The impact of higher salt prices and a lack of supply for the private snow contractor market over the past few years have reverberated throughout the industry. Snow Business spoke with professionals throughout North America to take the pulse of the industry and look into the trends and challenges that are shaping their companies heading into the future.
Responses compiled by Editorial Director Cheryl Higley. Responses have been edited for space.
- Nichole Ashton, CEO - Urban Meadows Property Maintenance Group, Ayr, Ontario
- Troy Clogg, CSP, Owner - Troy Clogg Snow Associates - Wixom, MI
- Justin Gamester, CSP, Vice President - Piscataqua Landscaping & Tree Service, Eliot, Maine
- Rick Kier, CSP, Owner - ProScapes Inc., Jamesville, NY
- Jim Monk, CSP, President - MPS Property Services, Markham, Ontario
- Chad Oberson, CSP, President - Oberson’s Snow and Ice Management, Fairfield, OH
- Chris O’Donohue, President - Great Canadian Snow Management, North Vancouver, BC
Rock salt supply & operations management
Not all of our roundtable participants have seen supply shortages. Those who did reflected on the impact on their companies and how they’ve changed operations to accommodate the lack of availability.
Kier: “The salt shortage that we have been dealing with the last two seasons is the result of a combination of factors: 1) Our main supplier not having enough product to service the demands of his regular customers during a season with higher than average demand; 2) Our main supplier seeing an opportunity to make more money selling salt to customers in hard-hit states than he could selling it to us at the agreed-upon normal prices; 3) When those scenarios take place, other salt suppliers [don’t have] extra capacity to take us on as a new customer in the middle of the season [regardless of the price]. All of the above took place because we have had two winters with many large storms in the Northeastern United States. This put a huge drain on the regional salt supply east of the Mississippi River.”
Gamester: “We saw heavy shortages in 2013-14 and I thought it might go away. However, just about the same time in February this year it became a problem again. I believe the reasons are twofold: The suppliers were not able to completely rebuild the supply from the previous winter; and states and municipalities, hospitals, and schools have been exercising their right to the salt reserves they are allocated in their contracts.”
Ashton: The biggest factor that impacted our salt supply was below-average cold temperatures that expanded to the Southern U.S. In addition to supply being spread out to other areas not normally impacted by snow and ice, it also brought attention to contractors’ lack of understanding of the limitations of salt at low temperatures and the benefits of liquid additives, and improper preparation and inattention from contractors and municipalities. I do not believe that any one group is to blame for the salt supply shortage; rather, it was an eye-opening event to remind us that the supply is limited.”
Oberson: “In Cincinnati last year we just had more events then the salt suppliers planned for. This season we saw a craze in early ordering. Everyone — from the small to large contractors and even the public sector — wanted their storage areas full earlier than normal.”
Kier: “We make sure our salt truck drivers are well trained in calibration to avoid putting down more salt than needed. We reviewed our contracts to make sure we are not providing any higher level of service than our contracts require. We do more plowing of small accumulations of snow before we salt. We stocked up early and continuously brought in more salt as soon as we used any. Our goal was to stay full so that if a shortage hit [which it did] we would be at maximum capacity. Finally, we reached out to other salt suppliers to form relationships so as to not have all our eggs in one basket.”
Monk: “We entered into ‘guaranteed’ arrangements with our suppliers where we commit to a certain volume. We risk having to pay for salt we might not use that year, but the supplier knows that his product is sold preseason. We also are experimenting with a new on-board sensor device that will give our drivers accurate feedback in real time. We expect this to have a large impact on usage.”
Ashton: “We took advantage of our knowledge in liquids, pretreating our bulk salt and using direct liquid application to ensure that our properties were safe in the cold temperatures rather than having to unnecessarily spread rock salt when the temperatures were too cold for the materials to be effective. We carefully monitored the increase in salt pricing, so we planned ahead, stocking up on liquid deicers and treated salt. We stocked our yard with more bulk material than in previous years and plan to do the same in the upcoming year.”
Gamester: “We began using salt brine, and we are smarter about how we apply. Also we are mechanically removing snow more frequently to avoid having to salt multiple times. And last, we broadened our supply chain.”
Clogg: “We purchased property to expand storage at our headquarters in 2014. We have other storage facilities at all satellite or temporary locations, which allows us to purchase more product in advance of any supply shortage.”
O’Donohue: We still have bagged salt from 2013-2014. This January and February we generated zero dollars because of the poor winter. Next year we are not counting on snow in our budget … If it happens it will be a surplus.”
Forecasting the future
Kier: “I expect that some salt suppliers will recognize the huge opportunity in the marketplace and bring in large amounts of salt from off shore. As liability continues to become more of an issue, I expect that routine salting to keep properties safe will become more and more commonplace. This puts a huge demand on the market for an ever-growing volume of salt. Someone must find a way to reliably meet this demand.”
Oberson: “I think that low-volume or bad-credit private contractors are in a world of trouble. They are not even going to be quoted anymore by the salt companies. They will have to use a middle man, and that usually means higher prices.
The private snow and ice management industry is notoriously and historically pushed down the priority list when it comes to rock salt procurement. This can force companies to scramble for supply to provide the service it has promised its clients. The problem has escalated, given the supply shortages the past few years.
This issue, by far, generated the most passionate response from our roundtable participants. They offered suggestions on how to improve supplier relations and options they’ve explored to improve supply.
Supplier relationships and challenges
Kier: “Honesty, being straightforward and good communication are keys to a good working relationship. As with any long-term business relationship, it is best to take good care of your current customers and not overextend yourself. During the salt shortage, some suppliers cut off existing customers to sell salt at a higher price to new customers, including municipalities from southern states who had rarely — if ever — bought salt from them in the past. That was not good for the relationship. We have one supplier we worked with for about five years. He let us down the past two winters, and we have started a new relationship with another vendor to replace him.”
Monk: “We get the best price purchasing directly from the mines. However, we’re a small fish in their world, and are quickly cut off during shortages. We use a couple of local resellers who charge more, but provide exceptional service. We’re a bigger player to them and have never been allowed to completely run out of supply. The additional price we pay is definitely worth it at those times. We’ve found getting accurate information from the producing companies is really tough during supply issues.”
Oberson: “The biggest issue I see is they have no control of the distribution once the product lands at the terminals. Yes they control the orders, but the loading and scaling and start and stop times are not very good in Cincinnati.”
Ashton: “Communication is where most contractors and suppliers fail. If they expect prices to increase, suppliers need to let their contractors know. We don’t always know what is going on in their world, so the more we know, the easier it is for us to prepare and adjust to the change in pricing and upcoming shortages.”
Clogg: “I’m not sure why those of us who maintain more square footage than the local governments — and accept the liability that goes with [that] — don’t get a higher priority in the salt supply chain.”
Kier: “I formed an informal buyers group to pool our volume and increase our buying power for salt. It has helped some but not so much during the shortage.”
Monk: “We’ve looked at some options, but they usually have pretty big logistical challenges. The reality is that our market is pretty well serviced by both the mines and resellers. They’re constantly increasing their capacity to stockpile product, so even shortages tend to be short-lived. We’ve increased our capacity to help bridge those shortfalls.”
Ashton: “We ordered a load of salt from a different source that was not the quality that we were accustomed to. I would suggest that you research your supplier and where their salt is coming from to ensure you get the quality that you are paying for.”
Clogg: “We used a broker to buy a ship full of salt from Egypt. There was a lot of stress and pain throughout the process. Despite that, I’d do it again if my purchasing options were the same.”
Salt and the environment
We asked: “From an environmental stewardship standpoint, is the industry at large doing enough to mitigate the impact of salt use on the environment?”
Kier: “No. I think more education is required. I still see uncovered salt piles and applicators wasting salt. We also need to educate the public on appropriate expectations. When it is snowing 2 inches per hour, the public should not expect bare roads and parking lots. As an industry at large we need to stop salting when it is still snowing.”
Monk: “In many business models, salting is a major revenue/profit driver, which causes an incentive to apply more salt. Contracts should be modified to emphasize service results, not quantities.”
Ashton: “I believe professional standards need to be created, with easy access to contractors and vendors so there are clear and defined roles and expectations. There is a wealth of knowledge and education in this industry that is not known to the general public and I believe that we, as an industry, are on our way to improving public awareness — but we are a long way from where we need to be.”
Oberson: “We need to educate our customers on the harm salt does to the environment. This can come from the contractors but must be supported by the media and local government.”
Are industry resources available to help private snow contractors manage supply and other challenges as it relates to salt?
O’Donohue: “More education and knowledge on the use of brine will allow contractors to reduce salt requirements.”
Monk: “Our industry is still in the maturing stages. There are few industry standards or benchmarks by which to measure and compare various aspects of our business or operations. Generally, resources exist or are being brought into the market that will allow professionals to navigate myriad challenges. There’s no better forum than SIMA to access these resources, or learn from people who have, in order to tie everything together.”
Ashton: “Between Landscape Ontario, SIMA, Smart about Salt, and New Hampshire’s Green SnowPro course, there is a lot of information and training available to help winter maintenance contractors work to improve their company standards and help them work toward being proficient and professional with how they manage their salt use. I am often reading about new technologies to track your team, GPS, services, and now even salt use. Technology can make tracking salt use easier but it is not necessary. Read, research and network with other professional winter maintenance contractors; there is a wealth of knowledge out there.”
Kier: “There has not been any silver bullet for the private contractor. Unless a contractor has the financial ability to purchase 150% of the year’s salt in advance, there seems to be no way to ensure that he will have the salt he needs all winter long every year. There needs to be a surefire method to ensure a reliable salt supply all winter regardless of its severity. We are like firefighters helping to keep the public safe. Yet we are faced with shortages with one of our most valuable tools. Imagine if your fire department ran out of water during the biggest fire of the year … it’s just not good.”
Have your customers requested you use less salt to control costs?
Oberson: “This is the No. 1 issue in the snow industry. Your client wants less service but wants you to take the liability. I will reduce services if requested, but I must have it in writing and it must say that we are not liable if services are reduced.”
O’Donohue: “We are the only ones that make that call since it increases our risk.”
Monk: “The majority of our contracts are seasonal inclusive, so customers don’t see a cost saving from reduced applications. If anything, they request more, as there’s no cost increase incurred.”
As salt supplies have dwindled, contractors have had to look for ice melt alternatives. More companies are implementing liquids, given their versatility and lower price points for many products.
Gamester: “We’ve used salt brine for three seasons. We have had to stay ahead of the curve and embrace new technologies and methods, given that salt is becoming more of a problem both environmentally and from a supply standpoint.”
Ashton: “We use liquids in three ways: Mix bulk stock at the yard, on-board tanks that treat the material as it is being applied, and direct liquid application. We learned about liquids and their possible benefits at the Smart about Salt course in 2008. When we first got into brine, we made our own brine maker with a farm trough, pump, hose, and storage tank. This is an economical way to begin making brine and a good way to learn how to build your own brine sprayer. We have since increased our usage and are now more interested in the treated liquids, which we purchase in tanks.”
Oberson: “Look around your area and see what is available. I have tried everything from expensive products to byproducts like molasses that I was paid to take away. We currently use a mix of about 85% liquid calcium chloride and 15% of my “special sauce,” which I created to best serve our market. If you are going to use these additives, be aware that they may have an odor, may have an unpleasant color, [may] have residual stickiness that may be tracked into buildings, may cost more, and some may work better than others.”