EL Niño is for real. And as predicted, it has been wreaking havoc on truck equipment distributors all over the country this winter.
At the National Truck Equipment Association’s Executive Leadership Summit last October in Las Vegas, Steve Latin-Kasper, the NTEA’s director of market data and research, said that it was actually a Super El Niño, which happens every three decades. He said that it would mean less snowfall than in a normal winter and predicted that when it did snow, the accumulations would likely be larger and cause more problems.
“So while they may not buy as many snowplows and spreaders, they are probably going to be destroying the ones they have,” he said, “so you will be doing more in maintenance and repair.”
State College, Pennsylvania, set an all-time record by ringing in the New Year with only a “trace” of snow for the entire winter. Baltimore and Washington, DC, did not experience their first measurable snowfall (meaning at least 0.1 inches of snow) of the season until January 17. Through January 19, Boston had measured just 4.4 inches of snow—13.5 inches below normal and well below last year’s epic winter, when the city set an all-time record with 110 inches.
And then, on January 22, came the significant event Latin-Kasper predicted: The Eastern Seaboard was blasted by Winter Storm Jonas, which dumped more than two feet of snow in the Baltimore/DC area and parts of southeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York City.
But most areas of the country hadn’t even had a major storm. In Minneapolis, for example, 43.9 inches of snow had normally fallen by January 22, but the area had experienced just 17.2 inches. It’s been similar to the El Niño of 1997-98, which resulted in an average temperature for December through February that was 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit above normal in Minneapolis.
That has prompted Aspen Equipment Co, based in the suburb of Bloomington, to make adjustments.
“We’re expecting growth again, and we’re budgeting for additional sales and overall profits to be up,” municipal sales manager Mark Lundeen said, “but we can’t do it the way we’ve always done it. We have to look at doing things differently by being a better partner in business and having our customers depend on us to create solutions for their equipment and their needs.”
This winter, that has involved:
• Henderson brine-making facilities.
Aspen has taken on a line of facilities equipment—building-installed brine-making and brine-blending machines—produced by Henderson Manufacturing, Aspen’s major manufacturer of large snowplows for city and state accounts. Aspen has done four installations, and recently reached an agreement with a city for a new $150,000 system.
“We use a lot of liquid in Minnesota,” Lundeen said. “Depending on the road temperature, it’s more highly effective than the use of salt. So now we’re selling and installing manufacturing equipment that makes salt brine. It’s a big water softener. It produces automatically to a prescribed saturation rate that needs to be put down on the road surface. We also have machines that blend that with other chemicals to let it adhere to the road surface better and allow us to blend different chemicals for colder temperatures.”
Aspen has been in the brine business for many years, but the facility side is new.
“We’ve always done truck-mounted distribution systems, but never did the actual production side of things to make the brine that goes into the distribution equipment,” Lundeen said. “Now we’re not only selling and servicing the equipment that makes it, but also selling and servicing equipment that puts it on the road surface and monitors through a computer system what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. Some of the computer systems installed in trucks have the capability of watching online what the trucks are doing and are able to create a bread-crumb trail of every truck and every activity the truck has done, not only for this event but from the advent of the season.”
• The new Aspen Stainless Steel Dump Body.
Aspen made adjustments to a prototype and was expected by mid-February to start production on a smaller dump body to fit on smaller trucks like the F-450/550 series.
“Rather than have a manufacturer manufacture it and ship it, we’re basically taking the initiative to keep our shop busy,” he said. “We control the cost, quality, and stocking levels by doing it ourselves. So we’re not only the manufacturer, but sales and installation to boot.
“It’s a body that can also be used year-round, which we’re hopeful will expand and extend our customers’ business. People that do landscaping, construction, dirt-moving—they can use this multi-purpose body spring, summer, fall, and winter.”
• New spreader. The company also has taken on the Western Striker stainless steel hopper spreader.
“For many years, we have sold and serviced a hopper spreader for the back of pickups and dump bodies like we’re now building, but they’ve always been gas-driven,” he said. “The new Striker is a stainless steel spreader, so you don’t have to worry about corrosion of mild steel, and it’s driven by electrical motors, so it’s quiet, efficient, on-demand power. We’re trying to be greener and lower our footprint, and give customers more reliability with less maintenance.”
Lundeen works with state, county, and local governments, and he feels his task is to bring new, innovative products to market.
“The trouble with the municipal market is if you do things the way you’ve always done it, you’ll never be a goer,” he said. “The people who are willing to open up their horizons and look at different ways to do different things are the ones who really succeed and open the eyes of Joe Public. Joe Public doesn’t know what’s innovative, what’s new, what’s designed to do a better job and have overall cost effectiveness.
“A lot of these guys are starting to open their eyes. This is a new generation. We have a lot of people willing to stick their neck out and try something different and be that hero, not only to us in the community but the overall Earth as a whole by reducing the carbon footprint and sodium in the watershed. It’s all a big deal. We’re just trying to do it in our little corner of the world here.”
STS Trailer & Truck Equipment
When Steve Jacobs, president and CEO of STS Trailer & Truck Equipment, first heard that El Niño would mean warmer temperatures and less snowfall, he decided to reduce his preseason snowplow order by 20% at his New York locations in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany.
“We came out of such a bad winter last year,” Jacobs said. “There was a lot of product sold, and you typically don’t do that two years in a row. So we did anticipate a little less sales volume on snowplows. I adjusted my purchases for that. You’re rolling the dice on what business levels are going to be like and what people’s purchasing habits are going to look like. You don’t want to be without product, but at the same time, you don’t want too much.
“The spreader business is totally different. As long as it’s cold, there’s going to be ice. We don’t ever see a big difference in our area for spreaders. When you say it’s warmer, it’s still freezing, so ice still forms.”
Buffalo had just 24 inches of snow as of January 22, as opposed to a normal of 53 inches, and Jacobs said it was a similar story at the other three locations.
And yet, El Niño has not KO’d the bottom line for STS. The warmer temperatures and decreased snowfall allowed construction to continue longer, and that filled up STS’ shops with a completely different kind of work.
“In our area, our construction and service-type customers were still working outside into mid-December, where they are used to stopping in mid-November,” he said. “We saw a shift in customers. We didn’t get the snowplow people, but we got the normal people that might have not been prepared to be working work well into December. It was primarily repair services that we did. A lot of people look and wait until the end of their season in October, and then do maintenance. But you add another six to eight weeks onto equipment, and whether it’s dump bodies or cranes, it was stuff that needed more service. So we did not see a slowdown. Where we normally see a slowdown, we stayed busy at all locations.”
Jacobs said his snowplow sales are down about 25% this year, creating an excess of inventory.
“People typically buy snowplows in the fall, and by Christmas, they’re done with snowplow purchases, and from that point forward, we’re looking at servicing them,” he said. “Normally, 25% to 50% of our business from December into February is servicing snowplows. On days you don’t get snow, it’s closer to that 25%. We still get cold weather, so we still have salt spreaders that need repairs. But it changes the amount of customers’ breakdowns.”
While he’s happy to have been able to compensate for the decline in snow-and-ice business, it sure is a strange sight to see grass growing around Christmas.
“Not to get any snowfall to speak of until after the first of the year … I don’t know that it’s ever been like this,” he said. “It might be a record-setting situation, certainly for western New York. Not to have anything measurable at the Buffalo Airport was quite unique. We’re not talking inches. We’re talking feet under normal.
“But as long as I can keep my shops busy, I don’t mind.”
Truck Equipment Inc
Green Bay, Wisconsin, normally has 26 inches of snow by January 22, but this winter had just 17.2—and 13.2 of that came in eight wild hours on the night of December 28 and into the next morning.
“It has not been the greatest winter for snowplow products,” said Jordan Schroeder, president of Truck Equipment Inc, which is based on Green Bay, Wisconsin, and has three other locations. “It definitely doesn’t help us on the snowplow side of the business. This January has turned out soft. Before we know it, the snowplow dealers will be looking for early orders. As far as snowplow orders go, I don’t know if we will be looking at any early orders. We’re still sitting on quite a few plows just because those snowstorms push people into buying a new snowplow, and that’s not happening.”
He said he’s still sitting on 20-25 snowplows, some of which probably carried over from last year.
“That eats up a lot of cash you’d like to use for other things,” he said. “Last year, we moved them pretty quick, and by January were pretty much sold out.”
He said he’s fortunate because his company is very diverse.
“I was just walking through our shop at the main facility, and it’s full,” he said. “Even though the snow business is a little softer, it seems like we pick up in other areas. In addition to being a truck equipment distributor, we sell semi trailers and have service for trucks and trailers, and are a big parts distributor.”
Semi Service Inc
Not everybody is experiencing lower-than-normal snowfall. Mike Anderson, vice president of Semi Service Inc in Salt Lake City, says his area is 103% above normal. On December 15, 6.9 inches of snow fell at Salt Lake City Airport, breaking the previous record for the day of 5.8 inches set in 1922.
“It’s been pretty steady and busy throughout the winter,” he said. “When it snows, the people plow and damage their plows. They bring plows in for us to fix. Then the new sales for new installs. It’s been colder than usual. Last year, the average temperature was in the 40s for winter, so we didn’t sell many spreaders. This year, it’s been freezing and cold temperatures, and the spreader business has been good.
“The only downfall is not getting enough vehicles from the OEMs. Being a bailment pool, we get trucks from dealers. If we’re not getting trucks from them, then we don’t have trucks to upfit and put our products on. Business would be better if we could get more vehicles.”
But he knows business is not as good in other areas of the country.
“I was just talking to snowplow distributors, and they were saying there has not been a lot of snow,” he said. “I’ve gotten emails from manufacturers saying, ‘Hey, enjoy all the snow you’re getting, because you’re getting it and we’re not.’ I’m hearing they’re not getting it back East.”
Regardless of El Niño, winter is always a balancing act in terms of planning snowplow orders.
“I’ve done this for 20, 25 years, and we can never figure out how many snowplows to order and how many we’re going to sell,” he said. “It’s the roll of the dice. Last year, the snowplow people in Salt Lake City did not get one push, and it didn’t freeze. If it snowed, it wasn’t enough to plow. If they got one push, that’s all they got. If you own a snowplow business, one push isn’t going to do it.
“We had sold a couple hundred plows just from people anticipating. Municipalities still buy. It’s kind of goofy to try to figure out what to order. Our controller was like, ‘Everybody bought plows last year, and it didn’t snow, so we’re not going to order any plows this year, because they bought them last year.’ We disagreed with him. We still brought in 250 for the preseason order. It blows him away. Where do these plows go every year?” ♦