What you must learn before you start pushing

North Country Snow and Ice Management’s Michael Merrill, far left, Scott McDonald, truck, Ben Murphy, front and Mason Murphy, right. They’re on call 24/7, including holidays.

Maybe you’re sitting in the local Burger King having a coffee at 6:30 a.m. on a dreary winter’s day and you see a competitor’s truck pushing snow out of the lot. You think to yourself, hey, why not?

After all, it’s been weeks since you finished property cleanups, and the cold, wet snow has kept you and your guys from working on the residential hardscape you planned to get to by Thanksgiving. You’ve got all you need to begin offering snow and ice management services, right?

You’ve got grit, and you’re used to dealing with the elements. Your trucks and other equipment have been sitting mostly idle for a couple of weeks; they could easily be fitted with blades and spreaders. And, you’ve got workers, or perhaps acquaintances, that would appreciate a little extra spending cash this winter.

Hold on there bunky; before you start signing up customers, give this more thought – a lot more thought. You’ll be doing yourself a huge favor.

Yes, lots of landscapers offer snow and ice management services, and you’ve probably heard that the rewards in snow and ice management, in terms of margins, can be considerable, especially if Mother Nature cooperates. But, are you aware of the huge commitment in terms of planning, preparation and execution of services? Are you willing to miss Thanksgiving or Christmas with your family (or ask your employees to) as snow piles up on your clients’ properties? Have you calculated the financial risks? They’re considerable. They can ruin relationships with existing customers or much worse. Indeed, the damage contractors can do to their core business can be staggering, says Michael Merrill, president of North Country Snow and Ice Management in Glen Falls, N.Y.

“More power to the landscaper that wants to get into snow and ice management. It’s one of the most powerful moves they can make, but it has to be done properly,” says Merrill. “Landscapers have lost their businesses because they weren’t aware of the risks.”

Merrill’s company focused exclusively on snow and ice management for seven years, but this year also began offering other building and property management services. He says more clients are seeking “one-stop” service providers.

What immediately became apparent to him was the difference in the delivery of snow and landscape management.

“Landscape maintenance is completely different than snow routing. For one thing, if it rains the day you’re supposed to mow a property, you mow it the next day,” says Merrill. “With snow, you have to be at every clients’ property on the same day at the same time, and almost always more than once a day.”

You must preplan

In other words, when the snow flies, you need a sufficient number of people and the right amount and mix of equipment to deliver what you promise and when you promise to deliver it. This requires serious preplanning, preferably starting months before the first snow or ice storm arrives.

“You have to know your costs. Not knowing your costs in snow is dangerous,” says Merrill. The process of preseason site engineering, especially for large properties, is critical for determining the proper amount and type of equipment and hand labor that will be necessary when snow falls. Accurately estimating equipment and labor needs for these large sites gives contractors a good handle on costs, allowing them to intelligently bid snow contracts.

Newcomers to snow management often underestimate their equipment and labor needs, especially during a major winter storm. Remember, when bidding, it’s not you doing the work, and it likely won’t be your best guy. Typically, it’s your average guy, and chances are he won’t be doing it as efficiently or perhaps not as well as you.

“That capacity has to be there, otherwise you’re going to have very unhappy clients. That means a landscaper has to have more trucks and labor available than they would normally use in their core business. In fact, they might need five or six times the equipment and manpower in a short amount of time,” says Merrill. “It’s critical that the landscaper knows how to determine capacity.”

Landscape maintenance is totally different than snow management. If it rains you mow the next day; when it snows, you have to respond promptly- to all of your accounts.

That’s not as easy as it might seem, considering all that Mother Nature can deal out. One big, wet snow may catch you short-handed and scrambling just to clear parking lots, and not having sufficient labor to safely clear sidewalks. This is risky business that increases the possibility of slip-and-fall claims where settlements of $600,000 or more aren’t uncommon.

Make Your First Stop SIMA

Where can you go to learn the science and business of snow and ice management? Take your first step on your smartphone or computer by visiting the Snow and Ice Management Association website, sima.org and check out all of the educational and training materials that can get you started in the right direction.

SIMA, founded in 1996 and based in Milwaukee, Wis., is the go-to resource for member education, networking and product information. Members get insights on how to better manage and market their business, and all members have equal access to quality training related to operations and systems.

If you’re serious about offering snow services, consider joining SIMA and the 1,600-plus North American professionals sharing their experiences, and learning proper and profitable procedures for providing efficient and safe services for their clients.

The nonprofit trade association also oversees an increasingly popular and valuable certification program. Members that complete the process to become a Certified Snow Professional can proudly display the CSP designation title after their names. This sends a strong message to clients and prospects that you’re no fly-by-night operator.

The process of becoming a CSP is the valuable part of the certification journey. That’s when you’ll learn proven techniques to manage the snow business and not just snow events. You’ll also get valuable insights into insurance and legal issues, as well as have networking opportunities with fellow professionals.

SIMA is the place to start for any contractor contemplating getting started in snow and ice management, as well as contractors that realize they still have a lot to learn about delivering the service profitably, efficiently and safely.

Liability and insurance

Liability is the other difference between warm-weather landscape services and snow and ice management. Your landscape services don’t involve a customer safety component; snow and ice management does.

Obviously, if you’re considering offering snow you need insurance that specifically covers this service. But, even then you can suffer a catastrophic loss if a court finds that you didn’t provide “reasonable care,” resulting in a slip-and-fall complaint or preventing a commercial customer from opening its doors for business, causing it significant losses. The settlement may greatly exceed your coverage limits. Even if it doesn’t, your premiums will almost certainly rise considerably, assuming your insurance company doesn’t drop you.

Snow and ice management offers the potential for high-margin, off-season revenue and, depending upon conditions, big paydays. It’s a service that many of your clients, whether commercial or residential, must have.

But it’s definitely a service you don’t want to begin providing on a whim.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘What is it going to do to my organization, my people, to me?'” says Merrill. You also have to determine at what level you feel comfortable providing snow and ice management, and if you have the capacity in terms of equipment and labor to provide services at that level.

Snow and ice management, because of the many variables associated with winter weather and the inherent risks to customers and their businesses, is a riskier business than landscaping … but the payoffs can be bigger too if you know your costs and charge accordingly, provide the level of service you promise, and protect yourself and your clients adequately.

Ron Hall, who has spent the past 27 years writing about the green industry, is editor-in-chief of Turf magazine. Contact him at rhall@mooserivermedia.com.