PIONEER AWARD: True Pioneer

Features - PIONEER AWARD

Over the last three decades, John Allin has helped define what it means to be a professional in the snow and ice removal industry.

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October 26, 2010
Craig Gaines

In 1982, a confident young welding-supplies salesman in Erie, Pa., told his boss he was going to quit his secure job and go into business for himself plowing snow. Back then, a lot of people might have told the young man he was crazy. But today, snow removal contractors all over the country will tell you it was the best thing to ever happen to the industry. Things were never the same after John Allin entered the snow and ice business.

Allin’s career highlights are familiar to many in the industry. He grew the company that would become Snow Management Group (SMG) into the country’s first national snow removal business. He came up with the idea for the Snow and Ice Management Association, and was instrumental in its founding and growth. He was the exclusive snow contractor for the 1992 Olympics in Salt Lake City, after which he wrote a successful book, devised and sold an industry-leading snow melter, and started a consulting business.

But these are all just bullet points on a CV. They add up to a larger truth: John Allin took a collection of small, seasonal businesses and organized them into a full-fledged industry, one with its own association, multiple trade journals and once-unimagined revenues. Talk to some of his colleagues in the industry, no slouches themselves, and listen to the praise they shower down.
“John was always a big thinker, up for any challenge,” says Kurt Kluznik, president of Yardmaster Inc. in Painesville, Ohio. “No matter what he did, he did it in a big way.”

George Gaumer, vice president and general manager of Davey Commercial Grounds Management, a division of the Davey Tree Expert Co., watched Allin elevate the industry. “He basically led the charge of taking snow removal from something that was visualized as a bunch of individuals with pickup trucks and pulling it together as an industry,” he says.

Allin has long been known as a risk taker, says Chris James, who owns Chris James Landscaping Inc. in Waldwick, N.J. “To this day he’s one of the smartest snow professionals that I know,” James says. “He had his successes, he had his failures, but the man always showed up.”
And Kluznik, who bought Allin’s landscaping business in the mid-1990s, equates Allin with a pioneer in another industry. “Henry Ford didn’t invent the car, but there are a lot of people who think he did,” he says. “And I think John did for the snow-removal industry what Henry Ford did to the automotive industry.”

SIMA
Before there was a Snow and Ice Management Association, there was a Snow Plowers Association of America, on whose board Allin sat for a year and whose demise would eventually lead to SIMA’s creation. Allin was asked to speak at the snow plowers conference in Minneapolis in 1992, and it was there that he learned the association wasn’t a nonprofit entity. Allin and the other contractors who sat on the association’s board decided they weren’t interested in making money for the group, so they resigned.

The founder of the snow plowers group offered to sell the association to Allin and the other contractors, but they couldn’t reach a deal. Soon after, the Snow Plowers Association of America went under, and for the next few years Allin concentrated on his business and continued to meet fellow snowfighters at tradeshows.

Then, in 1995, his marketing coordinator needed a project to keep her busy. Allin, who had grown tired of snow removal’s image as a side business at best, asked her to write to all the contractors he’d met in the past few years and ask if they’d be interested in joining an industry association for snow and ice professionals. About 25 wrote back and said yes, and, after another round of correspondence, 13 agreed to travel to Erie to hammer out the details. “We wanted to get together and see if we could promote professionalism, and we did it on a wing and a prayer,” Allin says. “None of us ever dreamed it would get to where it was.”

A few of those 13 couldn’t make it, but on June 26, 1996, Allin and nine other contractors met at Sid’s Restaurant in Erie and later throughout the weekend at Allin’s house. By Sunday SIMA was born.
Rick Kier, president of Pro Scapes Inc. in Jamesville, N.Y., was one of those who hunkered down in Allin’s basement to form SIMA. He says the contractors gathered there wanted to improve their businesses and their industry, and they knew they’d have to work together to accomplish that. At that point the industry had “too many people who didn’t understand proper marketing, didn’t understand proper bidding, didn’t understand proper technique,” Kier says. “This was our opportunity to professionalize.”

SIMA was initially funded through $1,000 contributions from each of the 10 charter members, and its first headquarters were the offices of Snow Management Group. Not surprisingly, that initial investment wasn’t enough to sustain SIMA for long, so Allin contributed more and more along the way. At one point someone added it up and found that he contributed $267,000 to SIMA in its first four years.

None of SIMA’s charter members ran large operations, Allin says, but that was actually the point: they wanted to grow and professionalize their businesses. “We wanted to learn more about business. We wanted to be businesspeople,” he says. “People looked at us as individuals who can’t get real jobs. That was probably the biggest beef we had: we were looked down upon by people who own or manage properties. And we wanted to change that.”

Fourteen years after SIMA was created, Allin, who served as president for the first six years, is satisfied that the industry is more sophisticated because of it. “Back before we started SIMA there were no trade publications,” he says. “SIMA started the first trade publication. Now there’s two that seem to be doing fairly well.”
Kier credits Allin for structuring SIMA in a way that prevented it from “becoming an old-boy’s network. … John insisted that it be set up in such a way that board members would rotate off the board and other people would come on and it would really stay an association that belonged to the members.”

Before the creation of SIMA, Kier says contractors were on their own when they started their businesses. Often the only information source within reach were local competitors, who usually weren’t too motivated to assist contractors setting up shop on their turf. “Today if someone wants to learn about this industry, they can join the association, they can network with other contractors across the country and in Canada, they can attend training sessions,” Kier says. “There’s so much more education now as a result of SIMA.”

THE EARLY YEARS
Allin was thinking about how to succeed with snow decades before SIMA was even a rough idea. He left his native New Jersey to attend college in Erie, and he started doing sales for a welding-supplies company in town. Allin did well at the company, but even in his early days he wasn’t content to be an employee. In the late ’70s he used a Christmas bonus to buy a plow for his Ford Bronco, and he started servicing residences in legendarily snowy Erie.

During the next few years, the side business did well – too well for the liking of Allin’s boss. By 1982, Allin was taking off weeks at a time to tend to snow removal. “It got to a point where my boss said, ‘Who are you going to work for? Are you going to work for you or are you going to work for me?’ I left the sales job.”

Keep in mind that the United States was in a recession in 1982. Not too many people were electing to leave safe jobs back then. But entrepreneurialism was in Allin’s blood – his father was a welding contractor and plowed snow on the side to keep the trucks running in the winter – and he was going to be his own boss sooner or later. “I think my own makeup was such that being self-employed would feed my sense of self-worth a lot better than working for someone else.”

And if it was a given that Allin was going to be his own boss, it was just as sure a thing that he’d cast his lot with snow. He loves the stuff. “I never thought of snow as being difficult,” he says. “People who don’t do it or don’t like it think it’s difficult. People who love it think it’s great.”

So great, in fact, that Allin worked a plow himself during his company’s first quarter century of business. He’d do a morning route and then get to the office at 7 or 8 in the morning and work all day. “I was in a plow truck right up until we did the Olympics in 2002,” he says. “When I got back from Salt Lake City after the Olympics it became readily apparent … that I was not going to affect the bottom line greater by being out in the truck.”

OLYMPICS
Allin’s biggest contribution to the snow-removal industry was his instrumental role in the creation of SIMA, but his crowning achievement as a snowfighter was being the exclusive contractor for the 1992 Olympics in Salt Lake City. The job itself went off without a hitch, but it was in the contract negotiations where Allin was most impressive.

By the time he entered a bid for the Olympics job, a bribery scandal had rocked the local organizing committee, whose top officials had been forced to resign. Allin knew that the committee was looking to keep costs down, and he made an audacious proposal with that in mind. The committee wanted him to discuss a variety of per-hour and per-piece pricing structures, but Allin brought one of his own: a flat $1.8 million for the eight sites up for grabs (six had already been awarded).

Then Allin got really gutsy. At the end of his presentation he said, “If you can’t come to an agreement with [the contractor for the other six sites], I’ll do the whole damn thing for $4 million.” His bravado struck the right note. Later that day the committee called Allin right before he was to board his plane home. He was told to forget about the flight and bid for the entire job. After a few more hours of negotiation, John Allin had himself all 14 sites for the 1992 Olympics at a flat rate of $3.8 million (after further talks, the final figure was closer to $5 million).

This put immense pressure on Allin and brought high visibility to SMG, all of which was summed up during the first meeting of the Olympics Works Department. At a meeting of all the contractors, the head of the department said, “‘If the custodial people don’t show up, we’ve got a little more dust in the corner. If the waste people don’t show up, we’re going to have bags of garbage we’re going to have to hide. If the recycling people don’t show up, nobody really cares. If snow guys don’t show up, the Games don’t go on.’

“So,” Allin summarizes with a bit of understatement, “that added a bit more pressure.”

That said, during the first couple months of the contract, Allin wondered if his plows would be put to use at all. Through October and most of November, Salt Lake City had almost no snowfall. Allin was beginning to think he’d made out pretty well in his contract terms until Thanksgiving weekend, when the season’s first heavy snow fell: 9 feet at Snowbasin, where the downhill skiing was being held.

“We got everyone out there and it all turned out well, but 9 feet of snow in 48 hours is one massive quantity of snow,” Allin says. “The Salt Lake City area had record low snowfalls for November of 2001 and then record high falls for December of 2001. And we went from no snow and rolling in dough to snow every other day and going, ‘Oh, man, are we in trouble.’ ”

AFTER THE OLYMPICS
But he wasn’t, of course, in trouble. In fact, Allin and SMG were riding high after a successful Olympics. The Salt Lake Organizing Committee wrote a shining letter of recommendation, which “made it so that we literally had no more competition when we went out to bid on a piece of work.”

Which sounds like a godsend, but it led to one of the most important lessons of Allin’s career. The company could win any job it bid on, and it grew – much too fast. While SMG always operated in the black, it ran into cash flow problems, and Allin had to sell it in 2004. “My advice to people,” Allin says, “is don’t grow fast.”

Not surprisingly, Allin had been thinking about his next opportunity. During the Olympics, the Secret Service forbade snow piles from being higher than 18 inches, so he was forced to constantly haul it off. This, of course, was quite expensive, and he looked into snow-melting devices, but he couldn’t find a suitable solution. He worked on the concept for a snow-melting machine for the next few years, and after he sold SMG he approached Park-Ohio in Cleveland about developing a prototype and patenting a product. The company’s CEO liked the melter so much that he insisted that Park also manufacture it. Allin entered into a partnership with the company to produce and sell the Snow Dragon, which took him to 36 countries in 40 months as the company’s public face.

Allin left Snow Dragon after five years and, after some trepidation, became an industry consultant. He had heard about other consultants struggling, and he had his doubts. So he sent notes to everyone he knew in the industry inquiring whether they’d be interested in using his services. The response was more than adequate. “I went from zero to 100 in about three months,” he says. “I was just flabbergasted by how it took off.”

But there was another Allin who wasn’t flabbergasted at his success: his wife, Peggy, who has supported and enabled his entrepreneurial dreams from the very first moment. “I’m very, very fortunate to have a wife who not only has supported all of the dreams that I have put forth but has gone to great lengths to ensure that I succeed by being a background person who sometimes is the driving force behind my vision,” Allin says. “A lot of people operate in their businesses alone and they themselves are the driving force. Peggy and I make a very good team.”

STATE OF THE INDUSTRY
As Allin surveys the industry he helped bring to professional maturity, he sees one that’s much more sophisticated than when he began. That sophistication is reason to celebrate, but it also will pose the industry a challenge in the years ahead. The trick, he says, is to not let advances in efficiency and business acumen outpace business growth. “With the increased sophistication has come a down trend in the pricing and the profits,” he says. “That’s a good thing. You’ve got a lot of people breaking into the business because now they know they can make money at it, and unfortunately there’s been downward pressure on pricing because of it.”

His solution is vintage John Allin: keep learning, keep evolving. “The business is going to have to become more sophisticated as people become more educated.”