Despite current El Niño, owner of Belgium plowing company knows snowless landscape will soon change
If not for a few degrees of unseasonable warmth, these would be hectic times for plowing businesses like Nate’s Landscape Co. in Belgium.
As it is, though, would-be plow operators and salters remain in standby mode, watching as December precipitation in southeast Wisconsin falls in the form of rain and not snow.
With temperatures reaching into the 40s or higher for most days this month, there has been little risk that the precipitation that has fallen is even going to freeze.
Blame it all on El Niño.
The temporary shift toward mild weather may be embraced by people who hate the chill of winter, but it is bad for the plowing business. Nobody pays to clear rain from driveways and parking lots.
“It would be better for us if it snowed a little,” conceded Nathan Kohn, owner and president of the landscaping business.
For Kohn, it is a question of moderation.
“We don’t pray for lots of snow. All we ask for is the average. If we get too much snow, it is hard on our clients, hard on our employees and hard on our equipment,” Kohn said.
“Still, warm weather like this is hard on a lot of businesses, not just us. It also hurts the ski resorts and the businesses that sell snowblowers, shovels and snowmobiles.”
Kohn said his company, which was founded in 2000, has made battling snow and ice its primary business.
“We make about 80% of our revenue from winter service,” he said.
That is reflected in the seasonal variation of the company’s workforce. Nate’s employs about 80 people during the snow and ice season, but only about a dozen laborers for summer lawn maintenance.
“The most challenging part of operating a snow business is being ready,” Kohn said. “Procuring salt and equipment, hiring and training. It’s a year-round effort, but we are ready for snow.”
When the snowflakes do fall, the company has a fleet of plowing equipment ready to tackle the worst of the winter elements, including 15 trucks, 24 skid-loaders and 12 wheel-loaders — each equipped with 8- to 16-foot box plows.
The company is still hiring snow shovelers for the season.
“One-hundred percent of our work is with commercial clients now. We don’t do any residential properties,” Kohn said.
The commercial clients are everywhere from Manitowoc to Milwaukee.
Although his business is very much weather-dependent, Kohn doesn’t subscribe to a forecasting service to help plan for surges in the workload.
“I think when it comes to long-range forecasting, they are really just guessing further out than a couple days,” he said.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the current El Niño — Spanish for the little boy, a reference to the Christ child who arrived in December — is likely to affect weather patterns in the U.S. until spring.
The weather-generating system is caused when equatorial waters on the Pacific Ocean reach significantly warmer-than-usual temperatures.
Although weather systems are complex and no two El Niños are the same, they tend to have a dramatic impact on winters in our area every two to seven years.
Meteorologists are saying the current El Niño is one of the strongest on record, causing a winter that should be warmer and drier than normal in the Great Lakes region.
Weather experts say the latest data suggests the mild pattern should dominate local weather conditions through spring.
“I guess the science makes sense. If the air over the ocean is warmer, it can affect the weather here. I’ve seen the maps on TV,” Kohn said.
“I’m not worried about the warmer-than-usual weather. We have been through this before, and the snow will come.”
Despite the uncooperative weather, Kohn and his colleagues have had something to smile about lately.
The company got the star treatment with a cover story in the December issue of Snow Business, the national trade publication of the Snow and Ice Management Association.
The five-page article had the headline “Rising Star — An open mind and shift in business strategy change the trajectory of Nate’s Landscape Co.”
The magazine article noted how the company has undergone management restructuring so Kohn can focus more on long-range planning.
That has involved relying on Kevin Zirbes and Nekoda Hoke to direct day-to-day operations.
NATHAN KOHN, owner of Nate’s Landscape Co., stood alongside a patriotically painted skid-steer loader used to clear snow С when it falls С from the parking lot at Fox Bros. Piggly Wiggly in Saukville.
Photo by Mark Jaeger