Whether you’re learning how to throw a fastball, or to play the piano, everything starts with the fundamentals. Throwing a ball against a pitchback over and over or practicing the scales may not be sexy, but such activities are the foundation of everything that comes afterwards.
Of course, it’s exciting to be able to design and install elegant landscapes and luxury backyard kitchens costing many thousands of dollars. But almost nobody starts out doing things like that. Many, if not most, landscape contractors will tell you that the road to doing those lucrative installations was paved by mowing lawns.
And for many contractors, performing landscape maintenance— the mowing, blowing, trimming, fertilizing, pruning and more—remains an important core service.
Let’s not forget that there are multimillion-dollar, multistate operations devoted strictly to maintenance.
Clearly, it’s a good business that makes lots of people lots of money. The companies that do well with it are the ones that have figured out how to deliver quality results, time after time.
From the day he started his business, 32 years ago, CEO Jeff Sebert of Sebert Landscape in Bartlett, Illinois, has considered maintenance his “bread and butter. It’s the thing that keeps everything else moving forward. I can add some icing to the cake with design/build work, and creating and installing landscapes, but maintenance is the foundation that we’ve always depended on.”
The maintenance division is the biggest part of the 550-employee, multibranch company. Seventy-five maintenance crews, of three to five workers each, go out every weekday during the season.
The bulk of the company’s revenues—thirty-eight percent—comes from commercial maintenance. Another 24 percent comes from design/build, and an additional 23 percent from landscape enhancements. Snow plowing brings in the final 14 percent.
“The construction end of the business has a lot of risk involved with it,” said Sebert. “You’re dealing with general contractors, builders, developers, unions, safety concerns and worrying about when you’re going to get paid. There are a lot of different scenarios that can happen.” As he sees it, having a healthy maintenance division is a bulwark against all of those risks.
‘Quality’ is a problematic word; like beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder. Everyone has his own definition of what it is. That’s why, “You have to set your own standards,” said Gary Goldman, a business-management consultant to the green industry who works out of Sherborn, Massachusetts.
“Ask yourself what kind of contractor you want to be,” Goldman says. “If you do things properly every time, you’re going to get repeat business. But if you look for shortcuts, you’re going to have a lot of client turnover.”
For David Brix, CEO of Emerald Lawn Care in St. Cloud, Minnesota, there are no shortcuts.
Landscape maintenance comprises 90 percent of the company’s business. A large portion of it is commercial, taking care of HOAs, shopping centers and big corporate headquarters. The company also does commercial and residential snow removal.
A quality mowing job for Brix means that a lawn is evenly cut everywhere. There should be no areas where a mower’s tires didn’t quite let the deck contact the grass in the right manner.
If grass is tall, that means it needs to be trimmed or mowed twice, and then, blown out with a blower. No clumps of clipping debris should be left on the turf, nor any grass debris or leaves on concrete surfaces, including back patios and rocks.
Trimming is a finishing touch of professionalism, and is one of the hardest things for people to learn to do well, Brix said. Everything should be trimmed appropriately and evenly, with nothing too short or too long. Crew members are told not to bring string trimmers too close to anything that could be damaged by them, such as tree trunks.
Nothing is done carelessly, especially the application of chemicals.
“You can apply too much or too little herbicide; that’s primarily going to be a combination of the machine and its calibration, of how much product is in the machine, and the operator himself,” Brix points out. “If a spreader is designed to put out product at five miles per hour, but the operator drives it at 2.5, it’s putting down twice as much.”
At Sebert Landscape, doing quality work is essential. Its CEO believes that if you’re not providing that, you’re not going to get maintenance contracts renewed. So, crew leaders are told to go above and beyond what’s specified on those pieces of paper.
“You’ve got to give the customer what he’s paying for, and then give him a little bit more,” Sebert said. To make sure his crews get it, every other month, he hops into a truck with one of his regional or branch managers and tours customer sites. Clients are also called regularly, to get a pulse on how well they’re being serviced.
The company is the biggest provider of landscape services to the Chicago health care industry. “Their expectations are even higher,” said Sebert. “One of the things that makes us appealing to them is that we use battery-powered equipment, to both minimize our carbon footprint and our sound impact.”
Quality maintenance is also stressed at the Indresano Corporation in Ashland, Massachusetts.
“You can really tell the difference between my company and someone else’s,” says owner Peter Indresano. “We’ll take the extra time to do the deep edging. I like to have nice, deep edges, five or six inches of it between the grass and the mulch.”
Indresano describes himself as an ‘old-school’ guy who comes from a long line of builders and contractors. He and his brother grew up mowing lawns and doing landscape work, and weren’t allowed to slack off. “My grandmother, an old Italian lady, would rap our knuckles with a switch if we pruned the wrong branch.”
Today, he’s a perfectionist who can’t stand to see a skid mark. For example, because a lot of customer complaints are about big riders leaving tire marks on their lawns, he has his people avoid that by cutting in a different direction every other week.
Mower blades are to be sharpened weekly. “Dull blades will rip the blades of grass instead of cutting them,” said Indresano. “When you look at them, you’ll see jagged edges. What happens with jagged edges? They turn brown. But sharp blades will give grass a clean cut.”
Some companies will outsource certain aspects of turf care, such as chemical applications. But grass is this contractor’s true love, so he personally oversees any distribution of fertilizers, pesticides or weed killers on his clients’ lawns.
Scott Esteb is owner and president of Boulder Falls Landscape, Inc., in Vancouver, Washington. To the usual mowing, weeding, edging, fertilizing, weed control and pruning services, his company adds something much needed in the damp climate of the Pacific Northwest: moss control.
The company does both commercial and high-end custom residential maintenance. He says those high-end residential clients are very picky, and absolutely demand quality work.
Just for the sake of contrast, we asked Esteb for an example of what a less-than-quality job would look like. “Under- or over-fertilizing, or under- or over-pruning. Spraying the weeds, instead of pulling them, or pulling the ones that should have been sprayed. Picking out the easy things to do, and skipping the harder ones.”
A SOP to quality control
The key to success in maintenance, says Goldman, is to keep delivering quality work over a significant stretch of time. Consistency is the key, and to keep getting it, everyone needs to be on the same page. Decide what details define a quality maintenance job at your company, then set them down on paper as standard operating procedures (SOPs).
SOPs should be specific as to what you expect to have done every time, on every job. For instance, ‘Before a crew leaves a property, all litter and leaf debris should be picked up, all bed edges should be well-defined, and all grass should be mowed to a one-and-a-half-inch height.’ Once they know the standards, your maintenance crews can start delivering repeatable results. Otherwise, each of your foremen will follow his own notions as to what constitutes quality, and his standards may be worlds away from yours. Let your people know what you expect them to do and how they should do it, and put some checks in place to make sure your instructions are carried out.
With continued practice, your crews will keep getting better and more efficient at what they do. According to Goldman, speeding up the workflow without sacrificing quality is critical to boosting your bottom line.
Training day, every day
Good training builds good teams. For Indresano, that process never stops. “You constantly have to chase your guys and teach them, on a daily basis. If I catch them doing something wrong, I show them how to do it right.”
A short time ago, he noticed a crew that wasn’t edging correctly. “They were using the trimmers angled down,” he said. “I had to step in and show them how, by doing that, they were killing the grass.”
Of course to do that, you need to have people who are trainable. “Back in my early days, I had a guy I was developing, so I put him on a route,” says Esteb. “He drove to a house, looked the yard over, said, ‘It’s good enough’—and drove on to the next house!” “When the homeowner told me that, I didn’t believe him. But I took a look, and sure enough, this guy hadn’t done a thing. When I asked him about it, he said, ‘It looked good; I didn’t think we needed to do the service.’ Needless to say, he didn’t make it beyond that day.”
Too bad. If he’d been a good worker, Esteb would have encouraged him, taught him, and continued his professional development.
Does doing quality maintenance really pay off, despite the challenges? “Yes,” says Indresano. “Although people around here will tell you, ‘You don’t make money on lawn cuts.’” (He won’t tell you that.)
Landscape maintenance, including mowing, makes up 80 percent of his business. The average size of the lawns he cuts run between 10,000 to 15,000 square feet, with another three percent that are around 80,000 square feet each.
“Lawn cuts get you in the door,” said Indresano. “Where you really make money is on the spring and fall cleanups, the pruning, the mulching. It often leads to one-off design/build jobs, like patios and walkways. But you have to do the maintenance part to get those.”
He makes maintenance pay by refusing to take on clients who just want a ‘mow and blow.’ Instead, he sells complete property maintenance packages that include pruning, trimming, seasonal color changes and garden bed tending, as well as spring and fall cleanup. He even cleans out his clients’ roof gutters. In his market, the Greater Boston area, there are lots of high-income people with large properties who appreciate his meticulous work, and are willing and able to pay for it.
When asked if maintenance is a good moneymaker for him, Esteb chuckles. “Yes, but every year, there’s a new challenge. We’ve had to do some price increases. A lot of it is knowing your travel times, and how much time, on average, you can spend on a jobsite. It’s making sure the guys are back in the shop on time, so they’re not chewing you up in hours.”
A number of landscape companies closed their doors during the Great Recession of 2008-2010. Many of the ones that made it through did so because they had ongoing revenue streams from maintenance contracts. Emerald is one of those.
“I believe that’s why we survived,” said Brix. “Had we been more heavily into design and build, I don’t think things would have turned out the way they did.”
Sebert knows of more than one Chicago area landscape company that was put out of business by the housing crash. Some of them didn’t close their doors immediately, but two, three or four years later.
“Those companies were strictly install/design/build, and many of them didn’t even do snowplowing,” he said. “They were dependent on the eight months of revenue that you could get from construction projects, and when it all dried up, there was nothing to fall back on.”
Some of these companies scrambled to get into maintenance or snow moving, said Sebert, but by then, it was too late. The contractors who were already well established in those markets, as he was, were in a much better position to weather the storm.
“Maintenance always provides cash flow,” said Goldman. “No matter what the economy does, people still need to cut their grass, to keep up the curb appeal so they can sell their homes, or keep them rented.” And commercial properties can’t just be left to go to seed, either.
There’s another way that doing quality maintenance pays off, and that’s when it comes time to sell your business. “The construction side is almost valueless on paper, even though it may be the largest profit center of your company,” said Esteb.
“When you go to sell, it means absolutely nothing. It’s your steady income stream that determines the valuation. That’s what the bank looks at, and the potential buyers. They look at the construction side and think, ‘Meh.’ But you show them those maintenance contracts, and they say, ‘Oh, this is great.’”
One might say that the road to riches is littered with grass clippings. Deliver a quality maintenance product on a consistent basis, and customers will beat a path to your door. Then, a bit later, you can build enhancements to that path, and make even more money.