Turning a profit in a stormy industry

17 Nov 2020 7:39 AM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)


Randy Aynes said he didn’t mind the dropping temperatures as he sat cross-legged in the snow outside his Hayden home.

His bare fingers twisted away a nut from beneath a snow plow attachment hovering over him as he worked without complaint, while a reporter’s fingers — cushioned in gloves — wanted nothing more than to be inside.

“I just haven’t had time,” Aynes said as he replaced the bolt fastened to the blade. “Too much to do at work.”

The Hayden resident for the last three years has been working construction jobs across Kootenai County. But with the weather starting to turn, Aynes has spent the past three winters using his plow and the mid-90s Chevy it's attached to for providing extra income for his wife and son in the winter months.

“If this life has taught me anything,” the Wyoming native said, “it’s to use everything you can, every resource at your (disposal). My dad taught me that; I guess that’s why it feels like home here.”

That rancher’s sensibility has generated what he calls a much-needed profit in the winter months. What started as four neighborhood plows his first season in Idaho quickly jumped to 11 paying customers, a number that drifted down to eight.

“That first year (during the 2016-2017 winter),” Aynes said, “I was always busy, especially when January and February hit. So the next year, everybody was asking. But then the snowfall wasn’t nearly as bad, so it died down.”

Aynes gave this interview Nov. 6, as the second notable snowstorm of the year fell on Kootenai County. On Friday, a winter storm brought another load of snow into the area, a wetter snow that made for sloppy roads and sloppier parking lots.

This winter, local forecasters and scientists are predicting a heavier-than-usual snowfall across North Idaho. While National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predictions give North Idaho a colder-than-usual winter, the Old Almanac’s initial forecast called for more precipitation.

The National Weather Service predicts both are right: A cold winter with healthy amounts of snow. October proved those models correct, with a record 7.9 inches dropping on Coeur d’Alene.

The predictions mean a growing customer base for Aynes — for this year, at least.

“I’m up to 20 driveways,” he said as he lifted himself up and brushed the snow off his jeans.

Jonathan Nielsen has stood where Aynes now stands. With 14 years behind him running The Masters Land & Lawn Services out of Hayden, he said one secret to starting a snow removal business in North Idaho is, frankly, not putting the plow before the truck.

“A lot of guys move into this area, they get into the lawn business, they stick a plow on their truck, and they think they’re going to make millions, and it just doesn’t work like that,” Nielsen said.

Nielsen said that despite Masters’ longevity in the business, the snow removal company sometimes sees the same burdens everyone faces. Sometimes, the snow simply refuses to fall.

“You never know what the winter’s going to be like,” he said. “Some are super busy, but a few seasons ago, I bought a new plow, some new equipment, and I think the plow touched the ground once. It snowed twice all year.”

The Masters Land & Lawn’s name has become a bit misleading, Nielsen said. The company dropped its landscaping service two years prior, focusing primarily on snow removal.

Nielsen said he spends the warmer seasons running two other businesses and doing whatever he needs to do — including flipping houses — to make ends meet, adding that, so long as the weather is right, plowing snow can pay off if you’re willing to put in the work.

“Back in 2008 or 2012,” he said, “one of those years, it snowed so much, we were working 36-hour shifts. We’d nap for four hours, then work another 24 hours. Sometimes the winters are just like that.”

The Masters Land & Lawn focuses almost exclusively on commercial lots and residential developments. For commercial parking lots, Nielsen will typically charge between $100 and $120 per plow, depending on both the size and the shape of the lot in question. (Should the lot have an awkward perimeter that doesn’t allow for easy plowing, for example, the cost could run closer to the $120 range.)

But those contracts have escalator clauses, most notably about the one unforeseeable circumstance that is a running theme in both this story and North Idaho winters: the amount of snowfall.

“Let’s say we had the basic $100 parking lot,” Nielsen explained. “That price is assuming we get between two and five inches of snow. But if we get more than five inches, that’ll change things. We’d charge $100 for the lot, plus an hourly rate. You’d be looking at an extra $80 to $150.”

That price falls roughly in range with other plow operations according to some Press research. One charges almost exactly the same price, one charges as low as $80 per lot with escalator clauses, and one charges $150 per lot but with no escalators.

Residential developments, Nielsen said, can run around $500, but plowing those developments can become problematic in certain circumstances.

Depending, once again, on the weather.

“I remember one year, it snowed so much, and the wind was blowing. With this one development — it usually takes us about three hours to plow it all — we would plow, and by the time we were done, gosh, there were foot-high snow drifts that blew back onto their driveways," he said. "The (Homeowners’ Association) called us and said, ‘Hey, you guys didn’t plow.’ And we had to tell them, ‘Yeah, we did. It’s just been blowing snow all morning.”

Those driveways are the only ones Masters Land & Lawn touches these days.

As for Aynes, when he started plowing neighbors’ driveways three years earlier — “If you served, or if you’re elderly,” he said, “I’ll cut you a deal” — he charged $10 per plow. That rate jumped to $20 before he decided on a subscription service: $50 per month, come snow or sunshine.

“This will take a little while to grow,” he said. “But growing a business is like the weather: You just have to be patient.”

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