|By DENNE GOLDSTEIN|
While still quite young, Blake Smith and his brother were instilled with a very strong work ethic by their father. That work ethic, combined with passion, has driven Smith to exceed the goals he set for himself, and accomplished them before he reached the age of 40.
At the tender age of six, Blake, along with his brother (who was all of eight), began raking leaves on the lawns in the neighborhood. Their father bought them a mower so they could earn extra money, with their promise to pay him back. So Smith started a 'lawn care' business at the young age of six.
By the time he was sixteen, and armed with a driver's license, Smith could finally get serious about his business. To peak his inspiration, he set his sights on a seemingly unattainable goal; to buy a new Corvette. He set a time frame with a plan for achieving this goal; he wanted that Corvette in his driveway by the time he was a senior in high school. To accomplish this, he needed to save $16,000 or $17,000. Like he says, "I knew what the prize was."
By setting such lofty goals, he realized that he had to discipline himself. He needed to acquire a minimum of 50 weekly clients to make his dream a reality. Before long, he had established 65. To make a long story shorter, Smith did achieve what he set his sights on, and six months later, at the age of 17, he was sitting behind the wheel of a shiny black Corvette.
Over the next three years Smith grew his company, Quality Lawn Care, to service more than 175 accounts a week, but more importantly, he increased revenues at a far more rapid pace. Smith began to realize that by offering additional services to his present customer base, he could not only increase his volume, but also add more value for his clients. So, he added cleaning the beds, fertilizing and caring for the trees to his menu of services. He also started tracking how much each service cost and how profitable it was. He added the words 'tree' and 'landscaping' to his company name, now known as Quality Lawn, Tree and Landscaping.
Along the way, Smith encountered a major challenge in continuing to grow his company -- retaining enough good employees through the winter months. One November, one of his clients asked him if he would put up his holiday lights. They were happy to pay someone to do this. He did, and Smith realized that maybe other clients would be willing to pay for such a service. Since November and December were usually slow months for Smith's company, he saw a great opportunity to add an additional service. However, one of the problems he ran into was that some of his clients thought he was charging too much, while others felt his prices were quite reasonable.
Smith attempted to market holiday lights as an add-on service, but soon realized that he could get more money for this service if he looked more like a decorating professional. So he developed a company name, logo and full-color marketing materials specifically for this new service. Christmas Decor was born.
That year, with very little promotion, he had more work than he could handle for the holiday decorating season. He had to stop taking business very early because his company could not get all the work done before Christmas. The following year, the same thing happened . . . he had more business than he could handle.
During the next two years, Smith learned by doing and by trial and error how he wanted to run his company. He developed a great respect for numbers and analyzing his business. He also learned what it takes to get organized, and the value of a good employee. His winter business, Christmas Decor, was a retention and recruitment tool for the best employees in the market.
Over the next five years, his firm became the largest landscape maintenance company in the county, with a volume of more than $1.3 million annually. Equally impressive was what was behind these numbers. More than $350,000 was generated from hanging holiday lights -- 50% of the company's profits.
Learning from all the mistakes he had made over the past seven years, Smith and his team refined the marketing programs, sales presentation, training and products. Using this refined business program, Smith?s brother and a business partner by the name of Curtis Hogan, opened a branch in Midland, Texas.
In its first year, that branch achieved a sales volume of half the volume it had taken Smith seven years to achieve.
In 1996, eight years after he began hanging holiday lights, Smith started to explore how he could share his success with other landscape contractors, as well as to continue to expand his holiday light business. He wrote a 'how to' manual, but soon realized it would take more than a manual to help someone achieve success in this unique business. It would take hands-on training, guidance, etc. Franchising appeared to be the most effective strategy.
In 1976, Christmas Decor began with seven franchisees. Currently, there are 400 franchisees operating in 49 states, servicing 50,000 customers, generating $56 million annually. The Midland store was sold, and eventually the new owners decided to purchase the landscape maintenance company as well.
Without a spring and summer business, Smith established Nite Time Decor, a low-voltage landscape lighting franchise model. Nite Time is operating in 33 markets in 15 states. What does a busy guy do in his off time? What off time is that? He and his wife Amanda and their new 8-month-old son, Cole, love to travel. With what little time they have together, they try to get as much traveling in as they can.
Blake Smith has been working in the landscape maintenance business since he was six years old. Today, at 37, it's hard to believe he's been at it for 31 years. He has studied his clients, he has made the mistakes and learned the hard way. To say he is driven is putting it mildly.