2016 Leadership Award Recipient: Born To Lead

Few people are destined from adolescence to become trailblazers in their field, but Peter Smolka may come as close as anyone.

Few people, if any, are destined from adolescence to become trailblazers in their chosen field, but Peter Smolka may come as close as anyone. Smolka, the founder and day-to-day leader of Chicago area-based Everest Snow Management, has run his own business since his junior year of high school. It was almost preordained that a teenaged Polish immigrant with the drive and work ethic to start two businesses with not much more than a snow shovel and a weed whacker would become a success in his chosen career. What wasn’t apparent at the time was what that career would be, or the heights to which he would lift both his own company and the industry as a whole.

Smolka’s path to success in the snow management industry is unique in many ways. Not only is Everest a relative industry rarity in that the company’s sole year-round focus is snow and ice management, but how many other contractors arrived in the U.S. at the age of 10 without a word of English, bounced back and forth between America and Poland for several more years, then started two seasonal businesses at age 16? Perhaps more significantly, how many displayed the vision early on to realize that the snow management industry, like so many others, could be run much more efficiently with modern computerized technology? Smolka did all those things.

“From the beginning, Everest has been one of the most technologically advanced snow removal companies,” says Peter’s younger brother Kriss, a partner and chief information officer who joined his brother at the company eight years ago after working in the technology field. “We have our own dedicated team of engineers who develop and are constantly creating new mobile apps for our use and our customers’. Peter started it all with the vision that we needed software to meet our operational needs in the field.”

To start the snow management technology ball rolling, Peter drew from both his native and his adopted countries, traveling to Krakow, Poland where he recruited a pair of Polish engineers working at the time for Microsoft. The software engineering roster at Everest has since grown to eight. The technology is not strictly for Everest’s internal use; it’s also a key component of the company’s under-promise, over-deliver customer service mantra.

“Our clients get some pretty fancy software apps for free, as part of the service,” Smolka says. “They can see live updates from their sites - which ones have been done, which are in progress and which ones haven’t been done yet. We’re completely transparent, and we also provide clients with before and after photos after every visit.”

Smolka learned the value of customer satisfaction early, not to mention the potential reward of a cold call on an apparently out of reach customer.

“During my senior year in high school, I made a call on a lady from Shedd Aquarium downtown to ask about doing their landscaping service,” says Smolka, still chuckling at the memory. “She obviously had some doubts, but for some reason she thought I’d do a good job, and she’d give me a try. She just says ‘Don’t screw it up, or I’ll get fired.’ So I made sure I did everything I says I’d do, and then some.”

Smolka had started his fledgling landscape business with $500 he’d saved from his summer and weekend snow and yard maintenance work, augmented by mid-week snow shoveling on days when he admits he skipped school to pursue a little snow removal commerce. It was a shoestring operation, to say the least.

“I was going to buy a mower, a leaf blower, a weed whacker, a broom and 1,000 flyers,” he recalls, “but I couldn’t afford the blower, so I printed 2,000 flyers instead and just made do until I could afford the blower.”

After building his landscape maintenance business into a going concern, while doing some snow and ice work in the winters, he had something of an epiphany and made what turned out to be a life-changing career decision.

“I realized that focusing on one thing was the key,” he says. “I sold the landscape division and focused strictly on snow. I realized that I was more passionate about snow. It’s easier for me to understand, and I enjoy figuring out the challenges that each different storm poses.”

While many may wonder about the business model of a company that essentially has no income stream for six or more months a year, depending upon Mother Nature, Smolka and his executive team make maximum use of the off-season time. In addition to making sales and marketing calls on both existing customers and prospects for the upcoming season, company personnel spend the warmer months reviewing events from the previous winter, analyzing both problems and successes and determining what caused each, along with tasks like equipment maintenance, inventory and professional development.

“We have a core group in the office of 15 people, and we always look at what we do,” says Chris Carter, Everest’s vice president. “We’re not set in our ways, and we constantly look at ways we can improve and do things differently. That keeps everybody engaged, and everyone is involved in company meetings. No two storms are exactly alike, so how did we handle each, and how can we do it differently and better? It’s almost like we’re busier in the summer with all that than we are in the season.”

A long-time client, Edwards Realty Company Vice President Ramzi Hassan, says Everest’s constant drive to improve is one of the things that impresses him most about the company and its service.

“What I like best about the company is that they’re always looking for innovation and ways to incorporate new technology into their platforms,” Hassan says. “The snow business can be very unpredictable. Some years there’s 60 inches and some years it’s 25, but they adapt quickly, and never make the same mistake twice. They’re very hands-on, but they have systems in place to make sure that things don’t fall through the cracks. If something does go wrong, they’re very quick to respond and fix it, and they’re able to work with all our objectives. We have all different types of properties, and they accommodate all their individual needs. I’ ve worked with them for probably 10 years, and they keep growing as a company and getting more efficient. That’s why I’m always happy to talk about them, and I’ve referred a number of other people to them.”

Smolka feels that Everest’s laser focus on snow and ice management is a plus, and even the relative slowdown in operational activity during the summer months is a positive if the time is used productively.

“The biggest benefit by far to focusing on snow is that we can always continue to improve our apps, our systems and processes,” Smolka says. “We’re always focused on knowledge - what worked, what didn’t and what different things can we do.”

While Smolka and his team have worked diligently toward financial success, the human capital of the business has not been neglected, especially by the boss. One gets the feeling from talking with Everest staff say their worth as both employees and individuals is just as important as the company’s net worth.

“I’ve been here for four years, and I couldn’t imagine working for a greater boss,” says the company’s client satisfaction manager, Robin Strasser. “There’s a lot of team building that goes on here, and Peter goes above and beyond to make sure that we’re all happy and productive.”

Younger brother Kriss added, “Peter is a great motivator. He motivates and inspires everyone in the company, and he’s able to communicate clearly his vision to the entire company.”

Smolka is keenly aware of what and how each of his staff members are doing, but he’s definitely not a ‘My way or the highway” kind of manager, according to Carter.

“Peter is hands-on, but he’s not a micro-manager,” Carter says. “He’s here every day, and I work very closely with him, but you can be open and list a lot of different ideas and he’ll definitely consider them. It’s a family run business, but everybody here is part of the family. We’re very tight knit. One thing that drives Peter is the development of everyone and growth, not just for his own benefit or the company’s benefit, but for everyone’s.”

While tending to employees and keeping customers satisfied, Smolka does his part to support the industry.

Troy Clogg, owner of Troy Clogg Landscape and Snow Associates in the Detroit area, applauds both Smolka’s business acumen and his dedication to advancing the overall professionalism and success of the snow management industry.

“I have a lot of respect for Peter,” Clogg says. “He’s a great role model for the industry. He strives for professionalism and what’s right for everybody in the industry, not just for him. There are probably 110,000 or 112,000 snow contractors in the country, but probably less than 2,000 of us are involved in our national associations. Peter and I sit on a board together, and our reason for being there is to make the industry better.”

One critical endeavor cited by both Clogg and Smolka that has taken place on behalf of the industry as a whole is a legislative initiative in the state of Illinois which could have industry-wide ramifications. It involves a change in the legal language dealing with the assessment of liability in claims involving snow and ice and lawsuits resulting from those situations. All too often, the ASCA and the snow management industry at large claim, snow management companies are tacked onto suits as damage claim defendants when the liability, if any, rests with the client business, not the snow management company.

In what seems likely to be a successful attempt to revise the legal language associated with such tort actions, Smolka mustered his entire office staff and asked each of them to contact their state representatives in the Illinois legislature and set up an appointment to speak with them in their offices. Then, Smolka relates, the office and corporate staff caravanned to Springfield, met with their representatives, and by all reports, succeeded in exerting enough pressure to significantly decrease the incidence of frivolous lawsuits naming everyone even peripherally involved, regardless of probable cause or liability.

“Peter has been a great advocate, and is making the industry better for everyone,” Clogg says. “He’s created a number of different kinds of technology and applications to make the industry better - he’s led the charge, and some of what he’s shared with the rest of us is proprietary stuff, just to help improve the industry’s level of professionalism.”

Adds ASCA Executive Director Kevin Gilbride, “Peter stands out as a leader in the industry and a true visionary. He jumped on board with what we were doing on the ASCA board, and I’ve always appreciated his guidance and mentorship. Peter is a guy who when he puts his mind to something, he makes it happen, and the work he and his team have done in delivering the message to their legislation is a perfect example. He’s always grown his business, but at the same time, he gives back to both the industry and his community. He’s not really an outspoken guy, but if you have a roomful of contractors, he’ll be one of the smartest guys in the room.”

All in all, those are pretty impressive testimonials for a former teenager with a snow shovel, a weed whacker and a dream, and the intestinal fortitude to make that dream reality.

Jim Dunlap is a San Diego-based writer and frequent Snow Magazine contributor.
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