Carl Bolm could hardly imagine how his St. Louis-based snow and ice removal business would change when he started in 1984 with a pick-up truck and a used snow plow. In the beginning, BSR Services was just a way to make ends meet during seasonal layoffs from his job as an airline baggage handler. “Over the years, I fell in love with the industry, and with building a little enterprise,” Bolm says.
What began out of necessity has since morphed into a sophisticated snow removal and risk management company for the most discerning clients in St. Louis. With a fleet of 25 Missouri DOT-type trucks and another 575 owned by contractors, BSR manages the logistics of snow and ice removal for a collection of corporate accounts that reads like a Who’s Who list of the St. Louis business community.
Early on, Bolm realized he couldn’t personally own or manage all the necessary equipment to grow a viable business, so he wrote a business plan to involve strategic partners and seasonal help. His knack for recruiting people he can trust – and building relationships – helped BSR grow a brand reputation and a corporate culture known for excellence. Those factors were enough to fuel the company’s growth until 2013, when Bolm hired BSR’s first sales person to help manage customer relationships.
“If Carl puts a goal in writing, it’s going to happen,” says Shawn Gibbs, a friend and financial advisor who’s known Bolm since 2001, when they were introduced by mutual friends at a Cardinals baseball game. “Good is not good enough. He’s always looking to be the best. That’s what has allowed him to get contracts with the most successful businesses in town. BSR definitely has a recipe for doing things right.”
As an oldest child who grew up doing manual labor on a family farm, Bolm’s work ethic and his tendency to lead by example has served him well as an entrepreneur, according to friends. Farming also prepared him for the urgency of the snow removal business. “Before you went to school, you had to feed the animals, and when you came home at night, you put up hay until dark,” Bolm says. “When the crops are up, it doesn’t matter what holiday it is.”
Bolm is known for placing a high value on loyalty and trust in relationships – a trait that’s embedded in BSR’s corporate culture. As the business has grown, that has allowed him to relinquish some tasks to proven colleagues. One thing Bolm won’t delegate is his role as the company’s leading communicator.
Each year, Bolm holds a meeting with BSR’s contractors to make sure he doesn’t lose contact with the people who do the work. Never mind the fact that his message stays the same, year after year: You are important. The job is important. “These people work tremendous hours and in unbelievable conditions,” Bolm says. “We could not be where we are without them.”
Treating people with respect and valuing their time has helped Bolm build a loyal base of contractors. Another relationship builder: BSR pays contractors 48 hours after a storm and provides 24-hour access to service, parts and towing.
BSR contractors return the favor by going to the mat whenever it’s necessary. “It does not snow on our accounts,” Bolms says. That isn’t a weather forecast, of course; it’s more of a battle cry that reflects how the company serves its high-end customer base. Bolm says BSR’s customers are its best ambassadors.
Never one to rest on its laurels or take its customer base for granted, BSR spends six to eight months of the year getting battle-ready for the next season, and marketing to existing customers. “We do year-end reviews with our clients and have QA people collecting data, so the next season we are 100 percent prepared,” Bolm says. “We make sure they are happy and want to return.” BSR also collects data from contractors to make sure people trained at BSR University meet quality standards.
Snow and ice removal may happen only a few months out of the year, but BSR is committed to the industry year-round. In the middle of summer, you can find the BSR team working through mock storms to test their Standard Operating Procedures.
“It’s too late to practice when winter comes,” Bolm says. “Preparation meets opportunity when the storm comes. That’s how we stay ready.”
Bolm’s obsession with quality and excellence is part of his DNA. BSR’s offices, equipment and facilities are immaculate – waxed, painted, cleaned and organized. “What you see at work is who I am away from work,” Bolm says.
If he has high expectations for others, Bolm’s friends and co-workers say that’s nothing compared to the standards he sets for himself. “Carl probably starts his day at 4 a.m., and who knows what time he is done?” Gibbs says. “He’s not going to ask anyone to do what he wouldn’t do.”
After 30 years in the snow removal business, Bolm leads by being the first to jump and the last to eat. He’s been known to pick up a shovel and start working next to people who never suspect that he owns the business. Those antics amuse BSR’s management team, but his transparency is consistent with the organization’s well-placed priorities and Bolm’s all-in, no-excuses leadership style.
“At the end of a storm, I don’t care how much it snowed, how many hours we worked or how stressful it was,” Bolm says. “I want to see a blank client log with no complaints or additional service calls. How well we met our clients’ expectations will always be the barometer of how we’re doing.”
“He’s built that business, and all his businesses, on relationships and doing all the basic stuff from the 1950s, like showing up on time, treating people with respect and doing what you say you’ll do,” says Jeff Cook, a friend who has known Bolm since 1982, when they met on a ski trip. Like many self-made people, Bolm steeps himself in positive, motivational books. Reading Zig Ziglar and Dale Carnegie helped shape the bedrock values he lives by. “I was reading those books at a young age,” he says. “I still have them marked and highlighted.”
The snow removal industry has changed a lot since Bolm bought his first truckload of salt. These days, BSR buys salt in barge loads, and stores it in a dozen depots spread across St. Louis County. Last year, BSR built a new, centrally-located facility and office, where most equipment is kept.
“The industry has grown from a lot of mom and pop operations to a sophisticated, technically-advanced industry,” he says. “There was no industry network. SIMA (Snow and Ice Management Association) wasn’t even around 30 years ago.”
As the industry evolved, so did Bolm. BSR’s growth tapped Bolm’s gift for finding the right talent and allowing people to do their jobs. “It’s been hard to let go, but I can’t be everywhere,” he says. “I have a team of people who perform exceptionally well, and they have great management skills.”
Bolm is a big-picture guy who surrounds himself with great people to implement those ideas, says Kevin Gilbride, executive director of the Accredited Snow Contractors Association (ASCA).
“Carl was one of the first to see the value of ISO 9001 and SN 9001, and once he saw that, he and his team attacked it,” Gilbride says. “That is how Carl is. Fully understand everything then move on it.”
Given the intense, seasonal nature of the snow and ice removal business, a desire to rest during the off-season would be understandable, but Bolm isn’t the type of guy whose entrepreneurial mind can be set to idle. Although the snow and ice removal business is Bolm’s first love, he has started several businesses, including a popular St. Louis pub, a winery and a special events destination near his hometown, Foristel, Mo.
“He believes in complimentary business sets,” Cook says. “I think part of it is his desire to keep his team together. Once he gets the right people, he figures out something else he can do with that team, plans around it, figures it out, and uses those core values to do something else.”
Cook says Bolm brings an artful balance of ambition, deliberation and tolerance for risk to every business endeavor. “He understands how to grow, and that’s really important,” Cook says. “A lot of entrepreneurs shoot for the moon, but Carl will search around and find out what the right model is, and then he will go for it, but he won’t bet the farm doing it. He takes a very long-term approach.”
Bolm’s thoughtful nature explains the continuous line that runs from one business to the next, according to Cook. When his first restaurant was successful, Bolm parlayed the experience into a catering business. Eventually, that led him to start a winery. The winery segued into building a scenic destination for special events, plus another restaurant, this time with a fine dining focus. He also owns The Battlegrounds, a five-mile, mud-run obstacle course that hosts charity mud runs and year-round, teambuilding events for corporations – a startup instigated by Bolm’s personal interest in fitness and an open need he noticed in the market.
All of these enterprises have the mark of Bolm’s keen eye for details and knowledge of systems. “I’ve had the pleasure of watching him start different businesses,” Gibbs says. “He knows how to dot all the i’s and cross the t’s to create an ideal experience – not just a regular business.”
Bolm’s personal life was emblematic of the blurred lines successful entrepreneurs often have between work and home. Friends say Bolm has always regarded his co-workers as family members, and he didn’t marry until 2013. “He’s found a great life partner in Gabriella,” says Cook, who describes Bolm as a humble guy and loyal friend who seldom mentions business after hours.
Having a high level of energy and commitment has made Bolm a natural leader for community causes in the St. Louis area, according to his friend and attorney, Bill Corrigan, who serves with Bolm on the board of directors of Old Newsboys, a charity for children’s causes. “He’s not the kind of person who volunteers to serve on a board just to have it on his resume,” Corrigan says. “When he joins a cause, he contributes and gets things done.”
Bolm also serves on the Young Leader Board for the USO of Missouri Inc. With a father, an uncle and several friends who served in the military, he was naturally drawn to USO causes. “We do some amazing things for veterans and are heavily involved in supporting troops,” he says.
He also volunteers for Youth With A Mission’s Homes of Hope, a non-profit program that builds homes in third-world countries. He’s been everywhere from Guatemala and Costa Rica, to Mexico on mission trips for Homes of Hope. Bolm sees these non-profit endeavors as a continuation of his life’s work – which is really about helping people.
Crystal Hammon is an Indianapolis-based writer and frequent Snow Magazine contributor.
Photos by Leo Cachat
For more online
Want more about this leadership award winner? Check out a video of their 2014 Leadership Award acceptance speech at this year’s Executive Summit in Miami. Go to snowmagazineonline.com and click on the “Multimedia” tab to access the videos.