Snow removal presents a business opportunity in the winter months. The middle of the summer, when lawn and landscape work is at its peak, is a tough time to think about snow. But if you’re considering getting into the snow removal business this coming winter, you need to make plans now. We checked in with a few green industry pros who have also gotten into the white business about how and why they decided to offer snow removal, and they shared some of the lessons they’ve learned along the way.
Mike Costello, owner of Triple Crown Lawn Care Services in Pennsylvania, began offering residential snow removal when his company first opened for business. “We found that people wanted to write one check to one company; they didn’t want to go a la carte and have one company for mowing, another for mulching and another for snow,” he explains. “It was one of those things that we just decided to do, not only from an income standpoint or to stay busy during the cooler months, but because it met the needs of our clientele. If you don’t offer that service, that means they’re going to call someone else … if someone else can do everything that you can do and they also offer snow removal, that puts you at a disadvantage.”
Chris Wertz, owner of Natural Creations Lawn & Landscape in Dayton, Ohio, operated his lawn and landscape business for two years before beginning to offer snow removal services. “For a couple of years, I was a fair weather guy,” he jokes. He started out small, with just a handful of residential snow accounts. “I bought a Honda snowblower with tracks and an old Ford truck with a plow on it,” he recalls. “We picked up one account and that just started leading to others.”
Wertz says it was partly demand from his lawn customers that got him into snow removal. “They’d say, ‘Do you do snow?’ and I’d say, ‘Yeah!'” At that point, he was committed. “I just had to take a leap of faith.” The early years of growth are hard, says Wertz. “The first couple of years, when I made a decision to buy a piece of snow equipment, it was a gut-wrenching feeling. I’d go a couple of weeks with an upset stomach, wondering if it was the right move.”
Colarossi Lawn Care in Michigan has offered snow removal services since the company’s founding. As is the case for many lawn and landscape professionals, owner Joe Colarossi says it was a combination of reasons, ranging from additional revenue to retaining employees, that led him to offer snow services. “Many companies in this industry offer snow removal in the winter, given that you already have the trucks, manpower and storage necessary to offer the services. While some companies may not offer winter maintenance services, we find it to be a great source of our annual revenue. It also allows you to keep great employees on staff by providing them with year-round work.”
Colarossi Lawn Care’s sales manager Tyler Baker says that one of the biggest challenges he faced when he first started selling snow services was how to react to rejection. “Out of every 25 commercial properties, I usually only got two or three that were interested in a quote. Not to mention that those two or three accounts were also receiving three to six other bids from different companies,” Baker explains. “I had to adapt to the fact that you won’t always win every bid, but you can’t get discouraged and have to keep moving forward. That type of mentality has contributed to our continued success.”
Baker says he’s found that being personable and honest with building managers has been the best sales tool; building real relationships can pay off in many ways. “We do pick up a lot of winter accounts as first-time customers,” he explains. “This gives us a chance to impress them with our service, which helps lead to earning the lawn/landscape contract as well.”
Baker says that the snow services sales process usually begins in early October, since many commercial contracts are up for renewal in November. “Over the years we’ve found that anything before October is usually too early for potential commercial accounts,” he advises.
While it started on the residential side, Triple Crown Lawn Care Services has shifted gears to focus on the commercial market in the winter. “I was finding that 90 percent of my problems timing-wise were coming from the residential, and the money really isn’t that great due to the travel involved. You have to get a lot of residentials done in order to turn a decent profit,” says Mike Costello. “So once we dipped our toes into the commercial side of things, profitability went up for sure. We reduced our residential, but adding the commercial definitely really helped our bottom line.”
Making the move to commercial snow was “tricky,” says Costello, in part because his company doesn’t do much commercial landscaping “simply because loyalty is so limited in that — it’s such a cut-throat business.” So instead of going after those types of large commercial snow accounts, he marketed his snow removal services to smaller commercial properties. “We went after the mom-and-pop commercial properties, where you can get a little more of a residential-type connection to people,” Costello explains.
Another benefit of working with smaller commercial properties, says Costello, is that many times you’re dealing directly with the owner, so it’s easier to discuss terms, such as when payments will be received. On larger commercial properties, “sometimes there’s a lot of rungs on the ladder to talk to the right person and get those checks cut,” he notes.
Words of wisdom
Costello says that one of the most important decisions he made was not to grow his snow business too big, too quickly. “I don’t like to take large bites when it comes to snow, just because time is of the essence,” says Costello. Overbooking with, say, lawn maintenance can prove to be challenging, but there’s more time in a week to get the work done. When a storm hits, the snow needs to be removed right away, so there’s no way to spread the work out over time. “Our dependability and our reaction time has been very good, and word travels fast,” he states. “If you’ve got a business and you need to be open, and the competitor booked too many accounts and can’t get to you, [a snow removal company that shows up on time] becomes a hero in a hurry.”
Another of Costello’s guiding principles is to buy vehicles that can serve dual purposes, working both in the summer and in the winter. “When we make our truck purchases, we try to utilize them for four-season operations, whatever job or task we have in front of us,” he explains. “You want expenditures that you can bill out over 12 months, because when it’s just sitting there it’s not making you money.” The tougher purchases are things like plows, Costello adds, because they sit for much of the year without a dual purpose.
Finally, he says that anyone considering getting into snow removal needs to be aware of the expenses involved. There are the obvious ones: trucks, plows, wear and tear on vehicles, etc. But one overlooked cost is insurance. “Especially on the commercial side, once you start getting into bigger properties, they require you to get larger policies, and even umbrella policies,” Costello explains. “The insurance can be surprisingly expensive.”
At Natural Creations Lawn & Landscape, Chris Wertz says that the biggest lesson he’s learned is that “snow is not guaranteed — snow money is not guaranteed. So you need to remember not to base your income or your budget like it’s going to be there every year.” One year, Wertz says he might make $50,000 a year in snow, the next year might be only $10,000 or $20,000. Because of the unpredictability of the business, he advises those just getting started in snow removal to “put all of that snow money away for a rainy day,” especially to help make equipment payments in years when there’s not much snow removal revenue coming in.
In addition, Wertz uses income from the winter months to help with the start-up of the spring lawn and landscape season, covering payroll and other costs before payments start coming in. “So it would be a big loss for us if we didn’t do snow removal; that’s start-up money … as a business, if you don’t have that money in the bank, you might be in trouble.”
In addition to residential accounts, his company also handles about 20 commercial properties in the winter, and he quickly learned that different equipment is needed for those. About two years ago, Natural Creations Lawn & Landscape got a contract for snow services in the parking lot of a major national retailer. “We started doing it with one truck. They didn’t like how long it took, so eventually we have four trucks plowing it. So every year you learn. One important lesson is to be sure that you have the right equipment to do the job,” says Wertz.
He advises a lawn and landscape pro who’s interested in getting into snow removal to try it out as a subcontractor for a year first. “If you decide to take the gamble and buy a truck and a plow, try to find work as sub that first year,” he recommends. “Call other landscape companies that subcontract out work and tell them that if they need something done, you can cover it.” This will provide an opportunity to learn the business without having to find your own customers; you’ll also learn how long different jobs take and what works and what doesn’t, so if you decide to start offering snow services on your own you’ll be much more knowledgeable, says Wertz. “Don’t expect to get top dollar as a subcontractor,” he says; still, having a more dependable amount coming in can help to at least ensure that you’ll be covering your equipment costs in the beginning as you’re learning the ropes.
Colarossi says that snow removal has become very important to his overall business. “Snow removal services are an integral part of our business and actually generate the most revenue, closely followed by landscaping,” he explains. “We couldn’t imagine operating our business without offering snow removal. We have found that many customers, especially commercial, like to stick with one company for all of their needs. By offering lawn care, landscaping and snow removal, we are able to provide customers with year-round property maintenance services, which is a huge benefit.”
Colarossi Lawn Care continues to grow its snow removal business. “Of course there are dangers with growing any part of the business too quickly, especially snow removal. Picking up new customers is great, but you want to be sure that you have enough staff and equipment to service them all in a timely manner,” Colarossi cautions. “We put a lot of time into forecasting the winter workload so that we can plan accordingly before the season starts.”
For him, the keys to success in the snow business are largely the same as they are in any other business: find your niche, identify what you’re good a, and stick to that. And be sure you build a good team around you. “Every member of our staff, from management to our crews, brings their best to work each day and does a great job,” Colarossi states. “It can be challenging to find good employees in this industry, which is why we treat our team with respect and reward their hard work.”