Road boss: Iron Mountain snowplow company continues to push through low-blizzard winters

As experts continually gauge the impact of global warming on world weather, leaders at Boss Snowplow pay close attention.  

After all, annual profits at the Iron Mountain-based firm -- and the livelihoods of 300 to 400 employees at any given time – closely depend on such forecasting. As such, its managers closely study National Weather Service outlooks, subscription-based statistical methodologies and the opinions of other experts when planning how much to manufacture each year. And those plans must extend five years into the future – up to seven years for new products.

Stakes are high. When precipitation is average, Boss sells tens of thousands of machinery units across 25 countries. But that number can skyrocket in a year of heavy storms or drop quickly when snowfall plummets. Last year, reduced snowfall brought U.S. and Canada sales down about 20 percent; this year Boss’s key markets are seeing a 50 percent drop in typical snowfall.

The situation has led to layoffs, though strategy calls for 365-days-a-year manufacturing to continually employ as many as possible. But Mark Klossner, Boss vice president of manufacturing, points out that the long-term impact of global warming on Boss’s market is still uncertain, since severe storms have been one outcome and weather patterns tend to be cyclical.

“We’re constantly checking and adjusting our numbers based on what’s happening in the field,” he notes. “We can swing 20 to 40 percent to the negative or positive depending on weather severity, but ideally, we want to maintain inventory levels to capitalize on big winters. So, it’s complicated.”

The good news? Though 2024 revenues should drop slightly or remain flat, the 39-year-old company has maintained single-digit sales increases percentages over each of the past few years. Product innovations and widened distribution channels continue to drive revenues.  And since 2021, parent company, the Toro Co., has supported Boss with $50 million in plant expansions. 

Local ingenuity pays off with merger 

Boss’s roots date back to 1985, when entrepreneur Warren Brule bought a patent for a unique hinged snowplow to help launch a new factory in Iron Mountain. The firm’s steady product, revenue and market growth -- combined with what Klossner calls the “strong local work ethic” -- was so attractive to worldwide outdoor equipment company Toro that it acquired Brule's company for $227 million in 2014.  That empowered Toro to cross-sell plows to the 80 percent of lawn maintenance contractors who double as snow-removal contractors and expanded Boss’s market across 125 countries (via some 180 distributors and 900 dealers). 

Today, Boss manufactures about 40 different models of slide-in spreaders, box plows, truck plows, brine sprayers and sidewalk vehicles. Seventy-five percent of its revenues come from the commercial market, 25 percent from the residential.  

Pushing for progress, productivity

Boss’s claims to fame these days include its reputation for product innovation, its simple yet highly productive designs, its strong warranties and its convenient approach to customer troubleshooting, Klossner says.

“Our market research shows contractors really strongly look at Boss as an innovator in our industry, so they expect new things to come from us,” he explains. “We try to guide our engineers with customer-driven feedback, and to create product descriptions (specifying) what a product has to be and do, and what costs we’re trying to hit."

Klossner points, for example, to the Snowrater – a sidewalk-sized hydraulic plow re-engineered in 2019 with improved electrical and plow attachment systems that can simultaneously brine, spread and plow surfaces. Because of its compact size and versatility, the stand-on vehicle can cost-effectively replace the labor of five to six hand-shovelers in handling snow removal in smaller spaces.

“It’s a game changer,” he says. “We’ve grown that product and are in the (market) leadership position."

In 2021-2022, Toro financed a three-phase facilities improvement project at Boss that significantly expanded local manufacturing, research and development and administrative facilities. Another significant event: The firm’s 2022 purchase of Minnesota-based Voigt Smith Innovation, a maker of liquid de-icing equipment. The market for such machinery is growing, Klossner says, as municipalities (and the EPA) increasingly favor water-and-salt brine mixtures as melting mechanisms on paved surfaces. Brine uses about a third of the rock salt normally needed to perform the same function, he says, reducing salinity added to area water sources. 

Boss is also planning advanced product technology, including connected products wired to provide key data to users. Its first foray: its VBX + spreader that allows the user to automatically measure, control and document salt applications.  Further down the line? The possibility of autonomous plows, pending several challenges. 
He declined to name 2024 revenue projections, but Boss sales were reported at $125 million when it was sold to Toro in 2014.  

Overcoming industry challenges

Materials acquisition continues to be a challenge for Boss; due to political, economic and COVID developments overseas and pandemic-era supply chain issues that haven’t fully resolved. Key elements like wiring harnesses and computer chips can be hard to procure, and steel costs have risen significantly. 

“More than 80 percent of our product content is steel, so we had to take prices up in the last couple of years at a level we hadn’t in the previous five to seven years,” says Klossner. 

Also problematic: the tight local labor market. Boss recruits heavily from engineer-rich Northern Michigan University and Michigan Technological University (90 percent of Boss engineers are Tech grads), but challenges remain.  “As our needs grow, the population up here is not growing,” he observes. “It’s becoming a bit of a barrier to growth …  plus, several other manufacturers in this area are also growing and consuming people in the skilled trades."

All that said, Boss is well-positioned to keep gaining market share, he says, and long-term plans look encouraging.

“We’ve had a couple bumps in the road with the lack of snowfall and the economy, but we’re back on track with a strong brand, good products and the potential for a lot of growth,” he says. “The bottom line is, the future is really bright here, and the technology we’re getting into is really exciting."

Suzanne Larson, executive director of the Dickinson Chamber of Commerce, calls Boss “a cornerstone of not only economic prosperity but also social responsibility.” She referred in part to its support of the Special Olympics, local kids’ and veterans’ programs and area beautification/improvement projects.

“Boss's remarkable ability to expand facilities and increase revenues despite navigating through a challenging international market underscores the resilience and tenacity ingrained within its operations,” she says. “Its ability to weather challenges, create employment opportunities, and engage in meaningful philanthropy underscores its integral role in shaping the region's present and future."

Originally from Kalamazoo, freelance writer Michelle Miron now lives in the frozen tundra of Minnesota, where her side hustle is selling vintage clothing.
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