Gambling on precipitation

Snow removal is an iffy business for entrepreneurs

Posted: Wednesday, March 06, 2002

Alfred Cook says the snow removal business is "so hot and cold that if you rely on it as a sole source of income, then you're a gambling man."

Cook, of Cook Snow Removal & Sanding, has been in the business for more than 20 years and employs one driver in addition to himself. His clients are a mix of businesses, private residences and multi-residential complexes.

"If you are going to make a dollar at it, you need some of everything," said Cook, who works as a general contractor during the summer months. He got into snow removal because he needed to take care of his own driveway and commercial building, "and it just kind of grew from there." Some of his regular customers want him to show up when 2 inches falls; others wish to wait until 4 or 5 are on the ground.

The winter of 2001-2002 has been good, though tiring, for local snow-removal businesses, bringing them 10- to 14-hour days.

Snow usually begins to fall in October and ceases by early May. As of Feb. 27, the winter of 2001-2002 had brought 77.4 inches of snow to the Juneau Airport, 86.1 inches to Lena Point and 108.7 inches at the National Weather Service office near Back Loop Road. The most recorded snowfall for Juneau is 190.9 inches at the airport during the winter of 1964-65.

"In this town, (snow plowing) is kind of hit and miss," said Bob Clark, sole proprietor of the business called Handyman Bob. "We may get a foot of snow one night, and then it gets all washed away by rain."

Clark plows out some rental properties he owns, and regularly plows snow for half a dozen of his faithful Handyman customers.

"It's more of a courtesy that I do it for them," Clark said. "It would be hard for a person to do snow removal as his sole source of income. It would be a challenge."

Jim Sepel of Sepel & Son agrees with Clark. He sees snow removal as a "winter fill-in" that supplements his summer business, which is doing boat surveys.

Sepel has been operating Sepel & Son with his son Darin, 31, since 1994.

"A lot of guys have folded in the last few years because we have had rain," Sepel said. "This is the first good snow winter we have had in several years."

"If you do snow plowing, you have to be available 24/7," said Carl Peterson, who does backup plowing for Sepel, and works as a commercial fisherman in the summer.

One of the drawbacks for snow-removal companies is the fixed costs. Whether snow falls or not, Sepel's expenses include buying and maintaining three trucks and plows, plus $1 million liability insurance that his two government contracts require. Those fixed costs approach $6,000 a year.

"This is not a moneymaker," Sepel said. "Every 6 inches of snow, something breaks. You can set your clock by it, even though we use good equipment - late-model Dodge trucks and Meyer snowplows. We do extra maintenance on the transmission, but when there is heavy snow (such as fell Feb. 26), wet slush, it takes a terrible toll on equipment. By the time it stops snowing, one or two of my trucks will be in the shop."

Hiring a snow-removal firm that is insured or bonded means that homeowners can be sure of recovering damages should a fence be pushed over or a fender dented. One of Sepel's customers is the Juneau police station.

"They have to be kept going and want us to remove snow after 3 inches," he said. "We hit the critical clients first, then prioritize our route and work on the rest."

Sepel charges $1 a minute and serves about 50 contract clients from Douglas to Lemon Creek to the Mendenhall Valley. He does not work beyond Auke Bay, and turns down clients whose driveways are very steep or whose property affords no room to deposit snow.

Sometimes travel time is factored into the price. An average driveway is $20, he said. Most of his clients specify plowing when 4 to 6 inches have fallen. He includes shoveling of entrances in the job for established clients who have disabilities. On the other hand, he shuns "malcontent clients" who allow 12 inches to build up in the driveway, leaving "compacted concrete" that's impossible to budge.

Sepel got into the business of snowplowing in November 1994.

"The wife and I went to Hawaii, and I came home to find my 80-yard driveway with 3 feet of snow and I'm in shorts. I stumbled my way to the house, and my plow guy's message said, 'I'm on my annual deer hunt. Sorry if you are inconvenienced.' I decided I could do better than that, and joined my son in his snow-removal business."

Dwan Hall and his wife Cathy are the two drivers operating T.W. Hall snow removal company, in business since 1982. T.W. Hall has about 20 long-term contract customers, including the Juneau Airport and all locations of Alaska Electric Light & Power, which total about 20 acres.

"We work around the clock this time of year," Dwan Hall said Feb. 28, "although we did get to sleep last night."

Hall's pricing depends on whether a customer is on contract or just calls in. Many of his customers have large parking lots, which he maintains year-round, sanding as well as sweeping up sand when summer arrives.

"We also repaint lines on parking lots that we manage to scrape off in the winter," he said. "It keeps us busy."

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com.



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