Mother nature creates economic impact on Ozaukee County snow removal employees

By Kyle Doubrava - Special to the News Graphic

Jan. 14, 2020

 Jon Bock, manager of Birchwood Snow & Landscape and plow driver, poses with one of the 50 plows available at the company’s three locations throughout the state.
Photo by Mark Justesen

OZAUKEE COUNTY — Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

That’s what several local businesses are pleading for as a surprisingly mild December and January have made Wisconsin appear less of a winter wonderland than usual.

After early season storms dropped several inches of snow in late October and early November, most of Ozaukee County received only six inches in December and one inch through the first part of January. In an area that typically sees nearly 50 inches of snow annually, the lack of precipitation is alarming for snow removal businesses and hardware stores.

Snow removal companies often double as landscaping services and earn revenue throughout the year, but balmy temperatures in December and January can potentially put a financial strain on the owners and the plow drivers they employ.

Joe Kassander, owner of Birchwood Snow & Landscape in Cedarburg, negotiates contracts with large commercial and industrial businesses for snow removal and salting and receives a flat fee each year from its clients no matter how much snowfall occurs. But Kassander is concerned that his drivers are not getting the hours they need.

“If there’s an economic impact on all this it’s more on the employees,” Kassander said. “We pay our guys time-and-a-half or more to plow because it’s an inconvenience to them and their families that they may have to leave in the middle of the night. They’re missing out on pay.”

Others charge for their snow removal services “per push” instead of the upfront fee, in the case of Badger Snow & Landscape in Mequon. Badger, run by Andy McClellan, has arrangements with a few large businesses and about 50 residential properties. When snowfall reaches one inch, Badger heads out to its commercial clients and clear out their parking lots. They tend to their residential customers at the two-inch mark.

Although McClellan said he and his crew have gotten by through some unforeseen landscaping projects over the last few weeks, the lack of snow can be irritating.

“To be honest it’s getting to be a little boring,” McClellan said. “But it’s Wisconsin, and everyone knows that soon it’ll be snowing like crazy and everyone will be talking about that. You definitely need to stay even-keeled and understand that it’s coming. Financially, it would be very nice to get some snow. There is only so much you can do at this time of year.”

Two local hardware stores have also been feeling the effects of this strange winter: Ozaukee Ace Hardware in Grafton and Tennies Ace Hardware in West Bend. The snowstorms in October and November helped them get a head start selling bulky items like snowblowers, ice melters and salt, but recently it’s been more challenging.

“In November and December if it doesn’t snow then people will still decorate and we sell Christmas lights,” said Pete Kalies, owner of Ozaukee Ace Hardware. “If it snows early they probably won’t decorate but they’ll buy the snow equipment. Come January the Christmas season is over and it’ll start to hurt if we don’t do much in January and February. Hopefully some of these weather predictions will start to come true.”

Kalies worked in the landscaping industry before operating the store, and he can relate to the snow plowing contingent that might be feeling the sting.

“We had some landscapers saying they were still landscaping and raking in December even after they had their first snow plowing of the season,” he said. “They’re putting the plows down, putting them back on, then off again. They’re jumping back and forth which is tough. The whole key is to do more than just one thing. You really need to diversify.”

Todd Tennies, who heads Tennies Ace Hardware in West Bend, says his store’s current snow-related inventory is relatively the same compared to past winters, and his location recently restocked after experiencing a busy November.

“We like winters where snowfall can be four to seven days apart, which we haven’t had much of lately,” Tennies said. “When you have a prolonged snow forecast it allows to you sell snow blowers over an extended period of time. One big storm can help, but you need to have more after that.”

Tennies elaborated on the ripple effect that a warm stretch can have on a place such as Wisconsin. In addition to the plowers and hardware stores, this weather can impact vehicle repair shops and outdoor recreation that relies on consistent snow.

“The more snow, the merrier we are,” he said. “A snowstorm has such a significant impact and it’s good for business.”

And it appears Wisconsin winter is heading back to normal as snow is on the horizon for much of the North Shore — accumulations for this week could total more than six inches.