Didn’t See That Coming!

Features - Cover Story

Even the best-laid plans sometimes go south. Our group of industry experts prepare you to face five worst-case scenarios.

July 20, 2018

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Boxer Mike Tyson is quoted as saying: “Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” So, how do snow and ice management contractors react when being hit with a haymaker from Old-Man Winter? Ask anyone who’s spent time in the snow and ice management industry and they’ll tell you that even the best-laid plans can go awry during what seems to be a routine winter event. Our group of industry experts help you prepare for the worst by sharing how they’ve dealt with five particular worst-case scenarios in the past.

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Last-Minute Contract

Chad Oberson, of Oberson’s Nursery and Landscapes in Fairfield, Ohio, has been in the snow industry for 21 years. While landing a coveted account is generally a good thing, timing can swing the pendulum drastically.

“You work all summer hard to try to get contracts and get everything lined up, and you are never 100 percent ready,” Oberson says. “The first snow comes, and it is 10 inches and you are just not ready. You landed 12 new accounts that just gave you contracts in the last week. It starts to snow and that big, million-square-foot location that you have been trying to get for four years calls you and says, 'we want to go with you … can you service us in tonight's 10-inch storm?’

“You say you will take care of them but it will not be easy because of the notice,” he continues. “They say, ‘well if you think you can't keep us open we will just go with the old vendor who has his stuff onsite because he thought he was going to get this account.’”

Oberson is forced to pivot and move around resources to assure the pop-up client knows they are going to get top priority service.

This has happened, in some form, for the last three seasons.

“May not be the exact same story every year, but similar,” Oberson says. “Clients are getting later and later every year on signing contracts and they just do not realize what time and effort goes into being ready for the first event - whether big or small.

“Clients think they pay us to plow and deice their lots, but contractors know they pay us to be ready 24/7 to be ready to plow and deice,” he added. “This is a disconnect [that] is very difficult to educate the customer on.”

To handle these situations, Oberson has moved around equipment, taken managers from managing and made them operators, and taken resources from accounts that do not want a high level of service and moved them to this new high-level-service account.

“The biggest problem is all of my customers are high level of service … just some are higher than others,” he says. “I figure for every inch of snow, I lose a day off my life and in this case this 10-inch storm that ended up being only 5 inches took a month off my life. Snow guys work crazy hard and they understand the pressure that the snow brings and most will agree with me that hours and days are taken away from us in every event.”

Accounting for snow that accumulates during morning commutes is one of the biggest logistical challenges facing snow contractors.
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Storm Timing

Brian Barus, general manager at Schwartzmiller Ground Maintenance in Pittsburgh, Pa., has identified his company’s worst-case scenario to be an accumulating snowfall that requires plowing between the hours of 6 and 9 a.m.

“As we service over 120 commercial properties, the first issue for this worst-case scenario for us is getting from property to property during the morning commute in a city known for its horrific traffic on a bright sunny day,” Barus says. “Now throw in a couple inches of snow and it can take over an hour to go less than 5 miles.

“Secondly, though we have several 24-hour properties, as you can imagine, most of our clients open for business between 7 and 9 a.m.,” he continues. “This creates the next problem … getting to all of our accounts in a timely manner to clear the snow and make the property safe for vehicle and foot traffic prior to the arrival of employees and customers.”

Having been in the industry for more than 25 years, Barus has been faced with this scenario more than several times.

“You have to take the punches as Mother Nature throws them at you,” he says. “We have found that pre-planning is the best defense to any worst-case scenario. As with anything in life, if you are not prepared for success, chances are, you are going to fail every time. Ensuring that you have adequate, reliable help on hand, equipment staged ahead of the storm and having sub-contractors on standby in case of equipment failure are just a few ways to prevent you from turning something totally manageable, into a major catastrophe. We stage salt and other deicing materials strategically throughout our service area to minimize down time for reloading of materials, as well.”

Segmenting the larger picture has also worked for Schwartzmiller Ground Maintenance.

“From an execution standpoint, we have learned that breaking our properties down into zones is key,” Barus says. “We have a variety of businesses in each zone that open at different times that will allow the crews to progress through the zones in the order that each business opens.

“Without a doubt, communication is the key to success during any worst-case scenario,” he continues. “Maintaining constant contact with my drivers and GPS monitoring of our fleet enables me to keep track of who may be falling behind or who may be ahead of schedule and could be free to go help another zone catch up. We also employ two full-time, in-house mechanics that are on call 24/7 in the winter. Our shop is fully equipped with lifts, every tool imaginable, and common parts always in stock for vehicles, plows and spreaders. Ninety-five percent of our breakdowns are able to be repaired roadside with very little down time.”

Guessing Games

Casey Blue, director of operations at Martinson Services in Denver, Colo., says it’s the unknown that can create sleepless nights.

“Rush hour snow” … “Tough a.m. commute” … “Early-morning flash freeze possible” … “a.m. freezing rain and drizzle.”

“These phrases create a knot in my stomach that far exceeds any chance of deep snow or blizzard conditions,” Blue says. “From a snow-management perspective, heavy snow is fairly easy to manage. With help from local weather and social media hyping up these storms, it seems that everyone is ready and eager to fight these large events. The real challenge is managing a dangerous, icy, will-it-happen-or-not snow event. These are the most challenging to me for a few reasons.

“Without media hype, the workforce tends to assume nothing will happen and all will be fine,” he continues. “A late jump on these events makes our deployment and response ineffective after traffic is gridlocked. If our workforce is caught off guard, so will be our customers. Boots are left at home and dress shoes and heels are making their way across black ice-laden parking lots. This leaves us and the companies that hired us exposed.”

There’s a risk in the other direction, as well.

“If we guess wrong and over deploy, then we are left with the choice of sending our customer a bill for work that we thought was going to be done or we stand to take a massive hit for paying several hundred people for waiting for that which never came,” Blue says. “The first and most important aspect of these impossible mornings is to carefully dissect your contract language, review scopes of work and to over communicate with your customers. While some customers refuse to pay a dime until there are two inches or more of snow on their parking lot, some customers are more than willing to pay for a small crew of workers to sit and wait for what may or may not come.

“If we have a customer that calls in a panic and screams, ‘where are you guys?’ before we’ve met our trigger depth, we calmly explain we haven’t met your trigger, but we’d be more than happy to head over and handle whatever needs to be handled,” he adds. “After the dust settles, usually a few days after the event, we call a meeting and ask if they would like to add an increased level of service to their contract. This can be tied down with a signed addendum to their contract or at the very least, a saved email chain requesting the change.”

Following an event, Blue can reassess the client needs.

“After we’ve determined who is expecting us to be there — and who is willing to pay for the service — we can direct our crews to such sites plenty early and cover the ‘what-ifs,’ whether it snows or ices over unexpectedly,” he says. “As for the rest of the area, we evenly distribute our best guys throughout the area so we are close enough to handle problem calls if we are caught in a tough morning situation. We’ve found that a few really good, experienced workers can cover many issues and lots of square footage until the rest of the crews are on site if they are deployed in a rush hour situation.”

Snow contractors must be willing to renegotiate contracts as winter conditions change.
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Customers Renegotiating

Chuck Lantzman, President and CEO of Snow and Ice Management Co. based in Pennsylvainia, but servicing seven states, has been in business for 27 years. The weather still presents its issues, of course, but curveballs by customers have become his biggest worst-case scenario.

“The biggest issue is getting a blizzard or Nor’easter, being prepared with the right equipment and keeping up with the storm, as well as customer expectations,” Lantzman says. “When it’s time to invoice, the customer wants to make a deal. I’d rather see 2-inch snow storms every week.”

It doesn’t have to be a major event for customers to add stress to the business.

“When we see average winters, some customers want to slow down service when they’ve hit their budget,” Lantzman says. “Unfortunately, slowing down service opens them up for more liability, which they don’t want to face.”

Subcontracting a vast majority of the work, Lantzman has seen contractors new to the industry create their own customer-based worst-case scenarios.

“We hire a lot of smaller guys,” he says. “I’ve seen it over the last couple years when the snow has been so light, people don’t realize what they can truly handle if we get 6 to 8 inches of snow.

“You may have too many clients,” Lantzman continues. “How successful are you if you lose half your accounts because they’re on the back end that gets cleared late every time? It’s better to do less and be successful at it.”

Missing a customer’s expectations is one of the worst-case scenarios a snow contractor must be ready to handle.
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Missing Customer Expectations

Stacey Hinson, director of sales at Snow Systems, which is based in Illinois and services seven states from Illinois to Massachusetts, says the company’s worst-case scenario is not performing to the customers’ expectations.

“We service customers and clients in a timely fashion to address any and all safety concerns on their site. After all, this is what they are contracting us to do,” Hinson says. “So, our worst fear is that someone gets hurt on their site, a site that we are contracted to service (plow or deice as necessary). We never want to hear that anyone fell, or got hurt, or a car slid and crashed because of the weather.”

Hinson knows these unfortunate instances are part of this business, but the company has policies and procedures in place to deal with these situations.

“Our staff goes through a lot of training to be able to recognize signs of a potential hazard and prevent it from happening,” she says. “In the event that a hazard does exist, they are trained on what processes and procedures need to be followed to properly handle the situation. Then we make any necessary modifications to ensure that it does not happen again.”

According to Barus, carefully calculating your growth can lessen the chances of many worst-case scenarios from occurring.

“Everyone wants to run out and contract with as many clients as they can sign in order to make as much money as possible,” he says. “Keep in mind, if your fleet is not of adequate size and you are not prepared to handle whatever may be your own worst-case scenario, you will inevitably fail.

“Not only do you need to execute your contractual obligations to your clients to prevent lawsuits filed against you, you want to be able to give every client the attention to detail on their property in order to retain all of your clients for many years to come,” he adds. “Making your clients, no matter their size, feel like they are your number one priority in any situation, is the key to your long-term success in the snow removal industry.”

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