Salt is the be all and end all tool for the snow and ice industry. Carl Bolm, CSP, president of BSR Services in St. Louis, MO, drove that point home to a room full of attendees during the 22nd annual Snow & Ice Symposium in Grand Rapids, MI in June. Bolm was part of a Salt Supply & Procurement Panel that also featured Phill Sexton of WIT Advisers, Tony Johnson of Midwest Salt, Nate Clemmer of SynaTek Solutions, and Jim Gregor of Sullivan Corporation.
The panel discussed the current business climate concerning the supply that had placed some contractors in binds when managing their salt.
“I, like you, am always looking for the best price for salt. Salt and chloride are the tools of our trade. If we don’t have that tool, we are in trouble with our clients,” Bolm said. “The challenge is that we are in an industry where change is happening and one would say that it’s moving faster than we are moving.”
Gregor stressed being proactive during the procurement of winter products by determining overall needs and navigating through the right pricing of jobs for clients.
“It’s important to work with the manufacturers, end users/clients and everyone who is dedicated to this industry,” he said. “We’re all in this together making sure the snow and ice industry is moving forward.”
How we got here
As a veteran salt supplier, Johnson took the opportunity to explain the hard truth to attendees. “The big salt companies are looking at government businesses first; that is their bread and butter,” he said. “The commercial contractors are second. Imagine if the salt producers are selling to the non-governmental businesses. There will be a shortage in the public world where the roads aren’t safe, but the parking lots are.”
Further compounding supply in the Midwest are heavy rain periods and a soft grain market, which is causing a bottleneck of salt shipments. For example, Johnson said that the Mississippi River near St. Louis neared flood stage, which closed its port for 45 days. It opened in mid-June only to be closed again for another week.
“We were reaching tipping points to get salt into the market,” he said. “Imports were coming in, but there are only so many vessels that could get through, and you can’t really bring in vessels with (shallow water) and the rocks to get salt to the right places.”
Johnson concluded that he’s seen companies combatting the tightened supply by simply stockpiling if they were able. “Most people say they prefer price before service, but when it gets close to season,” he said, “people want service right away. It’s a feast or famine market.”
The salt alternative
Offering solutions to attendees on a possible workaround during a salt supply shortage, Clemmer said companies can look to chloride-free solutions.
“One of the things that we are seeing more is that chloride salt is becoming a more environmental pollutant,” he said. “We have been working to figure out different solutions for this.”
Clemmer said that it’s really important to educate and create innovative products, and provide value for customers and most importantly, find more ways for them to make money.
“No one wants to work for free,” he said. “But we want to mindfully create more opportunities to change toward less chloride salts instead of forcing it down people’s throats.”
Noting that it would be an uphill battle, Clemmer clarified to the audience that is he not anti-salt, and understood that the alternative is not necessarily cheaper, easy to understand or a magic bullet solution.
“This is not a discussion about getting rid of chloride salts, but for contractors in a performance situation, think about it … when it’s really, really cold, people use more and more salt, but it doesn’t work,” he said. “(But the mentality is) ‘If we throw it out for the 18th time. It’s going to work.’ We need to break that mindset.”
Chloride-free salts have various advantages, Clemmer noted. They work well in low temperatures, plus work faster than regular salt.
“You got a northside-facing building in Denver and it's 0°, and the building opens in 15 minutes, you don’t have a lot of choices,” he explained. “Chloride-free products are perfect for that.”
According to ISSA, The Worldwide Cleaning Industry Association, or as Clemmer affectionately dubbed it “The SIMA of cleaning professionals,” it costs building owners $50 an entrance per snow event in cleaning costs to remove the residue of chloride salts tracked inside.
“Think about a chloride free product that doesn’t have residue this winter, Clemmer told attendees.
“It differentiates you from your competition, and also helps with your supply chain. The way you make money is usually when change happens, environmentally or through technology,” he concluded. “Being the first one ready to move is usually the best way to separate from the competition and provide value for your customers and business.”