Originally published in Business Digest, January 1998

Plowing Through Winter

by Julia Lynam

[photo of George Beatty] George Beatty of GB Mechanical in Williston estimates that 2,000 truck-mounted snowplows are sold in northern Vermont each year. His truck repair business became a Sno-Way dealership in 1990. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

The first snow of the winter marks a watershed for George Beatty -- if you'll pardon the metaphor! It's the moment when his customers either congratulate themselves because they've been wise enough to prepare for the coming winter, or they call Beatty in a panic. "Things go totally crazy!" says the tall, bearded Vermonter, sounding as though he secretly relishes the activity. "Trucks not starting, people scrambling for plows. Most of them have been waiting to see if we're really going get snow this year!"

His company, GB Mechanical of Williston, maintains and repairs mid-sized trucks, and is in the snowplow business -- not just any snowplows, but lightweight, clear plastic plows manufactured by Sno-Way of Hartford, Wis.

"This is Fisher country," says Beatty, referring to the competition -- the brand of snowplow most often seen on Vermont trucks. "And when I first started selling Sno-Way it was a hard market. People were laughing at me. They think you need a thousand pounds on the front of the truck to move snow, and ours weigh only 500 pounds. What people didn't realize is that our plows depend on engineering design to move the snow, not bulk strength."

Beatty saw his first Sno-Way plow when a customer arrived with one fixed to the front of his truck seven years ago. "I went on a gut feeling," says Beatty, "backed up by research done by my father. I bought one myself and tried to destroy it up at our camp in Bakersfield. I even moved boulders around with it."

Impressed with the plow's performance, Beatty added a Sno-Way dealership to his already thriving truck repair business in 1990. That first winter he sold just three plows, but last winter he sold 70. By the beginning of this December he'd already sold 50, thanks in part to the early snowfall Nov. 14 that brought out a lot of people who'd been delaying their winter preparations.

Dan Gerrard of Interactive Maintenance Services of South Burlington bought one of those first three plows, back in 1990, and several more since. His company maintains and plows parking areas for many big stores in the area, including Costco, Hannaford's, Shaw's Supermarkets and Kmart. "I find that the Sno-Way plow is hands down the best product out there for the purpose," says Gerrard. "And that's saying a lot from someone who does a lot of shopping centers! I've known George Beatty for many years. He's a good, honest businessman and it's a great product."

A native of South Burlington, Beatty, 35, set up his truck repair business in 1987 when the Williston Truck Center where he worked as a mechanic closed. "The customers needed someone to look after their trucks," he says, "so I set up a mobile unit with a compressor, generator and welder in the back, and worked out of that for about a year and a half. I had customers in New York state as well as Vermont and it worked very well."

So well, in fact, that within two years he found he could no longer spare the time needed to travel to customers, and set up his shop on Airport Parkway in South Burlington. Working alone at first, he built up the business until in 1990 he had to move to larger premises on Williston Road and take on a full-time mechanic. Four years later, GB Mechanical moved to its current premises off Williston's Industrial Avenue, and Beatty breathed a sigh of relief to finally have enough space. "We moved from 1,600 square feet to 4,600 square feet," he says. "And we're using nearly all of this space now, although we still have a few corners we can expand into."

He took the first steps along his business pathway at the vocational center in Essex Junction where he spent two of his high school years studying auto mechanics. "Rodney Dewyea was the best teacher I've ever had," he recalls enthusiastically: "He really taught me a lot about being a mechanic." Whether due to the influence of an inspirational teacher, or simply to his own natural character, Beatty is obviously both dedicated to and very proud of his work: "It's got to be 100 percent," he says, "or I don't let it out the door."

That personal commitment spills over into the service GB Mechanical provides as a Sno-Way dealership. "What we're offering is pretty competitive in terms of price," he says, "but we're not playing the price game: Our product is better, not cheaper. The biggest thing we do that competitors don't is to put everything on so that the customer doesn't have to come back later for accessories," he says, explaining that "everything" includes a foil for the top of the blade and a hydraulic switch or "paw" to lift the plow off the truck.

Where Sno-Way scores over other plows, he says, is in having downward pressure on the blade. "Instead of using a chain to lift the plow, Sno-Way uses a hydraulic cylinder, which allows it to push down as well as up, moving the snow more effectively." The downward pressure also helps improve traction, he adds, a particular advantage with lighter, modern trucks.

Beatty's perfectionism also finds expression in his work on customized trucks. He spends a lot of his spare time working on his own mud-racing Ford Bronco, which has won four trophies in the last two years at the Truck Jamboree held at the Champlain Valley Fairground in Essex Junction every August. But the truck isn't just for fun -- it's an important marketing tool for the company. "The biggest portion of our advertising is the Champlain Valley Fair, followed by the Truck Jamboree," says Beatty. "When you walk in the back entrance we're more or less the first tent you see." Those events bring in many new customers for snowplows as well as truck repair and customizing.

While he obviously enjoys it, Beatty admits that the demand for customizing is dwindling. "It's steady, but it takes a lot of time and I think more people are doing it themselves because that's the only way they can afford it."

The "do-it-yourself" attitude has other repercussions for the business. Beatty reckons that approximately 2,000 truck-mounted snowplows are sold in northern Vermont every year, many to individuals rather than companies. A carefully used plow can last as long as 10 years. And even with heavy use, most people get three to five years out of them. So where do they all go? He reckons that the "do-it-yourselfers" are increasing the number of snowplows in use. "A lot more people are building homes in the woods with quarter-mile driveways, and doing their own snow plowing," he says. "And people who own shops and apartments and want to be able to get them plowed promptly are buying their own plows rather than relying on hiring someone else."

There are many individuals among his customers, but GB Mechanical, which holds the Sno-Way dealership for most of the state, also supplies plows to municipal customers, including the city of Winooski, the town of Proctor, Champlain Water and Morrisville Light and Water. On the truck repair side, which makes up about 50 percent of annual revenues, Beatty specializes in mid-sized trucks, often delivery vehicles, and diesel work, as well as the increasingly popular four-wheel drive vehicles. Business customers include Yankee Electric in Winooski, Office Environments of Williston, and Hansen and Son, the Shelburne piano and organ suppliers whose vice president Ben Koehler says: "I couldn't say enough good things about GB. They've been maintaining our 14-foot Isuzu box van for about five years now, and they certainly know what they're doing!"

Another important figure at GB Mechanical is George Beatty's father, Jack, who joined the business after he retired in 1991 from the purchasing department of IBM's Essex Junction facility. Jack Beatty looks after much of the business administration, even designing and producing quote sheets that Sno-Way now uses nationwide. Jack is a great motivator -- he's the one responsible for the snacks on the counter and the welcoming atmosphere of GB's modest, brightly lighted reception area where mesmerizing videos of snow plowing run all day. "He's a great person to talk to," says his son appreciatively. "He's lived in the area all his life and he knows everyone."

George's wife, Sherry, helps with bookkeeping and paperwork when she can take time off from her primary occupation of looking after the couple's two small daughters, 6 year-old Samantha and 2 year-old Amanda, at their home in Williston.

Beatty is seriously considering adding a wrecker to his stable, because he says there is no one in this immediate area operating a mid-sized wrecker. Will this mean 24-hour service from GB Mechanical? "We do that now," he replies. "My customers know that they can call me anytime, day or night, if they have an emergency, and I'll do everything possible to help them. We've even had a letter of appreciation from one of my customers -- and I still don't know who it was -- appear on the back of a national Sno-Way brochure!"

Another innovation might lead to a clean sweep. Reasoning that people with a snowplow sub-frame attached to their trucks might as well use it in summer, too, Sno-Way has launched the "Broomer," a rigid, stiff-bristled brush up to 10 feet wide that can be mounted on the snowplow frame. It can be used to sweep, rake, spread and scrape parking lots, feed lot areas, grain facilities, cul de sacs, construction sites, intersections and sidewalks. GB Mechanical will be demonstrating and promoting the Broomer to business customers as soon as the snow melts.