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Got snow? Shovel for profit

KEITH ROBERTS | Snow & Ice
Snow is like Hollywood--tourists love it; locals can’t stand it. Homeowners and businesses get fed up with snow real quick, and often look for professionals to remove the horrible white stuff for convenience, safety, and access. In the last issue of Irrigation & Green Industry, we told you why holiday lighting was an excellent adjunct to your business. It supplements your income and it is a great way to retain workers during the slow season of winter. Snow removal offers some of these same advantages, giving landscape contractors the chance to earn substantial profits during what is typically a very slow period, along with a way to keep the good workers you’ve already spent valuable time and money training them.

The difference with snow removal is that Mother Nature can play a crucial role in determining the status of your snow business, and nature, as we all know, has a terrible sense of humor when it comes to being predictable. Nonetheless, there is profit to be had, workers to be retained, and a niche to be explored with the business of snow removal.

Many contractors agree that billing is one of the hardest elements to tackle when first starting out in the snow removal business. There isn’t just one mode of billing either: some properties are tackled on an hourly plan, some are per inch of snow, some clients are under seasonal contracts, and others charge per push.

Being detailed also helps with billing clients properly, and will help you to keep a better eye on productivity. It only makes sense to get paid for what you’re doing, so if your crew plowed and salted an area that is 40 acres, make sure the client isn’t billed for only 35 acres.

Charging a property per inch of snow can be tricky, since Mother Nature can take a big chunk out of your profits if you have to make repeated visits to the property.

“The biggest thing we learned,” says Brian Churchill, a partner for The Groundskeeper, Ashland Massachusetts, “is that two inches of snow can take thirty minutes to fall, or it can take four hours. From five to six in the morning you can remove the snow, but then it can snow again during the day and you have to go back. The more time you spend on the property charging per inch of snow, the less profitable it becomes.”

Depending on the area, and the type of property it is, some methods of billing are preferable to others.

“Some of our clients are seasonal, some are per inch, some are under contract,” continues Churchill. “During the first year of getting into the business, especially on a large site, billing them hourly is preferred. It will give you the chance to get a feel for how many man hours a given site requires and the cost of running the equipment. Eventually, we try to get them on a seasonal price.”

Churchill says that many residences and small businesses like to be billed per inch, whereas for large areas, such as commercial parking lots, airports, etc., they usually prefer hourly billing.

The right equipment for snow removal is synonymous to lawn maintenance.

Just like it wouldn’t make sense to use a ZTR to mow a patch of grass outside an apartment complex, relying on a plow in front of a pickup for all jobs isn’t a realistic mindset. “The bigger properties are, of course, more involved, requiring more manpower and bigger equipment, but the smaller properties can be challenging too because they may require specialized equipment,” explains Churchill.

Depending on the type of snow removal you’re doing, you’ll be using skid steer loaders, backhoes, and trucks. It’s also a good idea to invest in a salt spreader for the truck. “The nice thing about the snow, is that if you don’t own the equipment, it is fairly easy to rent. The other option is finding a subcontractor with the equipment and simply paying him an hourly rate,” says Churchill.

If you have the equipment, make sure it is properly maintained. Also, it is a good idea to have back-up parts since your day will most likely start very early, perhaps between four “ Jerry We treat every snow job like it is an emergency,” Ohio. the more backup you need in case something goes wrong.”

Contractors also recommend that you first make the Wequipment you already have for your landscaping business work for snow removal before spending money for specific snow removal equipment. “A guy who goes out for you can have a better idea whether you really need it or not.”

Whenever a different line of business is jumped into, it is natural to expect some growing pains when you are first starting out. The snow business is no exception, and you can expect to endure some learning curve just like you probably did when you jumped into the landscape and maintenance field. However, there is training available to help lower the strain caused by that learning curve, and there is help available for newcomers in the field.

“Get training. Get as much training material as possible,” advises Higham. “Research the industry before jumping in, it isn’t always as easy as everyone thinks. Contact another contractor and ask if you can mentor under him. It sounds strange, but a wise contractor knows that it is better for his competitors to be knowledgeable in how to do a good job without cutting corners as opposed to doing everything the wrong way and undercutting the industry with unrealistic prices.”

SIMA offers training videos and books, as well as one day regional training seminars. More information can be found on their website at www.sima.org.

With enough careful planning, adding snow removal to your list of business services can provide a great profit and keep those hard workers by your side and ready when the landscape business starts again in full swing. While contractors interviewed say that the profit will accumulate after experience, there is no reason why money can’t be made your starting season. “We treat snow as a profit center,” says Schill. “We’ve been doing this for 12 years, and there has never been a year we haven’t made a profit.”

 
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