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Published: Wednesday, 2/10/2010

Big snow generates profits

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Schoolchildren and teachers weren't the only ones excited to see the first significant snowfall of the season.

For Greg Bryant and scores of others who provide snow removal services across metro Toledo, the falling, blowing snow-white stuff looked like much-needed green.

"For us, it's pennies from heaven," said Mr. Bryant, vice president of Snyder Snow Service Inc. on Alexis Road.

After months of watching and waiting in relative vain for the skies to open up, metro Toledo was expected to receive an estimated six to 10 inches of snow yesterday and today. In addition to the first snow days declared for many area school children, the storm produced the first chance for many snowplow drivers to go out and make some money.

"It's been definitely slow," said Linda Hamernik, co-owner of Hamernik's Plowing and Salting in Monclova Township. "We have a lot of salting capabilities, so that kept us going."

Before yesterday's snowfall, metro Toledo had recorded 18 inches of snowfall, about six inches below normal, according to the National Weather Service. Yesterday was the first snow day declared by many school districts this school year, and local retailers and home centers reported brisk sales of snow throwers, shovels, and salt.

"We're having a decent run on them today," said John Kowalski, store manager at The Andersons General Store on Talmadge Road in Toledo. "We started selling a decent amount of snow blowers and other winter-type goods yesterday. This is the first deep snow we've had this year."

But like snowflakes, not all snowfalls are the same, plow operators say. Their operations change based on whether the snow is heavy or powdery, how rapidly it falls, and what time of day it is.

Big snowstorms like the one that hit Toledo this week present special challenges for commercial plow operators - those who clear parking lots, even when businesses are open. Mrs. Hamernik said plow drivers "run the lanes" when it first starts snowing, clearing entrances and exits and driving lanes in parking lots while businesses are open.

"You can't make it spotless when you've got cars in there coming and going," she said.

While plowing snow can be a cutthroat business - few start-ups last more than a few seasons before either equipment failure or the inconsistent income stream puts them out of business - those that do last say their business can be affected by more than the weather. The economy can rain on profits too.

"Customers have drastically cut back their service to help with budgetary shortfalls," said Roger Strahn, operations director for Winter Services Inc. in Swanton Township. "They're taking more of a risk this year with a slip-and-fall. It seems like they're rolling the dice."

Mr. Strahn, whose 7-year-old company uses about 200 vehicles, including subcontractors, to clear parking lots and other areas, said contractors must be vigilant for competitors seeking to poach their customers.

"It seems to be a growing commodity," Mr. Strahn said of start-ups coming into the plowing business.

And with all the competition, maintenance, and economic hardships to overcome for snow removal businesses to remain profitable, they still require snow.

"Snowfall is so sporadic. Last year, the snow stopped in February. This year, it's just the opposite; we did not get much in December and January," said Snyder's Mr. Bryant.

"If it snowed every day, that would be great. To have snow once a week is fantastic. But we need 16 to 20 good events, with at least three inches of snow, to make things profitable, and that hasn't happened in four years now."

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at:

lvellequette@theblade.com

or 419-724-6091.



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