Our goal in the green industry is the maintenance and beautification of our clients’ landscapes. From coast to coast, property owners want their landscape to fit their ideal, and for most, that means a perfectly manicured lawn. So it’s no surprise that the vast majority of landscape contractors are intimately familiar with the hows, whys and wherefores of mowing lawns.
If our business was as easily standardized as manufacturing, there would be no need to discuss it any further. However, we must adapt to the requirements of our region’s climate, our client’s desires and market forces, all without sacrificing the values that differentiate our company from all the others.
The end result is that there is no single, right way to run a mowing business. Everyone’s situation is a little different, and everyone has their own vision for what they want their company to be.
That vision changes as businesses and owners adapt and grow, so it isn’t a bad idea to get a fresh point of view on your operation from time to time. Read on, and we’ll present four different companies, with four different perspectives on how to run mowing operations.
In Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Christopher Joyce has made a successful business of providing landscape maintenance to the thriving secondary home market, and he says mowing, in particular, is picking up. “We run 12 mow crews, and it’s going very well,” he said. “Mowing is becoming a large part of our maintenance portfolio.”
Although he started out doing landscape maintenance, his company, Joyce Landscaping Inc., does more landscape construction now. That construction work feeds right into his maintenance operations, and he often ends up servicing the design/build properties he’s worked on.
Having other services is critical in a secondary housing market, according to Joyce. “You get peaks and valleys, so you have to do more than just maintenance in order to be profitable and productive,” he said. When there isn’t enough mowing work to go around, he’ll repurpose some of his crews to do enhancement work that’s too light for his main construction crews, like minor plantings, or setting stepping stones in a garden.
He also runs all his crews with the same trucks and trailers, and emphasized the role of standardization in keeping mowing crews running efficiently. “You can back any one of our trucks up to any of our trailers, and the hitch will match perfectly,” he said. “You can have an employee go to any trailer, and find all the equipment in the exact same place.”
That standardization extends to his work routine as well. Each crew member is trained by the same experienced hand in his mowing department. There’s a set order to every property, and a system to follow with rigorous precision. Every system is periodically updated when new room for improvement becomes apparent.
“Even our routing has changed recently, after we found we were overlapping too much in certain areas,” he said. “Now, once we get to the designated area, we’re routing in big circles, so they start in one area, and they circle back around.
Reworked routing also featured among Groundmasters Corporation’s recent changes, according to its owner, Bryan Last. The Stoneham, Massachusetts company uses a computer program to determine the fastest route for its mowing crews. “They start in one town and it routes them along to the next and the next and so on,” Last said. “If they get a little bit behind, that’s okay as long as it’s not more than five or six lawns, and if they get ahead of schedule, that’s no problem at all.”
Being able to make and track predictions allows his crews to know well in advance if they’re starting to go off course, and handle potential scheduling problems before they get snarled. “The guys know that if they’re not at Mr. Smith’s house by 2:00 p.m. on Thursday, they’re not going to finish the week,” said Last.
“So they can ask for a second crew if they lag behind, and we can send them the help they need.”
Although Last, like Joyce, sees value in standardization (for example, he chooses not to get diesel mowers to avoid fuel mix-ups) he puts emphasis on adapting to customers’ expectations. It shows in his client breakdown, too, as he has roughly equal percentages of residential, commercial and municipal clients whom he serves.
For commercial clients, the expectation is for perfection. “They want everything exactly the way it’s supposed to be, and they will usually pay for the extras,” he said. “When the economy is stable, they want the spring cleanup, the fall cleanup, the shrub trimming, the weeding, the fertilizing—everything.”
For municipal work, Last sends out a crew with a 72” ride-on mower that can go up to 20 miles per hour, because public entities are looking for cost efficiency. Municipal con tracts involve a bidding process, and unless the town puts an emphasis on having beautiful landscapes, they’re likely looking for a basic package, not the whole nine yards.
With residential customers, Last expects his crews to run a bit slower. It’s due, in part, to the technical limitations of providing a clean cut and bagging grass clippings. Also with residential, it’s taking customer expectations into account. “It’s their home, after all,” he said. “You’ve got to understand that if they don’t like what you’re doing or the way you’re doing it, it’s your job to make them happy.”
Of course, managing customer expectations is tricky when you have bad news to deliver, like what Antonio Zeppa, CEO of Zeppa’s Landscaping Service in Prospect, Kentucky, had to do recently. He realized that his overhead costs were untenable, and he needed to bring in more revenue to keep going.
Zeppa thought about it long and hard over the winter, and came to a decision. “We raised prices ten percent across the board this year,” he said. Zeppa didn’t want to do it; he was concerned about pricing himself out of the market, and losing customers he’d spent time, energy and company funds cultivating, but the toll it took wasn’t too bad. A few balked, but it wasn’t a big deal.
He’s still a bit concerned that owner/operators who don’t have the same costs will continue to undercut his company, but he’s taking other steps to bring innovation to his business. They’ve gone completely paperless, have GPS tracking and routing software on all their trucks, and send out their crews with phones and tablets to log their progress.
Zeppa says this has more or less eliminated billing errors. “There were a lot of papers that got lost, wouldn’t get turned in, or got billed late,” he said. “Now, everything is saved.” These tech upgrades come in particularly handy with customer disputes. He says he’s poised to win a suit with a customer who wrongfully fired his company with the help of his GPS timestamps, which shows when his crews were on the property, and how long the work took.
The front end of your operation deserves at least as much attention as the backend. Every time your crews visit the gas station to fill up, there’s a chance that they’ll end up killing time eating a sandwich, buying scratch-offs, or shooting the breeze with the attendant. It’s human nature, but it also plays havoc with your tightly scheduled timetable.
Keeping your fuel onsite avoids that temptation, and cuts down on crews’ travel time. By the same reasoning, an ice machine keeps your crews’ drinks cool, so they don’t stop by the 7/11 for a soda.
Zeppa keeps a weather eye on crew efficiency by tracking billable time and yard time. He’s quick to point out that yard time is not useless. He wouldn’t dream of sacrificing his weekly maintenance program because it isn’t billable. However, he has found that scheduling it for the end of the day gets it done faster. “If they’re doing the maintenance at four or five o’clock, they want to go home for the day,” he said.
Morning meetings come under the heading of yard time, too, and are just as valuable. At the end of the day, Zeppa places a premium on clear communication, and laments about how many people he’s found that don’t follow up properly. “Communication is huge; in fact I might say it’s the biggest factor in being a good company.”
At Becks Lawn, Landscape and Fence in Olathe, Kansas, company owner Mitch Beck lets his work speak for him. “Word of mouth is probably our biggest sales force,” he said. “If a customer likes what we do, their friends most likely have similarly-sized properties, so it piggybacks.”
He helps the process along a bit with social media, keeping active accounts on Facebook and Twitter, but it really comes down to results. “My last name is the company name, so I don’t want to go out and do crap work,” Beck said. That’s harder than it sounds when the unseasonal weather causes rampant grass growth.
“One time, we had an early spring, and we were mowing a month and a half before we normally do,” he said. “A lot of these large companies didn’t have the crews to do it. Their grass was literally eight to 10 inches tall.” That’s why Beck says he avoids using the H-2B program, because the risks of delays are too high.
This is not to say that labor isn’t an issue. Like all of us, Beck struggled this season to find good help.
“Most people don’t want to work, unfortunately. You can’t even get them to apply,” he said. Then when he does hire someone, there’s no guarantee that they’ll stick around. “I’ve had people work three hours, a day, a week. You just don’t know what they’re going to do.”
Beck has a pretty low turnover; he offers mulch and snow removal work in the winter to keep his crews from getting bored, but trying to expand is another issue. “We’ve gone through labor services; we run advertisements, we do social media things and we have signage on our building whenever we’re hiring,” he said.
Labor is an article subject on its own, but there are some options if the local hiring market is tough. You can offer hiring or referral bonuses to encourage people to sign on. These programs tend to work best when spaced out over a few months or a year, to discourage new hires grabbing their bonuses and going. The H-2B program is also an option, but this past year the program was rife with difficulties, delays and disorder.
Beck optimizes his employees’ time by buying the best commercial equipment he can find. He says a mower that disperses grass well makes all the difference, in wet conditions or dry. “If you get clumps, you’ve got to spend a bunch of labor going back and trying to blow it, trying to spread it out,” he said. “It’s all about time and money.”
He doesn’t have any ride-on mowers in his fleet, but relies instead on stand-on machines to get the job done. “It affords you a little more control, and I think it makes you a little more alert,” Beck said. “If you’re standing up and you get too relaxed, you’re going to fall off the back.” The extra height also comes in handy when scanning ahead for hazards and obstacles in the mowing path.
The same holds true for your business path. It’s good to keep complacency at bay; take a look at the road ahead to check for pitfalls and perhaps rework your routing. If you think about your operations in new terms, you may find that it puts them in a new light. We make tradeoffs every day, spending money to save time, spending time to grow our businesses, and growing our businesses in order to earn more money.
Adopting a new point of view is a way of checking that all those tradeoffs have been worth it. Are yours?