Snow: winter's cash crop

Early snowfall yields bounty for plowing companies

The winter is young, but it already offers the promise of a bumper crop for area businesses that harvest snow from driveways and parking lots.

Just as there's big money in snow falling on ski trails, there's the potential of big money in removing it from parking lots, rooftops and driveways.

Final harvest figures won't be known until at least the end of March, and the size of the snow crop will vary down the valley. The amount of snowfall in the Steamboat area usually decreases the farther west one lives.

As an indicator, the Steamboat Ski Area has counted 221 inches of snow at Thunderhead since October. That's two-thirds of the way toward an average seasonal snowfall, and more than 90 days remain in the season.

If the snow continues to fall at that rate, some snow removal contractors have the potential to gross six figures this winter, one contractor said.

"I've been doing this for six years, and this is the first year (of heavy snow). I've heard that in big years like this, some people pay for their business," said Luke Berlet of A&O Enterprises. "People have bought trucks and paid for them" in a winter. "But it's still not like you make a huge profit per hour. I worked 24 hours this last run."

One size doesn't fit all

The business models for snow removal companies are varied. They include large excavating contractors who turn to snow removal to keep employees and leased heavy equipment busy throughout winter. At the other end of the spectrum are independents such as Karl Bunker, who purchased a farm tractor with a bucket attachment this year to remove snow from his hobby ranch on Routt County Road 44. He removes snow for three neighbors to help defray the cost of the machine and because it feels good to help.

"I definitely needed the capacity of my machine, but it's also been a lot of fun," Bunker said. "It's not as much fun as my snowmobile, though. It's a work tool."

Because he has more fun on his snowmobile than on his other snow machine, Bunker isn't looking for new clients.

Berlet's company -- A&O Enterprises -- is a hybrid by any description.

During summer, he primarily is a roofing contractor. In winter, his employees remove snow from rooftops and parking lots. Increasingly, the roof contracting work is overlapping with the snow removal business, and that's keeping A&O Enterprises busier than ever. Construction crews commonly work through the winter, and that means Berlet's employees also remove snow from unfinished rooftops so they can continue the work of installing them.

"I can't ignore incoming calls," Berlet said. "In the past, it's worked out pretty well. This winter, there's no time off to go skiing or spend with your family."

A&O employs 10 people, and Berlet said he would hire more workers if he could. His biggest contract involves removing snow from the rooftop of the Steamboat Grand Resort Hotel. Snow must be shoveled from the giant hotel's roof every time it snows 2 or more inches because the metal roofs can shed snow on the sidewalks far below. A&O dispatches six or seven workers to the Grand -- plus a safety worker -- when overnight snow hits the threshold. The man on the ground keeps in touch by radio to let the snow shovelers know whether pedestrians are approaching.

Berlet also owns a pair of skid steers (small front-end loaders often referred to by the trade name Bobcats) for the specific purpose of clearing commercial parking lots.

Take it to the bank

Some snow removal clients need the security that comes with a larger company.

Rick Denney, director of facilities for the Steamboat Springs School District, said he needs to work with a large contractor who can clear large parking lots overnight, even if one or two pieces of equipment break down. If school were to close for a day because the parking lots were full of uncleared snow, that would necessitate extending the school year, Denney said. And even one more day would be very costly in terms of payroll. It's a scenario Denney doesn't want to contemplate.

He contracts with Johnson Excavating and says they don't let him down. Johnson's Sandy Hervert said the company keeps nine equipment operators busy manning eight pieces of snow removal equipment plus a dump truck to haul snow away from parking lots. The company's clients include a property management company, two downtown banks, the post office and the public schools.

Records kept by the Steam--boat Ski Area show the last exceptional snow winters were in 1995-96 and 1996-97. If this winter holds form, a group of sleep-deprived snow removal contractors will be converting white to green and taking it all the way to the bank.

Snowplowing contractors say charges vary substantially depending on the difficulty of the job and the type of equipment needed.

Large front-end loaders, such as the kind the city of Steamboat Springs uses on city streets, are billed at about $90 to $95 an hour. Small skid steers, used for tight parking lots or driveways for which a pickup-mounted blade can't do the job, range from $55 to $70 an hour. Contractors specializing in driveways are more apt to charge by the job, from $15 to $50.

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