SNOW PIT DRAMA!
Ben Atwood’s the Director of Operations for Allied General Contractors. Used to be in Bakersfield. Moved up to Mammoth 7 years back. Bakersfield’s his satellite office now, and Mammoth’s his home base.
In 2021, Atwood started Plow Brothers. A snow removal company that gave his guys work through the winter. They weren’t hauling that year. Weren’t at that level yet. Plus, Mammoth didn’t get much snow.
This year: different story. It snowed. A lot. For removal companies, snow means business. Atwood got to work. In December, he hauled his first truckload of snow to the pit, which is run by Villar Construction. Atwood Didn’t put down a deposit. Also, didn’t set up an account. Which is not standard for new haulers. Atwood told me he was in contact with Jason Villar via a group text with all the haulers. Jason told me he’d have to look back at the texts to see whether or not Atwood hit the pit without permission. “I know that he didn’t set up an account or talk to Shana prior,” he told me. Shana is Jason’s wife, also part of the Villar Construction team.
Quick note on how the pit operates. It’s usually on Forest Service land, but, this year, the Forest Service wanted an environmental analysis done – what contaminants, if any, would leak from snow to soil – before leasing the land to the Town. Which is a long and costly process that wouldn’t be completed by the time the snow fell. And the Forest Service didn’t issue their typical, temporary special use permit for a similar reason – environmental analysis.
The Town still needed a pit. So, the Snowcreek VIII property owner leased the land to the Town of Mammoth Lakes.
Then, the Town bids out the pit. Any contractor can bid to run it. They just have to be able to provide the equipment and staffing to run it. Villar Construction’s been running the pit for years. Ever since Shana Villar started working in the office, 10 years back. And well beyond that, too, she told me.
The Forest Service pit is better, Jason Villar told me. Handles more trucks. Can take more loads. Plus, the Villar’s know how to run the Forest Service pit. They’ve been doing it a while. A new pit at Snowcreek brings new problems. Like having to expand the pit’s road to make it two-lane. Which Jason Villar did, in the middle of the night, with a crew, during a snowstorm. Now, two trucks can fit on the road, except for a 150 to 200 foot stretch at the entrance, where haulers have to wait for a clearing in the traffic.
January brings more snow. Atwood hatches a plan – bring 15 trucks to Mammoth to haul all the fallen snow.
Rumblings of the plan make their way to Jason and Shana Villar at Villar Construction. Here’s what goes through their minds.
Villar Construction’s a privately-owned, family-run company, Shana Villar told me. Running the pit is costly. For the pit to be open and not losing the Villar’s money, four trucks need to be running through, unloading snow. Contractors communicate with one another if they don’t have four trucks of their own – one guy has two, another has one, another has one… let’s open the pit.
Shana estimates that running the pit at full capacity costs about $35,000 a day when she factors in fuel, wages, insurance costs, staffing, equipment, etc. “It’s such a big deal having trucks running in and out of there all day long,” Shana Villar told me. “It’s a huge expense.” Running more trucks is more expensive. Requires more equipment to move the snow they dump. Requires more staff. And this year, Shana’s seen more trucks than ever at the snowpit. 30 to 40. “Far from normal,” she said. “Unprecedented.” More trucks than 2017, even, when the National Guard came to Mammoth to help clear the snowfall.
While Villar Construction runs the pit, they collaborate with other, local companies. Done so for many years. They extend credit to – and don’t require a deposit from – these companies because they know them. As soon as Shana gets the sheets from the snowpit, she adds the loads up and gets the invoices out to the contractors as soon as possible.The Villar’s trust that these local companies – with which they’ve had long-term relationships – can get the cash to them immediately. And they do. “Never had a problem [with them],” said Shana Villar.
It takes time to build that trust. To extend credit to a company, rather than asking them for a deposit. And Villar Construction’s gotten stiffed before, Jason told me. Before the days of snowpit gate attendants, the pit operated on an honor system. Tell Villar how many loads you dropped, and you’ll get charged accordingly. But, people gamed the system. Now, there’s a process. Part of that process includes extending credit to familiar companies that have proven, positive relationships with the pit and the Villar’s. Part of that process involves charging deposits to those with whom they have yet to establish trust. It’s a regular process for them, Shana told me.
The Plow Brothers were a new company that the Villar’s had little to no relationship with. Running 15 trucks for 8 hours a day for five days would cost Atwood around $50,000, and the Villar’s were hesitant to trust that Atwood and his new company would be able to make that type of payment to the pit when they needed it. Plus, Shana had heard some things about Atwood that gave her pause. Stuff like walking off a Town job in the middle of it. Atwood told me he and his guys were “removed” from that job “against their will,” but he didn’t want to get into the full story.
Bottom line for Villar Construction was the Villar’s didn’t know Atwood, the snowpit’s a costly enterprise, both as an operator and a user, and extending credit to someone comes after building trust. Jason told me he isn’t trying to single anybody out.
It’s business. Expensive business. For the Villar’s to charge a deposit to a young company that has yet to foster a relationship with them… it’s a way of covering their financial bases.
“I don’t know the guy,” Jason told me, “and I’m not a bank… I can’t afford to carry people, especially if I don’t know they can pay me,” he explained.
Villar Construction factored in the overhead, did some math. At the time of the deposit’s calculation, an average truck could haul two truckloads of snow into the pit per hour when running efficiently. Load rates range from $65 per load to $95 per load, depending on truck yardage. 20 yards of snow or fewer is $65. 20 to 40 yards is $85. 40+ yards is $95.
Based on those numbers, Villar Construction charged Atwood a $1,500 deposit per truck per 8 hour period. That’s a rate of $93.75 a load. They told Atwood he’d need to pay the deposit if he wanted to run the trucks, as well as provide information on his trucks and a list of locations from which he was removing snow.
This deposit request did not sit well with Atwood. He took to his YouTube channel, Mammoth Mountain Life, and posted a video. Said the snow pit was monopolized by local contractors, that the pit operators weren’t treating every contractor the same, that the pit is a Good Ole Boy system and if you aren’t in on it, that’s tough for you.
Viewers started throwing around the word “extortion.”
When Villar Construction called Atwood to notify him that he needed a deposit for his 15 trucks at $1,500 per truck per 8 hour period, he protested. Asked Villar to run his credit. He wanted to open an account, like it’s done at the dump. Which isn’t how the Villar’s run the pit.
They told him he needed to pay them per the expressed stipulations.
“What I said in return wasn’t very nice,” said Atwood.
What he said, per Shana: “You guys are crazy!” And, “You’re going to regret this,” which made Shana feel threatened. She called in some guys to come down to the shop and be with her so she could feel safer. Had police patrols come by the office in the evening. Didn’t want to be there, alone, in the dark. Atwood told me he does not recall telling Shana, “You’re going to regret this.”
The next day, Atwood came to pay the deposit for six trucks. $9,000. Shana said the pit would open at 10 p.m. Atwood asked if it would be possible to open it earlier. Shana said it wouldn’t. Atwood said he’d be there at 10 p.m. He didn’t show up to the pit until morning. No calls, no texts, no emails. No notification that he was coming later, Shana told me.
“If I’m being honest,” Atwood said, “I made a mistake.” He decided to push back to 4 a.m. instead of 10 p.m. “But it didn’t affect their operations at all,” Atwood said. He told me he knew there were several other contractors running that night.
“We could have sent home one loader and one additional gatekeeper,” said Shana. “That’s kind of a rough start with somebody.”
Atwood’s been paying the deposit for six trucks. But, he said he might have to throw in the towel on hauling snow to the pit if he can’t get financing. The deposits are too expensive – the overhead is too much.
As they’ve worked together through the week, Shana told me she’s started to extend a little credit to Atwood. She still handles his account on a daily basis, tries to get a jump on things to make sure he’s in good standing, like, per Atwood, when she asked him to bring another deposit to her when he still had $3,500 of credit left from the previous payment. “They want to stay ahead of me in the entire process,” he said.
“I want to be fair in the fact that I’m asking for a deposit,” said Shana. She doesn’t want to overextend her finances. Or overextend Atwood’s.
“I’m not perfect,” Atwood told me toward the end of our phone call. “If people want to criticize me, and I need to improve and fix… that’s what we’re all trying to do here, is self improvement throughout your whole life. And if you’re not doing that, you’re not moving forward.”
“We’re doing our best,” Shana told me. “But there are limits to our abilities, safety, insurance protection… things like that.”