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Getting rid of the white stuff

Gary and Mary Hillenbrand own and operate their landscaping and snow removal business, Hillenbrand Lawn Service in Willmar. Hillenbrand said about 25 percent of his business is winter work. He has removed the white stuff from driveways, parking lots, sidewalks and roofs in the Willmar area for the past three decades. Half of his customers are commercial businesses. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

By Carlienne A. Frisch, B2B freelance writer

At this time of year we try to move quickly from our car to our destination. As we cross a parking lot, we probably don’t give a thought to the people who cleared the recent snowfall to provide us with sure footing and easy access to businesses in the Willmar area. We can thank people like Gary Hillenbrand, Andy Gimse and Oscar Oakes for our convenience and safety. These snow removal service providers go to work long before most businesses open.

Snow removal is the flip side of lawn and garden maintenance. Hillenbrand, the owner of Hillenbrand Lawn Service, said about 25 percent of his business is winter work. He has removed the white stuff from driveways, parking lots, sidewalks and roofs in the Willmar area for the past three decades. Half of his customers are commercial businesses, the rest are residential home owners.

Read: Snow removal tips for DIY’ers

One customer, Fireside Hearth and Home manager Matt Freiberg, relies on Hillenbrand to have the property cleared before Fireside employees arrive. “Gary’s come and gone before I get here, so our employees can get in to load their vans to go out and build fireplaces,” Freiberg said. “He doesn’t have to be told what to do; he’s reliable and courteous.”

Under normal snow conditions, Hillenbrand, his wife, Mary, and their employee, Rick Duetsch, head out around 2 a.m. to push snow for the next eight hours. The time frame is based on Hillenbrand’s experience that most snow falls overnight and that it’s unusual for snow to continue coming down all day long. Using Bobcat loaders, Hillenbrand pushes the snow aside. When old snow builds up, he hauls it in a dump trailer to his own large lot or to the city lot.

Homeowner Joyce Malvin, who has been one of Hillenbrand’s residential customers for six or seven years, said, “Gary always shows up and gets it done. He comes during the night, and in the morning it’s all shoveled off. He uses a shovel on the sidewalk and a Bobcat around the garage. I’m very happy with his service.”

Residential customers, many of whom are senior citizens, often have rock salt or another ice melting product on hand, which Hillenbrand spreads on sidewalks and driveways for them. He may also put down traction grit.

Andy Gimse, owner of G&H Services for the past six years, said some residential customers will shovel their own walks and driveways after a snowfall of a couple of inches but will call for professional help after a heavier snowfall. They usually must wait until all regular customers have had their snow cleared. Gimse advised, “Don’t let the snow pack down in the driveway and create more of a problem.”

Oscar Oakes Oakes Lawn Care, LLC owner Oscar Oakes runs seven crews, summer and winter. Snow removal constitutes about 35 percent of the business, which has been in operation for 10 years.

About 50 percent of Oakes’ customers are commercial, the remainder being homeowners’ associations and private residences. Even with four plow trucks, a skid loader, a dump truck and numerous other pieces of equipment, including snow blowers, there’s a limit to how many commercial accounts a snow removal business can take on because the work must be completed by 8 a.m. That’s when even large snow removal operators break out the shovels and clear sidewalks for businesses after another contractor has cleared the parking lot.

Another aspect of the snow removal business is equipment repairs. Oakes explained, “It’s not easy on equipment to move snow. There’s an astronomical amount of repairs. We have all newer equipment, but in just three weeks we had transfer cases go out on three different pickups, a trailer axle had to be repaired, and we bent an arm on a tractor. We’re in the process of hiring an in-house mechanic for our shops located in Willmar, Spicer, Shakopee and Cambridge.”

Keeping parking lots, driveways and sidewalks accessible and safe may seem to be the highest priority, but Hillenbrand offers a different perspective.

“Roofs are the most important,” he said. “We clean the rooftops of snow and we remove a lot of ice dams that can create roof damage, as they have in many years, especially in 1997, which was a terrible year.” He advises homeowners to put safety first and let professionals do the roof clearing work, which can be hazardous even for people with years of experience. He ought to know — he’s been there.

“Nine years ago, I fell off the roof of a rambler, shattered my ankle and broke my heel,” Hillenbrand said. “I had an employee with me, and the customer also saw it happen. I was on crutches for six months and had to hire additional employees. I strongly urge people to stay off their roofs.”