This past winter was brutal. It was tough on employees, equipment and systems, and in some cases it impacted cash flow and profits. Many snow contractors prayed for snow, and learned to be careful for what they wished for.
The past few winters found snowfalls below average. This trend began four or five years back, and snow contractors reacted accordingly.
Savvy contractors sought ways to increase revenues in low-snowfall years. Here are a couple of ways: Sell more seasonal contracts so that money flows even if the snow doesn't fall from the sky; push “zero tolerance” to give the contractor more opportunity to perform and charge for services and tighten up specs. This leaves customers and facility managers with little choice but to allow contractors to service sites even with minimal amounts of snow on the pavement.
This past winter season was anything but “average” for those who live and work east of the Mississippi. It started snowing early. In some areas it just never stopped.
Some looked back longingly at the blizzards that graced their geographic market. Blizzards meant increased revenues. However, those revenues came in short periods. Such snowfalls would hit and leave, dumping sometimes feet of snow. But, they were over and done in a day or so, leaving contractors to do clean-up work over the following few days.
Customers tolerated some snow on the pavement because they, too, listened to the forecasts, knew the storm would depart quickly and that their snow management contractors would be there to clean up the resulting mess left behind by the quick-hitting storm. Even if 26 inches of snow fell, in a matter of days the sun would shine again and contractors scurried around like squirrels in search for acorns in the snow.
There was an end in sight for everyone involved. But last winter also saw a different animal come to the forefront. It snowed, and snowed, and snowed. It came in small increments. Snow contractors know that it takes almost as much effort to plow 5 inches of snow as it does 12 inches – at least in terms of the total amount of days involved in fighting the storm.
But, four inches of snow over 24 hours, and 12 inches of snow over three days without any sort of break takes its toll. For a majority of the professional snow contractors, this winter severely taxed their tried-and-true managerial systems. Field staff started to fall asleep at the wheel after three days of non-stop working in the snow.
Internal systems came close to crumbling under the weight of the ongoing, continual reporting. Invoicing fell behind to make room for “getting the work done.” In some cases winter invoicing was six to eight weeks behind because there simply was not enough time to devote to “the paperwork.”
Many will rethink next year’s contract language to protect themselves if this type of winter season scenario ever happens again. A few will look into crystal balls and opine that this type of continually snowy winter will never occur again, so they don’t have to worry about it. Of course, this would be foolish – it will happen.
Those who ignore the lessons of the past are destined to relive it. And then, snow contractors will again moan and groan about how mother nature is to blame.
Snow industry veteran John Allin is an author, consultant and educator.