Years from now, when we look back on Winter 2018-19 we’ll all remember an abnormal winter. For some, it may be the lack of consistent billable events, but for many others this past season will be remembered for these quirky, unimaginable, first-of-its-kind/one-of-a-kind events. We reached out to some of the snow contractors who lived to tell the tale of Winter 2018-19, and we asked them to share their experiences persevering through their particular challenges, how their operations rose to the occasion, where they may have failed, and the most important business lessons learned from the experience.
Shake, Rattle & Roll
It was as if a bomb had gone off in Anchorage.
"Many of us worked the night before, so our team had just gotten home and were awoke by the earthquake within two hours of sleep," says Jeannie Schenderline, a 2015 Leadership Award recipient and president of JEFFCO Grounds Management (JGM). "Many of us thought we were being bombed – It’s war! By far the most frightening earthquake we have all experienced.
“For years most Alaskans have talked about the big one coming, but really [believing] it would never happen,” she adds.
Nov. 30's magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck just seven miles north of Anchorage at 8:29 am, at a depth of about 27 miles. The earthquake caused power outages, damaged roads and buildings, and closed schools, businesses and government offices. This was the largest earthquake to strike near Anchorage since the 2016 magnitude 7.1 Iniskin earthquake.
The first priority, according to Schenderline, was to assess damages, and to her surprise – other than pictures falling off of walls – her snow and ice ops got by unscathed.
The first business challenge was to accept the fact that they would continue to experience aftershocks in the hours and days immediately following the quake. Initial estimates had Anchorage residents experiencing as many as 1,000 aftershocks over the ensuing days. “The earthquake alone unnerved most people, then to be faced with constant aftershocks did not make the situation any better,” Schenderline says. “While at the shop, I realized I could not feel any aftershocks … apparently the ground at our facility is by far more stable then at my home. I choose to spend most of my time at the o?ce billing clients. I was golden, work was getting done, and I no longer felt aftershocks.”
Luckily, the Port of Anchorage had no damage. Alaska is supplied by barges and tugs bringing goods across the water. Many items are trucked in, as well, but over water is by far the most utilized way to get any product into Alaska. In the hours after the main quake, Schenderline says everyone longed for a return to normalcy.
In the earthquake’s wake, as retail clients briefly closed their doors to assess damages and restock, JGM was tasked with hauling away snow piles to clear additional parking space for the anticipated influx of people seeking supplies.
“The entire population of Anchorage, Eagle River, Palmer, Soldotna, Wasilla ... had flocked to retail giant Fred Meyer to buy supplies for survival as none of us knew what was to come,” Schenderline says. Parking lots remained in demand with heavy population of vehicular and pedestrian traffic, JGM deiced nightly for the safety of store customers, managers, and employees.
“Our game plan was to be one step ahead of the store managers,” she says. “We wanted every parking spot full in their lots. People were in a crisis situation, buying survival goods. No one really knew what was to come after the quake, and a lot of people did not have earth quake survival kits.
By the second night following the initial quake, JGM crews were geared up and moving snow o? site at a rate of 525 yards per hour.
Schenderline is thankful the earthquake didn't happen during a major snow event, which would not be unusual for this time of year. "That would have been a complete disaster," she says. "The actual quake lasted for 30 seconds, and within 13 seconds it was followed by [an aftershock] earthquake."
The most important business lesson Schenderline says she took away from the experience was the need to remain focused and to keep working toward their goals in the face of crisis.
“Best therapy ever,” she adds about focusing solely on snow and ice ops in the days following the quake. She adds earthquake prep will now be a part of preseason training.
And the same goes for how her team reacted – both for the company and for each other. "The bottom line is my team is here for the company, so we will do whatever it takes to help each other get through this disaster," she adds.
Winter brought storms like Nadia and Gia to the Kansas City region. And while the region is no stranger to blizzards (most notably the Christmas/New Year’s blizzards of Winter 2009-10) it was the frequency of events that made the second half of Winter 2018-19 most memorable for the Mid-American snow market.
Beginning in early January until mid- to late-February, Kansas City snow contractors were tending to at least one to two events per week. For Kyle Rose, Rose Property Maintenance, that meant his crews were out nearly 50 of 63 days in 2019.
“The season started off funny because it had been since March 2014 since we had a three-inch snowfall,” Rose says, adding smaller events and anti-icing operations make up an average winter’s service portfolio. “Fast forward four-and-a-half years and we kicked off the season with a bonafide blizzard.”
What Rose couldn’t account for were the widespread equipment malfunctions – on new equipment, nonetheless – in the face of what was becoming a historic winter for his market. He’d purchased 25 ice-melt spreaders for a suppler and didn’t learn until they went into action that they had a faulty axle design. To make matters worse, a number of salt spreaders had a bad batch of vibrators installed, which failed not long after engaging winter weather.
“They were all bad,” Rose says. “It was weird because it wasn’t the usual breakdown here and there. Instead, if you were using this piece of equipment it was going to break down. It made for an interesting winter.”
Rose was left with very few options.
“My salesman notified the manufacture who then sent us more of the same equipment with the (design) defects,” he says. “I ended up having to buy different spreaders because we were just throwing good money at bad parts and spreaders.
“So, mid-season we were forced to switch brands and buy up every other kind of spreader we could get our hands on,” he says. “
Needless to say, in addition to wide-spread equipment malfunctions, worker fatigue and salt shortages compounded to create stressful, seemingly insurmountable management challenges. The key to overcoming and meeting the challenges was to not only remain focused on finding solutions, but to rely on his existing processes and procedures.
For example, at one 24-hour medical facility every piece of production equipment failed in the first hour of servicing the event. “But that’s where our backups and our systems and procedures kicked in,” Rose says. “We have a formula that for every three pieces of production equipment we have a backup. That helps out when you have a diverse portfolio of properties because the hospitals want to be done first. So, if needed, we can shift resources from [post-accumulation properties] and work them into the event. In the end, the [medical facility] client never knew the difference.”
Faced with back-to-back long, dawn-out events was a labor obstacle to overcome, as well. For a major snow event in the Kansas City market, Rose says they typically want all hands on deck. However, he recognized early on with these long, drawn-out events it would not take long to overwhelm and exhaust his labor.
“Ninety eight percent of the time our crews can go out, get the work done and go home,” Rose says. “This year, we had to call an audible during one of the storms and send guys home [to rest] for six hours so they could come back later. I know in a lot of other markets they’re used to doing that, but it just doesn’t happen that often here, so we had to adapt.”
Rose adapted again when rectifying ice melt shortages “With the material shortages, I ended up buying every bit of bagged ice melt and pallets of ice melt that I could,” he says. “In the end, some of my friends and competitors ended up [securing] ice melt for me.”
The winter crisis, though stressful and inconvenient, did benefit Rose’s snow operation. The experience taught him that he needed to engage in more rigorous preseason testing of equipment before bringing it online during real-world events and winter conditions. He also experienced a new-found appreciation for having established processes and procedures in place, as well as relationships in the industry he could rely on in times of crisis.
“We learned a lot about logistics having gone through so many intense events so close together,” he says. “As far as getting materials out to satellite depots and dealing with equipment repairs, invoicing … There were times when we were cleaning up from the previous event four hours before the start of a new event.
“I realized this was commonplace in other markets,” he says. “So I reached out to people I knew in other major markets who were more seasoned with these sorts of [snow and ice] scenarios … It’s important to have those relationships across various markets and not just in your own.”
There was one silver lining with the monumental winter weather event descending upon Denver and a wide swath through the central U.S. in mid-March. “At least we had time to prepare … prepare the best we could,” says Kim Jewell, ops manager for Snow Management Services (SMS) in Denver.
According to meteorologists, a bomb cyclone, like the one that blew through Denver on March 13, is essentially a powerful low-pressure system that rapidly intensifies, sort of like a winter hurricane. The event derives its name from the weather phenomenon in which the pressure inside the storm falls so rapidly that it gives the system explosive strength.
The last time the Denver market experienced a storm of that magnitude was Winter 2005-06, Jewell says, and then it was back-to-back blizzard events. While conjuring up half the amount of snow (inches in the low teens compared to 20-plus inches in 2005-06.) March’s blizzard event produced frigid colds and winds that rivaled a Category 1 hurricane.
It wasn’t long before Jewel and her team found themselves without power, heat or phones. A lone working transformer supplied them with meager power supplied by a string of cobbled together power chords.
As the storm worsened, the decision was made to not let anyone venture home. “We had to make the decision as a company that no one was going home unless they absolutely needed to … We would do whatever they needed to keep them going because we knew if we let them go they wouldn’t be coming back.”
It was during the worst of the storm that Jewell says she found a whole new level of appreciation for everyone on her team. The SMS crew had been working the day-to-day grind of snow and ice events since the New Year. January had been a historic month for SMS. People were beginning to get worn down even before this storm produced weather alerts.
“We really worked great as a team, pulling together and doing what was needed,” she says. “Sometimes, as an ops manager, you know the people you can count on for sure. And then there are the people who you wonder how it’s going to play out. Everyone, though, rose to the tops of their games.”
The levels of cooperation and teamwork to get the job done was unprecedented, Jewell says, and communications between crews and with clients rose to new levels.
“We just came together as at team to a level we didn’t have before,” she says.
Despite the positive, the March blizzard revealed weaknesses in the SMS operation, primarily the lack of preparedness for an emergency event of this magnitude.
Jewell recounts that just three weeks prior, during SMS’s recertification audit for its ISO 9001/SN 9001 certification, the auditor questioned why they didn’t have a back-up generator. The simple answer, she says, was they’d never needed one before.
“We laughed about it, but it was huge and something we now need to seriously consider because [the situation] could have been a lot worse,” she says. They’d been operating under the false assumption that, as a company, they could get through anything. What SMS hadn’t factored on was maintaining a level of service without electricity during a historic weather event.
An event of this magnitude highlights the true emergency service the professional snow and ice management industry offers its clients, Jewell says. At the same time, the event presents a performance bar that the snow professional must hold themselves up to, as well.
“This storm made us realize that we really needed to think through the emergency services situation because that’s what we do,” Jewell says. “We need to be certain that we have that piece covered because before this, it never really entered our minds … The bigger you get [as an snow and ice management operation] the more things you need to consider about managing through an emergency situation.”
Crash Course in Winter
It was early February and Brad Caton was feeling pretty confident that he’d make it through what remained of Winter 2018-19 without any real snow to speak of.
“We were still doing deicing – lots of brine, really,” summarizes the founder and CEO of British Columbia-based Invictus Professional Snowfighters. “It was shaping up to be a low-risk winter, which was nice because we were having a good winter with the [operational] model that we use. So, we were on par to have a successful winter based on a minimum-service scenario.”
However, it wasn’t until Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 3, that Winter 2018-19 kicked off (pardon the pun) for the Pacific Northwest and the Invictus team in Seattle. What would ensue over the next few days would be the dump of an average season’s worth of snow, cold temperatures and bone-chilling winds on the Pacific Northwest market. It was the greatest winter event to hit that region in nearly 70 years.
Because the event was so sudden and intense, it immediately began causing problems for the Invictus team.
Caton explains Invictus’ traditional first line of defense is getting contractors out in the field and then supporting them with equipment. However, most of the market, including Invictus’ service providers, were under the belief winter, for the most part, was over. They had begun transitioning back to green and their early spring operations. As a result, the heavy equipment Invictus lined up back in the fall suddenly was no longer available for the blizzard.
“We had procured about 200 skid steers to help us with out [winter] events,” Caton says. “But up until that point they hadn’t worked at all. So, they weren’t even there. When we went to call out that army, even though we’d stayed in contact periodically, since they weren’t working … more than half of them were AWOL.
“The first few days we were really scrambling to get things done and it made us actually really look at our whole process on how we go about [and prepare] for winter,” he adds.
As a result, Caton says it was time, as a company, to invest in enough heavy equipment to make up its first line of snow fighting defense. “We did a deal with Kubota and got a fleet rate on 20 pieces of equipment,” he says. “It’s made a nice impact on what we’re able do from an operational standpoint.”
Another issue the blizzard forced to the forefront for Invictus was the need for a solid general manager to lead the snow ops team. “I let three general managers go this winter,” he says. “It’s hard to find people who have a lot of experience in snow and ice management at our level who aren’t already committed to an organization.”
The best-case scenario to address this issue is to promote from within and allow candidates to receive the necessary frontline experience and grow and mature into a leadership role as opposed to bringing someone in from the outside and hoping they work out as a manager, he says. While this season’s snow event cast light on this personnel issue, it also placed a spotlight on individuals who rose to the occasion and persevered despite operational hardships.
“We had some of our players really step up into that management position,” Caton says. “It was nice to seem them rise to [the occasion] because someone had to … I knew there were some leadership skills there, but to see them start to develop was really pretty cool.”