The plight of less snow: For some, snow removal is more than supplementary income

snowless

Drew Maier is owner of King Chop, a landscaping and snow removal business, based in Stevensville. Snow plow drivers and landscaping companies are seeing less revenue this year thanks to warm winter weather. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

STEVENSVILLE — Drew Maier keeps a close eye on the weather for his job.

As owner of King Chop in Stevensville, Maier’s profession is dependent on the weather – regardless what season. In the warmer days, Maier runs his landscaping business. In winter, he plows snow.

Whenever there’s a chance for accumulation, Maier’s crew gets group texts as a form of notification to ensure they are ready to go the night before. When the snow falls, they sometimes start as early as 4 a.m. That way, their clients’ driveways and parking lots are clear before the first cup of coffee is made.

However, snow has been scarce the last few months in Southwest Michigan.

“I’ve learned over the years you have to plan for something like this,” said Maier, who has run his business for 12 years. “You are not guaranteed snow. There are years when you get a ton of snow. Then there are times when you’re paid to plow less than 10 times and you question why you are doing this when you have expensive equipment sitting idle.”

Snow plow drivers and landscaping companies are seeing less revenue coming in this year at the expense of warmer weather.

The business venture can be pretty costly each year, regardless of how many inches fall.

With three plows in his fleet, Maier said adding a new plow to a truck can be as expensive as a used car – and maintaining this fleet doesn’t come cheap.

Like most landscaping businesses in the area, the majority of Maier’s revenue comes during summer and spring.

During winter, landscaping companies plow snow to keep busy in what are referred to as “down months.” But when there’s no snow around and the ground is too frozen for work, Maier and others must wait.

Maier said his company normally gets paid to plow 20-24 times a winter. Part way through the last snowy month, Maier said they’ve plowed fewer than 10 times.

“It doesn’t sound like much, but it helps with the cash flow in the winter,” Maier said. “Even if we don’t keep pace in the summer, it still helps in the winter when everyone has bills coming in.”

Normally, the plowing side of his business was responsible for about 12 percent of yearly revenue. With a winter like this, Maier said they’ve lost about 6 to 7 percent for the season.

“You either pray for some snow or an early spring,” he joked. “With this mild winter, it’s also gotten more people thinking about projects than earlier. We’ve gotten more requests for land proposals in January than ever before. So, there’s a silver lining in this.”

Rainy revenue

With his eye on the weather trends, Maier said this winter hasn’t had its lack of precipitation.

According to data collected from the National Weather Service Northern Indiana office, Berrien County’s snowfall was just under 30 inches – the majority of which took place over the course of one week in December.

Meteorologist Geoffrey Heidelberger said the county received nearly three times that amount during the last three-month cycle of December, January and February.

In contrast, the area has seen about 5.34 inches of rain through December and January.

“It’s ironic that our temperatures were spiking when there was precipitation,” Maier said. “Had it been 32 (degrees) or lower, we would have feet of snow. For every inch of rain, it’s 10 inches of snow because the volume is that much greater.”

Travis Nelson owns Nelson’s General Construction in Millburg, which focuses on home repairs, custom woodworking and snow plowing.

Like Maier, Nelson focuses on the weather on a daily basis. In addition to snow removal and his construction business, Nelson also bartends at Buffalo Wild Wings in his off time. To his recollection, Nelson said this has been one of the worst years for snow removal in the last decade.

“Compared to the last five or 10 years, it’s been horrible,” Nelson said. “I even still have updates on Facebook about 20 inches coming down during this month – four years ago.”

The timing of the unusually warm winter has been bad for Nelson, as he hasn’t been able to do much with his construction company after recent knee surgery. On top of that, he had to invest about $5,000 into the plow truck for a new transmission.

He first got into snow removal in 2008, when the recession began to hit the country.

“I was in high-end construction and the housing market fell out from underneath us,” Maier said. “I needed fast money, and at that time we were getting tons of snow. I thought this would be a good way to get myself out from under that pile. Snow plowing kept us afloat when the (construction) business closed.”

Nelson would then pair up with a local contractor, where he would help plow heavy snow for commercial and factory properties. His normal clientele is residential now, where the majority of his business comes from word of mouth.

But business has been slow this year, as Nelson estimated he’s lost about half of what he would normally make in the winter.

“It can be hit and miss,” Nelson said. “There are times when I’m in my truck plowing for 18-20 hours if it snows enough. It comes with the job.”

The good news for such businesses is there are five more weeks of winter, and that can be followed by a snowy spring.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Feb. 8, 2017)

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