A winter of tough sledding for plowing firms

Landscapers who rely on snow removal work say they’ve never seen a season like this one

MICHAEL DECKER of Deckers Services LLC in Port Washington displayed his fleet of snowplows. Low snowfall amounts this winter have hurt some businesses that maintain costly equipment with few jobs. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
CONNOR CARYNSKI
Ozaukee Press Staff

Low snowfall amounts this year are hurting some snow-removal companies that have to maintain pricey equipment without cashing out on clearing.

While Ozaukee County has seen several inches of the white stuff this winter, snow-removal workers say they’ve seen far less this winter than in seasons prior.

According to the National Weather Service, the Milwaukee area has received just 15 inches of snow this year, 18 inches less than the 33-inch average and 19 inches less than last year.

Michael Decker, owner of Deckers Services, LLC at 1300 Hwy. A in Port Washington, said he relies heavily on snow removal business in the winter when landscaping projects are on hold until spring.

Decker clears snow for many commercial customers including the Northern Ozaukee School District, Holy Cross Church, Divine Savior Catholic Church, Oldenburg Metal Tech and Rebel Converting, as well as some residential properties.

Despite continuing tree-removal work and firewood sales throughout winter, Decker said, snow removal is a large segment of his winter business and the lack of snowfall is making a financial impact.

While the low snowfall won’t put the company out of business, Decker said, winter like this makes it challenging to expand. He said he wants to begin treating roads with saltwater brine before snowfalls but that he may have to put the plan on hold for a more profitable winter.

“It’ll definitely hurt us. It’ll definitely put other projects on hold,” he said. “It hurts everybody not having a snowy winter.”

Decker said his company used to service more residential properties but is focusing more now on commercial contracts. Some of which ensure a set payment regardless of how much or how little it snows in a season — guaranteeing some revenue despite the weather.

He added that most residential properties only need to be cleared if there is a heavy snowfall, but commercial properties need to be cleared and salted even if there is just an inch or so of snow. This year residential properties have only needed to be cleared three times, Decker said, while commercial properties have needed more frequent attention.

 With tractors costing about $100,000 and a snow plow setup about $20,000, Decker said, it is difficult to rely on a handful of $50 driveway clearings each season.

“From a business aspect, you can’t make a living and afford all the equipment with residential,” he said.

Nate’s Lawn Maintenance at 970 Jer Mar Rd. in Belgium is also feeling the lack of snowfall.

Kevin Zirbes, the operations manager at Nates’s, said he has noticed low snowfall amounts this year.

“This year stands out,” he said. “I can’t remember the last time we’ve been so far behind the average. We are way behind snow-wise.”

Zirbes said Nate’s only does commercial contracts, some of which are paid per season and others are paid every time plowing is needed.

“When it’s not snowing, we still have something coming in from the seasonal contracts,” he said.

Nate’s services about 70 properties throughout the state in areas like Denmark, Manitowoc, Sheboygan, Oak Creek, West Bend and Hartford.

Zirbes said there’s enough work in repairs and ensuring remote salt storage is filled even when snowfall is infrequent, but he noted the lack of snow does have a small impact on revenues — particularly for the 170 seasonal workers who man the snow plows. Many seasonal workers are masons or concrete workers outside of the winter  and rely on snow clearing for work.

Zirbes said the workers know ahead of time they will only be working when it snows but he has still heard some grumbling about the low snowfall this year.

Zirbes said he is hoping for snowstorms as the winter comes to a close.

“It would be nice to get another 10 or 12 inches so we can catch up a little,” he said.

While more established snow-removal companies are hoping for more snow this winter, newly established Blade Lawn Care and Snow Removal, 924 Fredonia Ave. in Fredonia, is content with the current precipitation.

Brandon Brookes, who owns and operates the company with her husband George Basgall, said between their six children and Basgall’s job with Clean Test Products, low snowfall amounts this year have allowed them to ease into the new business they started last year.

Brookes said Blades services 22 properties — mostly residential — and that it takes about 12 hours to clear them all depending on how heavy the snowfall is.

She said with she and Basgall still figuring out clearing routes and how to time clearings, heavy snowfall this winter would have been challenging.

“If we would’ve gotten a really heavy winter we would have struggled,” she said.

She added that with little overhead costs on equipment — Basgall clears with his pickup truck and a snowblower — frequent clearings are not essential for covering maintenance costs.

Brookes said this winter hasn’t been the most profitable but it’s given the company hope for expansion. She added that next year the couple is considering bringing on additional employees to assist with clearing.

While hoping to take on more contract next year, Brookes said the couple would like to keep the business small to maintain personal relations with customers.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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