By Joshua Burd
Millions of New Jersey residents awoke last Thursday to the fast-moving, bruising snowstorm that forced many businesses to close and left a lasting impact through the weekend.
By that time, Steven Jomides and nearly 200 crew members were either on site or on their way to parking lots across the state for a job that would last all day and into the night, before concluding early the following morning.
“We’ll continue to plow until it stops,” Jomides said late Thursday morning, as snow continued to fall. “We’ll clean it up and go curb to curb and then we’ll apply more de-icers — and then we’ll be on site about 4 a.m. to check for any refreeze situations.”
It’s a service that Jomides and his company, Lawns by Yorkshire, provide for many of the state’s top corporations, landlords and real estate firms — from Verizon and Bed Bath & Beyond to JLL and Mack-Cali Realty Corp. The Westwood-based firm is one of the largest in the state when it comes to snow removal, with a book of business that includes more than 250 acres of parking lots across commercial and residential properties.
In the busiest winters, revenue from snow removal can exceed $5 million.
Last week’s storm dumped between six and 12 inches across northern and central New Jersey. That meant a busy day for Jomides’ fleet of plows, loaders and other equipment, which cleared lots at just about every building type, including many that couldn’t afford to be shut down by Mother Nature for more than a few hours.
For instance, Jomides’ clients include some of the large distribution centers that line the New Jersey Turnpike. For “some of the big players, they can’t stop,” he said, noting that 18-wheelers are rolling in and out of the facilities at all hours of the day.
The company also has to be versatile. Strip malls can be “mission-critical” in many cases, but require smaller and more nimble equipment than the types of loaders and large vehicles used at industrial sites.
“Retailers, if they’re open, need to have great ingress and egress to their place so that they can continue to put people in there to make money,” Jomides said. “So they’re both equally important, but they’re dealt with differently.”
Office parks are “probably a combination of both,” he added, depending on whether the employees from the tenant companies have made it to work that day. And for properties that house call centers, of which there are many in New Jersey, snow and ice removal is both time-sensitive and time-specific.
“People come out and they have to be able to get to their car safely and leave the parking lot safely,” Jomides said. “Once they leave the parking lot safely, then we’ve done our job.”
Thursday’s weather was the kind that can make for an especially fruitful winter, but Jomides said that has become increasingly difficult to plan for. While his company is primarily focused on landscaping, he said he and other operators “do rely on snow to a certain degree, noting that “we have a model in place that will allow us to go through the winter and maintain a staff.”
But that model has begun to change in recent years, presenting a challenge.
“What we’ve seen is a shift in the weather patterns,” Jomides said, noting that the winter of 2013 to 2014 was “really robust, (but) this year has been pretty thin at best, and last year we got 80 percent of our snowfall in one single event.
“What we’re doing is changing a little bit to become less dependent on snow, and when we do our annual budgets, we budget less revenue on snow than we have in prior years.”
Still, Lawns by Yorkshire has stayed ahead of its competitors in recent years by investing in dedicated snow plow liability insurance policies. Jomides said that appeals to discerning property owners and managers when they’re selecting their service providers.
He said it’s tough to say if that “translates into dollars and sense yet,” but it can offset the effects of having a lighter winter.
Another way to stay competitive is to be efficient, Jomides said, pointing to the use of technology as a means to achieving that goal. Technology in snow removal has evolved from more than a decade ago, starting with the use of cell phones to GPS systems to the ability to access third-party camera feeds at a property.
Combined with the use of meteorological services, such tools have become critical in the snow removal business.
“It started probably about 15 years ago and now it’s just becoming more common,” Jomides said. “You were ahead of your game back then, but now it’s just so refined and it’s so much more accurate. … Technology is key. It really is.”