now what do you think?

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Is snow and ice management still worth the risks? We ask veteran snow fighters if entering the market is still a sound business decision.

May 23, 2017
Rob Thomas
image: istock

For some time now, the professional snow and ice management industry has faced three significant business hurdles – labor (lack of qualified, trained and reliable individuals); slip-and-fall and insurance, and weather – or lack thereof, in some seasons.

We wanted the perspectives from both veteran contractors and relative newcomers on their approach toward managing and overcoming these issues. More importantly, we wanted to know how these issues impacted their commitment to staying in the professional snow and ice management industry winter after winter. In other industries, any one of these hurdles is enough to force a company out of business. So, what makes this any different?

The professional a snow-and-ice-management contractor is a lot like that of a track and field athlete — clear one hurdle and another awaits.

Consider that season after season a contractor compiles a team of qualified, reliable workers and trains them to meet specific needs. Then, they need to deal with the world of insurance and handle slip-and-fall claims – some bogus, or at the very least, questionable — that come your way.

But perhaps the most frustrating hurdle of all is Mother Nature’s unpredictability. A light season can turn heavy at a moment's notice, or "the big one" may never come, or each event snows just enough to remain under the trigger.

Together these issues beg the question: How do you make it in this business?

Labor

The snow and ice management industry relies heavily on a massive labor force, says Jason Case, CSP, CEO of Case Snow Management in North Attleborough, Mass. His company hires between 700 and 1,000 seasonal workers to perform shoveling, operate equipment and drive trucks.

To overcome the lack of experience, Case has custom built “Case University,” an online training program that is instrumental in educating all levels of his workforce. "As the first company in the world to achieve the ISO SN9001 designation, we pride ourselves on training, constantly monitoring, measuring and improving the training platforms to ensure all team members have the knowledge to be safe and productive in the field," he says.

Case would like to see the "fragmented and unregulated" nature of the industry addressed.

"Thousands of contractors and municipalities are spreading chemicals into the environment with very little training and education to the drivers who are deploying those materials," he says. "The industry needs to push for licensing, certification credentials, ISO regulation and environmental awareness in order to force the men and women performing the work to be aware of the risks and potential safety hazards that surround them. I would imagine most contractors don't feel that way because, typically, more regulation means more cost and tougher to find qualified help. However, the big picture is protecting our water supply and ecosystems for future generations to enjoy."

Snow fighter Joseph Walton agrees that labor is a constant challenge.

"Since we have not found the magic wand that makes well trained and industrious temporary labor appear in sufficient numbers just prior to a snow storm, we have opted to target properties that require less manpower in our sales effort," says Walton, the CFO of Glenhaven Snow Systems in Montgomeryville, Pa. "We have also emphasized the use of sidewalk equipment wherever possible to reduce the amount of manpower required to service a site."

A growing, maturing business has helped Matthew Snyder address some of his labor issues.

"This has actually been a benefit to the labor challenge – both for the summer and winter season – as being able to offer consistent, year-round employment has greatly stabilized my workforce and decreased my employee turnover," says Snyder, president of Snow Hill in Alfred, N.Y. "I offer my year-round employees a base salary because I require 24/7 availability during the snow season. This way they can know that they can provide for their income needs regardless of the weather.”

Snyder invests heavily in training, drawing from a variety of industry resources such as the ASCA-C educational program provided by the Accredited Snow Contractors Association.

"At this point I almost prefer hiring someone with no experience, knowing that the training I can equip them with will benefit them and my business, and I won't have to help them overcome prior bad habits they may have learned," he says.

The responsibility of addressing the labor force falls on the industry as a whole, Snyder says.

"The labor challenges our industry faces will not fix themselves ... it is up to us to analyze why we have a people shortage and look at what we can do to make it more likely that we can attract the workers we need," he says. "This will require a broad analysis of our business and the industry. We need to make sure that our businesses are structured in such a way as to be able to offer financially beneficial positions to our workers and prepare to train them fully in what is required to work in this industry.”

This will also require a shift away from the superhuman requirement of being able to plow through the duration of a storm for 30 to 40 hours, he says. “Contactors must use common sense to know that the average worker can really only safely handle a 10- to 20-hour period before they need a chance to recover. Therefore, there may be a need for shifts or multiple crews for businesses in areas that regularly experience larger events, Snyder adds.

"This is all a part of building a strong company culture that values each individual as a critical part of the team."

Insurance

Stephanie Sauers, CSP, President of Sauers Tree and Landscape Services in Dresher, Pa., implements systems and processes for documentation to address slip-and-fall and insurance concerns. He’s committed to helping his team of service providers protect everyone – themselves, the insurance provider, the client, Sauers says.

"Good documentation protects so many people and it is so incredibly valuable,” she says. “Of course, all of this stems from [the ISO 9001/ SN 9001 Quality Management System certification] and Mills Insurance recognizing good practices and ISO certification. I’m also heavily involved in helping to change legislation in Pa. to eliminate 'hold harmless' language."

“Hold harmless” is a provision in an agreement under which one or both parties agree not to hold the other party responsible for any loss, damage or legal liability. Sauers sees reason to be optimistic with insurance issues going forward.

"I definitely think it can get better, as we continue to change legislation and bring awareness to property managers about what is really happening in the industry right now," she adds. "I don’t think it will improve in the next couple years, but I’m hopeful within five years. I’m also excited to see if the Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act will have any chance of moving forward with the new presidency."

The cost of liability insurance for snow removal has skyrocketed in recent years and many providers have left the market, as well, Walton adds.

"Aside from the obvious of taking as many steps as possible to prevent slip-and-falls in the first place, we have found that providing the underwriter with written policies and procedures that have been implemented to prevent slip-and-falls, properly monitor sites and services, detailed documentation of weather conditions, site conditions and service details before, during and after a storm results in a better negotiated rate," he says. "Using tracking software to document service, posting caution signage on areas prone to icing, monitoring and documenting weather and temperatures until all ice risk is gone, preseason identification and documentation of site hazards and having a written safety and training program are just a few of the things that an insurer looks favorably upon if you can give them documentation showing you follow these procedures."

Unfortunately, Case believes slip-and-falls will continue to be an obstacle for all snow and ice contractors, as well as property owners. However, he's not just sitting back and waiting for an eager attorney's call.

"Case has implemented many proactive measures that help fight frivolous law suits and help protect our insurance company from needless settlements," he says. "First item is documentation. The utilization of GPS and mobile technology has enabled us to streamline exact times and types of services delivered to a property, there is no denying non-negligence when you can prove services were performed. Equally important is our team of professionally trained managers, equipment, materials used and our preparation to service the property. Before the snow, Case performs a rigorous site audit outlining the scope, plow map, snow response strategy and existing damages with a representative from the property. This ensures proper communication was delivered from the customer to the men servicing that location."

Weather

The most unpredictable hurdle — and also the reason there's a snow-and-ice-management industry in the first place — is weather. For Walton, knowledge and preparation are keys to success.

"Aside from debating the validity of climate change and its cause, there is not much you can do about the weather," he says. "It is what it is. And many times you won’t know what it is until you know. The most important thing is to be aware.

A snow-removal contractor needs to constantly monitor both short-term and long-term forecasts and Walton suggests using multiple sources.

"Although it may seem expensive, engaging a professional meteorological firm can be a tremendous asset for making the right decisions while in the midst of battling a winter weather event and many times can lead to actual cost savings,” he says. “Weather forecasting is not a black-or-white situation. You can look at five different sources and get five different forecasts in some cases. As a snow-removal professional you should have more than a rudimentary understanding of weather forecasting in order to come to your own conclusion. There is a tremendous amount of information on the Internet that can be used for self-education. There are also weather forums used by both amateur and professional meteorologists to discuss weather forecasts and they are a great source of information. When it comes to winter weather, plan for the worst, include flexibility in your game plan and stay on top of changes in the forecast."

A snow-removal contractor needs to constantly monitor both short-term and long-term weather forecasts and use multiple sources when making business and management decisions.
image: © Crystal Craig | Dreamstime.com

Snyder takes a different viewpoint on weather.

"Weather is obviously the biggest factor in the snow-and-ice-management industry," he says. "Without it and all of its challenges there would be no industry to speak of. However, it is the immense variability and inconsistency that can be the end of many snow contractors. I have learned (and am continuing to learn) that I have to view snow-and-ice-management services not so much as the actual work performed in any given day, but rather as an 'insurance' that the work will be performed. If we as an industry can begin to look at it from this viewpoint and market it as such to our customers, I believe we will be much better prepared to reap the opportunities the weather provides by preparing and being capable of handling the worst, but also being financially viable in the no-winter seasons."

Embrace Mother Nature’s unpredictability and enjoy the benefits.

"The challenge of weather will most likely be the constant that we deal with," Snyder says. "While there will be shifts and trends, whether toward warmer winters, more major storms with less smaller storms, or any other combination, ultimately the weather is what provides the opportunity for business and those [who] embrace that and structure their business to work that to their advantage will continue to thrive."

With so many weather outlets available - some better than others — Sauers recommends narrowing your focus on where to gather information.

"I’m sure technology will continue to help meteorologist analyze weather and patterns, etc; however, it’s so easy for anyone to start a weather webpage or social media page and confuse everyone," she says. "It’s hard to tell what to trust sometimes. I think it’s important to choose two-three reputable companies/news pages and stick with them and not get caught up in some of the beginners trying to cause drama."

Resilience

Logan Dunn, Managing Director of SNÖ-Services in Mechanicsburg, Pa., doesn't foresee these hurdles changing or getting better, but that's not to say he's not optimistic of the future.

"Snow removal has its inherent challenges and [labor, slip-and-fall/insurance and weather] are among the top challenges for any service company," Dunn says. "There is one constant in life — change. I believe the hurdles will always be top challenges for the snow removal business. I think the way we view them will change. Companies that can step away from conventional wisdom and approach these challenges as opportunity will excel.

Dunn admits he's considered leaving the snow-and-ice industry because of the aforementioned hurdles, but he's remained.

"I believe top-performing entrepreneurs constantly assess the risk-reward equation," he says. "Any winter event can humble even the strongest of competitors. The underlying challenge of delivering consistency from constructed chaos regularly challenges the most prepared organizations."

Stephanie Sauers: “I love the people of this industry. It’s an industry of open-minded professionals who are all willing to help each other out. It’s an industry that is not selling a cutthroat commodity, but providing a service that is necessary for everyone.”
image: jerry mann

What is it about the industry that keeps him coming back season after season? The challenge.

"My competitive nature keeps me focusing on skewing the risk-reward equation in my favor," Dunn says. "SNÖ-Services has been very successful, but there are always things we can do to improve as an organization to deliver services that continue to build trust and loyalty with clients we service, which equates to continued opportunity."

Conversely, Sauers has never given a second thought to her commitment within the industry.

"It’s scary, the liability that is being pinned on us through contract language in some instances; however, not all contracts are bad," she says. "It’s just important that [people within] the snow industry continues to educate themselves about these various challenges and know implications of signing bad contracts and understand how to overcome the challenges it is being faced with.

"I love the people of this industry," Sauers says. "It’s an industry of open-minded professionals who are all willing to help each other out. It’s an industry that is not selling a cutthroat commodity, but providing a service that is necessary for everyone. It’s being part of an emergency response team. It’s understanding client needs and fulfilling them at the most difficult time. It’s being prepared and exceeding expectations. It’s watching people get to and from their destinations safety during a dangerous winter weather event because of all of your yearlong efforts. It’s not sleeping for 36-plus hours and falling asleep in the shower when you finally get the opportunity. It’s an adrenaline rush every time it snows. It’s a team effort in everything. It’s a team effort at our company level, and our industry level, and at the association level (with ASCA). I love snow!"

Knowing what he now knows, Walton cites stress as a reason he would likely pass on an opportunity to join the industry if given the opportunity today. Snyder, though, would do it all over again ... with one caveat.

"I would do it again,” he says. “However, I would probably do even more research to make sure I structured my business to work well with the challenges of varying winters.

“Snow-and-ice management is a service that the demand for is not going away and the need for qualified contractors is growing,” he says. “Gone are the days of anyone with a plow being able to go out and plow after the storm for the gas station on the corner. Today's society requires nearly instant response to the weather and expects to be able to continue living life without major interruption or hazard. This provides a tremendous market opportunity for snow-and-ice service providers."

Rob Thomas is a Cleveland-based writer and frequent Snow Magazine contributor.