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Five questions for plow contractor Rick Farrell

For Rick Farrell, all this winter's snow and ice have meant about $1 million in contract work with the city of Baltimore — the welcome return on an investment inspired by 2010's "Snowmaggedon."

Farrell, of Ellicott City, incorporated his commercial power-washing business, Columbia-based Corporate Maintenance Group, in 2004, focusing on shopping centers and parking garages and eventually providing sweeping and other services for the same facilities.

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Then the "hellacious back-to-back snow storms" of 2010 hit, and the company took a chance, he said — renting every plow and salt-spreader it could get its hands on, installing them on its trucks and picking up work.

"It almost felt like we were seasoned veterans after that," Farrell said, "and we decided that was really something we wanted to take on."

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His company invested heavily in winter equipment, outfitting all of its trucks. Then for two winters in a row, barely any snow fell. Farrell was "sweating it out a little bit," he said.

Now he hopes this winter's weather will stick around "until it's June."

The Baltimore Sun caught up with him to ask what it's like to be a contract plower this winter.

Why did it make sense to expand into winter plowing, and what did the shift entail?

When we considered adding snow and ice control to our core competency, it was important that we measured it correctly. Our team worked well with the city of Baltimore to get through Snowmaggedon in 2010, clearing secondary roads and parking lots. We jumped in and performed in the most challenging conditions this area had seen in nearly 70 years. We really appreciated the gratitude from the residents as they saw us coming into their neighborhoods. We were hooked, and the culture of our operations staff was immediately enhanced. The fact that we rose to such a challenge, without any chance for a crash course, made it clear that we could add these services to our company with great confidence. We then decided to go beyond our business model and invest in more trucks, plows and spreaders. It doesn't directly impact our present offerings of commercial pressure washing, sweeping, striping and painting. All of the same great resources are used for snow removal and have formed CMG into a year-round service based company.

Can you describe the logistics of your plowing operations during and after a major winter storm in Baltimore?

During these snow events we are concerned with safety and efficiency at all times. We review and grade our performance after each storm and constantly work on better systems for the next go-around. We implement these systems at each shift change when our crews gather at the shop before they head out to work their assignments. The weather forces us to constantly reassess our approach and adapt to the ever-changing circumstances. We have the following layers at all times to support and direct our plow drivers: the owner, a shift manager, a shop supervisor, a mechanic, a roving [quality control] supervisor, a call-in assistant and a supervisor for every seven drivers. We have also employed a person to track the GPS systems installed on our fleet of trucks. When every minute counts and people are tired, it is imperative that our team is in sync with each other and with our client. None of this takes place without great communication.

What has all the work this season meant for the company's bottom line, its staff and your plans moving forward?

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A year like this greatly offsets the past few snow seasons that we have seen. The volume of snow work that we have earned will allow CMG to pay back its capital equipment debt while keeping our staff busy through a typically slow time of year. It's great to see the crew show up ready to work, smiling ear to ear with coffee in hand in below freezing temperatures knowing they'll be making hard-earned money for their families. We've also purchased additional pressure washers, a sweeper and other new equipment. While we invested heavily into this season, we also plan on adding to our snow fleet for next year. Those that have hired CMG deserve the best and we recognize that they have choices, so earning their repeat business is the most important standard we have set. With new revenues coming in, we continue to invest directly back into our company. This unseasonably cold and wintry weather is good for our business, but when the snow melts and the ice thaws, our clients will be in dire need of heavy duty cleaning at their facilities. Our core services are fully back in play when spring hits.

After record levels of snow in 2010, you saw very little snow for two winters. Can you describe that roller coaster from a business perspective?

As most of us know, business is risk, and predicting weather is even more uncertain. When we incorporated snow and ice control into our business model, we pitched our strategy to Howard Bank and thankfully they supported our vision. History has shown that Baltimore will typically have medium to heavy amounts of snow at least once every three years. We were confident that we could wait out the slow snow seasons with the support of our other lines of business. That being said, it was not easy to look at those 10-day forecasts over the last two seasons. We had an arsenal of unpaid equipment and a good staff hungry for the opportunity to get out there and work. Yes, we earn money when it snows, but it is not guaranteed. So far it has worked out. As for the "roller coaster," you should really be interviewing our [vice president of operations], office manager and my patient wife to get the real story. I'm sure they'd tell you there are many amusement park rides that can describe the ups and downs they've witnessed me go through. Luckily, their support keeps CMG focused and driven.

You must be planning at least a little time off after this winter. Where do you go to get away?

Although a vacation sounds fantastic, warmer weather brings on more work for us. When we do eventually have free time, I'll definitely take my wife on a couple of date nights and catch a few O's games with the kids this spring. We hope to go to the beach for a week this summer and play in the sand instead of the snow.

krector@baltsun.com

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twitter.com/RectorSun

Rick Farrell

Title: President, Corporate Maintenance Group

Age: 42

Residence: Ellicott City

Birthplace: Laurel

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Education: Bachelor's degree in social science from Providence College

Family: Wife and three kids

Hobbies: Coaching and attending my kids' sports, golf, Tough Mudder races


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