Nine times out of ten, mowers are second only to company trucks in terms of the most expensive tools in the landscape contractor?s supply cache. With all the features that are available in the marketplace today, it isn?t uncommon for a professional to lay down $10,000 or more for a single, zero-turn-radius mower that does everything except file your tax returns. And when we speak of such lofty expenditures, it also pays to discuss ways to get the most out of these machines ? to make them last, if not forever, at least until the point they cease being profitable.

Even if it?s only measurable in fractions of a cent, a lapse in your maintenance regime can mean a dip in revenue. If your blades aren?t sharp, you lose money. If your fluid levels drop too low, you lose money. If an employee is careless or uninformed about a mower?s capabilities and uses it outside its optimal performance range, that?s cash out of your company?s account. Therefore, training, maintenance and machine selection are three points to consider in the management of your mowing equipment.

Employee trust
Who will have the most day-to-day contact with your investment? Your crews. Therefore, it?s prudent to make sure your employees understand the proper operation and maintenance of your mowers before being turned loose with one. Joe Schill, who together with his brother owns Schill Landscaping & Lawn Care in Sheffield, Ohio, believes in teaching equipment value to his employees. Involved in the Pro Training Challenge for a couple of years, Schill has taken the company?s training to a new level.

?In our program, we talk about the financial end of things,? says Schill. ?In other words, weekly discussions and hands-on instruction don?t end at proper operation and safety. These regular training sessions are also intended to make sure the employees have a reasonable grasp of such issues as overhead and profits.?

One might argue that mowing crews don?t necessarily need Economics 101 instruction, but when you realize that these are the folks at the helm of thousands of dollars worth of mowing equipment used by Schill . . . you may begin to see things differently.

According to Maintenance Division Manager Bob Keating, Phillips Environmental Services in Clearwater, Florida, conducts a field training day once a month. This three to four hours of training, sponsored by a manufacturer?s representative, demonstrates to the crews the mechanics behind the mowers. As an example of the effectiveness of such a program, Keating describes how, at one point, some mower operators tend to turn up the governor on Phillips Environmental?s 60-inch mowers to improve speed. After a company rep sponsored a field day, crews walked away fully aware of how their adjustments were damaging the equipment.

Routine upkeep
A mower is engineered for regular mowing in a range of conditions, and that?s just what it?ll keep doing for years. To lengthen the life of that machine, however, you?ll have to incorporate a steady schedule of maintenance.
At Schill Landscaping & Lawn Care, blades are sharpened every other day, and the mowers? mechanisms are lubricated regularly. ?We grease machinery like crazy,? explains Schill. ?We do greasing almost daily just to keep them lubed up because of the amount of mowing we?re doing.? Other routine maintenance activities will include oil changes, regular checks of the tire pressure and fluid levels, scraping and pressure washing of the decks and air filter cleanings.

It?s good to put one person in charge of a mower?s maintenance rather than tossing the command into the air and trusting someone to pick up the responsibility. Schill cites a situation in which low fluid levels led to a damaged engine because everybody using the mower thought someone else was checking the levels. Now, everyone is made aware of who?s responsible for such upkeep.

Luke Brothers, Inc. in New Port Richey, Florida, uses 115 zero-turn-radius machines. Ernie Lucadano, co-founder of Luke Brothers and supervisor of the company?s equipment repair and purchasing, has established a five-fold approach to mower management:

1. Preventative daily maintenance.
2. Tracking of each machine?s repair history, so trends can be detected and corrected as quickly as possible.
3. Daily tire pressure, blade and deck height adjustments to ensure each mower is cutting evenly.
4. Consistent use of tire brands to ensure smoother cuts, as actual size will vary among different brands.
5. An effective communication program between crew supervisors and service technicians. In Luke Brothers? case, this takes the form of a standardized write-up and interview process.

As far as service techs are concerned, whether or not you choose to have your own repairman on staff is dependent upon the size of your fleet. One company that employs a full-time mechanic is Allin Companies in Erie, Pennsylvania. Says President John Allin, ?We have a full-time small equipment mechanic whose job is to keep all the equipment running smoothly. We don?t send anything out to the dealer to be repaired, since we can?t wait the time that dealers want to get around to fixing it. We don?t have a strong dealer network in our market. Thus, it is much more cost effective to do all maintenance and repairs on our own, so that the equipment is down less than 12 hours. If it?s not out there working, we are losing productivity. Productivity translates directly into revenue and profits.?

Above and beyond maintenance
There?s maintenance, and then there?s maintenance. Many contractors are so concerned with keeping their mowers running well that they tend to treat them as a sixteen-year-old would treat his or her Mustang. And such attention to detail has its rewards: namely, a strong image conveyed to the public, as well as machines that run as well as the day they were purchased.
Dan Standley, president of Dan?s Landscaping and Lawn Care in Terrytown, Louisiana, sees fuel choices as an important part of the overall program. His machines ? a fleet that includes 60-inch Dixie Choppers ? are filled with regular unleaded, but premium fuel is used every third or fourth fill-up. He also stresses the importance of having one person designated to do all the fuelling.

The use of tire sealant, too, has saved Dan?s Landscaping some trouble. ?That?s a huge thing,? says Standley, ?especially if you go to an apartment complex that has just recently re-roofed or something.? In fact, any new construction or renovation around a residence or commercial building has the potential for nails. Tire sealant can help defend against that threat.

For the most part, it seems the more dedicated a company is to keeping its mowers active, the more that company will follow the manufacturer?s recommendations to the letter. Keating, for instance, reports that Phillips Environmental Services contacts the manufacturer for the recommended brand of oil and other details of suggested proper maintenance. Standley makes sure that all his mowers are equipped with functioning hour meters, so the service intervals recommended by the manufacturers can be strictly adhered to.

Another point in the concept of minding the details is the use of scheduling software. Says Standley, ?We use CLIP in kind of a unique way, so it can pop up and remind our mechanic to do certain things that aren?t weekly, like transmissions and big jobs that aren?t a regular thing.?

Some contractors believe that keeping up your mowers? appearances has a profound psychological effect on the public, as well as the crews. At Dan?s Landscaping, for example, the mowers are painted two or three times per year, and new decals are attached at that time. ?The image is so important,? Standley explains. ?If you get a machine that?s mechanically sound but the decals are all torn off and the paint?s all faded, it just portrays a different image. Plus, the way the guys treat it is different.?

All the mower you can use ? but not too much
Lucadano prefers the zero-turn-radius mowers because of their cutting efficiency, the reduction in property damage and the ease in training new employees on their proper operation. Allin, whose company owns three Walker mowers and two Excel Hustlers, feels these machines have paid for themselves over and over in terms of increased productivity over walk-behinds. ?These are the mowers that crews like the most when they have a choice as to which style to take out into the field,? says Allin.

So, too, has Standley adopted the philosophy of using push mowers the least amount possible. He also advocates using technique and chemicals in such a way as to reduce necessary trim work.

However, this isn?t to say that these companies don?t have situations in which a smaller mower is critical. The human mind will tell you that a bigger mower will mean faster work, and this is true up to a point.

On the other hand, this doesn?t mean that stepping up to a machine with a wider cut will automatically mean greater profits. For instance, if you mow on a lot of slopes, in small, compacted areas or on moist, easily damaged ground, you may need only a minimal number of 60-inch machines in your fleet. This is an important concept to keep in mind, and Standley recommends going two-stroke with all one?s push mower needs. He says the two-stroke engines are practically bulletproof, and one doesn?t have to worry about someone forgetting to put oil in them.

Your mowers cost a lot of money, and you should be seeing a return on that investment. To broaden your profits, it?s vital to keep these machines in tip-top shape by adopting a predictable maintenance schedule and keeping detailed records of repairs and upkeep. It?s all in the details, but if you?re willing to keep your eyes on these seemingly minor things, your mowers should last ? and make money ? for years to come.

March 2002