Jan. 22 2020 06:00 AM

The owner of Grasshopper Lawns Inc. has continued his father’s 55-year company while finding ways to balance work and family life.

For Michael Kravitsky IV, family has always been a part of his business at Grasshopper Lawns Inc. of Larksville, Pennsylvania. The company started as an extension of his father’s awning business, when when Michael Kravitsky III purchased a Lawn-A-Mat franchise from his aluminum supplier in 1964.

“It’s been a family business the whole time,” Kravitsky says.

Even the shift from the Lawn-A-Mat meant expanding the family. After 21 years under Lawn-A-Mat, Michael Kravitsky III decided to split away from the franchise. His father ran into an old friend from Connecticut at a trade show who talked about their lawn care company called “Grasshopper.”

“We reconnected at this seminar, and we told him, ‘We’re in the process of leaving Lawn-A-Mat. We’re looking for a name and gosh, we love your name. Can we use it?’” says Kravitsky.

The two families became closer as Kravitsky’s business became Grasshopper Lawns, he says.

“We would go to their house in Connecticut; they would come here. My parents would vacation together with them,” Kravitsky says. “It was a good mutual meeting between the two families.”

Kravitsky’s father ran the operation, but much of the rest of the family worked alongside him. His grandfather, who had started the original awning business, ran the books for the new company, and Kravitsky himself started working with the crew full time in 1988. His mother, sister, brother and niece also held roles in the business. His son, Michael Kravitsky V, started working for the company right out of college.

Grasshopper operated out of the basement of his grandparents’ house for 36 years, including a few trailers on an adjoining property that kept all of the supplies with the trucks camped nearby. It wasn’t until 2001 that the company moved into its current facility in Larksville.

Left to right: Son Michael Kravitsky V, Michael Kravitsky IV, wife Suzanne and daughter Kristy as they choose a family Christmas tree. Both father and son work together at Grasshopper, and Kristy held a role at the company for eight years. Photo: Michael Kravitsky IV

With everyone working so closely, it was sometimes difficult to maintain a balance between colleagues at work and healthy family relationships, but Kravitsky learned from his grandfather’s example. As his grandfather was often working in the office while his father was out in the field, Kravitsky had plenty of time to work alongside him. But as Kravitsky grew older and started working more closely with the company, he had different opinions about how some parts of the business should operate, he says.

“I can remember this one time that he and I got into such an argument about something that I was literally ready to pop him in the head,” he says. “And then in the middle of all of that, he slammed the desk and said, ‘OK, Michael, let’s go upstairs. Your grandmother has supper waiting.’”

“That was definitely a defining moment in my life because it taught me that business is business, and family’s family — no matter what goes on,” he says. “That was an extremely powerful thing that happened to me.”

The original Lawn-A-Mat company started when Kravitsky was two years old, and he grew up alongside it. “It was the best time in the world,” he says. He remembers a tractor with a roller and a weed control spray tank attachment. “Now, I’m a kid, I’m five or six years old and my father brings one of these tractors home. I could plow the driveway; I could get wood for our fireplaces up in the woods. I learned to drive on this old Lawn-A-Mat tractor.”

When he was a little bit older, he started accompanying the crews out to job sites, and because he already knew how to drive the tractor, he was able to help out in treating lawns. He remembers driving to Allentown, Pennsylvania, for the first time with a truck and a trailer with the tractor.

“I’m going to Allentown to work, and I’m thinking, ‘Holy smokes, this is the big world now. I can’t believe that I’m so far from home.’ It was just this weird feeling,” he says. “But the guys always took me with them, and I just learned from a very young age how to do this.”

Growing up with a family business showed him the value of hard work, as his father always had multiple side businesses running. Aside from lawn care in the summer, they also maintained the original aluminum awning business. The family kept an old Dodge pickup truck that his father changed the side panels on, depending on the work being done that day. His father also managed several rental properties and refurbished some of the apartments during the winter. Kravitsky picked up some electrical and carpentry skills from his time helping his father, but mostly he honed his business sense. While Kravitsky didn’t go to college, he found he was learning all he needed from his parents and grandparents.

“(My father) nurtured me along for many years and taught me how to do things and how to run the business,” Kravitsky says. “My parents used to go on vacation a lot and leave me to run the businesses after my grandfather passed. I was running the businesses, and I drew on all those skills I had learned from my dad all those years prior. I learned it all from my dad and from my grandfather.”

There was never an “aha!” moment when he knew he was ready for the business, but he had continued to absorb more and more of the company’s family culture the longer he worked, he says. Kravitsky describes it as heading down a familiar road and getting to your destination without really remembering the whole drive.

“It’s the same thing that I felt growing up in this business,” he says. “It was like, ‘OK, we need to keep moving on. We can’t sit still, let’s get going.’”

Kravitsky officially purchased the business from his father about 10 years ago, though he was running many operations before that. One of his first goals was to make certain he was surrounded with good employees. He had been involved in the hiring process for years but put in extra effort to find employees who were willing to work hard for the company.

Grasshopper Lawns took a safe approach to company growth at the time he became the owner to make sure that the company could balance the workload and needs of its customers. About 95% of its customers are residential.

“I wanted to do quality work, and I knew if we grew too fast, we weren’t going to be able to do quality,” he says. “But in the past few years, we’ve been in a huge growth mode, and we’ve got to watch to balance it because you don’t want to grow too fast.”

While the company isn’t putting the brakes on growth anytime soon, it is getting to a point where Kravitsky is more selective about customers, he says.

As he’s continued to develop Grasshopper, now a business of “under $8 million,” he’s starting to understand what it was like for his father to bring his kids into the company and balance quality time with his family.

“I used to be a workaholic,” Kravitsky says. As their children grew up, he remembered he poured his energy into the company while his wife took care of the day-to-day responsibilities of raising their children. He was focusing on taking care of his career and providing for his family. As they grew up, he remembered how often his father made time during the year for family vacations and time off spent together while he was growing up.

“My dad always took us on vacation every year, somewhere. I mean, we’d spend the whole summer down at the Jersey Shore. We’d go to Disney World,” he says. “After my kids were coming of age, we always did that. I always, always made time because again, business is business and family is family, right? I always made sure that we would go on at least one or two vacations per year.”

Some of those vacations make use of his pilot’s license and Cessna 182 Skylane light airplane. He flew several times as a child and determined when he was 39 that he would get his license. He and his wife take the plane to visit the kids in another city and for short trips to Lake Placid in New York. Either way, the hobby has given them another way to spend more time together outside of work.

One quality that Kravitsky tries to instill in his employees, as well as his children working alongside him, is integrity. He extends that into the biblical principle of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” which he was meditating on through a recent family vacation to Europe. As a family of Polish decent, he made a sign with the phrase in Polish to hang above the facility door where each of his crews would see it before they left.

“I wanted to convey to them how that goes a long way with integrity and with how you treat customers,” he says. “But it also goes to how you treat your fellow workers, employees, co-workers and family.”

The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at kylebrown@igin.com.