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Pearls of wisdom

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  • SIMA
- Posted: July 10, 2018
By Mary Abbott, PhD, RN

Being a snowplow newbie can be a good or a bad thing, depending on definition, perspective and personal objectives. 

Sometimes, starting with soul-searching answers to a few questions can aid your progress in the snow business:
  • Do you have a passion for the work or is profit your prime motivator?
  • Do you want to be a business owner or an employee in the industry?
  • Are you new to the industry or just to the company?
  • If you want to own the business, how much do you know about the complexities of starting a business (e.g., accounting, financing, regulations, taxes, labor, marketing, etc.) plus the intricacies of snow (e.g., equipment, maintenance, weather forecasting, operations, etc.)?
  • Where can you turn for support?
  • If you have a fair amount of snowplowing experience as an employee but want to start your own business, do you think your experience alone is enough to make you successful? 
The snow worker who has an open mind, strong work ethic, tolerance for tough winter weather and can effectively balance safety with efficiency will likely adapt quickly to the rigors of the industry. Folks without those attributes will struggle as owner/operators and likely fail as employees, leaving behind a trail of broken equipment and red-lined budgets as they pursue a quick profit. 

Learning from experience

I learned the fundamentals of snow and ice management many years ago in southern Illinois, where the average annual snowfall was a modest but potentially profitable 15 inches or more. I owned one plow truck and was the owner/operator. I had no labor issues, paid no workers’ compensation insurance, and the chief mechanic (my husband) had one work truck to maintain and repair. Slip-and-fall lawsuits were uncommon, insurance premiums were not that high, and snowplow choices were much simpler. The extra money supplemented our family budget, and I greatly enjoyed the challenge of working outdoors in what many would consider extreme winter conditions. 

As a native of south Texas, however, I had no mentors or role models to teach me the ropes. I simply had the desire to plow snow. It was pre-internet/pre-social media; industry standards were in the developmental stage; and professional associations were non-existent or uncommon, so newbies like me had to fend for themselves if they were not descendants of snow industry veterans. 

Like many solo operators, I learned my craft on the job and have the experiential scars to prove it. 

Changing perspective

Currently I work in a low-snowfall area in Arkansas, but things are a little more complicated. My husband and I own a small but diverse fleet of equipment. I’ve taken accounting and business management classes; learned to be my company’s webmaster; completed engine overhauling, brake systems repair and welding classes; and regularly attend small business seminars. I hired a CPA, who referred me to a receptive banker for my business lending needs, and I watch my company’s bottom line carefully. 

Because I enjoy it, I still plow snow; but my company structure is now a limited liability corporation and I am an owner/manager. When it snows, I run a 10-person crew to keep up with demand since private snow contractors in this area are about as rare as snow. 

I now carry workers’ compensation insurance, make more money less often, file a heavier income tax return and listen to the chief mechanic grumble about all the maintenance and repairs he has to keep up with on multiple pieces of equipment. 

Plow contractors with solid, professional experience are rare in my market. Recruiting, training and keeping good workers proved to be an unsustainable challenge in the first years of our LLC, so I developed good relationships with local staffing agencies and am willing to pay their premiums in return for labeling them my go-to human resources department. They seek, interview, background check and drug screen potential workers; and can quickly replace a no-show or underperforming worker during a snowstorm.

Seek industry support
Although a sole proprietor has to worry about exposing personal and business assets to potential liability, an LLC helps to shield the business owner(s)’ personal assets from such exposure. 

Business models vary depending on the needs of individual companies. Successful snow and ice management companies, government small business agencies, and snow industry associations like SIMA can provide support to snow business startups, fledgling companies or snow workers who are thinking of becoming their own boss but are not sure what business model to use. 

These support sources offer an opportunity to network with other snow company owners to help newbies find what works for them. All you have to do is ask. The pearls of wisdom are more available now than they were when this newbie started. 
Growing up in snow & ice

1. Company structure. As you grow from sole proprietor to a larger company with more employees and equipment, protect your company by registering as a limited liability corporation. There are different company structures, but shifting from sole proprietor to LLC is a logical first step. 

2. Insurance. Work with your insurance broker or agent to ensure your company is legally and adequately covered. As you grow, your insurance requirements will, too.

3. Equipment. A bigger company means more equipment, which means more maintenance and potential for breakdowns. Do your research to make sure that as you expand your business you are acquiring the best equipment for your company’s needs and have the right people on board to service it.

4. Personal development. If your desire is to transition to become a professional snow and ice management company, you need to know more than how to plow snow. Seek out training and development on business, financials, marketing, management, etc., in addition to growing your operational expertise beyond knowing how to plow a site. Free and inexpensive resources are available from other snow and ice management companies, governmental agencies, and associations like SIMA.

5. Labor. Want to grow in snow and ice? You can’t do it alone. Frequently cited as the #1 challenge in the industry is the lack of reliable workers. Look at your business model and decide whether it’s more cost effective and efficient to recruit and retain in house or to seek outside assistance from staffing agencies; but a staffing plan that includes backup in the event of no-shows or outside-the-norm storms is essential.

6. Training and education
. Not only do you have to train yourself as you grow as a business owner, but the importance of training workers on your company’s expectations as well as operational education is essential. SIMA offers a wealth of free and inexpensive training resources for its members; and resources are available from industry suppliers or governmental agencies such as OSHA.

7. Financials. As you grow, your company’s financial structure will become more complex. Align yourself with professionals in accounting, law, banking, etc., to make sure you’re making sound business decisions and have access to financing should you need it.

Training challenges for newbies
There are two types of snow and ice management newbies: those who are completely new to the industry (NewbieN) versus those who are new to a company but who have industry-relevant experience elsewhere (NewbieE). 

The first category would seem to be preferred since they walk into the shop with a clean learning slate and presumably will learn according to the employer’s industry standards. On the other hand, a NewbieN with a weak work ethic is of little value, and an employer may waste a lot of time and money training them only to have them quit during or after the first snowstorm.
The NewbieE has industry experience but may have picked up undesirable work habits. It is the company manager’s responsibility to assess each new person to determine how much training he/she may require to meet current company standards. 

In either case, training should always be expected and given at intervals (i.e., company-specific advance season and job-site training). The first provides an introduction to the company’s mission and expectations. The second exposes the worker to specific, operational information; how to deal with site-specific issues; provides opportunity for workers to clarify concerns; improves communication; and makes workers aware of the roles and responsibilities of their coworkers. 
 
Mary Abbott, PhD, RN, MSF, is an owner/manager of Mow Beta! Mowing & Snowplowing in central Arkansas. She also is a part-time ICU nurse, nursing instructor and retired Navy veteran. Email her at mowbeta@yahoo.com.
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