Last winter, snow-removal companies were stretched thin. There just was not enough equipment or man-hours to keep up with the snow that just kept falling and falling.
So, many spent the offseason loading up on gear. Big gear. Expensive gear. They were ready for anything.
Anything, that is, except the unthinkable in New England: a winter with almost no snow.
“It’s kind of a ridiculous thing to even think of planning for,’’ said Lance Barretto, operations manager for Alpine Landscape Co. in Malden, a business that earns most of its annual profit from winter plowing. “But it can happen. It did happen.’’
In this winter that never really was, the lack of snow has had all kinds of trickle-down effects. Among the hardest-hit industries are snow-removal companies, many of which are following a season of record profits with a season of record losses.
Alpine followed last winter’s relentless snowfalls with some big capital purchases, such as a new truck and two new skid steer loaders.
“We bought a $60,000 Bobcat, and I think we’ve used it for four hours,’’ said Barretto, who added that they have done less than a 10th of the business they did last year. The company has laid off six employees.
Seasonal businesses, especially those that are weather dependent, are notoriously finicky, but the fact that this winter followed one that was so snowy (9.1 inches of snow so far in Greater Boston, as opposed to 81 inches last year, according to the National Weather Service) has created its own set of problems for the snow-removal industry. In addition to the capital outlays, many have found themselves in a constantly backfiring approach to commercial contracts.
The industry works basically two ways: Contractors are either paid a flat fee for the season or paid by the storm or the inch. Last winter, those who were locked into flat-fee contracts with commercial customers such as malls and grocery stores lost out because of the hours involved in plowing and, later, removing the massive snow piles.
After that, many companies said never again and wanted to be paid for every inch.
“If I’d been smart, I would have done half in winter contracts and half by the inch,’’ said Jamie Lewis, who owns Extreme Landscaping, a company that does winter plowing in Winchester, Lexington, and Concord. Lewis works only by the inch, and last year, he said it allowed him to earn three to four times what he might have under a seasonal contract.
But this year, he said, “we’ve been lucky because we’ve done stone work all winter on a project that would have been shut down last year.’’
Lewis, like many in the snow-removal game, runs a business that is a combination of seasonal work, so that when one thing is not running the other is. He said his landscaping business was able to run a month longer than usual this fall because of the warm weather, and he hopes to bring his crews back a month earlier this year.
One place that has already declared spring is the Turf Equipment Co. in Belmont, which has experienced the full yin and yang of the last two winters.
They had a record-breaking season for snow-blower sales last winter, according to owner Jerry DiGiovanni. “We didn’t have enough, and there was a huge backlog of service orders,’’ he said, and demand continued into a record-breaking offseason.
“We had a tax-free day in August, and we sold 100 snow blowers,’’ he said. “That will show you how bad the previous winter was; people were thinking about snow in August.’’
This year, he said, business screeched to a halt in December and has remained so dead that they have been trying to get the word out that they are already in spring mode; they are offering free pickup and delivery for anyone who gets their lawnmower tuned early.
George Spartichino, who has owned a fencing and plowing company in Cambridge for 20 years, Spartichino Fence, said there is a term for these sorts of ups and downs: “It’s called business.’’
Even so, after two decades of working at the mercy of the elements, Spartichino said that he has never seen anything quite like this winter.
“I’ve got a four-letter word to describe it,’’ he said. And it’s not snow.Billy Baker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.