If you put any faith in long-range predictions, the coming winter in the northeast will bring record-breaking, bone-cold temperatures and above average mountains of snow. For some businesses — ski resorts, snow plows, ice skating rinks — that’s cause for celebration.
But if you work in an industry that depends on favorable weather for winter work — construction, contracting, landscaping, to name a few — you might presume the impending winter is a time to fold up shop, say goodbye to any serious revenue, and think about a southern strategy or a nice long tropical vacation.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Business experts and company executives in organizations that generally operate outdoors say there are a number of strategies and initiatives you can take to gird against falling seasonal revenue.
Cool Idea No. 1: Aggressive winter pricing.
Some contractors offer discounted services during the spring and summer if clients sign up and pay during the winter. Seasonal incentives and promotions may give companies a competitive edge and a device to win more bids. Just be careful not to price too low. “Remember,” says Delphi’s director of project development Chris Thompson, “There is a cost benefit to the client that can be dealt with in the planning. Planned correctly, they won’t have to be paying painters, and contractors and electricians in August when that work can be done in February when the work moves inside. There might be an added cost for doing work in the winter but the cost benefit will become evident when the client will be able to take occupancy sooner.”
Boiling down those strategies ultimately leads to two words: “planning” and “balance.”
“Winter in New England happens and there’s nothing you can do about it,” says Keith Shaw, chief operations officer for Delphi Construction Inc., in Waltham. “But business-wise, a good winter is really established by good planning in the spring before.”
Cool Idea No. 2: Work for an all-season construction company.
Contractors and other builders can align themselves with larger firms that tend to operate year-round. This keeps the revenue flowing during the cold months.
For large construction companies like Delphi, technology has eased much of the financial burden that winter can bring. Firms can invest in big ground cutters — giant saws that cut through frozen earth — concrete that can be poured in cold weather, special hydronic units to preheat rebar and other frost-resistant material. Some customers agree to increasing their construction budget just to keep the work continuing through the winter, Delphi executives say.
“The technology in concrete alone is amazing,” says Delphi vice president, Joe Mastromatteo. “But that’s just one of the tools for attacking the winter. When that weather hits, you need a program in place to deal with controlling the atmosphere, minimizing fuel costs, having the right equipment in place and the right sub-contractors ready to go. Those are the things that are going to help reduce winter down times.”
Cool Idea No. 3: Diversify.
In many cases that simply means planning your interior work in the winter months when the exterior work has been completed. But it also can mean looking for alternative sources of income with the resources you already have. A landscaper might be able to repurpose equipment for a snow removal business, for example. A company could rent out its trucks to all-season companies or its building space for people wanting to store boats, RVs or other vehicles and equipment. Offer holiday decorating services — a $25 billion a year industry — to keep workers employed in the off season.
Mastromatteo says last winter Delphi used a propane heating system to keep the work environment warm that was adequate but costly. For the coming year, it has switched to a modern electrical heating system it expects to work just as well, and cost less.
“I’ll let you know in a few months how it works, but right now we think we’re going to be saving 20 percent to 30 percent of our winter condition costs,” he said.
With all that advance planning as well as balancing outside work with interior building and rehab, Delphi says its revenues drop no more than 10 to 15 percent during the winter season, which it gets through with no reduction in staffing or employment.
Cool Idea No. 4: Added value services.
Offer home energy inspections and look for opportunities like replacing old doors and windows. Use any down time to scout houses and businesses with cracked driveways, sidewalks, and patios. Offer them a one-time discount if they put a deposit down in advance. That will net cash flow during the off-season and it will fill project calendars for the spring. Enroll your clients in a customer loyalty program to keep in touch during the off-season for any opportunities or improvements they may be contemplating.
“It all comes down to productivity and how much you can exact over the winter months,” says Shaw. “The carpenters will need to take more breaks to get warm and weather affects how fast workers go.”
Yet many business owners in the northeast make a definite calculation to keep working as much as they can through the winter, he says.
“If they get two months of production in three months, they’re starting March just one month behind instead of three months behind,” Shaw says.
There are few winter obstacles that can’t be overcome with technology and money, but some of the more high-flying and costly options are out of reach for smaller companies and independent contractors. Still, Delphi executives and others say, there’s a lot that can be done to minimize winter disruption.
“Come up with a plan for each client and set realistic objectives for the winter,” Shaw says.
Of course, there is always the “snowbird strategy” to consider — moving operations to a warmer part of the country to wait out the winter. But Delphi’s Shaw says that idea has its own flaws.
“There’s almost as many problems trying to deal with the heat as there are with the cold,” he says.
Cool Idea No. 5: Use the time to engage with customers on social media.
Ask customers and clients to review your work on social media sites, offering up-to-date testimonials as well as photos and videos that show the work done. Such off-season marketing techniques can reap big benefits come spring.
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