The Money Making Machine

If you say, "Landscape Business" to most people, they’ll immediately picture a lawnmower, and somebody pushing or riding it. Mowing grass is the iconic service of the green industry, and the place where a lot of contractors got their start. Later on, many of those same contractors expanded into other services: fertilizing, mulching, pest control, irrigation, hardscape…the list goes on and on. Mowing became just one of many maintenance services they offered.

No two landscape businesses are exactly the same. Some contractors with large operations still depend a great deal on mowing as their main profit center, especially ones with large commercial maintenance accounts. Others de-emphasized mowing as their businesses expanded, finding other arenas more profitable.

Mowing is the backbone of business at Gachina Landscape Management in Menlo Park, California.

“We’re a landscape management company, and mowing and maintenance is our primary business, 70 percent,” said John Gachina, president and CEO. “The other 30 percent is enhancement or irrigation, but that comes from those customers. So we’re not going out and bidding to landscape a new office park; we’re focused on maintenance.”

Most of the company’s clients are large commercial and municipal accounts. They mow hundreds of acres of corporate campuses, office parks, shopping centers, cemeteries, city parks, multifamily HOAs and apartments.

Gachina says the importance of mowing shouldn’t be dismissed. “Landscape is a very visual and aesthetic practice, and good mowing is a big part of that. When you think about a property, whatever it is— commercial, industrial, residential— most of them have lawns. If the turf looks really good, then the whole place looks good.”

And mowing looks good on the balance sheet. “You don’t have to build patios and other high-dollar kind of things,” says Gachina. “Mowing and maintenance by itself is a huge business.”

It certainly can be, if Gachina is any measure. The company employs 340 people in the peak season, owns around 400 commercial mowers, and had an approximate volume last year of $22 million.

Mowing as an introductory service

One thing that most contractors seem to agree on, however, is that mowing is often the foot in the door with customers.

“Mowing is the main course, but you can’t have the main course without something to drink, and a dessert,” says Warren brown, owner and president of Tualatin-based Oregon Lawn Care, Inc. “That’s what I find with mowing. Of course, you’re going to edge, blow, and get rid of the weeds, too, as time goes on. but mowing is 80 percent of the reason people initially hire us.”

“Mowing’s definitely important,” says Rich White, owner of Good Green Neighbors, Portland, Oregon. “It’s the part that’s consistent, a frequent kind of service. You’re going to these places a lot, and while you’re there, you see a lot of other things you could be doing for the customer. Just by being there, you end up getting a lot more work, because they see you a lot.”

Paul Cressman, founder and CEO of bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based Cressman’s Lawn & Tree Care, Inc., has de-emphasized mowing in his business.

“Years ago, mowing was a door opener for us,” he said. “If you kept your nose clean and did it right, it brought lots of other work. but we restrict the amount of mowing we do now, simply because the amount of money we’d make doing it is too low.”

Cressman instead prefers to sell customers total lawn-care packages. “We’re full service. We also do tree work; we have crews that just do that. There’s a mowing crew that just goes out and mows, and another one that just does lawn applications, like chemical treatments. We have three or four landscape crews. In the wintertime we do snow work, firewood, and Christmas lights. We try to do a lot of different things.”

Brown also uses the service-package strategy. “I package maintenance together with mowing; I tell the customer, ‘for X number of dollars a month, I’ll take total care of your landscape.’”

“I think we’re selling an insurance policy that says to the customer, ‘for this much per month, you won’t have to do anything to the yard, and it will look good all the time.’

” White bundles maintenance services, too. “I don’t have very many accounts that are mowing-only at this point. Most of them like the full service; they want the weeding and trimming and blowing, too. People always have extras, add-ons, other things that they need, so we offer a couple of different packages.”

“We still have a few ‘just mowing’ accounts, but even those, a couple of times of year, need us to do some other stuff. We’re always going to be the first ones they’ll turn to for that.”

“One thing that mowing has always done for us is provide good cash flow,” says Andrew Ziehler, owner and president of Ziehler Lawn and Tree Care, LLC in Centerville, Ohio.

“It’s a service that happens week after week, so once you sell it, you know what you’re going to need as far as crew levels and things like that for the remainder of the year. And it also tends to renew pretty well. Those are the two best things that we get out of mowing; continual cash coming in, and renewability.”

Treat it like a business

You can still make money mowing, but it’s not as easy as it once was, not in today’s economy. Roger Myers, owner and CEO of American beauty Landscaping in Youngstown, Ohio, has been in business for 35 years. “In the old days, we were glad to have the work; everybody got out there and mowed,” he said. “We did a very good job and the customers were happy. Then we’d go out and do it again the next day.”

“But now, we find that we have to manage our work very carefully. You have to mind your P’s and Q’s down to the nth degree, and watch everything so closely. You have to have your account managers do time studies, and tell you, ‘If you mow lawns this way, we can squeeze a couple of minutes off.’”

“You have to be an accountant,” continues Myers.”You have to know your costs for everything—your labor, and all of your overhead, so that you can be accurate in your bids. You need to know that the number you’re putting out there is one that you can survive on.”

Myers has seen a lot of green industry newbies come and go. “They may be out there mowing a lot of lawns, and thinking, ‘I’m making a lot of money.’ It might seem that way now, but they’ll see quickly how it disappears, with all of the overhead, equipment and repairs. Those who don’t know exactly what their costs are, aren’t going to make it.” One of the biggest costs you’ll have is fuel, which doesn’t seem to be getting any cheaper. but you can’t mow or get to the job without it.

“Every minute that the mower is not on the grass, and you’re driving somewhere, you’re losing money,” warns Myers.

“You’ve got to bundle your clients into close proximity groupings. Ideally, you’ll pull up to the curb, unload your stuff and spend the day, because the driving around kills you. With the expenses of the truck, the trailer, and the men, the margin is just not that great. You’ve got to cut it really tight. Otherwise, you’re not going to be profitable, and you’ll lose your butt.”

“The ones who are really on their toes, they’ll be the ones who survive,” says Myers. “It’s a business, and if you don’t treat it like one, you’re going to go under.”

Marketing The importance of marketing can’t be overstated, especially since there are so many avenues for it nowadays. before, the choices were limited to Pennysaver and Yellow Pages ads, business cards and truck signs. We still have all of those, plus blogs and enewsletters, facebook, Twitter, podcasts, Angie’s List, Yelp, search engine optimization and other things that are probably being dreamed up as we write this. Best of all, many of these cost nothing. They can make it easy for mowing customers to find you.

“I spend a lot of time on marketing,” says Stephen Lisk, owner of Stephen Lisk Landscape Management in Mt. Ephraim, New Jersey. “You have to put 110 percent into this industry.”

Brown admits, jokingly, that he’s “one of the worst marketers of my own business of all time.” However, he’s seen how facebook and other Internet tools, such as an online appointment booking service, have helped grow his wife’s business (she’s an esthetician). “These things work outstandingly well.

They’re changing the way that people do business, expediting the process, making it better, easier, and more fun for both the business owners and the clients.”

“We collect clients’ email addresses and send out regular newsletters, reminding them of other services we provide,” says White. “depending on the time of year, it’ll say something like, ‘It’s gutter cleaning season! book it now.’ The customer already knows us because we mow his lawn; he doesn’t have to go find someone else to clean out his gutters.”

Lisk is also a big believer in blogging. “You always want to blog about things; it shows off your expertise in different areas. It also works with the search engine results a little bit better.” (He’s right about that; I found his blog on holiday lighting while Googling that term in the course of researching a story on it; it was one of the first pages that came up.)

Stand out from the crowd

One way to promote your company is by borrowing Apple’s motto: “Think differently.” Is there something you do that your competitors don’t? Shine a spotlight on it.

White has converted all of Good Green Neighbors’ machines, from mowers to blowers, over to propane or battery power. “That’s what sets us apart from other companies. Not using chemicals and pesticides is easy; you can check it off. but what really announces that we’re green is the machines we use. Everyone else is out there using gas-powered machines and mowers.”

“Being seen using propane mowers is pretty important,” he continues. “It’s the face of the company, and the thing that really stands out. People say, ‘Hey, this guy’s into propane; that’s really cool!’ It attracts a lot of people while we’re out working. It’s good advertising, and definitely plays a part in getting a lot of business.”

Focus on the customers

White believes in good customer service. “We’ve had a lot of success, and I think it’s come from things like always returning people’s phone calls,” says White. “We show up on time, and make sure we do a good job.”

To Gachina, communication is key. “Our account managers build relationships with the customers. They keep them posted on what seasonal things are going on with their properties, and do walk-throughs where they present ideas for upgrades and enhancements.”

Of course, it’s easy to be client-focused when everyone’s all smiles.

But the real test of customer relations comes in how you handle complaints. “Sometimes, people won’t tell you what’s wrong,” says Gachina. “They’ll just cancel the contract. So we make sure that the next level up, the branch managers, also have relationships with the clients.”

“A lot of customers have been with us for ten or 20 years. Thankfully, they’ll pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, John, this isn’t working,’ before they’ll call my competitor. Then, of course, I’m all over it. We fix the problem, and life goes on.”

“I think it’s been three years since I’ve had a complaint,” says White. “If we do get one, we fix it immediately. It’s all about showing up and being consistent. That’s the best way to generate business.”

“I tell my guys, ‘Look at what you just did; if this was your house, would you be happy with that?’ If the answer is ‘No,’ then go back and do it right.”

Lisk puts it this way: “Don’t cut any corners. That’s how you build a reputation.”

Being a “people person” helps, too.

When you talk to White on the phone, you can hear his enthusiasm, his optimism, and his friendliness. Part of his success may be due to that. “People tell me that kind of thing a lot,” he says. “We’re honest and easy to communicate with.”

“There are a lot of good people mowing lawns out there, who know what they’re doing, but not a lot of people who love the business,” White says. “Some company owners are really disconnected; they aren’t out there pulling weeds or mowing. I still go out and work every day with my guys.”

He’s also in harmony with the local vibe. “I think Portland; I’m a Portland guy (even though he’s from Connecticut). I offer a green mowing alternative, so I fit with the people and the lifestyle here.”

Another thing that White believes in strongly is finding and keeping good employees. “You have to treat your guys well. If you don’t, you’ll have constant turnover. When companies have that kind of turnover, it shows in the terrible reviews they get.”

“I usually start my guys around $13 an hour, but they range up to $25 an hour. And I still have room to make money. Sure, I could pay them half as much. but will those same four be here next week? Or next season? Good people are very hard to find and keep, especially in a business like this. Mowing all day long is hard work. You’re out in the elements, not working in air conditioning.”

“When you find the right people, you win, because you get the kind of workers you don’t have to hover over,” White says. “I give my guys a list in the morning, and I don’t see them for the rest of the day. That’s beautiful, because it frees me up to grow my business. I don’t have to go around to 50 yards and make sure they mowed properly.”

Will mowing ever go away?

There’s a lot of talk these days, especially in the arid Western states, about getting rid of turf. John Gachina hears it, too.

“In certain California counties, water is dear. We haven’t had any rain, and we’re all worried about it. New properties—places that are being built today—there’s little to no turf in most of them, just for that reason.”

In fact, turf reduction has been a revenue stream for Gachina. “We’re taking a lot of these projects, and reducing turf anywhere from 20 to 50 percent. A lot of these lawn areas are very big. They’re not sports fields, they’re just nice to look at. We find that we can put in some interesting plantings instead, plus maybe do a little bit of design/build.”

Even so, Gachina isn’t worried about grass becoming an endangered species anytime soon. “A beautiful lawn in front of a home is part of the American dream. It adds to curb appeal. So there will be lawn care and lawn mowing in the future, along with all the other disciplines. We’ll be caring for turf for as long as I can imagine. And I love that.”