When selecting a contractor, request to see his equipment in action. (Photo by Randy Strait, Arctic Snow and Ice Control Products)

No Business Like Snow Business

You can avoid the downfalls of snowfalls by hiring a reputable contractor.

Nearly every state in the United States is bound to receive its fair share of snow and ice the coming winter season. While some businesses thrive on the white stuff, many grimace at even the smallest hint of a flurry because they know all too well the crippling effect it can have on their bottom line. Whether because of decreased revenue from limited parking options and shortened hours or liabilities from slips and falls, snow and ice can do a number on profitability. And in the worst-case scenarios, some businesses have been forced to shut down for days following a snow event, meaning tens of thousands of dollars -- or worse -- lost to Mother Nature. For example, according to CNNMoney.com, the massive East Coast blizzard that hit in late December 2010 cost retailers an estimated $1 billion in after-Christmas sales, and that's just one instance in one area of the country.

While no one can control the when and ifs of Mother Nature, everyone can take preventative actions to lessen the blow and minimize the financial impacts of snow and ice. Proper planning saves a lot of time and heartache, I know from having been a snow removal contractor for nearly four decades.

The four things most likely to temporarily shut down a business are fires, tornadoes, floods, and snow. Businesses purchase insurance to handle fires, tornadoes, and floods but often fail to establish plans for a major snow event, which is a far more likely occurrence, even in the South. Establishing a relationship with a reputable snow removal contractor will protect the ability of a business to operate.

Contractor Considerations
The first thing to know when choosing a snow contractor is the importance of hiring a full-time, dedicated company with an adequate supply of its own equipment and manpower. In the simplest terms, a full-time snow removal company is one that exclusively practices snow and ice management. Several companies and individuals offer these services "on the side," but a company that is 100 percent committed to snow removal has the ability to respond on a moment's notice. Time is money, and the quicker a lot is cleared, the quicker business can be conducted as usual.

Stories today open much earlier than they used to, leaving a small window of time for a contractor to get in and plow before traffic enters the lot. A contractor who shows up late has lost the opportunity to plow your lot.

Full-time companies offer the added benefit of providing a commitment for the full season, from Nov. 1 to April 15. Most part-time snow removal contractors are full-time workers in a seasonal industry and simply offer snow removal as a way to keep equipment and staff busy during slow winter months. This can cause problems, especially during the early spring months when the weather seems to be improving. A surprise snow event may find these part-time companies pulling their equipment away to other jobs. In many areas of the country, temperatures can reach 60 degrees Fahrenheit and stay there for several days, perhaps longer. But in a matter of hours, an unexpected winter storm can move in and bring inches of snow and cause temperatures to plummet down to the 20s or lower. A part-time snow contractor may have shifted priority back to its full-time business and likely will not be ready to respond at the drop of a flurry.

Ultimately, the decision to go with a full-time or part-time company really depends on the needs and expectations of each individual owner. After making this initial decision, there are three major types of snow and ice contractors to consider. While all three may seem to provide the same service, each is actually quite different and will provide varying levels of service.

  • A snow removal company typically is a full-time, dedicated snow and ice management company with a large fleet of its own equipment that not only plows snow, but also will remove it, which is especially important for smaller facilities that can't afford to lose even a few parking spots to snowpiles. Contractors will either haul away the snow in large trucks or semis or bring in heavy-duty snow melters to remove it. In addition to plowing and removing snow, these companies often take care of clearing and salting sidewalks and pedestrian areas. Because of the service level provided, a snow removal company often is a more expensive option.
  • A snowplow company, on the other hand, will provide a similar but less thorough service. Many of these companies are full-time, dedicated contractors with their own equipment and manpower to handle accounts professionally and efficiently. A snowplow company will plow snow, but that's where the service ends; snow removal is not part of the package. This may be adequate for some facilities, but keep in mind that the snow will have to be removed at some point unless the property owner is content to let it sit in the lot until it melts. If at any time the owner desires the snow be removed, the work would need to be done at an added expense to the property owner. This could include additional equipment, fuel, and labor costs.
  • The third option available, a snow management company, is unlike the other two. Rather than having the equipment and staff and handling the work on their own, these large companies subcontract their accounts to smaller, third-party entities. They're often located hundreds or thousands of miles away from the property's location. Because they don't own the equipment or have the work staff, these companies have minimal overhead costs and therefore can offer very low rates. But caveat emptor (buyer beware), because contracting with these companies means relinquishing control of having any say in which contractor is actually hired to service the lot. The increased presence of these types of snow management companies further expands on the risk involved with them.

Beyond that, a small subcontractor won't have the buying power a bigger contractor will. For example, consider salt usage. There have been instances of salt shortages in recent years, and when this happens, guess who loses out? A contractor large enough to purchase and store its own salt ahead of time will prevent the slippery havoc -- and liability issues -- that could follow.

Liability Issues
Speaking of liability issues, an unreliable contractor may cost a business more than time and revenue dollars lost due to inefficient snow removal. Leaving any opportunity for even a small accumulation of ice can have serious consequences.

Lawsuits from slips and falls can top $500,000. Although the burden of a slip-and-fall claim will almost always rest solely on the contractor, the business owner needs to be concerned, as well, and must hire a contractor with an adequate insurance policy.

Imagine a severe slip-and-fall where the plaintiff sues the snow contractor for $250,000. Say that contractor has been irresponsible and negligent in obtaining liability insurance and cannot afford to pay that claim. Someone must be held responsible, so guess who's the next target in line? Slip-and-fall claims are taken very seriously, and the business owner will likely end up paying the entire amount not covered by the snow contractor.

Furthermore, it's a good idea to consider a contractor that maintains electronic job tickets with GPS tracking because this will provide a level of insurance for a business if it becomes the target of a lawsuit, even if this happens a couple of years down the road. If a contractor is deposed in a case and has maintained impeccable records, the business or property management company easily will be able to prove it was not at fault.

While digital tracking provides a form of insurance, actual insurance that's adequate and from a reputable agency will ultimately be the best protection for the business. The hope with any insurance policy is that it never will need to be used; it's there more as a safety net. Slips and falls can be prevented with proper, efficient snow and ice removal, and a professional operation will be more likely to have the resources to provide this superior level of service.

Equipment
A snow contractor is more than just a machine and plow. The quality of equipment used in day-to-day operations will have a huge impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of plowing.

Snow plowing really comes down to one key factor, the plow itself. A business owner should request to see the contractor's equipment or, better yet, have the contractor demo the equipment. This is a great opportunity to be sure the plow does a superior job of pushing snow and scraping compact snow and ice clear down to the pavement.

A contractor with effective equipment will help to reduce salt usage, expenses, and hassles. By removing more snow and scraping it down to the pavement, minimal salt will be required, which is good because salt has its shortcomings. It is most effective at about 20 degrees Fahrenheit and above. And because sun activates salt, you're really looking for specific, ideal conditions if you must apply it.

Many locations during winter months never see a temperature above single digits -- or above zero, for that matter. Banking on salt as an effective backup might be a mistake and is all the more reason to look for a company with effective plows.

Then there's the equipment powering the plow. Ask whether the contractor rents or owns. A company that owns its equipment has full control over it in the event it needs maintenance, repair, or complete replacement. A contractor who rents his equipment is at the mercy of the rental center if something goes wrong.

Finally, a contractor needs to be well-equipped in terms of more than just equipment itself. Find out how many people are employed at the company and how many other clients the contractor is currently serving. If possible, obtain references. Does the company handle the accounts efficiently and promptly? Or does it appear to be in over its head, struggling to keep up with the work? Being able to provide professional, dependable service is a hallmark of a truly reliable contractor, so be sure the company chosen has the resources to take on another account. After all, reliability is key in the snow removal business.

If possible, secure a long-term contract when hiring a snow company. Ideally, an owner should try to plan out three to five years when hiring a contractor. They will be more familiar with the property and more likely to purchase specialty equipment for the particular job when there's a long-term investment and a good working relationship.

On the flip side, a business can get itself into trouble by signing a long-term contract, only to find out the relationship isn't a good fit. Be sure to have a 30-day cancellation notice due to poor service written into any contract. This prevents breach of contract issues and saves you from feeling stuck with less-than-superior service.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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