Banking on snowfall

Sept. 1, 2008
Arrowhead Equipment cashes in on the blustery winter weather in upstate New York. The company is one of the top Fisher snowplow distributors in the country, and most of its sales come from products designed to combat snow and ice

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Temperatures frequently plunge to -40° F. Snowstorms of 20 inches or more are not uncommon. Add it all up, and it can make a very beautiful day in the Adirondacks for those who sell snow and ice control equipment.

Not surprisingly, Arrowhead Equipment cashes in on the blustery winter weather in upstate New York. The company is one of the top Fisher snowplow distributors in the country, and most of its sales come from products designed to combat snow and ice.

It's that time of year again.

“We are geared to snow and ice,” says William Ehlert, president. “Here it is July, and we have been selling snowplows every day since April.”

The company operates two facilities, both in New York. The Queensbury shop, located just outside the southeast boundary of Adirondack Park, is the original location. A second store, some 60 miles to the south in Albany, opened in 2000.

“We are having our best year ever for both stores,” Ehlert says. “So far, so good — including a record month in June.”

The two locations enable the company to serve two completely different markets. Queensbury caters to small municipalities, not surprising given its proximity to Adirondack Park. The six-million-acre park is the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States — larger than Yellowstone National Park, the Everglades, Glacier National Park, and the Grand Canyon combined.

The region does not have a lot of truck dealers, so the company markets its products directly.

“We do a lot of plow trucks for towns and counties,” Ehlert says. “We are booked out to the end of the year trying to take care of our ice control business in addition to our regular truck equipment work.”

By contrast, the Albany location is much more highly populated, and truck dealers play a key role in getting truck equipment from Arrowhead to the end user.

Arrowhead considers itself a specialist in snow and ice control equipment. The company delivers the ordinary as well as the unusual.

Some of the more novel projects come from the military. Arrowhead has been selling to the military for about a decade. Snowplow trucks that Arrowhead has produced see service in Army installations in the United States as well as internationally — including keeping roads clear in Afghanistan.

Arrowhead is a sole-source supplier of a special snowplow that is installed on the military's LMTV and HMMWV (Humvee) light- and medium-duty trucks.

Two things make working on these vehicles different from other installations. First is the mounting system. Arrowhead produces a special mounting system that enables it to mount a standard Fisher to the vehicles.

Second is the electrical system. These military trucks operate on 24 volts. The electrical components must be changed out to accept the higher voltage, and wiring and harness are different. Arrowhead produces the special wiring harness that is required.

“Other than that, it looks like any other Fisher snowplow,” Ehlert says.

The light-duty vehicles get eight-foot plows, while the larger LMTVs are equipped with nine-foot models.

The remote location of the Adirondacks increases demand for personal use plows.

Many companies such as landscapers, plumbers, and electricians offer plowing services, but there also is demand for personal-use plows.

“A lot of people — especially those in the upper reaches of the Adirondacks — want their driveways plowed right away,” Ehlert says.

Like many truck equipment distributors that rely heavily on snowplow and spreader sales, the company shifts into “red alert” status as a snowstorm approaches.

“When two inches of snow are on the ground, we are open, and we don't close until the storm is over. It's rare that the storm lasts more than 15 hours, but if it starts at midnight, that's when we open. We do it because that's what our customers expect of us. Our company has 21 years of being there when the customer needs us.”

Arrowhead covers a 16-county area in eastern New York and part of Vermont. It's an area consisting of a lot of small towns.

“About 85% of the towns in our market are our customers,” Ehlert says.

To serve those scattered customers, Arrowhead has two outside sales reps who specialize in municipal business. An inside sales rep also is responsible for oversight of plow installations.

A third sales rep and another inside salesperson are responsible for dealer sales.

“We do some cross selling that generates body and mechanical work for the shop,” Ehlert says. “Our paint shop is strong enough that fleets come to us to have custom paint jobs that match the fleets' standard colors.”

Arrowhead also offers mobile service. The company's service truck, a one-ton Chevy with open-top body, is driven and staffed by one of Arrowhead's original employees.

“Winter brings out the worst in trucks,” Ehlert says. “Our mobile service truck does a lot of cold battery starts and fuel-line freeze-ups.”

DOT inspections and preventive maintenance are also offered. Customers include beverage distribution fleets, food purveyors, and tree maintenance companies — any type of truck that is particularly costly to its owner when it is out of service.

Municipalities have been a major source of sales for Arrowhead. To accommodate demand, the company added 10,000 square feet to its shop, more than doubling the size of the facility.

“I can't image how we got along without the addition,” Ehlert says. “We were going to do it in 2001, but we backed off when business turned down following the terrorist attacks. Instead, we waited a couple of years and finished the project in 2004. I wish we had stuck with our original plan. We missed out on some business by waiting, and we still incurred the construction expense. Unfortunately, by the time we felt we were ready to add on, the cost of building materials had increased sharply.”

Arrowhead added its second shop in 2000 in order to better serve the area around Albany.

Ehlert, who grew up in Albany, started his business on the edge of Adirondack Park in 1987. He was attracted to the lifestyle of an area that is removed from the hustle and bustle of urban living, and he was able to meet the truck equipment needs of those around him. But despite being only an hour away from Albany, he found it difficult to serve the market from Queensbury.

“There is a mental barrier about crossing the Saratoga Springs exit on Interstate 87,” Ehlert says of the point that is approximately halfway between Albany and Queensbury. “That's about as far as people would travel for truck equipment.”

Every year, however, Arrowhead gives customers an extra reason to travel — the company's annual open house. This year's event (the company's sixth) was held July 22 at the Queensbury facility, and it attracted approximately 300 customers from throughout the area.

Among the events was a snowplow rodeo, pig roast, and vendor displays. Arrowhead also includes seminars that are of interest to snowplow customers. A presentation on advanced controls was particularly well received. A representative from Cirus Controls talked about advanced controls for regulating the amount of salt dispensed.

“We live in a beautiful part of the country, and the people here are very concerned about environmental issues,” Ehlert says.

These controls closely regulate the amount of material dispensed on the roadway. The tight controls help ensure that only the proper amount of material is used, reducing the environmental impact of the deicing chemicals. And because towns frequently plow roads for counties and the state, the data that the control systems collect can be used to verify the billing to the state or county for the amount of material dispensed.

Arrowhead handles a variety of snow and ice control equipment, including Fisher snowplows and spreaders, Swenson spreaders, APB combination bodies, and Monroe and Tenco Machinery snow and ice control equipment and municipal plow packages.

Arrowhead is more than a snow and ice control specialist, however. The company sells a complement of truck bodies, including Beau-Roc and Rugby dumps, Kidron, Supreme, and U S Truck Body vans, and Knapheide platforms and service bodies.

When none of those standard truck bodies is exactly what the customer is looking for, Arrowhead will build something from scratch. The company routinely produces custom dump bodies and platforms.

“If it doesn't involve the engine or transmission, we will tackle it,” Ehlert says.