Why didn’t someone tell me?

Features - Cover Story

Veteran snow fighters share the biz lessons they wish they knew when they first got into the industry.

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October 20, 2016
Rob Thomas
francescoridolfi.com;

Even the most grizzled snow industry veteran was new at one point. And, regardless of whether they followed a tried-and-true blueprint or winged it, they inevitably experienced “Why didn’t anyone tell me ...” moments here and there. While some may succumb to the adversity, the most successful contractors learned from it and became stronger.

Chad Oberson, of Oberson’s Nursery and Landscapes in Fairfield, Ohio, bought his first plow truck at the age of 17 and has now been in the business for 21 years. He wonders why nobody warned him against putting plows on his salt trucks

“For years I put plows on my salt trucks, not understanding how to scale (grow) a business and understanding the value of management,” Oberson says. “I thought everyone had to be moving snow to be making money. Wrong. I found out that if you do not put a plow on a truck, all of a sudden you have a worker who can effectively manage and address issues that come up or might come up as a snow contractor.”

He discovered that one person in a salt truck can manage about 3 million square feet of pavement, while someone in a salt truck equipped with a plow can manage only about 1 million square feet.

“My employees now feel empowered to manage plow guys and sidewalk crews,” Oberson says. “When you make your staff feel more relevant to a process or job, they appreciate that and now see themselves as a manager.

“What I like about that is anytime you ask a great employee who is not in a management roll how long they can do this kind of work, I always hear the same answer: ‘I am not sure my body can handle this much longer,‘“ he adds. “You ask this to a manager ... they want to stop working at retirement age. At the end of the day, both the manager and the non-manager are working out in the field. Both in equipment with heat and out of the elements. The fact that you are making the manager feel more relevant, he is thinking this is more of a management roll and a longer career.”

Jason Case, President of Case Snow Management in North Attleborough, Mass., spent his first 10 years in the industry advancing from labor to management. He’s owned the company for the last 10 years.

His tough lesson occurred many years ago, when a national contractor was trying to pin postseason damage issues on his team and default on payment.

“The issues were clearly not a result from snow-and-ice services, but rather lack of restoration to the parking lot surface,” Case says. “We were asked to repair items such as pot holes, cracked and spider-webbed pavement that accumulated to a cost of more than $5,000. The issue was we couldn’t prove the damages were preexisting and we either had to fix them or be back charged by the national contractor. The lack of a pre-site audit was a major mistake and changed how we conducted preseason processes.”

Despite the fact the damages were not a fault of their services, Case opted to make the repairs.

Jerry Mann

“It is now a policy to perform pre-site audits for all our customers that are date stamped and submitted to each customer before the start of the season,” he says. “On some locations we utilize service providers and contractually obligate them to perform a pre-site audit. The industry needs to recognize these audits are for their own protection and can save a lot of time, money and aggravation after the snow season.

Unofficially, Chris Marino has been in the snow industry since he was 9 years old - using his father’s tractor to clear driveways in his neighborhood. Now the owner of Xtreme Snow Pros in Mahwah, N.J., he’s seen today’s support greatly improve over years.

“When I began my snow business (officially in 1991 after finishing college), the educational opportunities just weren’t available, so I had to learn by trial and error,” Marino says. “Looking back through my years in business, I wish I learned the cost of running a snow business earlier. It wasn’t until I took a course that included training on how to figure out our real costs. This was the turning point in my company.

“With that new knowledge, it forced me into developing a system that can accurately estimate our properties and price them based upon our true costs and making a good return profit,” he adds. “With this standardization, it not only provided me a benchmark to go by for myself, but also made our company easily able to grow with a solid solution for a sales rep to sell work. We stand by our numbers and if we cannot obtain what our system states, we will walk away from the opportunity.”

It took the time to figure out what his production levels and costs were, but that knowledge has turned Xtreme Snow Pros into a highly profitable company and provided Marino with the ability and confidence to bid larger projects.

“Without being able to bid accurately and having a system in place, you can easily fall prey to mis-bidding your properties, which over time will be the downfall of a business,” Marino says. “With this proven success, we have been able to grow our company to hit the Top 100 snow companies for the past four years and we were ranked No. 855 in Inc Magazine's Top 5000 Fastest Growing Companies.”

Marino continues to be a strong proponent of education.

“I preach to my team members and colleagues in business that they must figure out their costs,” he says. “I believe, with the proper education of our industry, we can transform it to a level playing field. There are too many times that you see numbers from other competing bidders and realize that they truly do not know how to bid properly and they are leaving so much money on the table.”

Michael Jones, CEO of True North Outdoor in Kansas City, Kan., has been in the snow-and-ice-management industry for more than 25 years. His “most significant lesson” was the importance of having the right kind of people working with him at every level of the company.

“Obviously, in a service business, people are the business in so many ways, and while we have always had a great core group of staff and subcontractors, there were many lessons we learned, [like] hire and retain the right people in every part of our organization,” Jones says. “This really even stretches to partnering with the right kind of vendors for the type of business we run, too. So, as we discovered that the ‘secret sauce’ is really the people we hire, we began to create a culture, message and opportunity to attract and retain those kinds of people.

“Our communication is now more ‘preaching to the choir’ than ever before, meaning that our internal messaging and communication are to people who not only receive our message, but propagate it to fellow employees and current customers, also to prospective employees and customers,” he adds. “When you have positive communication extending to those outside your organization, that is where you begin to feel you are on the right path ... as much improvement as you see that you still need to - and can - make organizationally.”

For more than 30 years, Steven Christy, president of LEI Corporation in Boylston, Mass., has been dedicated to the snow-and-ice industry. But it was in his fifth year - Dec. 12, 1992 to be exact - that his greatest lesson was learned.

“The last two-to-three winters leading up to this one had been very mild and we hadn’t seen a large storm since the blizzard of ’78,” Christy says. “So I over booked us for work for the 1992-93 winter season to try to make up for a weak winter with volume. I stretched our equipment to the maximums and then some, without keeping any back up equipment at all.

“So on the morning on Dec. 12, around rush, hour it started snowing,” he continues. “They had predicted a 3- to 4-inch storm, which for this area is pretty minor. It did not stop snowing until Sunday morning, Dec. 14. It snowed for 48 hours and when it was done we had 30 inches of wet, heavy snow ... the type of snow that you get stuck in very easily and it destroys transmissions on trucks ... and once you get behind is almost impossible to push.”

In addition to not having enough trucks, Christy had no heavy equipment - just one skid loader and a farm tractor with a cab. Fortunately, in the middle of this storm he was able to rent two front-end loaders and one backhoe loader from a friend who was in the construction equipment business.

“We worked this equipment for a week straight and got through this storm,” he says. “I ended up buying the back hoe and one of the loaders from him after the storm.”

Lesson learned? Yes, and proved to be very useful in short order.

Jerry Mann

“You need to have heavy equipment. You cannot stretch what you have to the maximums. You have to have back up trucks, equipment and workers,” Christy says. “This costs money to have this, but it is what makes us who we are. When we have a break down, the customer doesn’t even know it or see any impact to their property.

“This one event taught me more about the business and no one could have told me this ... I had to experience it,” he adds. “This theory and mindset was put to the test only three months later, when in mid-March of 1993, we had a 24-inch blizzard hit our area and we made it through with great success.”

It may have been that same storm that struck the city of Pittsburgh and a young snow professional named Chuck Lantzman of the Snow and Ice Management Company. With nearly two feet of snow and drifts ranging from 3 to 6 feet, he wondered, “What do I do now?”

“I was a new contractor,” Lantzman remembers. “I had no skid steer and no backhoe. I needed to find someone who was able to help.”

He found another small business owner with the needed equipment and began the process of digging out.

“I learned you need a backup plan,” Lantzman says. “Life is not easy and snow storms are not always 2 inches. Having a backup plan saves your reputation with customers. Without a backup plan, you’re going to fail.”

Now covering seven states, Lantzman’s $15-20 million business is certainly not small these days. And he still runs the company with solid plans in place.

“Try to sell accounts early in the year so there’s plenty of time to plan it all out,” he says, adding that he cuts off selling season Oct. 31. “Any later and there’s a chance you’re setting yourself up for failure.”

So take note, young contractors ... Don’t say nobody ever told you.

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