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Perfect storm, for the plowers

Tom Eckert loves the snow.

Tom Eckert, Owner of Seasonal Changes Lawns & Landscapes Inc., shown here filling one of his salt spreaders with rock salt. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

There’s nothing more tranquil, he said, than being out in the middle of the night amid a fresh powdering.

But a snow day is not just tranquil for Eckert, it’s lucrative. As the CEO of Seasonal Changes, a Crofton-based landscaping company, Eckert relies on winter weather for a healthy bottom line.

“For me, it’s pennies from heaven,” he said.

Eckert was expecting roughly $15,000 in revenue from Tuesday’s storm, which he took on with a fleet of 10 to 15 employees. A storm promising 6 to 12 inches, he said, is perfect — enough so customers need a plow, but not so much that his crews run out of places to put the snow.

The last snowstorm, Eckert said, brought in about $9,000. His best season for snow removal was 2009-10, when snowstorms in December and February brought in about $300,000 in less than two months.

But the last two seasons were significantly dry.

“The last two years … I’ve had to learn without snow how to manage myself,” he said. “I almost forgot what snow was like.”

Snow removal is often the most profitable part of a landscaping business, Eckert said, because people are willing to pay in an emergency situation. His best clients are commercial locations such as doctors’ offices and other businesses that don’t want their customers at risk of injury.

Jay Kinnae, owner of Naturally Greener Landscaping, based in Crownsville, serves only commercial clients, but he doesn’t count on snow to keep business afloat.

“The snow is something you don’t budget for,” he said. “It’s icing on the cake.”

Naturally Greener has three plow trucks, each with about two workers during a storm. Kinnae said that business is already three to four times what it was last year. While he makes sure not to depend on snow removal income, a stormy winter will make the coming year a little easier.

“In the spring, when all your services are ramping up … it’s a very costly time,” he said. “If you have that snow money in the bank, that’s going to help the process.”

It’s good practice to plan for a mild winter, said Martin Tirado, CEO of the Snow & Ice Management Association Inc., located appropriately in Wisconsin. Tirado recommends striking a balance between flat-fee and per-service contracts, as well as maintaining cash reserves.

Tom Eckert, Owner of Seasonal Changes Lawns & Landscapes Inc., shown here plowing the parking lot of Gambrills Veterinary Center, one of his contracted clients. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

“Typically, companies prepare for all cases, whether it’s one of the higher points or lower points,” he said. “That’s the challenge of this business. In good years, it’s great, but we’ve always educated members that when you have the good years, make sure you put revenues away for the long term.”

The other challenge, said Tirado, is having the resources on hand for the heaviest weather. While barriers to entry are low — a person can make money removing snow with a truck and a plow at the minimum — it can be difficult to keep enough personnel and materials on hand for a big storm.

“You’ll see some instances though, with years like this … a lot of people will get into the business then,” said Tirado.

But he adds a caution.

“It’s an expensive endeavor to be prepared for winter storms,” Tirado said. “It can be a boom-or-bust industry.”