'This is the worst winter we've had,' snow removal contractor says

Published: Monday, Feb. 27 2012 10:41 p.m. MST

Snow removal trucks sit idle at Kimball Property Maintenance in Draper Monday, Feb. 27, 2012, waiting to be used if the snow comes.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As much of Utah copes with one of the mildest and snow-free winters in recent memory, some people who make their living shoveling the "greatest snow on earth" are having a tough time.

Current snowpack totals statewide are about 30 percent below normal, according to KSL meteorologist Grant Weyman. That translates into fewer workdays for snow removers and more challenges economically for companies that hire them.

"We've been in the business for 28 years, and this is the worst winter we've had," said Russ Kimball, owner of Draper-based Kimball Property Management — the state's largest snow removal contractor. "We're down at least 80 percent."

He said snow removal accounts for about 40 percent of their overall business, and this dramatically "down year" will cost his company millions.

"Between subcontractors and our own equipment, we run in the neighborhood of 300 trucks (and) we lease about 100 pieces of equipment," he said. "Because we're strong and we've been around for a long time, financially we're going to get through it OK, but it's not going to be without a real pinch. It's been a rough winter!"

He said that other large-scale firms would likely be affected similarly.

"It will definitely impact their … earnings for the year," Kimball said. "It's been a real bad season."

According to the National Weather Service, December 2010 was the fifth wettest on record at the Salt Lake City International Airport, and this past December was the driest — breaking the old record set in 1976. And even though March, April and May are typically the wettest months in Utah — Kimball said there is virtually no chance for companies like his to recover from this abysmal snow year.

While the larger firms are hit harder by the dry winter, smaller operations may have an easier go of it. Just ask Jeff Grasteit, owner of Grasteit Lawncare in North Salt Lake.

"There are some properties that we've only plowed twice this entire (winter)," he said. "You can't support yourself off that if that's what you're planning on (for) providing you some income."

"It's a great business when it does snow, but if you're counting on it and it doesn't — you're in big trouble," he added.

Grastieit said to mitigate the reduction in revenue, his company tries to save money during the peak work season in the summer to tide themselves over through the cold weather months.

"I don't really count on it snowing," he said. "If it snows, that's a bonus."

He also pulls back on staff, going from about 35 employees in the summer to 25 workers during the winter months. But Grasteit said that due to the prolonged period of warmer-than-average temperatures this season, his company was able to do more landscape work — which provides approximately 75 percent of their overall annual business income.

"This year was pretty decent, it was in the 40s and 50s all the way into December and we worked almost everyday into the middle of December," he explained. Those extra workdays help keep revenues up, reducing the negative impact of significant decrease resulting from the relatively dry winter, he added.

He said the company uses the increased "down time" in the winter to work on equipment and vehicle maintenance.

"Even if it is a busy year, it still tends to be pretty slow so we can get caught up," he said.

Meanwhile, Kimball said his company relies heavily on revenue generated from snow removal to bolster his bottom line and pay for the extensive overhead required to run such a large operation. With the dramatic downturn this season, he worries about the well-being of the 350 contractors whom he usually employs during the winter.

"All those employees have been devastated this winter," he said. "It's not just us, it's the people that work for us (and their families). They've all had a terrible winter."

He noted that while the company has the resources to make it through this exceedingly difficult season, weathering two straight dry winters would be disastrous.

"Two in a row could be a back-breaker," he said. 

E-mail: jlee@desnews.com

Twitter: JasenLee1

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