There's pretty good money in getting rid of snow if you approach the idea as more than just a plow and a pickup.
It turns out the snowplowing business is a tad more sophisticated than my vision of it as mainly involving a blade attached to the front of somebody's aging pickup.
That's the way Steve Bartz started out, all right, but in the decade since he founded Twin City Outdoor Services (TCOS), the Plymouth company has soared far beyond that image.
Today, it's a business that focuses on the largest corporate and commercial clients and offers everything from weather-forecasting services to eco-friendly de-icing products to nearly a million bucks' worth of snow-melting equipment that resolves the question of where to pile all that white stuff.
Not to mention extensive "snow management plans" created with the help of 120 years of weather data crunched by Bartz, a self-taught weather enthusiast.
The result is a client list that includes the corporate campuses of Target, Best Buy, Medtronic and Valspar and the high-end retail sites developed by the likes of Opus Northwest Management, Ryan Companies and Told Development.
And the payoff: Revenue has grown at a compound rate of 20 percent in the past five years, reaching $7.98 million in fiscal 2009, which ended June 30.
Bartz, 40, didn't do it alone. In 2001, hunting buddy Rich Byrne left a stable, well-paying job as a Jostens Inc. sales manager to sign on as TCOS' sales and marketing vice president and minority partner to help Bartz persuade high-end client prospects to hire the upstart company.
There are several reasons for the focus on high-end clients, Bartz said: Not only are they more stable during economic ups and downs, but "they tend to have a zero tolerance for snow, whereas a smaller client might have a 2-inch trigger for plowing." Translation: more work for the crews, more revenue for the company.
Byrne's marketing strategy was to spend the nonsnow months applying a dose of "professionalism," as he puts it, to the process of gaining and retaining clients.
That meant, for example, a customized, 30-page "Snow Service Proposal" that included time and material cost estimates for each client facility, along with the cost-saving potential of liquid anti-icer vs. conventional plowing and an itemized price sheet for each vehicle involved. And at the end of the season there was the "Snow Service Report" detailing for each client the specific costs involved with each snowfall.
In short, it was a giant step beyond the conventional one-page price sheet backed by a pickup-and-blade package, said Byrne, 42.
Included in the strategy is a free weather-alert service when storms approach. To stay ahead of the weather, the company subscribes to four forecasting services and uses upwards of 20 computer models that allow Bartz to develop early, comprehensive forecasts specific to individual areas of the Twin Cities.
The objective not only is to help clients plan for inclement weather in terms of both logistics and safety, but also to help TCOS prepare for the most rapid response possible to a weather event.
A key part of the strategy is the company's dedicated work crews: Each client has its own assigned teams of sidewalk and plowing workers so that there's no first, second or last choices on when the work will be done after a snowfall.
Bartz's fascination with historic weather data helps make this work because it gives him a fairly solid basis for deciding when and how much equipment and manpower to assign to each client.
"If you apply too few resources, you have an angry client," Bartz said. "If there are too many, there's not enough work and your crews are upset." In short, he added, "we're a labor-management company more than a plowing company."
The investments involved are eye-fetching. For example, dump sites are hard to find as winter progresses. Sites not only are farther away, but the piles become magnets for pollutants, which eliminates many sites near wetlands.
So in 2006, TCOS spent $1 million on two mobile snow-melting machines and the vehicles to haul them. One of the machines generates 18 million BTUs to melt 35 truckloads an hour, the other produces 9 million BTUs and melts 15 loads an hour.
But the key is that the machines are equipped with filtration systems to remove pollutants, so that TCOS can delay the melting process to the most convenient time without worrying about pollutants draining into storm sewers.
Bartz launched his entrepreneurial career in high school, when he started a landscaping business. He worked the business through college and, after graduating from Drake University in 1991 with a degree in communications, he moved up to masonry work and paving stone installation.
And, like many in his business, he sought to balance his summertime work with winter snowplowing. He worked for another company for four years, then started TCOS in 1999.
By the end of fiscal 2001, snowplowing revenue was up to $280,000 -- barely two-thirds of the $450,000 the landscaping business grossed that year. Yet Bartz opted to sell the landscaping company and concentrate on snow removal.
The reason, he said: There was just "too much opportunity" buried in those snowbanks out there.
Dick Youngblood • 612-673-4439 • firstname.lastname@example.org