Trial By Winter

Features - Cover Story - The Leadership Awards

The Blizzard of ’78 tested his mettle as a snow fighter, and Jim Biebrach never looked back.

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September 3, 2019

2019 Leadership Award recipient Jim Biebrach: “You have to make your investment in your equipment and grow your business, and you hope that the people that started early with you stay with you. We still have employees that have been with us over 20 years. That’s a big part. That helps you grow even faster.”
Photo: Lynne Goldstein

For many, the mention of Jim Biebrach’ company Snow Systems brings to mind the image of an equipment powerhouse.

Brian Ellwood, serves as an essential infrastructure manager at Digital Realty a wholesale data center located in Elk Grove Village, Illinois and a client that Snow Systems serves.

“He's been doing our snow here for 11 years but I’ve been doing business with snow systems and Jim for 28 years,” Ellwood says. “He's been a very good partner for me for all these years, I’ve been through six different companies.”

Biebrach’s Snow Systems always has state of the art equipment on the job, he says.

“One of the things I’ve been impressed with all these years is the high integrity of his equipment,” Ellwood says. “He always has top line equipment, well maintained, especially pleasing. Some companies will show up with real junker trucks.”

First impressions are everything, Ellwood adds.

“Especially in corporate real estate the customers, I think, tend to appreciate a high end contractor,” he says. “We work hard in real estate on first impressions and parking lots are a big part of that. He takes ownership of the property, always constantly keeping the property's esthetics in mind.”

Snow Systems is based in Wheeling, Ill., and provides commercial snow removal to government agencies, large retail centers, healthcare facilities and other properties in 22 states. Snow Systems was founded in 1978, and the company has always had a 100 percent focus on snow removal.

“We started small with one truck and the next year we went to two trucks and things just grew upon that,” says CEO Biebrach. “There were two banners snow years in a row, ‘78, ‘79, and ‘79 and ‘80 were snowy years for Chicago Metro. That’s originally where we started, Chicago area.”

Biebrach attributes his company’s standing today to slow growth over many years.

“We are one of a select few companies in the Midwest, and nationally, that do snow only and have succeeded for that period of time,” he says. “Many have tried, many have failed.”

Today Snow Systems has anywhere from 25 to 40 employees during the off season. During peak season, there are 800 to 1,000 workers. Most of these additional workers are tradespeople who are off in the winter. Snow Systems has an annual revenue of $16 million.

For Biebrach, his interest in snow started at a young age.

“When I started as a kid, I started shoveling driveways at $3 to $5 a driveway,” he says. “And then when I got older, I said, "You know, it was good money shoveling driveways. Why not buy a pickup truck and plow?"

Biebrach’s timing was impeccable, as he started working during the winter of the Blizzard of 1978.

“I bought a brand-new pickup truck, put a plow on it, went to work, made a ton of money that year,” he says. “I thought it was the most money I was ever going to make in my life. And the next year we bought another truck. And every year after that you just kept buying equipment, kept putting money back into a business.”

Eventually his company grew to include 30 to 40 pieces of equipment.

“Then before you know it, you’re a major player in your region without even trying,” Biebrach says. “Pretty much what it comes down to is just good customer service, give the customer what they want, give them a little bit more than what they expect and you’ll always grow your business.”

All of Biebrach’s experience is from doing the work.

“We call that OTJ, on-the-job training,” he says.

Standing apart

While the growth may sound sudden, Biebrach is quick to point out he has grown his company slowly and strategically.

“We have grown at a snail’s pace, but there’s good reason for that,” he says. “You have longevity, you get to keep the customers for multiple contract periods instead of keeping the contract or keeping a customer for a two year or three-year contract and never seeing that customer again.”

Biebrach could have opted for short contracts but purposely did not.

“We could’ve grown four or five times the size that we are, but we elected with our business model, and our type of equipment, and the job sites that we want to go after to grow slow,” he says.

When it comes to standing apart from the competition, there is Biebrach’s experience but there is another aspect many cannot ignore.

“What sets us apart from most of our snow only competitors is that we will make the capital investment in equipment specifically for snow removal,” he says. “We’ll come in with specialty pieces of equipment for a job site. We’ll make that investment, and the customer will see that and see that competitors will not do that.”

These pieces of equipment are housed on each job site, with workers reporting directly to the job site to work – not a corporate office.

Additionally, Biebrach attributes his company’s tenure to finding and working with people who cannot imagine doing anything else.

“It goes back to the people, the people that live and die for the next snowfall, that enjoy getting out there and moving large piles of snow in a short period of time and do that year after year,” he says. “It takes a special person and once it’s in your blood, you’ll never be able to enjoy a snowfall sitting in front of a fireplace because you’re always going to want to be out there and have that camaraderie with your fellow workers.”

Jim with his wife, Joanne Biebrach, at this year’s ASCA Executive Summit in Pittsburgh.
Photo: Lynne Goldstein

Always learning

While he never had a formal education in snow work, Biebrach stays up to date on industry best practices through a few means.

“The Accredited Snow Contractors Association (ASCA) is great. They’re always cutting edge. We stay involved whenever possible,” he says. “It’s also important to have either your own peer group or, on a smaller closer basis, have a handful of allies. That’s the best way of having a barometer on what your competition is doing and what the industry is doing:

These allies are trusted partners of many years, including some local.

“It’s continual training, so whenever seminars are posted or come up, you make sure you send your key personnel to that, and you try to trickle that down to the boys in the field,” Biebrach says. “But the continual training, that’s ongoing. That never stops and you try to keep your employees motivated with the best safety practices.”

Biebrach passes that education onto others.

Stacey Hinson is director of sales for Snow Systems. She is celebrating 10 years with the company and working under Biebrach’s leadership, starting as his office manager.

“He decided to take me under his wing and teach me the sales stuff. I never thought in a million years I would have any job that has to do with sales,” Hinson says. “Everything I know about the snow business Jim taught me from sales to operations. He is such a great boss and leader. He doesn't teach by dictating, it's all hands on, seeing and showing.”

Biebrach says he wouldn’t still be in business today if it weren’t for investing back into his company and finding and keeping the right people.

“You have to make your investment in your equipment and grow your business, and you hope that the people that started early with you stay with you,” he says. “We still have employees that have been with us over 20 years. That’s a big part. That helps you grow even faster.”

There is always trial and error, even 40 years in.

“My job is to make sure the right people are in the right positions. I get it right about 80 percent of the time,” he says. “There are times where the right people are not in the right position and we fail on a property. Those things happen. You move on and you replace those people. But make sure that everybody has the company’s and the customer’s best interest at hand.”

Biebrach: “We started small with one truck and the next year we went to two trucks and things just grew upon that.”
Photos: Lynne Goldstein

Nothing at face value

Good leaders don’t take anything at face value, they ask a lot of questions, Biebrach says.

“You want people thinking out of the box,” he says. “What else makes a good leader? I’d like to say worry. A good leader is always worrying. He’s worrying if he has enough salt on hand. He’s worrying if he has enough fuel on hand. He’s worrying if his shovelers are all going to show up tonight. He’s worrying if the trucks are going to start.”

Biebrach says others in his circle have inspired his leadership over the years.

“I talked to the people that have a lot of wisdom and knowledge over the years, so I handle myself at that level, to the people that have been there and done that before,” he says. “Do I mentor other people that start out in business? Yes, absolutely. I’m for people to get into the snow removal business, it is still profitable, but you have to have a business plan and direction.”

Kevin Gilbride is executive director of the ASCA and has known Biebrach since 2012 and recalls Biebrach’s contributions to the industry, including one story in particular.

“We had a goal to get legislation changed at the state level,” Gilbride says. “One of the states that we began in, was Illinois, which is his home state. I walked into the office one day, received an envelope and a letter from Jim. He made a $5,000 donation (to the organization for legislative efforts).”

Today the ASCA has its own model legislation, known as the Snow Removal Limited Liabilities Act.

“He was never asked, but he knew the importance of what we were doing and wanted to do his little part to fund it,” Gilbride said.

On a local level, Snow Systems will donate time, effort, energy or resources such as to local food pantries. Snow Systems has also participated in Touch-a-Truck events at schools and day camps which allows children to see large pieces of equipment in person.

“Then we’ll have our employees on site explaining what that piece of equipment does,” Biebrach says.

Hinson says other companies look to Snow Systems and try to emulate.

“We have put so much money into our equipment and other companies have picked that up,” Hinson says. “We do something and the next year they are (competitors) trying to follow suit, from equipment, to training programs to website, everything.”

That emulation has been in place for a long time now.

“He’s a leader at one of the largest companies in his marketplace,” Gilbride says. “They were among the first to use and employ real heavy equipment into the marketplace around that blizzard of ‘78. They were the only ones that were operating skid steers and loaders in the area at the time. They helped lead the innovation.”