Tom Jessen was four years old when his widowed mother moved him and his sister from Chicago, where he was born, to live out in the country near Valparaiso in northwest Indiana. His mother had some family there, and that’s where they’ve been ever since.
Jessen went to a small country school, with 12 grades in 12 rooms. He attended Indiana State University, but when he ran out of money he had to move back home and take a job working on a punch press to earn enough to complete his education. While working full-time, he also carried a full class schedule at IU Northwest, an extension of Indiana University.
He was planning on a career as a teacher.
While still in high school, he started dating a girl named Kathy; she was 16. Jessen married his high school sweetheart, and after they got married he went back to Indiana State University, Terra Haute, to get his degree. But 1971 wasn’t the easiest of times.
“Teaching jobs were hard to come by,” said Jessen. “I had to find something to do, and I didn’t want to go back to work in a factory.” So he moved back to Valparaiso. “When I was a kid, I helped my uncle paint his house,” Jessen remembered, “and so I decided I would become a painting contractor.” After selling his first job, he took the down payment to buy the ladder and brushes he needed.
While painting a house one day in 1973, a high school friend who was visiting people in the area came by. His friend was living and working in Indianapolis for a company called ChemLawn. He explained what ChemLawn was, and said he thought there were great opportunities available in the Valparaiso area.
The friend said, “Hey Tom, I’ve got a great idea: let’s go into the lawn care business. They don’t have anything like it here. We’ll work all summer, make lots of money and go to Florida in the winter.” Jessen borrowed $5,000 from his mom, which she obtained by mortgaging her house, and he and his friend started a business together.
“In those days, if you recall, they used large tank trucks. We bought a used truck, cut the box off and put a 1,000- gallon tank on it. I helped design and build the spray system. That was our first truck,” said Jessen.
However, it’s one thing to talk about a business and making it work, it’s another to put it into practice. “During the first year, our money ran out, so I went back to painting on the side to support my wife and newborn daughter, Dana, while I continued spraying lawns full time to build the business,” said Jessen.
His persistence paid off. By 1979, five years later, they had built up a pretty good business. “We had about 3,000 accounts, but we also found we had major differences of opinions, so we split the business up along county border lines. We still get along to this day. He kept the name Perma-Green, Inc.; I became Perma-Green Supreme, Inc.”
“When I was a kid, I remember my mom used to say to me, ‘You’re always looking for an easy way.’ I always thought maybe there was a better way. But whatever God-given talents He gave me, I’ve always felt blessed that I was fortunate to recognize opportunities. When we first went into the lawn care business, I felt I had the foresight to see the future.”
Now, on his own, Jessen began seeking easier and better ways to streamline his business. Being the forward-thinking guy that he was, he began looking for a computer system to help him manage the business. Remember those heady days of 1979 and 1980? They didn’t have the sophisticated computer programs like they have today.
“I heard about a lawn care operator in the Detroit, Michigan area who had designed a computer system,” said Jessen. “I called him and he told me something very intriguing. He was in the lawn care business and he sprayed lawns by applying one gallon per 1,000 square feet, instead of the three or four gallons of mostly water that everyone else was spraying. I thought to myself, ’I’ve got to see that.’ If this really works, we don’t need the large expensive trucks anymore!” When Jessen saw the equipment and the results, he was able to immediately recognize the potential of low-volume spraying. Although skeptical at first, he started to test the concept on his own lawns to be sure.
Once convinced, Jessen began designing low-volume sprayers specifically for his own use; he used small pickup trucks and 12-volt pumps. Jessen thought other lawn care operators would also be interested in this equipment. He decided to take a shot and bought a booth at the next PLCAA show.
“Some guy from the Northeast—I don’t remember if it was Pennsylvania or New Jersey—visited the booth. He actually bought the sprayer with the proviso that I deliver it and set it up for him,” said Jessen. “And that’s the way I started in the spray equipment business.”
After all his years in the lawn care business, one of the main things Jessen had learned was customer service. “You can’t build a business without providing good service.” So he proceeded to build the best equipment he knew how and did the best he could to take care of his customers. He loved the business.
When ServiceMaster began to franchise lawn care, they came to Jessen to build all their spray systems. They also asked him to design something different, a walk-behind spreader/sprayer.
“When they stopped franchising, there went a good portion of my business,” said Jessen. Still, he kept working and improving on the spreader/sprayer concept.
After seeing spreader/sprayers work, Jessen knew that they were even more efficient and profitable than low-volume spraying. He also knew that every serious lawn care business owner wants to be more profitable. “I knew that a small self-propelled ride-on spreader/sprayer that worked well on small lawns, as well as large turf areas, could truly revolutionize the entire industry. The series of ride-on units we designed did all that and then some,” Jessen said.
“Although there are still some guys using the liquid spray trucks, thousands of operators now use ride-on sprayer/ spreaders, because they are faster, easier and actually do the job better. Furthermore, it’s hard to compete using only your feet. This is the future,” he said.
After spending 27 years in the lawn care business, Jessen sold that end of his business so he could concentrate on the manufacturing side. His imagination, persistence and design talent have earned him six patents.
What does the future hold for Perma Green Supreme? Jessen remarked, “We are constantly working to improve the units. More importantly, I always want to be at the leading edge of lawn care equipment design.”
At the age of 64, Jessen has no intention of retiring in the near future. “I still like what I do and there are things that I have not accomplished yet. I also have an obligation to take care of the people who have been working with me for so many years.”
His son Aaron is part of the business.
Jesson said, “He is one of our long-time employees, starting as a young boy, when I would take him to the shop on Saturday to sweep the floor. He has been a great asset. He now heads up our marketing department and is extremely talented. I’m looking forward to watching him grow in our business.”
I’m impressed with the simplicity that explains the man, his persistence, his perseverance and his uncanny ability to recognize opportunities, and the foresight to bring them to fruition.