Few businesses so dominate a segment of the market that their brand becomes synonymous with the product. Think Kleenex. Or Coke, which is often used in place of terms like soda or pop. Sno-cat is one such brand and its unique place in large equipment is secured both in the brand and the fourth-generation-owned company’s place in history.
Just as hockey fans call all ice resurfacing machines “Zambonis,” skiers and snowboarders charging down groomed slopes refer to Sno-Cats – not track-driven snow vehicles – that cleared the way and prepared the hill the night before. The comparisons are deserved. Both the Zamboni Company and Medford, Oregon’s Tucker Sno-Cat invented the technology that still dominates their slice of winter service today.
Everyone at Tucker Sno-Cat understands the importance of that unique brand, said Sales Manager John Meilicke.
“It’s an advantage because when people talk about an over-snow vehicle, they do use that Sno-Cat phrase. It points them toward us because that’s who we are,” Meilicke said.
The company is ever-vigilant in protecting it.
“It’s an ongoing battle for us to maintain that trademark,” Meilicke said. “We are constantly finding where other manufacturers are using it.”
Company attorneys are quick to send “a nice, well-written letter,” to cease and desist.
The term Sno-Cat may be ubiquitous, but it still belongs solely to the family of the man who first invented track-driven snow vehicles nearly 70 years ago.
In the early 19th century, Lewis and Clark used canoes as a primary mode of transportation during their historic trek to the Pacific Ocean. Fuchs and Hillary, a 20th-century exploration team, used track-driven snow vehicles – Sno-cats – built by the Medford, Oregon-based Tucker Sno-Cat company for their transantarctic crossing, and securing the company’s place in history.
Company founder Emmitt Tucker Sr. trademarked the term “snowcat” in 1946.
“The Sno-Cat was his mastermind,” Meilicke said. “He was always thinking about flotation and ways to propel the vehicle. Some of the early experiments used an auger. But then he figured out the track-driven system.”
The first vehicles had two tracks in back and skis in the front.
“It evolved into the four-track, articulated steering you see today,” explained Meilicke.
The historic nature of this legacy company is a decidedly “made in Oregon” story. Emmitt Tucker hailed from Jump Off Joe Creek (which still has a sign on Interstate Five) and moved his company back from California to Medford before it truly took off.
“Southern Oregon was their home,” Meilicke said. “They went to Grass Valley, Calif. to get closer to San Francisco and machine shops that could help with manufacturing. But when it came right to it, they missed home and moved back.”
With their return, an Oregon institution was born. Now it remains a privately owned, fourth-generation, family operated business. Tucker’s namesake, Jim Tucker, is its current president. Meilicke said he doubts the family has any plans to sell any time soon.
“I don’t see it happening,” he said. “You see the passion and the drive they have. This is their future.”
Meilicke’s winter is anything but hibernation, where sales and delivery of Sno-Cat machines to customers dominates his time. His rest, if there is any, comes in spring where he can test prototypes and plan for the coming sales cycle in a fiercely deadline-driven marketplace.
“Everybody wants their machine delivered before the first snowflake falls and you never know when that’s going to be,” he said.
Orders can be cancelled if not received by a certain date. Any cancelled order can mean a huge hit to the bottom line for machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Used Tucker Sno-Cats cost $100,000 and up.
“It can get a little hectic,” commented Meilicke.
Despite back-to-back years of dismal snowfall in the West, the East has endured brutal cold and snow. Demand for Sno-cats remains high.
“That’s why … I wasn’t able to stay right here in Oregon,” he said.
Even test-driving the prototype demands a drive over to Bend, Oregon, this year where the snow remains. Indeed, like all weather-driven companies, Tucker Sno-Cat remains somewhat dependent in the mercurial temperament of Mother Nature. At a time when global warming and climate change is a significant focus of global and political concern, Tucker Sno-Cat simply goes where the snow is falling.
The climate is one of the business challenges, Meilicke said.
“Everybody has their own opinion. Is it a trend, a cycle or global warming? For us it’s trying to find the areas that do require over-snow vehicles. We might not got a lot of snow here in the West, but in the East they had a lot of snow.”
Still nobody in the business of snow dares ignore changing weather patterns and the looming threat of global warming. The historic company recognizes its need for summer business. It has a separate sales cycle for agricultural machines. The vehicles have potential military use in desert sands.
“For sure, we’re definitely trying to diversify. That’s what stimulated the ag field,” Meilicke said.
Alaska in summer also presents fertile sales soil.
“Alaska has ultra-sensitive ground they don’t want to disturb,” he said. “We are one of the few that are certified to operate there.”
The Tucker Sno-Cat was part of an Alaska-based promotion, when a buyer painted the machine with the Seattle Seahawks logo to celebrate the team’s Super Bowl appearance in 2015. The colorful machine is used on Alaska’s North Slope to ferry people to and from the remote places they need to go, according to published reports.
Ironically, diversification proved problematic for a company so closely associated with snow. Again the Zamboni comparison seems appropriate. Imagine Zambonis that could level pavement. It’s a jarring image, just as the presence of Sno-Cat was at agriculture sales shows.
“Originally, they kept the Sno-Cat label, but in the end it proved an obstacle,” Meileke said. “Tucker Terra-Ag emerged just to get away from that Sno-Cat name, though the machines are the same and the principles of maneuverability on soft ground remains.”
The Terra-Ag machine benefits farmers applying crop protection products that are worried about delicate soil being crushed by heavy machinery. The same technology that allows a massive machine to maneuver in deep powder works well on tilled soil.
The Model 1600 Ag Tucker Terra uses the same four track steering as the Sno-Cat. It comes with a three-ton capacity granular fertilizer tank and spinner spreaders. A 500-gal. spray tank with spray booms up to 90 ft. long is also available, according to sales distributor Track, Inc. The machine sells for roughly $250,000.
“The Tucker Terra has a very light footprint and really shines in soft ground conditions,” Rick Keith of Track, Inc said. “It … has been widely used in the grass and sod farming industry.”
Rising costs of regulation
In the end, the threats to this family-owned business really aren’t found in technology or climate control, but in old fashioned government regulation, Meilicke says, where Tucker’s problems are common to many large industrial machine manufacturers like Caterpillar or John Deere.
“The challenging thing for us right now is the EPA requirements,” Meilicke said. “In the future it’s only going to get more difficult. We’ve been able to meet those requirements. But you see those coming in the future and they are getting more strict. It costs a lot of money and that gets passed on to the customer.”
Tucker Sno-Cat employs 48 people. It enjoys modest growth. In the 14 years Meilicke has been with the company he believes it has only added 10 new positions.
“We are definitely producing more vehicles,” he said in a nod to increasing efficiency in the face of rising costs because, in part, of those EPA regulations and an ongoing investment in innovation.
Innovations, he said, revolve around uses, creature comforts and modernization.
“We’re constantly improving our equipment and upgrading with different kind of tracks and improved electronics. If you climb into the cab you’re going to see how we keep up with the times.” But, the basic four-track invention of company founder Emmitt Tucker remains largely unchanged, a proverbial wheel nobody sees the need to re-invent.
As Meilicke says, “He got it done right the first time.”