Mark Andol has always been entrepreneurially inclined, starting one of his current companies—General Welding & Fabricating—as a small engine repair shop in his dad’s garage.
But the business that he started at age 16 is the one that really has helped him understand his snowplow customers. He began plowing snow—and he still does.
“I had an old International Scout II, and I built my own snowplow,” Andol says. “I found some cylinders and a lift unit and began clearing parking lots and driveways.”
Even after starting other companies, including his General Welding & Fabricating operation, Andol hung onto that business. He still plows for 20 accounts and assists with plowing his facilities.
“They are accounts I have had for a long time,” Andol says. “Plus, if I’m going to understand my customer, what better way to do that than to do the things my customers do?”
By continuing to put himself behind the wheel of a plow truck, Andol knows what’s important to his customers and the trucks they drive—things such as mounting the plow just right so that the weight is distributed properly and the truck steers the way it should.
“We treat our customers’ trucks as if they were our own,” Andol says. “And we make it a point to be open when our customers need us. In 2014, the winter was unbelievable, and so was the business. We slept here. The guys who repair snowplows can’t let road conditions keep them from getting to the shop. In the plow business, when your customer breaks down at 2 a.m., you are either a hero or a zero.”
Putting himself in the customer’s place has helped Andol and his company. General Welding & Fabricating has two stores of its own—a 48,000-sq-ft headquarters in the Buffalo suburb of Elma, New York, with a second location in Rochester, 75 miles east of Buffalo. General Welding opened the 8,000-sq-ft shop in 2003 in order to more effectively represent Boss snowplows in western New York.
“The Rochester shop does everything we do here,” Andol says. “We install truck equipment, offer fabrication services, and sell are full line of equipment there. They stock everything we sell here. We build trailers here, but we can build trailers in Rochester, too.”
General Welding can trace its roots back to the start of Mark’s Small Engine repair. But it wasn’t long before the company began selling snowplows.
“I bought five of them,” he recalls. “My brother told me I was crazy”
Three decades later, General Welding continues to sell snowplows throughout western New York through the company’s two locations and a network of 18 subdealers. He still represents Boss and has sat on the manufacturer’s advisory board where, among other responsibilities, he evaluates new products before they are introduced.
“Boss never releases a product before it’s ready, Boss is a top quality product with less than 1% on warranty returns” Andol says.
General Welding is not big on multiple suppliers. The company concentrates on selling Boss snowplows. Buyers Products supplies the company with spreaders.
“Buyers has a great line of salters,” Andol says. “Specs such as sealed motors and stainless steel chains hold up well in a tough operating environment.”
Last winter was an easy one in western New York—except for those who were involved in snow and ice control. It was the opposite of the heavy snowstorms that fell throughout the winter of 2014-2015.
“This past winter we lost about $500,000 in parts sales because of the weather,” Andol says. “We just didn’t get any snow last year. I have been plowing snow for 30 years, and we never had a winter that was this light. Mild winters don’t just affect our plow sales. So much of what we sell here is tied to the snow industry. Hats, gloves, hand shovels, walk-behind salters. Even our sales of Wigwam socks were off because last winter was so mild.”
Andol and his team have not let last winter slow them down for the upcoming season.
“We still have taken delivery this summer on more than 300 snowplows, and we have set up another subdealer in order to help us serve our territory,” he says. “This business really requires a crystal ball. We are snow farmers—totally dependent on the weather. We will need an early snow sometime in October to kick off the season—especially following the limited snow we received this past winter.”
In spite of the inconsistent weather pattern, Andol sees consistent growth for snow and ice control products in his market.
“Lights are extremely important,” he says. “You have to be able to see when you are plowing. Our sales of lights have tripled in the last few years and Boss just introduced what I believe is the best snow plow light ever — LED, brigh and heated.”
Wiper blades are another vision-related product that has been popular. But not just any wiper blade. Heated wiper blades have been good sellers, as have been a rear window wiping system that General Welding has developed.
“Ford and Chevrolet don’t address the rear window very well,” Andol says. “We have come up with a self-contained wiper system that clamps to the corner of the pickup box. Grab power for it off the fuse box, and turn it on.”
You dream it
General Welding & Fabricating doesn’t merely bank on snow, though. As its name implies, the company also is involved in manufacturing and custom fabrication.
“If you dream it, we build it or repair it,” Andol says, quoting the company’s motto.
Customer dreams have led the company to build a wide range of products, some routine on-road items, others off the wall.
Next month will be the annual Trailer/Body Builders Aftermarket Parts & Accessories Issue. We will continue our General Welding & Fabricating story then, telling what some of those dreams were and tracing how a custom fabricator of dreams started a chain of retail outlets that has drawn national recognition.