The old expression “hope for the best, and prepare for the worst” only partially applies to snow and ice management. In the summer and fall months, and in some cases before the snow stops flying from the previous season, snow management professionals are preparing for everything. They’re preparing for the good (a great snow year with lots of business) and the bad (the truck that goes down, the employees that don’t show up, etc.), and every conceivable situation in between.
Ippolito Snow Services serves the Boston metro area as a snow-only business. “Everyone thinks I’m sitting around in the summer, but I’m not! We’re working hard every day to get ready for the season,” says owner Frankie Ippolito. That process begins when the previous season winds down. The first order of business is to get all equipment back to the company’s shop from the various commercial sites it was operated at and go through everything, both in terms of preventative maintenance as well as fixing anything that might need repairs.
“That leads us into a work stream of what equipment we’re going to keep and what we’re going to divest — what’s seen its better days,” explains Ippolito. “We’re also doing prep work to the equipment, so that when we pull it out in November it doesn’t need a lot of work.”
He says he’s found it helpful to work through all of the equipment right after a season ends, while everything (what works, what needs fixing, etc.) is fresh in the minds of the operators who have been using it. “Realistically, does it happen for every piece of equipment? No. But for the newer stuff, and the things that you want to keep newer, I think it’s important because you’ve got all of your operators there and everyone loves to tell you what doesn’t work, because they want you to buy new equipment!”
At DMC Commercial Snow Management in Philadelphia, owner David McWeeney says mechanics have the time in the summer to breathe a little bit and permanently fix equipment that may have received temporary repairs during the busy season. “And during the summer we like to run the trucks and equipment to make sure it’s not just sitting idle,” he explains. “When you’re dealing with salt, if you don’t look at equipment often, it may freeze up on you and you’ll discover in September that everything is rusted.”
In some cases, new equipment is needed for the coming season. Early in the off-season, McWeeney touches base with the local truck dealers he works with about what his needs for the coming season might be. “Then, over the summer, we focus on exactly what the needs are and try to take ownership around September on any new equipment, just so there’s enough time for it to be outfitted and the advertising decals can be added so that everything is ready to go for October and November,” he explains.
Ippolito makes it a point to attend the Snow and Ice Management Association (SIMA) annual conference in late June in order to keep up on industry trends, and to have a chance to check out new equipment displayed by manufacturers. “We talk to the vendors and see what’s new and what’s coming — and then we come back and put a plan together based on our renewals and the state of our current equipment,” says Ippolito. “For example, we might need one more truck depending on how much business we pick up, or maybe we’ve been having too many problems with our power brooms so we’re going to switch to a new vendor, and we’ll schedule them to come out and show us their equipment.”
At Steel City Landscape in Pittsburgh, president Mark Purcell has to oversee preparations for snow season while the landscape season is still going strong. “We start dealing with snow equipment and ordering salt in mid-September,” he says. “That’s when we start gearing up.” Especially with landscape work still going on, and some of the trucks and equipment still in use, it can take a couple of months to get everything ready for winter. “We try to have everything ready by the beginning of November,” says Purcell.
When building a customer portfolio for the coming season, Purcell says it makes sense to begin by focusing on existing clients. “We try to renew larger contracts during the summer, and we send out other contracts for renewal in August,” he explains.
Time is also spent to analyze the profitability of each account the prior year in order to correctly set pricing, Purcell says. And the priority, when possible, is to renew contracts for multiple years. Sometimes a little personal attention goes a long way. “You want the client to have a face with a name,” he explains. It might be as simple as personally delivering a bottle of wine at the end of the season to help build relationships, Purcell says.
Another tip is to try to capitalize on any early sales opportunities. “Right after the season is over, we get a lot of calls from customers looking for bids because they were unhappy with their previous provider,” McWeeney says.
In addition to following up with these types of inquiries, “we’re always shopping for new clients,” he notes. “We’re active on social media, keeping up with that in order to capture people who are looking for bids.”
In some cases, that means visiting individual sites and meeting with potential clients; in other cases, the information can be prepared electronically. “If it’s just a simple site, where there’s a parking lot and a sidewalk, everything might be able to be done using the internet and Google Maps. If it’s something like a hospital that’s more involved, they will want to point out where the snow needs to go, where it can’t go, high-priority areas, high-risk areas, etc.,” he explains. From this information, he can sit down and prepare bids; this happens mostly in September, October and November, says McWeeney. “That’s our busiest time … At that point, it’s getting colder out and everyone is saying: ‘We need to start looking for a provider.'”
During the summer, Ippolito Snow Services goes down to a skeleton crew, with employees able to take a little time off. But for Ippolito, the summer is a busy time. The company has a booth at a local trade show and he spends the time there making contacts. “We try to generate some early-bird commercial leads,” he explains. In addition to leads from the show, Ippolito really begins to target new business in August. “We’ll ramp up our advertising efforts on Yelp and the Better Business Bureau and really focus during August and September to cast the net to see what is out there,” he says.
McWeeney says one key part of preparing for snow season is recognizing that there’s such a thing as too many customers, and the sales process needs to be curtailed at a certain point.
“We only have so many trucks, and we can only do so much work in a short amount of time,” he emphasizes. With longer lead times, like landing a big new account in May, it may be possible to add crews and equipment, but when clients call in November, with snow on i ts way, it can be too late. “It all comes down to timing,” he says.
As challenging as sales and equipment management is, the next step, says Ippolito, “is where things get more difficult: starting to think ahead about getting seasonal help.” As challenging as it is to deal with equipment and sales and marketing, labor issues are the most daunting, he’s found. “One of the challenges of the snow business is that you don’t need these employees year-round. So it really helps to have a large contingent of folks who come back each year.” To help ensure that this is the case, Ippolito Snow Services has built relationships with those working in alternate-season industries, like commercial fishermen, people working in car washes, roofers, etc., who typically don’t work in the winter.
He says it takes some luck (“being in the right place at the right time”) and a lot of early legwork to find these people and sign them up. “But you can’t start too early,” he cautions. “If you start in August, I’ve learned, by the time November comes around, they’ve either gotten another seasonal job, or it just doesn’t seem to work out. So you need to find a balance — Sept. 15 is about the time we put our feelers out.”
As a contingency, Ippolito has found success the last two years in fostering a relationship with a temp agency. “So if I need to pull the emergency rip cord, and we need shovelers or feet on the street — not drivers — we have someone to go to,” he explains. “I’ve found that if you make that connection in the summer and invite [the temp agency] to your shop, versus calling them the night before a snowstorm, they’re more likely to hook you up.”
Steel City Landscape uses the H-2B program for 22 employees during the landscape season, but that program is designed to be temporary rather than year-round, so the company needs to find employees for its winter snow work. “That’s the biggest challenge,” stresses Purcell. In any given year, about half of the crew is completely new, so there’s a lot of recruiting to do. He says Craigslist ads have proven as successful as anything else he’s tried for this.
McWeeney says that while DMC Commercial Snow Management has a good network of employees who are in opposite industries, such as roofing or concrete, there’s always more recruiting to be done. And because some employees will be new, and the same driver may not work on the same site from one winter to the next, DMC Commercial Snow Management brings employees in around October to talk about the season ahead. “We give them site maps of all the properties, they go out to the properties to walk them and get an idea of speed bumps, curbs, drains, where the snow has to go and what the site looks like, so that their first visit isn’t when everything is snow-covered,” explains McWeeney.
As the season draws closer, McWeeney is busy making contingency plans in the event that something goes wrong. “You need to know what the steps are to split a route, or add a route, or add a property, for example,” McWeeney advises. One way he’s found to gain flexibility is through the use of six or seven supervisor trucks, which are fully outfitted with plows and spreaders. “Their main objective during the season is just to go around and check on sites, but they can also lend a hand during a storm; if a truck goes down they can take over the route,” he explains. “You have to do as much planning as you can when you can, because once the season starts, it’s pretty much like a chicken running around with its head cut off…. Everything needs to be working and up and running and you have to have plans in place.”
This is the phase that Ippolito calls “enablement and operational planning.” For him, it includes setting up routes, figuring out how many employees and teams are needed at particular sites, creating a materials list and ordering supplies, etc. It also involves training operators on the equipment they’ll be using. Ippolito has a background in human resources and says training is particularly challenging in the snow management industry, simply because employees are typically hired to start just before the snow starts. “For those that are hired earlier, we like to have an orientation,” he says, since it’s a chance to talk about their assignment and safety. Then, for those who will be leading crews, it’s an on-site visit to talk about particular locations, answer questions, take “before” photos, and so on.
Ippolito has found a few ways to build in contingencies in the event of equipment problems or shortages during the season. For example, when he adds new equipment, he tries to purchase the same standardized equipment (Fisher-mount plows, for example), and keeps an extra or two in the shop, so that items can be quickly swapped out in the event of a mechanical problem.
He also builds relationships during the off-season with mobile vendors that can handle things like hydraulic hose replacement on-site, if needed. “You shake their hand in the summer to make sure you don’t go to the bottom of the list during a snowstorm. We really use the summer to forge some good relationships,” explains Ippolito.
He plans for the worst by establishing an account with a major equipment rental chain. “So, if in the middle of a storm something goes wrong and I need a Bobcat, my crews can just sign and go. It’s expensive, but it helps make sure that you can deliver if all things go wrong.”
Basically, prepare for everything.