IN BUFFALO, they know snow.
This is a place where a "lake-effect" storm dumped 37.9 inches on the ground at the Buffalo International Airport in a 24-hour period in December 1995 - the heaviest snowfall since record-keeping began there in 1884.
You think Minneapolis gets snow? They'd laugh about that in Buffalo. Minneapolis gets an average of 47 inches a year - just over half of Buffalo's 93. There is only one city in America with a population of over 100,000 that gets more snow than Buffalo. And that's Syracuse, 154 miles to the east.
If Buffalo knows snow, then T-W Truck Equippers Inc knows snow-removal equipment. T-W, which was founded in 1939 in Buffalo as Truckstell-Wilcox Company Inc and has since added stores in Syracuse and Rochester, is a distributor for Meyer, Viking, and Diamond snowplows, Smith, Air Flo, and Swenson salt spreaders, and a complete line of snowplow parts and accessories.
Predicting the Weather The only thing T-W doesn't know is how much snow will fall. It's an inexact science, at best. Last year, the Old Farmer's Almanac predicted that winter precipitation would be above normal in the eastern Great Lakes and across the snowbelt of New York.
That didn't happen. It was a mild winter, by Buffalo standards. Which meant it was a mild winter, by T-W standards. In a peak year - such as the Blizzard of '78 - the company will sell 1,200 snowplows. Last year: 500.
The uncertainty about the severity of the winter is one of the primary problems T-W has to deal with. Underestimate it and you're scrambling to meet the demand and add to your inventory. Overestimate it and you have a lot full of equipment that isn't moving.
"You just don't know," vice-president Jim Wolf says. "You rub that crystal ball and take a wild guess. You're better off shortchanging yourself and then ordering more than having too many and being stuck with too much inventory at the end of the year.
"If we're working with Meyer and we've shortchanged ourselves and it's been a brutal beginning to the season - blizzards up the East Coast and the central part of the country - then they're out of inventory, too, and they can't keep up with demand. Then we might be in trouble. But that hasn't been the case for a couple of years."
The numbers tell the story of the decline in the stereotypical brutal Buffalo winter: T-W peaked out in 1993-94 with $1.6 million in snowplow sales, had two good years of $1.2 million each and in the past three years has totaled $571,000, $660,000, and $710,000.
"The snowplow business has been tough the past few years," says Tom Ogden, T-W's rugged parts division manager. "The last good winter we had was back in '95, when you couldn't find a snowplow anywhere in the country. If it's not snowing in Buffalo, it's not snowing in too many places. So this year, we're hoping we have a rotten year (weather-wise) so we can sell a lot of snowplows."
Says Wolf, "All of our snowplow manufacturers have early-order incentives so people order during the summer ahead of time. It's always a crapshoot. Is it going to be a bad winter? Is it going to be a good winter? Are all the dealerships going to have 4x4 trucks in stock? We just don't know."
Easing off Salt Spreaders Wolf says the stretch of mild weather has forced him to re-evaluate his policy on salt spreaders. He used to stock a number of spreaders designed to be installed on the back of pickup trucks, but he will drastically reduce that stock and virtually eliminate the larger insert hoppers.
"It took us two years to move them," he says. "That's a lot of money to sit on for two years. It's an impulse thing (when customers buy them). When does a guy go out and buy his ice scraper? When his windshield's frozen over. People won't buy snow tires until the day of the storm. That's the way it is with salt spreaders. They'll wait until the day of the ice storm to go out and buy, and they wonder why you don't have it in stock.
"So if you don't have an ice storm for a couple of years, nobody's thinking about buying these things.
"Maybe we're guessing wrong. Maybe this could be the winter to beat all winters, and we won't have the stuff in stock. But we're going to err on the side of caution."
According to "The Snow Booklet" - a guide put out by the Colorado Climate Center to analyze the science, climatology, and measurement of snow in the United States - "anyone who has ever seen and touched snow, and watched it as it falls from the sky, cannot help but be amazed by its beauty and complexity."
Of course, it's not particularly beautiful when it has buried your car in the driveway or when it's falling from the sky like a blanket and you're trying to negotiate rush-hour traffic on the freeway. That's when complexity enters.
But according to Wolf, Buffalo winters are "not as bad as people think."
City Prepared for the Worst For one thing, the area doesn't experience many general (synoptic-scale) snows, because large-scale storm systems usually pass well to the east of the city. The lake-effect storms are the ones that do the damage. They can start as early as mid-November, peak in December, and virtually shut down after Lake Erie freezes in late-January.
And Wolf says that even if snowfall is heavy, the city and surrounding municipalities are prepared for the worst. A sophisticated infrastructure has been in place for years to deal with the harshest elements.
Its airport is one of the nationally recognized models for dealing with winter's knockout punch. And after New York City was battered by a huge storm a few years ago, it called on Buffalo's National Guard for a snow-removal lesson.
"You might only have a half-dozen times during the year when you really need a four-wheel drive or snow tires," he says. "The towns and highway departments flood the road with salt. No matter how bad the snow is, they're down to bare pavement real quick. Some parts of the country, an inch or two of snow will put everything at a standstill. Up here, unless you get eight to 10 inches at one time, it's business as normal."
Peak Period T-W's peak period for installing snowplows on small trucks (one-ton and pickups) is October and November, when it does up to eight a day in Buffalo.
Most of the buyers of Meyer snowplows are individual retailers or pickup owners who either have a small business where they have to keep their parking lot clear or snow removal is their business. Many of the latter group are landscapers during the other three seasons.
Although some plows go to the municipalities for their housing or parks and recreation departments, Wolf says many of the installations are for car and truck dealers that are selling the entire package. In many cases, T-W doesn't even know who the end customer is until the snowplow is brought back the next year for service or warranty work.
"Snowplow jockeys" are legendary in Buffalo. With a pickup and a plow, they wait for snowstorms to strike, viewing them as financial opportunities for independent contractors.
"They'll hustle through the area for a quick $20," says Craig Shepherd, T-W's inside sales coordinator. "Trouble is, you've got to be in every spot when it snows. "Everybody wants their driveway plowed when it snows."
For plowing driveways, T-W sells Meyer snowplows. Meyer, which had success with its EZ-Mount snowplow-attaching system, has introduced the MD II for the 2000-2001 winter. It looks almost the same, but it serves as a one- and two-piece system, its Nite Saber lights are adjustable, it has added safety with a dual-life chain, a more robust power unit and 1" spring-loaded attaching pins with comfortable, rubber-coated full-size handles.
Meyer's MAX moldboards are constructed of a one-piece, unspliced sheet of very-high-molecular-weight polyethylene. Curvature is roll-formed and locked in place for a precise radius and the most efficient snow-rolling action. Standard on all moldboards is a rubber insert installed between the moldboard and the support ribs. It seals out moisture and debris from gathering in the rib cavity and evens out the concentrated stress from heavy-load impacts.
Ogden says that because snowplows are a "severe-service" piece of equipment, parts are critical.
"You're taking it out in ice and snow, and it doesn't take much to bang them up," he says. "You have to replace parts. And parts are not cheap. A cylinder's going to cost you $80, a motor $130."
He says a snowplow can function efficiently for up to 10 years with proper maintenance.
"Some owners will beat up a truck before they kill a plow," he says. "There are guys who beat up a plow in two years. Some just bang it up in two months. If a guy maintains it - changes the fluid, does a good job of angling the cylinders and knocking the fluid out, keeps the water out of it, paints the blades once a year, changes the cutting edge so it doesn't wear down - a plow should last him five, six, seven years, with no problem at all. Which isn't too bad on a $2,500 item."
Parts Business Wolf says T-W does a healthy wholesale business on plow parts, shipping them all over the country, "because we have a reputation. People call us because we stock a lot of parts."
A smaller part of T-W's business is Viking snowplows through the master state contract awarded through the bid process - probably about 15 snowplows a year to the City of Buffalo, Erie County, and the local townships.
T-W this winter is dealing with Smith stainless-steel salt spreaders. Ogden says T-W traditionally has offered mild-steel spreaders for the cost-conscious buyer but decided to go with stainless as an upgrade for customers.
"Mild steel requires more careful cleaning," he says. "If the customer spends more money and gets stainless steel, he's going to be much happier."
T-W is gearing up for its first winter at its new location in south Buffalo, in an industrial complex off Interstate 190.
The good news: Although the building is older, the property is better-suited to T-W's operation. The old location, in Cheektowaga, east of Buffalo off Interstate 90, had the same acreage but it was distributed over a pie-shaped lot with only 150 feet of frontage. A creek ran through the property, splitting it into sections. The new property is a square-shaped lot with the building in the middle, allowing T-W to store trucks and inventory around the perimeter.
The service facility has 12 work bays and doors on each side, so trucks can be easily moved in and out. It features better insulation, which the technicians will love when winter kicks in.
The bad news: Customers are still adjusting to the switch since the April move. The new location is not visible from the freeway, more difficult to find once you're off the freeway, and is not located in a high-traffic retail area. The walk-in parts business may not turn out to be as brisk as it was at the old location, which was near a shopping mall.
"A guy would drop his wife off and pick up $400 or $500 worth of parts and equipment," Ogden says. "That was impulse buying. She got the dress. He got the toolbox."
To boost awareness of the new location, T-W held an open house Sept 14 that included vendors, the mayor of Buffalo, and a live radio remote.
A tour of the property reveals T-W's versatility.
Wolf shows a group of small dump bodies and stake bodies that are being prepared for the New York State Department of Transportation - part of a 134-truck order. It's a year-round business, not cyclical like snowplows.
T-W represents Air Flo and Swenson spreaders. Wolf says "it's not a big percentage of our business, but it's enough to warrant us being in the market." Also on the lot are Morgan Corp van bodies. One of the unusual jobs T-W does is put snowplows on van bodies as part of a state contract for a food-service division, which uses the trucks for multiple purposes and the plow to clear the parking lot.
In the service area, workers are bending sheet metal to make a cab shield. T-W does repairs, prep work, undercoating, striping, and some fabrication.
Production supervisor David Williams, like many others in the business, laments the steadily declining pool of qualified mechanics and technicians who can do a variety of work.
"Everybody is specializing in something now," he says. "I used to be a bumper-to-bumper mechanic. In those days, you did everything. You take mechanics today and I'd say a large percentage of them don't even know how to weld. Back when I started, you welded. You knew how to fix it. If something bent, you didn't buy a new one, you repaired it.
"That's gone away. What you need is mechanics with a background in fabrication. It's tough. I'll tell you, when you get someone, you want to keep him. Unfortunately, everybody's put the blinders on and they're just going for one thing: `I want to be an electronics specialist.' Or: `I want to be a transmission specialist.' "
No Extra Winter Hires Wolf says the work force remains stable in the winter. T-W does not hire additional personnel to deal with the increased demands of the season. It does stay open until 9 pm and, during severe storms, has 24-hour service.
Wolf says T-W has not had a full work force in two years because of the shortage of mechanics.
"It's just hard to find mechanics who want to work," he says. "We keep offering more pay and benefits. There's just not enough people."
Wolf, however, is satisfied with the quality he has. He's confident that another winter won't pose any test his staff hasn't already passed. How does T-W's winter shape up? At press time, the Old Farmer's Almanac had yet to officially offer its forecast for Buffalo's winter.
Not that T-W is waiting with bated breath. Ogden doesn't necessarily buy into the Almanac's self-proclaimed "secret formula" that was devised in 1792 by Robert B Thomas and is supposedly enhanced by the most modern scientific calculations based on solar activity and the idea that "nothing in the universe occurs haphazardly; there is a cause-and-effect pattern to all phenomena." Even the Almanac adds that a caveat is appropriate: "Neither we nor anyone else has as yet gained sufficient insight in to the mysteries of the universe to predict weather long-range with anything resembling total accuracy."
"We usually find out what type of winter we had in April - the following spring," Ogden says.