The need for
mowing and
other lawn
services in our
society remains a
significant slice
of the green
industry pie

If the green industry CEOs reading this article would give a few minutes of thought over to nostalgic reflection, many could probably remember a time when a rusty, sputtering push-mower was all that stood between them and prom funding or the latest Elvis Presley album. For more than one green industry professional, the sweat sacrificed behind Dads mower provided a cornerstone on which a present-day, full-service landscaping business now stands.

Mowing, for a lot of company executives, is the discipline in which the first lawn care dollar was earned, the place where ones green industry ethic was birthed. And while these organizations may have moved beyond those first, poorly equipped years in some regards, graduating to bigger machines and wealthier clients, what was learned behind those whirling blades is still an important part of their companies foundations.

In fact, the need for mowing and other lawn maintenance services in our society remains a significant slice of the green industry pie, and by all predictions, will continue to be so. For instance, Clarke Ramsey of Le Perv Landscape in San Diego, California, reports that maintenance has accounted for a steady fifty percent of his companys revenues for the past decade. That number has stayed fairly consistent since I purchased the company nearly ten years ago, he explains. The difference is we did $150,000 in maintenance then, and we will do $500,000 this year.

Derek Blumberg, president of Quality Seasons in Savage, Minnesota, credits lawn maintenance with sixty percent of his business. Based in Tyler, Texas, Wilhite Landscaping & Lawn Cares president James Wilhite reports that this basic service continues to be a major portion of his operations: I started as a full-service landscape contractor twenty years ago, and mowing is still forty percent of our annual revenue. CEO of Eastman Landscape Management in Chino, California, Todd Eastman estimates that ninety percent of his business is mowing.

That isnt to say that the approach to mowing services hasnt evolved for most, if not all, of these and similar businesses. The successful contractor has learned that the tools and talents of a minimum-wage-satisfied teenager arent whats needed in the meatier marketplace. It has perhaps proven necessary to move into costlier equipment, higher wages, and a greater degree of professionalism and marketing savvy. And through the examples provided by these four companies, it isnt difficult to see that the same consumer demand that meant part-time cash for the youngster can also translate to significant revenue for the established corporation.

Too, a major concern that distinguishes a company from a part-time mower is the issue of efficiency, as a thriving business has to be able to constantly reevaluate its resources, and make the most of them.

Says Mickey Strauss of American Landscape in Canoga Park, California, Our challenge is to get the greatest amount of square footage mowed in the shortest amount of time. This is accomplished through self-propelled walk-behind mowers, zero-turn radius mowers, mid-sized mowers with sulky attachments, and using the largest/widest mower available that fits the jobsite conditions. Proper training of the mower operator is critical in order to perform more efficiently, and as safely as possible. Proper training will pay good dividends in the long run.

Staying consistent
One challenge to any ongoing mowing account is maintaining predictable work, especially in companies with a high employee turn-around. A client who gives sufficient attention to detail will notice when the lawn isnt cut like it normally is, whether that change is attributed to new employees, new equipment or other variables.

Says Clarke Ramsey, I believe that consistency is a key to productivity the same crew with the same equipment doing the same job at the same time of day each week. This provides familiarity with the property, which allows the crew members the opportunity to fine tune their routine. An additional result of such an approach, he says, is a more efficient use of time, allowing crews to ultimately accomplish more tasks within the same number of hours.

A uniform training regime at the beginning of employees tenure also helps ensure consistent service. Two-day training for new employees seems to be a widely-accepted practice in the industry, and provides sufficient time for greenhorns to get a broad sense of the companys mowing philosophy and practices.

Blumberg, for instance, uses one day of soft training (paperwork, policy and procedure orientation) followed by a hard day of hands-on practice. Employees are taken step-by-step through the safe and efficient operation of all the companys equipment, including the mowers. To further standardize operations, and thereby bring a greater degree of consistency to the job, each crew member has access to a procedural manual that lists each piece of equipment, its intended purpose and how it should be operated.

For example, an inexperienced employee at Quality Seasons can flip through his or her manual and learn that the 21-inch mower is normally reserved for slopes or areas that the larger mower might scalp.

Blumberg draws a conclusion about procedural manuals from the movie Apollo 13, and for him, this film underscores the fact that even the most capable crew member can benefit from having it in writing: The astronauts were trained. They knew what to do first. They were shown, and they practiced and had some input. But they still couldnt possibly remember everything, so they would flip through their manual.

As business owners and operators, says Kurt Bland, maintenance division manager for Del Contes Landscaping Company in Fremont, California, we frequently become myopic in that we cannot see far enough outside of our daily responsibilities to have the clarity that allows us to see blatant inefficiencies.

For example, we fall into the routine of accepting that a certain task is done a certain way, and the only reason we can come up with for validation is that it has always been done that way! We should always challenge such notions, because frequently, things were done that way because a better way was not yet developed.

Sticking to ones guns
One factor that fits into the efficiency equation is proper pricing. The money that a high school student earns for cutting a neighbors lawn is often decided by the neighbor, but the price a company attaches to its mowing services has likely been determined through a careful study of local markets and corporate economy.

Where many contractors lose mowing dollars, explains Blumberg, is in letting the customer have too much influence over pricing, and talking the contractor down from an established cost, a practice that might work for the part-timer, but certainly not for the multi-million-dollar business.

Pricing the job correctly is key, says Blumberg, and how you do that is simply by knowing your numbers. Theres no magic answer. You have to know your company economy. You also have to know what the market will bear. Once these numbers are firmly in ones grasp, he explains, its important for the professional to have a conviction for mowing quality, setting his or her price and standing firm.

When professionals in any industry permit a customer to bully them into discounting their services, a statement is made, and that is, The numbers I quoted you didnt really mean anything in the first place, and the company has to shoulder the loss. On the other hand, when the contractors knowledge and experience are used in determining fees, the professional must then stay committed to these numbers, unless external factors dictate otherwise.

A homeowner can get any kid on the block to mow her lawn for less than minimum wage, but where a contracting company is involved, much more is included in that mowing price than a few passes on a lawn tractor. Professionalism is marketable. It seems that the mow, edge, and blow customer is always looking for price, says James Wilhite. However, full-service customers, those that are looking for someone to take care of everything, will pay for professional service.

Brand loyalty
Another method many contractors have found for keeping their level of mowing quality relatively predictable is by choosing the equipment that best suits their clients needs and then staying with it. It isnt unusual in the business to see loyalty to one or two mowing equipment manufacturers.
For certain, many contractors have their favorites, but some will be quick to admit that most machines have their pros and cons. Its only a matter of choosing the mowers that best suit the type of customers one will be serving, and then making sure that crews can consistently provide the type of quality those customers expect.

Contractors who wish to increase quality and efficiency in their operations should be cautioned about choosing equipment based solely on price.

Strauss shares his companys experience with a so-called good deal: Recently, we bought some walk-behind mowers which appeared to be a bargain. The manufacturer is well established and respected. The honeymoon was cut short as the decks began to crack, and the wheels needed to be replaced almost immediately. In the end, repairs and replacements cost us more per machine than the more expensive top-of-the-line brand that has been proven to last years longer. Our recommendation is to buy what has a proven track record and not what appears to be the best buy.

Depending upon the given situation, there are other practical methods for increasing a companys mowing revenues. Wilhite believes a more sophisticated approach to routing and tracking is worth the associated learning curve. Blumberg says his companys mowing became more profitable through two modifications: a switch to one-man mowing crews for residential accounts and the implementation of the COMPASS management system, Eastman is a proponent of simply adding bigger equipment whenever its feasible.

Think of it this way: As better equipment and better management practices are added to any lawn care organization, competition will ultimately decrease.

After all, isnt it better to stand shoulder to shoulder with other industry professionals, such as the hundreds of ALCA (Associated Landscape Contractors of America) members, than to lose business to push-mower-wielding teenagers willing to work for concert tickets? A few years down the road, they may become your competitors, but for now, you are the pro.

February 2002