Several years ago, during a low snowfall winter, Linda and Chris Robasse almost threw in the rake on their Avalanche Roof Snow Removal business.
Linda, who also worked another job, and Chris, a former construction worker, had acquired Avalanche of Maple Lake, Minn., in 2006, from a Hopkins hardware store owner. They thought an investment in high-end tools and marketing would help them build a healthy business out of a hardware store’s orphaned sideline, which had barely $100,000 in sales.
It wasn’t easy. There were several years where the Robasses didn’t make enough to pay themselves salaries from the anemic cash flow.
“We decided we were in it for the long haul and … you have to be able ride out the storm, so to speak,” Linda Robasse said last week.
Things are looking up. Way up. The Robasses have worked seven-day weeks since February, up to 16-hour days, exhausting virtually all of their inventory of rooftop snow-removal equipment by early March. They have tried to keep up with unprecedented demand from hardware stores in the Twin Cities and across the Upper Midwest.
“We’re out of everything but our traditional snow rake, a $50 roof rake,” Linda Robasse said Thursday. “We’re still delivering them. But that’s it.”
Something has worked. And it wasn’t just the snowiest several weeks on record.
For one thing, Linda Robasse quit her day job in 2013 to focus full time on marketing and selling the retooled Avalanche line of rakes.
“Somebody had to get out and really beat the street,” she said.
The sales territory and customers, once concentrated in the Twin Cities, now spans from New England to the Pacific Northwest.
Moreover, five years ago a Norwegian hardware distributor called Linda Robasse after he stumbled on Avalanche’s website. Snow rakes proved to be popular in Northern Europe. They beat shoveling the roof. Related exports now approach 50 percent of sales.
Today, the exhausted Robasses, both 51, preside over a business that generates more than $2 million in annual sales.
Their six employees worked overtime to get them through this winter. And their two adult children also helped at times.
“We’ve never worked 30 or 40 days in a row,” Linda Robasse said. “And the employees have been over the top.”
To show appreciation, the Robasses catered a lot of lunches and dinners for their workers.
Avalanche, where Linda runs sales and customer service and Chris runs manufacturing and distribution, serves hundreds of small retailers.
A parade of local dealers dispatched trucks to Maple Lake, about an hour west of the Twin Cities, to load up on Avalanche snow-removal products over the last six weeks.
“Last year we sold two snow rakes,” said Todd Spanjers, who owns an Ace Hardware in Coon Rapids. “We’ve sold 997, just since Feb. 13.
“My pickup holds 84 of their rakes. They were there seven days a week loading trucks.”
Spanjers brought beer and wine, and other grateful retailers bought pizza and sandwiches, for the Avalanche crew.
“They take care of small hardware stores,” said Mark Welna, who owns Ace hardware stores in Minneapolis and Robbinsdale. “You can tell they are a family business. They are one hardworking couple.
“We didn’t sell hardly any roof rakes last year. This year, people who had never owned a roof rake were coming into the store for one. Avalanche did whatever they could to make and ship product.”
It’s important to remove rooftop snow to prevent ice dams, which can lead to structural and interior damage.
Avalanche, founded by a Hopkins inventor in 1977, makes three types of rakes that mitigate rooftop shingle damage caused by aluminum or steel rakes.
The top-line Avalanche 750 sells for about $150. It makes easier the job of the traditional snow rake, with a lightweight, 16-foot fiberglass pole, topped by a cutting head that removes up to a ton of snow a minute, thanks to an attached plastic slide. The standard rake has a plastic plow and small wheels to avoid scraping shingles.
“Avalanche is not my largest client, but they are my favorite,” said Tim Dillon, an independent marketing consultant. “They make a huge investment in inventory every year.”
Dillon said part of Avalanche’s secret sauce is silent partner Jim Campion, owner of Zirc Dental Products, for whom Linda Robasse once worked. Zirc, located in nearby Buffalo, specializes in computer-designed plastic-injection molded products. The Avalanche owners years ago moved manufacturing from China to Minnesota. The Zirc engineering led to snap-together plastic parts and no-tools-needed assembly for Avalanche rakes.
“For 10 years, we invested everything in the company and Avalanche really started to work by 2014,” said Linda Robasse.
The improved performance in recent years has allowed the Robasses to pay themselves a comfortable compensation of about $100,000 apiece. They even can afford to take up to a month of vacation in the spring. That includes a leisurely road trip through northern-tier states.
“We like to visit customers along the way,” Linda Robasse said.