Early snow springs plowing business in Steamboat
Industry sees increased competition as winter weather arrives in Steamboat
December 12, 2010
Steamboat Springs — The Steamboat Springs snowplower comes in many forms.
There's the "it's one of my four jobs" snowplower, the "gotta keep the summer workers on staff" snowplower and the "I work a city shift from 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m." snowplower, to name a few. The diverse group of early risers already has been busy this season. November saw several big storms that, collectively, created snowfall uncharacteristic of the month's weather.
But Steamboat's powder movers aren't yet seeing salvation from the snow gods. Rather, they're hedging their bets about the rest of the coming winter and hoping to make ends meet through a job that's quietly vital to local businesses and residences. And some workers say there's noticeably more competition for snowplowing jobs this season, amid lingering effects of the economic recession.
The early snow did spur some appreciation.
"Yes, as of right now, having four 4-inch plows under our belt already this year is definitely a boon for November. We usually don't have that in November," said Ed MacArthur, of Native Excavating. "But it's been my experience that this equals out over the course of the winter."
MacArthur falls into the second type of snowplowers listed earlier.
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"For my organization, snow removal is a function of keeping as many employees busy in the wintertime as I can," he said. "But it's such an inconsistent stream of revenue that to be able to say it's a moneymaking venture is tough."
MacArthur said he sends crews out upon seeing 4 inches of new snow — a measuring standard mentioned by more than one plower. Native Excavating uses about 20 people, half of its peak summer staffing level, to plow for numerous subdivisions and businesses.
"We've been plowing snow for probably 25 years. On an average, over that time frame, we'll typically plow 23 times a year," MacArthur said. "That average seems to hold true."
Andy Volk, of Cowboy Excavating, also cited that magic number and said even though snowfall was comparatively light last winter, the level of plowing in the city was stable.
"Last year was pretty much average. I think we plowed about 23 times, and we figured the average was 25 times," Volk said.
Michael Stoyanov, of A&M Services, also said last winter was close to average for snowplowing. He noted that big storms don't always mean big bucks — for residential accounts and some commercial accounts, he said, the pay is the same for plowing 5 inches or 5 feet.
"A lot of snowfall does not generally translate into more dollars in your pocket because of plowing," he said. "The more snow you get, the harder it is on you, but you still get the same amount of money."
Unlike MacArthur, Volk said he plows for profit.
"It's profitable — I wouldn't do it otherwise," Volk said. "It'd be cheaper to let your equipment sit if you weren't making any money doing it."
Volk said he's seeing new players in the plowing game.
"There's definitely more competition this year," Volk said. "People are doing a lot more for a lot less. It's definitely a tougher world out there this year."
Volk said he hasn't lost many accounts with the new competition but said he's upgrading his business to keep up.
"I'm having to do some things to accommodate some of the higher-end homes," he said. "In the past, all we've done is put chains on our machines. … Due to popular demand, we're having to put snow tires on to reduce damage, and use snowblowers instead of plows."
Tim Shorland, of Shorland & Son — Tim is the senior Shorland — also said he's seeing more competition this year. He said he thinks skid steers with snowblowers are replacing the traditional plow on the front of a truck.
"I think there's quite a few more people doing it this year," he said. "I've seen tons of people with new skid steers out there."
Shorland said November was "awesome" for business and expressed more optimism than most about the months ahead.
"I'm hoping it's going to be even more" snow, Shorland said. "I hope it just pounds, to tell the truth. Pounds, pounds, pounds. I'll take it."
— To reach Mike Lawrence, call 871-4233 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org