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Greatest Story Never Told 2015: Trial by fire

  • SIMA
- Posted: June 1, 2015
By Cheryl Higley
SB0615_GSNT_WNY_Team (300x200)
Connor Kolb, Garrett Smith and Bryn Smith (in front, left to right) of WNY Snow Removal had help from friends Dave Hyla (left) and Pete Noeller during their inaugural snow season.
“Teamwork makes the dream work.” That is the rallying cry for Orchard Park, NY-based WNY Snow Removal.

Without teamwork, WNY’s first season could have been its last. The company was founded in 2014 by brothers Garrett Smith, Bryn Smith and Connor Kolb. While Bryn and Connor weren’t new to the industry, getting a new snow business off the ground is hard enough without having to manage more than a season’s worth of snowfall in just one storm.

Their approach to business and their story of surviving “Snow-vember” set them apart as this year’s winner of the Snow Business Greatest Story Never Told contest.
After a combined 14 years working for a Buffalo-area snow company, Bryn and Connor decided it was time to strike out on their own.

“The company we were working for didn’t want to expand into this area, so we saw an opportunity,” Bryn says. “We’re from the Southtowns, so it made sense that this is where we should start our business - taking care of the people who have taken care of us.”

Connor says the area doesn’t lack for plow drivers, but when it comes to providing such an essential emergency service, it’s quality - not quantity - that matters.

“A lot of guys come out with a pickup truck and think they can do this just to make extra money. They don’t have the proper tools, the proper insurance or the know-how,” he says. “They come in and undercut you by half but when a storm like last November happens, they throw in the towel.”

Not only Connor and Bryn want to start their own company, but they wanted to focus only on snow. With $10,000 and a lot of dream and ambition, there was still one person that needed to sign on to the plan - big brother, Garrett, who has a background in business and marketing.

“I forced them to think of me as an investor. They had to show me their business plan, their potential customer base, etc.,” he says. “They came to me in May 2014 and by September we were fully operational. It’s great to see them get passionate and build something that will be around a long time.”

Stretching the cash
With a limited capital investment budget to start, the WNY team relied on Connor’s mechanical background and began scouting auctions for good deals on used vehicles. He purchased two trucks, reworked them inside and out and sold one for triple the value.

“That gave us additional capital to buy plows and another vehicle,” Garrett says. “We continued that strategy through the season and we were able to expand the fleet without going into debt. Now we’re in a great position in terms of equipment and capital.”

Building a client base
As Connor and Bryn got the equipment ready to roll, Garrett worked to spread the word about the new company using his expertise in marketing. Social media, referrals, Internet marketing, and flyers helped generate awareness.

“We knew we couldn’t take on a lot of new customers, but our website alone generated 100 email leads and a few hundred phone calls,” he says. “My job now is to determine how to scale operations to capture additional demand while still delivering a high level of service.”

The company’s clientele is fairly evenly split between commercial and residential, which Bryn attributes to the affluent market it serves. In many cases, the company has been able to attract two-for-one clients - homeowners who hired them for residential but who also have a business that needs snow and ice management services.

WNY Snow Removal also was able to build its portfolio by using its hometown network to find quality subcontractors and to work with Bryn’s and Connor’s former employer.

“He was excited for us to strike out on our own and it ended up helping him in the end,” Bryn says. “He was able to secure more properties in his area by giving us properties in our area. He has become a strategic partner and we’ve been able to leverage each other. It’s been great to see that relationship develop.”

Expanding their horizons
Another relationship the team is hoping to develop is one with SIMA and to learn from fellow members as it grows its business beyond friends and family.

“If we want to become something in Buffalo and be that company that everyone turns to, we need to go out and make those connections and learn from what others are doing,” Garrett says. “There’s snow plowing and there is professional snow & ice management - there is a big difference and Bryn and Connor got a taste of it this past winter. We need to leverage every tool and every relationship so we can have the right tools and processes in place to grow the right way.”
Meet the WNY Snow Removal team

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Connor Kolb, 22 – Runs the day-to-day operations, including bidding and customer service. He also is chief mechanic and manages a route.

Lesson learned: “One of the biggest was to make sure you are prepared for whatever may come your way. That type of storm may never happen again in our lifetime but we need to be ready if it does. That comes from scaling our business and buying bigger equipment. You can’t tackle a storm like that with a pickup truck and an 8-ft. plow.”

Garrett Smith, 33 – Works in business development, sales and marketing, and building the WNY Snow Removal brand.

Lesson learned: “We need to provide ancillary winter services to better serve our clients and to differentiate ourselves. We’re excited to grow and to learn so we can become the clear choice for snow removal in the western New York area.”

Bryn Smith, 28
– Creates and manages routes, assists with bidding and brings creative solutions to everyday problems.

Lesson learned: “I learned the importance of having spares, backups and a scheduled maintenance program to keep our small fleet in top-notch condition. We’re building a training program and documenting all of our processes because, for us to grow, it won’t always just be us. We need to be ready for that.”
Snow-vember storm packs a punch
Armed with big ambitions to build the area’s best snow removal operation, a small fleet of vehicles and lots of snow removal experience, WNY Snow Removal set out to make its inaugural season memorable. The company got its wish as snowfall rates in excess of 4 inches per hour started on Nov. 17, 2014. The initial forecast called for a “manageable” 24 inches but ended up dumping 88 inches in just a few days.

“We were born and raised here and have been through a lot of storms. But this was epic,” Bryn says. “I went to brush off the truck and couldn’t keep it clear. There was so much snow…it was hard to breathe. I was standing in front of my truck and could barely see it.”

SB0615_GSNT_WNY1 (175x119) SB0615_GSNT_WNY3 (175x131) SB0615_GSNT_WNY2 (131x175)
WNY Snow Removal’s inaugural season got off to a roaring start when a November storm dropped 88 inches in just a few short days.

After deliberating on the best course of action, Connor ventured out and became stuck at a customer’s house after the snow drifted too high. He called a friend for help but the storm continued to worsen. He waded through chest-high snow up a 1,300-foot-long driveway. Luckily the homeowner was home, and he was able to dry his gear, eat and watch the weather.

“In hindsight, I shouldn’t have gone. It was our first year in business and we wanted to make a good impression,” he says, adding that for most of the week, people (including snow companies not working on municipal contracts) were advised to stay off the roads so crews could clear the snow. 

Finally, after a break in the storm and a hand from Pete Noeller, Connor’s friend who left South Carolina to come and help, WNY was able to secure extra equipment and begin working through its customer list.

 “Watching everyone come together and work as a team was great. The storm wouldn’t have gone as well as it did without that core group of friends who stepped in to help,” Connor says.

As WNY dug out of the storm, all around them contractors either were quitting because they couldn’t keep up or were coming in from out of town and taking advantage by charging outrageous prices.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime storm and it was cool to be part of it. The experience gave us a lot of knowledge on how to be prepared for when the next big storm comes along,” Bryn says.
Greatest story finalists share stories of family, perseverance
Thank you to the companies who submitted their stories for our annual Greatest Story contest. Congratulations to our runner-up stories:

W.L. French Excavating Corporation | Boston, MA

SB0615_GSNT_French (133x200)
W. L. French Excavating Corporation and F. E. French Construction are family companies run by brothers William and Frank French. During this past winter, both families had a significant footprint in the Boston area. Collectively, the companies managed millions of square feet of property and municipal work and had a part in operating the snow farms in Boston. The families grew up a town away from each other and support and help each other with their businesses. They utilize each other’s services, rent equipment from one another and often bounce ideas, problems or other business endeavors off each other for input and advice from those they trust - their family. They operate as complete separate entities but the family tie is strong.

JC Grounds Management | Peabody, MA

Jon-Crandall (133x200)
JC Grounds Management was started by Jonathan Crandall with a makeshift tow-behind trailer, 12-year-old Chevy Blazer and $500. He was 16. He and his brother had lost their mother and were supporting themselves. While attending Salem State College, Jon was introduced to Jim Kaloutas of Kaloutas Painting, who became his mentor and introduced him to the Entrepreneurs Organization, a worldwide peer group. Between the shared experiences of the group, Kaloutas’ mentoring, family support and great employees,
JC Grounds now covers over 220 acres of parking lot and employs more than 200 during a snow or ice event.

Cheryl Higley is editorial director of Snow Business magazine. Contact her at Photos by KC Kratt. Special thanks to Caterpillar for sponsoring this year's Greatest Story Never Told contest.
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