As snowplows collect dust, their owners long for loot
BY STEVE METSCH email@example.com January 24, 2013 6:22PM
Bob Sylvester, owner of Roadside Enterprises Snow Plowing Service, stands by his truck and plow at his facility along Harlem Avenue in Tinley Park, IL on Thursday January 24, 2013. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 26, 2013 6:30AM
The lack of snow in the Chicago area this winter has owners of plowing businesses in the Southland ready to take drastic measures.
“I tried a snow dance. A few of my friends did it with me. It didn’t work,” Jeff Hunter said Thursday.
The owner of Oak Lawn Snow Plow was only half-joking. And even if forecasts calling for snow late Thursday night and into Friday were accurate, the snow-dance payoff may have come too late to save the winter payday.
Hunter would rather be working 10-hour days repairing broken snowplows than watching reruns of “The Rifleman” and “Bonanza” in his shop on Southwest Highway. And he’s not alone.
The mild and practically snow-free winter has snow removal experts ready to weep.
“You called the right guy. Can I borrow your shoulder to cry on?” Bob Sylvester said.
Sylvester, 56, owns Roadside Enterprises Inc., in Tinley Park. For the past 18 years, he’s counted on plowing to augment his income. He hasn’t been out once this year, and was out twice last winter. Most years, he plows 15 times.
“I’m barely paying the bills. I’ve been in trouble with the bills for three years, mostly due to the lack of snowplowing,” he said.
There’s not much help on the way.
According to National Weather Service meteorologist Bill Nelson, the Chicago area has received a grand total of 1.7 inches of snow at the official measuring station, O’Hare Airport. The average winter sees 36.7 inches, he said.
“We might see some minor accumulations overnight and during the day Friday,” Nelson said. “Some places may get 1 to 2 inches in Cook County, and areawide may see 1 to 3 inches.”
That’s good, but not great news for men like Tom Sawyer.
He owns Sawyer Dirt, which is based in Elwood and has offices in New Lenox, and he plows snow from countless parking lots in and around Joliet each winter.
“It’s gloom, despair and agony, and that’s the comical side of it. We’re in some sort of ‘Twilight Zone’ with our weather pattern. ... I definitely think there’s something to global warming,” said Sawyer, 57.
He has his trucks fueled up and his plows at the ready. But they’re collecting dust, not snow.
“I doubt I’ll make enough money this year to pay for moving my equipment around,” he said.
Four years ago, Sawyer’s business was raking in about $600,000 a year plowing snow. In the last year, he’s lost $250,000 in snowplow contracts. Some were because of mild weather. Others were lost, he said, to “all these idiots bidding on (jobs) for less than it costs them.”
He was referring to the many fly-by-night businesses that cropped up when the economy took a turn for the worse.
Sylvester knows all about them. He’s lost business to “guys who were out of work (and) decided they could make some money by putting a plow on front of their trucks,” Sylvester said.
Hard times come and hard times go, said Tanner Hobbs, 26, the owner of South Holland-based R.C. Lawn Care & Snow Removal.
“You know slow times come. You can put away some emergency money, but how much can you put away?” he said. “I know for myself, I can always find ways to make extra cash. But there’s nothing, nothing for my workers.
“Summer is great for us. But winter? Woo. This winter is not even a real winter.
“I just told my nephew — he’s 5 years old — that when I was 5, I made a snowman in the front yard, and a little snow hut. We went sledding. We missed days of school. These kids now, they have it bad.”
So does he. A good snowy day means $3,000 in business, he said.
“That first year (in business), we removed snow 28 times in four months. That was heaven. We were out twice last year, and not once this winter,” Hobbs said.
But Hobbs is not wasting his idle hours. He’s been busy “getting a strategy and planning to get ahead in the summer. There’s a positive to this,” Hobbs said.
If a couple of inches of snow arrive with Friday’s first cups of coffee, plenty of plows will be visible out there, Hunter predicted.
“Guys will be out there. They can’t wait until 10 a.m. for the snow to start melting. If we get a big snow, that may help, but most of winter is behind us. Guys are struggling,” Hunter said.