Chicago-area Arctic Snow and Ice Control is one of the largest snow management companies in the country and also a major manufacturer of snow pushers. We caught up with founder Randy Strait for insights on the biggest issues facing snow contractors and the impact changes in Illinois law might have on them.
PLOW: Even though Arctic may be known best for inventing its Sectional Sno-Pusher, would you say your expertise as a major contractor is the true foundation of your business?
STRAIT: I have been plowing snow for 40 years and run one of the largest private snow removal fleets in the country. I own the property of a former local airport and park my 450 pieces of equipment on the runway during off-season. It stretches a full mile, and I am proud of what I have built.
PLOW: What made you want to be in this business?
STRAIT: When I was growing up, I was that kid who shoveled all the driveways. I always loved snow. I always loved making money shoveling snow, and even when I was 12 years old, I was hoping to own a Jeep with a plow someday. I bought my first truck in 1977 at the age of 21, mostly just to get through the bad winters. In 1978, I put a plow on it to make some extra money. The winter of 1978-79 was the worst in Chicago history, with 96 inches of snow, a record that still stands. Experiencing that winter changed me forever in terms of how I wanted to spend my life.
PLOW: When did you realize this would be a profitable business that could grow into a livelihood?
STRAIT: I recognized early on this was a business that rewarded the guy who worked the hardest and went the extra mile. That has always been me, and I saw this as an industry where I could make a difference. Seeing others in the business who did not share my passion and work ethic only made me more optimistic and motivated.
PLOW: You’re probably most recognized for inventing the Arctic Sectional Sno-Pusher; It Allows The utilization of large-scale equipment, reduces salt requirements, and eliminating re-plowing; What inspired it?
STRAIT: I was plowing in front of a shopping center and the store manager would not let me use salt in front of his store even though we couldn’t scrape up all the snow. I first plowed with the 10-foot plow on my dump truck, but the plow teetered on the crown of the parking lot and could not get in the depression next to the curb. I then plowed it with my 8-foot plow and was able to scrape a little more but still not enough. The front of the store dipped and there were sewers in the middle, so I could not get down into those low areas with a standard plow. However, the narrower the plow, the more I could dip into those low areas. The store manager stopped me and went into his store and came out with six employees equipped with 30-inch snow shovels. He blew a whistle and the six guys moved in unison across the front drive of the store. He blew the whistle again and had them move down and repeat the process. After they were done I could salt the lot. They were only scraping a half-inch of snow so it was very simple, but I couldn’t get that snow off the lot with my equipment. Wow, I thought, if I could just put six 30-inch sections on the front of my truck, I could do the same thing he’s doing with six shovels and six guys. Coming up with such a contraption consumed my every thought until, after five prototypes, the Sectional Sno-Pusher was born. This year, 10 years later, I introduced the same technology in a power-angled plow.
PLOW: Is inventing the Sno-Pusher the reason you got into manufacturing?
STRAIT: That certainly affected the timing, but it takes a lot of motivation to go that far from your comfort zone. In reality, I designed the Sectional for my use only. It took a while before I was pushed enough to pursue the manufacturing business.
PLOW: What do you think the future holds for you in manufacturing?
STRAIT: I think what we did this year answers that. We hadn’t introduced a new product in 10 years but this year we rolled out four: Two new pushers, the Raptor and Raptor Plus; the power-angled Sectional Sno-Plow; and the DoubleDown Salt Bucket.
PLOW: Why get into the salt business? The DoubleDown seems like a pretty big departure.
STRAIT: Actually, we had been kicking this idea around for a while, but last year’s winter made it clear we needed this so we moved our timetable up a year. There were two major reasons we built the DoubleDown. For one, salt trucks are designed for open roads, not parking lots; they favor the driver side 70 percent. They cast their salt, rather than aim it, from a height that cannot get under parked cars. As a result, they leave salt stripes on the ground, and are only effective when parking lots are empty. Also, because they are quite expensive, they must be assigned to a full prearranged route, making them unavailable if a store manager requests a repeat salting. The DoubleDown attaches to any manufacturer’s skid steer or wheel loader like my pushers, so it can be switched out easily without leaving the cab. It simply scoops up the salt and spreads it, and it’s designed specifically for crowded parking lots, so daytime salting is easy. It also never leaves the customer’s parking lot, just like my plows and equipment, allowing a store manager to have an additional salting during the day if needed.
PLOW: The DoubleDown Salt Bucket has some operational benefits; are there additional ones?
STRAIT: Yes, retaining our equipment operators in a low-snow winter. Last year, we had three major plowings, with a big gap between December and March. When the March storm hit, a number of our operators had taken other jobs. We also had about 30 salting events, but those are different drivers and easier to replace. If we had been able to keep the equipment operators busy salting with the DoubleDown, we would have expected to retain almost all of them.
PLOW: The industry is changing in regard to liability. Illinois recently passed SB2138, a law limiting the amount of liability that can be placed on snow and ice management companies. What does this mean to snow contractors?
STRAIT: The industry has been in trouble for a while and the liability situation is behind all of its problems. Before the law passed, all of the liability in Illinois fell on contractors for slip-and-falls, whether or not they had any control of the situation. Ice could have formed from a leaking fire hydrant or clogged gutters and they were still responsible. Insurance carriers were getting killed and many were getting out of the business. Had this continued, retail stores would have been forced to self-insure, with the cost of that virtually assuring their demise. They simply couldn’t afford to compete with online marketing, and we would all be out of business.
PLOW: When you look at the top contractors in the country, Arctic might well be No. 1 in that it owns its own equipment and doesn’t use subcontractors. How have national snow management companies affected regional snow contractors like Arctic?
STRAIT: Their rise is a direct result of the whole liability mess. They are now the largest contractors in the business, and they bring in obscene sales revenues. They have little to no equipment, only phones and salespeople who are most likely based out-of-state, and they bid irresponsibly low prices to get as much work as possible. Then they look to hire subcontractors with a truck or maybe a skid steer for pennies on the dollar to plow huge properties they have no business even attempting. No qualified contractor is willing to take their work. Essentially, if you have a shovel, a snow blower, and a bag of salt in your garage at home, you are better equipped than these companies. Slip-and-fall claims have gone through the roof simply because lots are not as safe. Furthermore, the desperate subcontractor is forced to sign a hold- harmless agreement, which puts all the liability on him. I know of individuals who have been ruined and lost their homes due to this. To add insult to injury, these same companies hold back monies from the sub if there are any complaints. They all operate the same way and they are ruining the industry while also making everything less safe, so I won’t be giving any of them a pat on the back anytime soon.
PLOW: How will the new law change things?
STRAIT: Change will not come overnight, but it was important that the liabilities be shared 50-50. The work has to be performed well, or the slip-and-fall claims will stay high and the insurance companies will pull out. This way the contractors have to be properly vetted and store managers have to realize they need to hire qualified operators. Provided other states follow suit, such a law will eliminate the national firms’ ability to pass along all of their liabilities to local subcontractors. Some have noticed that the cost of litigation, not including claims, is much higher than the cost of snow removal. Recently, a national chain acknowledged to me that my higher-priced services were a far better deal for them overall when considering safety records.
PLOW: How does a store or property know which contractor to pick?
STRAIT: For starters, check out the site, not the website. While there are some honest firms, the majority will deceive with their websites and brochures. I had to point out to one customer that a contractor from our area had a brochure showing his equipment with the Rocky Mountains in the background. He checked it out further and found the company had no equipment, just a pickup and a plow. Others list their plows, sidewalk machines, blowers, even shovels, as equipment, whereas I refer only to the number of wheel loaders, skid steers, melters and trucks. The other thing property owners should look for is ISO certification. We went through the ISO 9001 process last year, and it assures every customer that we have auditable processes that guarantee we will do exactly what we say we will.
PLOW: What will happen to the level of service?
STRAIT: I believe it will only improve because property managers will have to take a more serious look at how they hire.