As any good snow and ice management professional knows, the job isn’t just about going out and removing snow and dropping salt. There has to be a plan and standard operating procedures in place to ensure maximum productivity and efficiency to get each job done right. Not having a plan is like trying to drive a snow plow truck without a steering wheel on a frozen lake.
Meet your money-maker
Snow plowing is what Chris Marino does. As the owner of Xtreme Snow Pros, Marino’s main focus is plowing, and it’s what he and his crews work on getting better at each year. Ninety-nine percent of the company’s $3.5 million gross sales comes from professional snow and ice management for commercial properties, government locations and health care facilities.
Marino opened his business in 2009 with two skid-steers, one-wheel loader and five plow trucks. In the beginning, he had “crossover” equipment from a landscape company he had sold previously that he made work for his new snow company. But looking back, it wasn’t an ideal situation.
“What we’ve found over the years is that outfitting specialty snow-specific equipment makes us able to better perform for our clients and become more profitable,” Marino says. “In hindsight, I wished I had invested in this from the start.”
However, Marino says snow has been a lot more profitable than landscaping because it’s the sole thing they’re focused on now.
“Our snow business doubles in profitability compared to the landscape end of our previous business,” he says, adding that they have expanded into the manufacturing and sale of liquids for ice control as well as snow equipment sales.
Joe Ciffolillo, president of Boston-based Greenscape Inc., offers mainly retail and commercial plowing services to existing landscape customers. This segment of his business currently represents about 25 percent of his gross sales, or $9 million. “The margins in snow work are a nice complement to our landscape business,” says Ciffolillo. “It is comparable to our other business.”
In Ciffolillo’s case, choosing the right equipment that can double as both snow removal and landscape equipment is critical. Also, good subcontractor relations is key. Multiple crews and many subcontractors work in tandem to get the job done. Meeting customer requirements is one of the top challenges of the job.
“The best way to meet those requirements is with solid communication, documentation and follow-through,” Ciffolillo says.
For a snow contractor just starting out, Marino believes the basic equipment they would need depends on the type of services they’re going to offer and the type of clientele they’re going to cater to.
“If you’re servicing smaller commercial work under 200,000 square feet, a plow truck with a V plow or wideout-style plow and salter (preferably a V box that can hold at least 1.5 yards) would be best, along with a skid-steer and push box,” Marino says.
Pricing your plowing services can be tricky and involve a lot of factors, including knowing your cost of doing business. Marino has developed a comprehensive pricing system that takes into account all aspects of the job for the entire winter, from preseason site visits to postseason site repairs.
“All costs are based upon an hourly rate that we require to earn on each piece of equipment or laborer and how much we need to charge for the ice control products being applied,” Marino says. “The pricing is derived based upon the location, which is measured for the square footage of pavement and walks, and then we come up with the average weather history for the past 10 years and that is rated based upon degree of difficulty. By using this method, we’re confident that the price is precise for both the client and ourselves, and anyone in our organization can use it and provide the same pricing.”
Ciffolillo says the key to selling is doing it well in advance. Being proactive and planning ahead is a good philosophy for any business, let alone snow, which is why Ciffolillo’s selling season starts in summer.
“Any good facility manager or property manager is thinking about snow well in advance,” he says. “It is easier to plan and service accounts if you know about them in advance and have time to put a management plan in place.”
Xtreme Snow Pros sells snow maintenance services from March through October. However, they try to push to get their work sold by September so they have a sufficient amount of time to put their operational plans into place. One of the biggest challenges in selling the service is that the customer typically doesn’t compare apples to apples due to being uneducated or misinformed about what their properties need.
“We try to educate them as well as provide them with a comprehensive plan that not only covers the client but covers ourselves with a detailed proposal that shows exactly what the client can expect to spend with no hidden costs,” Marino says.
Marino has crews working throughout New Jersey and New York. If the site is large enough, team members will report directly to the site, and he has levels of management that oversee not only the site but the region.
Smart investments = smart business
A lot about running a business, including snow and ice management services, is learning as you go. Add to it that snow is a constantly evolving business and mistakes can happen, but those mistakes provide a fertile teaching ground.
Ciffolillo’s biggest struggle has been contracts and insurance claims, which he says they’re still working to perfect. “It took us awhile to realize the insurance exposure, especially around frivolous claims,” he says. “We spend a great deal of time managing this aspect of the business.”
For Marino, the biggest challenge in snow and ice management is labor, which he tries to overcome with unique ways of recruiting, training and hiring the best in the field.
“We analyze [our business] consistently and keep adjusting our methods to make certain that we’re ahead of our competition,” Marino says. “We heavily focus on our internal and external operations and have made them completely paperless, which provides us with the ability to grow without being limited by infrastructure, since it’s all help in the cloud. We can keep expanding our ideas to new territories.
“The second area we heavily invest in is our equipment. We make sure we have the most productive units for the snow industry so that we can accomplish more work with fewer team members in the most efficient manner possible.”
One of the best ways to become more efficient and productive in snow plowing is to invest in training. Xtreme Snow Pros developed its own online training program and also provides mandatory in-house training at field day events it holds.
“By doing this, we’re able to make sure the equipment and systems we deploy are used correctly, as this turns into being more efficient,” Marino says. “The first thing I would offer to someone wanting to boost productivity is the need to train their team members, not only on how to correctly operate the equipment but in the correct method of snow plowing and salting.”