August 1, 2016
Bob Wilton
Bob Wilton

Build a reputation

Bob Wilton retired from Clintar Landscape Management of Markham, Ont., in 2014, a company he founded in 1973. Clintar’s landscape franchises now operate coast-to-coast, and Wilton has been a respected contributor to industry promotion efforts across North America throughout his career.

Should young guys get into the snow business? What does it take?

Definitely, it’s a good business. It attracts people from the practical, technical point of view — but I see too many not watching, and not knowing, their numbers and costs. It’s mind-boggling. Then they wonder why they don’t have any money. I had the advantage of going to business school at Ryerson, where I had accounting, and the professors guided us. I knew I had better have a good accountant if I was to succeed at business.

What are the personality traits of a good snow operator?

For the fellows doing well, salesmanship is the Number One attribute; they are salesmen first. Clintar was always looking for good salespeople in its franchisees. It is hard in the beginning when you have no reputation. You need the drive. And also, right from the giddy-up, you need to be able to work with a good bookkeeper, accountant or adviser

Did you ever ask a competitor for business advice?

Never. That would be wonderful, but would you get the right answer? You might not. Join trade associations, rub shoulders, hear things and chat. There is also great software out there now to track costs; we did not have that 40 years ago. Pick a good program, and manage the details. I have been asked to help about six startups myself; I can’t help them all, they must be willing to learn.

What should young contractors be doing differently?

Don’t do what I did, which was start with no money. Lots of startups are out there with a loaded truck and nothing else. Overspending on fancy equipment is easy to do; a high portion of that cost is unnecessary. You need capital and a business plan to chart your future. You need a map to build your business. It’s hard to do. Software and mentorship help, but your mentor needs to be in the industry.

Has snow contracting opportunity increased or decreased?

The approach has not changed that much; it is still emergency work. I see contractors caught in fixed contracts, with unknown costs. Put limits in your contracts. Customers don’t want to share the risk, but you must protect yourself, you must be able to charge for the events. A good salesman can sell the common sense of that approach. You need profits every year.

What is your top strategy to limit liability?

Slip-and-fall claims come out of a couple of customer types — retail malls are the worst. Most contracts give contractors unlimited liability, but you can negotiate responsibility for claims. It’s a tough trap. Be careful what you sign

Any tips on hiring good snow operators?

Our hiring problems at Clintar decreased over time. You have to pay an attractive amount to operators. They will come back if you treat them properly, and pay them properly. We earned a reputation for dignity and respect, which did not come overnight.

Otherwise, you have a plow sitting there in a storm with nobody in it. You certainly have to pay. 

If you have a question to suggest, or a mentor to recommend, please e-mail