HIGH street retailers must have cursed last month's snow, but for one Yorkshire company the bad weather led to a surge in orders that rounded off a record year.
Ripon-based Econ, which is one of Britain's biggest makers of gritters and snow ploughs, has never been busier.
Forty seven snow ploughs were ordered in the first two weeks of December, as many Britons struggled to drive in freezing conditions. Econ, which was founded in 1969, supplies and maintains 80 per cent of local council gritting vehicles around Britain.
The 20m turnover company, which employs 170 staff, has seen a massive increase in demand for hire vehicles as public service budgets are squeezed.
Last summer, the company serviced 275 gritters across the UK, and has recently won contracts to place vehicles with a total value of 2.8m in service as far afield as Wiltshire, and Fife in Scotland.
Sales director Andrew Lupton said the company's investment in technology to make salt stocks go further, had also helped the firm to win more orders, following a winter of drastic shortages.
The company is also reporting a growth in demand from the private sector, as more companies become aware of the need to plan for a severe winter.
Mr Lupton said: "The last two winters have been exceptional for us. The snow came earlier than expected this winter. A lot of these (snow plough) sales have been to the private sector, because more people realised that they needed to become self-sufficient. They wanted to take some of the risk away from themselves so they could cope with heavy snow."
Mr Lupton said councils could be "very prescriptive" about the type of gritting and snow clearing work they carried out, which highlighted the need for employers to have their own machinery for clearing ice and snow.
He added: "Our aim is to make the business less public sector based. Work with councils accounts for just under half of all our work."
The company has also developed a new snow plough, the E-plough, which has been tailored specifically for the winter conditions found on UK roads.
Mr Lupton added: "The snow in the UK is wetter, which, coupled with the plethora of traffic calming schemes, means we have designed the E-plough to work at high speed with rubber edges that can 'break back' if an object is hit.
"They are higher so that the snow will be pushed to the side when using the more powerful chassis."
A partnership between support services company Carillion and Surrey Highways Partnership recently ordered 17 E-ploughs.
Mr Lupton said the feedback to date had been "extremely positive".
The company has a total of 280 permanently-mounted salt spreaders which are all fitted with ploughs.
Mr Lupton said it was vital to find ways of using salt supplies effectively.
He added: "If every spreader in the UK was operational for 24 hours the usage would be around 194,000 tonnes of salt.
"Spreaders now come with a series of pre-designed routes stored on a memory stick. The driver selects the route to be treated and then the control technology takes over."
Mr Lupton said Econ was already preparing for next winter.
He said: "A further 68 chassis have been ordered and more than half are being built at our factory.
"We build for customers throughout the summer and repair the hire spreaders ready for the next winter.
"In the winter we manufacture hot boxes and multi purpose bodies, in time for the start of the spring road repair programme.
"This is in addition to supplying parts, moving engineers from the factory on to repair and maintenance contracts, and building for the hire fleet."
In Yorkshire, the firm's customers include the largest
privately owned fleet in the UK, The Gritting Company which is based in Leeds. It operates more than 60 spreaders for big corporate names such as Bradford-based Morrisons supermarkets.
Other fleets of local authority owned Econ vehicles are used to clear the network of public roads in Sheffield, Bradford, Wakefield, Barnsley, Calderdale, Kirklees, Rotherham, York and Doncaster.
Econ is not just helping to keep roads clear in the UK.
An export joint venture with Faun sweepers has resulted in two Econ spreaders working near the border crossing between Belarus and the Ukraine where winter temperatures can plummet to minus 20 degrees Celsius.
The equipment order was handled by Basildon-based Unit Export – part of Laindon Holdings – which works on projects funded by the European Community and the World Bank.
Forty years at ploughing edge
Founded by Bill Lupton in 1969, Econ Engineering has grown to become a leading manufacturer of highway maintenance equipment in the UK.
It marked its 40th anniversary by announcing a state of the art laser cutter and a second press for cutting and pressing larger components which was part of a 700,000 investment. The company's products, which are used around the UK, include salt spreaders, gritters, snow ploughs, highway maintenance vehicles, spreader control systems and trailers.