to prove that, that could mean a lot of money for us.”
Once a site is cleaned, Porta dispatches one of four quality control chiefs, which includes Canete, who inspects the property. Canete expects perfection. Site inspectors make sure there is no snow against curbs or on sidewalks, parking spaces are clean and there is no ice and snow piled in front of dumpsters or fire hydrants. Likewise, any special service needs are checked and any potential property damage is noted.
If there are problems with the property it’s the site inspector’s responsibility to remedy the issues. “If it’s a small matter, like snow in front of a hydrant, we’ll clean it up a shovel or plow real quick,’ Canete says. “If it’s a big issue, then we’ll call the driver back to do it right.”
Canete has very little tolerance for sloppy site work. “It indicates a driver doesn’t take pride in his work,” he says. “We don’t want that. We’ll find someone who has pride and will do what it takes to make the site perfect.”
Success, Canete adds, requires that a snow removal operation be run with military-like precision. “Our foremen know the quality of work we expect and they are watching the rest of the drivers. If they have to correct another driver more than two or three times, that driver is sent back to our yard and replaced by a backup driver. That driver can then find another plowing job with another company that will tolerate unprofessional snow removal work.”
Another key asset in the field are Canete’s mobile mechanics. Equipment Maintenance Manager Christian Proodian serves as the plow expert, while Mechanic Pete Steele, addresses any truck-related problems. Each mechanic’s truck is loaded with equipment, tools and spare parts to troubleshoot problems in the field.
“It’s too costly to have equipment down for long periods of time during a storm,” Canete says. “If it’s a plow problem, then Chris is on it. If it’s a truck problem, then Pete is on it. With the two of them out there we can dramatically cut our downtime.”
As for Canete, he serves as crew leader throughout the duration of the storm. And though he has no set routes to run, Canete performs spot site checks and makes sure all his plowing teams are running smoothly. “I help out if a crew is running behind schedule,” he says. “Or I’ll give a crew some advice if I notice a better or faster way to plow snow from their lots.”
During the average winter, Canete Snow Managements tends to 68 customers. About 90 percent of these contracts are commercial, tending to hospitals, retail centers and condominium and apartment complexes.
Canete typically enters into contracts with clients that pay by the push, beginning with the first two inches of snow.
"By charging by the push if I plow three times I get paid for plowing three times," he says. "From experience, it’s a system that has worked best for me."
Out of his 68 clients, Canete does engage in three seasonal contracts. In light of the mild weather for Winter 2006-07, Canete jokes, "This winter I wish I had more seasonal contracts."
Once the snow event subsides, drivers return to headquarters and check in with Porta.
Porta is responsible for collecting each driver’s checklists and property forms and for ensuring all of the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed.
“Joe looks at each driver’s clipboard before they leave and makes sure everything checks out,” Canete says. “I don’t want my guys disappearing after a storm and their forms not complete.”
Finally, Porta questions drivers about equipment performance problems and the condition of the plow trucks they just used. He then compiles a list of what equipment problems need to be addressed before the next storm.
“If a driver hears a funny noise – any little thing – when he was driving the truck or he thinks the plow was not angling correctly, I want to know,” Canete says. “Knowing and correcting a problem early on ensures it doesn’t get overlooked and then the equipment breaks down in the middle of the next storm.”
Like during pre-storm preparation, Canete relies on a post-mortem checklist to review the recent snow event. The day after the storm, five employees come in and go over each truck and piece of equipment with a fine-tooth comb. Everything is power washed, thoroughly cleaned, inspected and inventoried.
“We take the time to go through everything thoroughly so that when we get the next storm we can concentrate on the snow and not on whether the equipment might fail,” he says.
As Canete’s equipment maintenance manager, Proodian is responsible for carefully inspecting and thoroughly evaluating each piece of snow removal equipment. Nothing is left for chance, Canete says
“Chris is very detail oriented when he inspects each plow and truck,” Canete says. “It’s not unusual for Chris to find things that other mechanics may pass up or miss.”
Proodian’s exhaustive inspection is well worth the time an effort, Canete says. “Our breakdowns in the field are minimal because Chris is on top of it with his post-storm inspections,” he says.
This post-storm procedure includes a detailed inventory of not only all of the heavy equipment, but also the tools, materials and items each plow truck was outfitted with when they left to fight the storm, Canete says. “One guy goes around and counts up what should be in each truck so that those items are there and ready to go for the next storm,” he says. “We take a strict accounting of what’s in each truck and what should come back with them after a storm. If we didn’t do this, you’d be amazed with the number of shovels and tools would suddenly go missing from the trucks after a snow.”
As for client relations, after a storm subsides office personnel fax service slips – detailing the event’s activities – to those clients that request them. Others clients are billed at the end of the month, Canete says.
In addition, any site damages incurred during snow removal are reported to the client.
“If we’ve done any damage we call the client to let them know that it happened and it will be taken care of,” Canete says. “Often we’ve already got someone out there addressing and correcting any damage issues.”
Canete admits no one system or set of procedures is perfect, and his are always being honed and tweaked to improve his business and better service his clients. However, having solid systems and procedures in place is invaluable, he says.
“If we hadn’t come up with these systems and procedures we probably wouldn’t be in the snow plowing business today,” Canete says.