Sept. 24 2020 07:18 AM

Franchising can provide support and new markets for your growing business.

Photos: US Lawns

As business owners and entrepreneurs, most landscape and irrigation contractors are independent. But sometimes, the best option in business is to partner up. We talked to several contractors who decided to join up with a team through franchising to share their experiences.

Jeremy Vincent, Boise, Idaho, operated his own landscaping company for 10 years independently, focusing on high-end residential and niche commercial clients. At his best year, he pulled in about $500,000. The company was growing and things were going well until the economy tanked in 2008, he says.

“On the business side, I was trying to find marketing tools to make up for all of my losses,” he says. “It seemed like every year, I started out behind with cancellations and it’d take me until August to build back up to where I was the previous year.”

He spent money in advertising that didn’t seem to bring in a lot of response, especially trying to break into the commercial marketplace. At his company’s size, it was tough to get noticed by commercial clients or even get involved in the bidding process.

Before, Vincent hadn’t considered franchising as an option. “I took a lot of pride in building my own name and my own brand,” he says. “I finally got to the point where I realized I was obviously doing something wrong. I needed help to get where I wanted to go.”

While not as experienced in lawn care as Vincent, Tyler Hollenbeck, Billings, Montana, had worked with an automotive tools franchise for 10 years when he decided it was time for a change. He was already familiar with how franchises worked through his past experience and saw an opening in his local market for professional commercial landscaping. That’s when he started looking at lawn care franchises.

Because he hadn’t worked in lawn care professionally at all prior, it was a daunting task to go into the market on his own, he says.

“Without all the experience and the knowledge, just doing things on my own, I didn’t think it gave me enough to just jump in,” says Hollenbeck. But he knew the franchise model worked, and it could help him make up the difference to be successful.

Ellie Lamonaca, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, had been working in public relations for about six years when she came into contact with Conserva Irrigation, Richmond, Virginia, first as her own client.

“I had to fly up to headquarters with a small team to learn more about the concept and how we were going to pitch them to the media. In those conversations, I started to think it was something my husband and I could absolutely do,” she says.

She and her husband Juan, a construction manager for a civil contractor, had always wanted to break away and run their own business.

They were reluctant to jump into a new project and leave their corporate jobs behind. For Juan, whose father had been an entrepreneur, it felt like a major goal for him.

“I pitched the idea to him, and he was pretty sold on it within the 10-minute elevator pitch I gave,” she says.

Finding the right fit

Vincent looked into several franchises before landing on U.S. Lawns, Orlando, Florida, but up to that point, he didn’t find what he was looking for most: support.

“I didn’t want to just pay a royalty and have them cash my checks,” he says. “I was really looking for what level of support they would offer me to run a franchise from their company. I wanted to make sure that my return on investment was good. I needed a partner.”

Along with a strong showing of support, a commitment to water conservation also drew them to Conserva Irrigation, Ellie says.

“Everything is turning green these days,” she says. “We felt that was ahead of the curve.”

When Ellie and Juan looked deeper into Conserva Irrigation, they saw more of what they were after, such as support for a growing business through organization, crew guidelines and marketing. Beyond that, they saw an opportunity in irrigation services that didn’t have much local competition at the level that Conserva Irrigation was offering. Florida also requires irrigation contractors to be licensed, creating an opening for their new venture.

“For me, that meant huge potential to be part of the initial entry of the industry’s growth,” Juan says. “There’s evolution going on in this corner of the market.”

The biggest thing Hollenbeck was looking for from a franchise was experience, he says. With his previous franchise experience, the franchisor was very hands-off after supplying the product. For him to be able to succeed in the lawn care industry where he didn’t have a lot of experience, he knew he needed to have help.

When he started looking into Weed Man, he saw a more scientific approach to the industry that helped bring him up to speed quickly, he says. He could see how if he worked with the provided plan, he’d be able to reach his goals a little bit faster.

Once he visited the headquarters in Toronto to meet the team and do training, he was set.

“You could really see that this was about them helping you reach your goals,” he says. “I can’t say enough about how much support we get in terms of that stuff, they’re just a phone call or text message away.”

Another thing he was looking for was the capability to grow the business and potentially sell if he decided to leave the industry later, he says.

“Having a business you can build and actually sell if that’s your goal or if you want to pass it down, that was a big thing,” he says. “It makes it really worthwhile to know you’re building something like that.”

Building the relationship

From the start, Conserva Irrigation’s corporate team was involved in helping the Lamonacas get the franchise moving, Ellie says. Every quarter, the team meets with franchise owners to look over the business and manage expenses.

“They really want all their franchisees to be profitable,” Ellie says. “They want to make sure we’re using the best programs, and they’re constantly updating and upgrading our programs.”

Having that backup makes a huge difference in making the transition. “We really did not feel like we were alone in this,” she says. “They provided everything to us in a box with a bow.”

Conserva Irrigation showed them where they would be getting their parts and how to store them and provided software to help with office work, she says. “We were given every single resource we would possibly need to make it successful. It was just a matter of being motivated enough to push it.”

Once they joined Conserva Irrigation, Ellie left her job, while Juan transitioned out of his fully into the new position over several months.

“We grew exponentially once that happened,” Juan says.

With her experience with franchises through public relations, Ellie says franchisees often see a high communication level with the home office right after signing on, which then slows down over time. For her, keeping that communication level high helps maintain a strong relationship. They meet once a week with the franchisor over a Zoom call, and twice each year they attend “recharge events.” On top of that, Conserva Irrigation has regional representatives who stay in touch regularly and help franchisees look at financials and other issues.

“They don’t take the approach of ‘Just let them do their own thing, we won’t bother you,’” Juan says. “There’s constant communication back and forth.”

Communication has been a major tool for development for Hollenbeck as well. He does weekly calls with a Weed Man representative to talk through sales analysis and benchmarking to see where he’s landing compared to his goals.

“They have all the statistics on what you should be seeing at this point in the year,” he says. “As long as we’re getting the work down and we plan accordingly, it just runs really smoothly that way.”

Representatives also come out for site visits as well to help with marketing and training programs, he says. Especially as someone that didn’t have experience in landscaping, the assistance even in technical and system checklists made a big difference for Hollenbeck.

“You’re taught the right way from the get-go, and you’re not trying to break bad habits,” he says.

Because Vincent had plenty of experience in the landscaping industry to begin with, “I had to learn to get out of my own way,” he says. At the start, after he completed the training, he would sometimes try to make the systems adapt to his own background rather than to trust the system itself.

“About a year and a half into the transition, I just did everything the U.S. Lawns way,” he says. “Once I was able to do that, the growth just exploded.”

He says he experienced about 100% growth on average for three years in a row once he worked alongside the systems rather than against them.

Being transparent and open with the home office goes a long way toward keeping the relationship positive, Hollenbeck says. When help is needed, it’s always best to ask for it. That relationship goes both ways, where if you think you might have some insight into your local market, it’s worth sharing.

“They’re open to change and different ideas,” Hollenbeck says. “As long as they can tell that you’re doing your best for the brand, that really strengthens (the relationship).”

It also helps to have additional resources available when looking for marketing materials for a new promotion or training videos for new employees, says Juan. There are also online discussion groups for franchisees to talk about what’s worked for them in their individual markets and how to replicate it.

“You feed off each other every day with new problems and new ways to tackle them and the best practices that one region’s doing that we can implement here,” he says.

Having the resources of a larger group of franchisees helped Vincent deal with COVID-19 concerns as well. The other U.S. Lawns franchise owners were able to share how they were approaching the pandemic, as well as materials for connecting with customers and the larger community.

Weighing options

For contractors looking at the possibility of franchising, Hollenbeck suggests keeping the bigger picture in mind. Talk to franchisees across programs and see what fits best for your industry and location. Make certain you talk to both smaller and larger franchisees to get a more accurate image.

“You can take the best franchisees from every franchise, call them and still not have a very good picture,” he says. “Call the whole scope and see what they have to say about support. That will speak volumes on the franchise.”

It’s also important to look at the return on funds and royalties, as well as discounts on products, he says. Franchise fees can be high, but the discounts could mean getting more in the long run.

Franchising isn’t a perfect fit for everyone, but if you’re looking for a partner in the process, it can be a viable option, Vincent says.

“For anybody opening up a business, franchising is going to help create the biggest return on investment in the long run, especially if you’re not familiar with an industry,” he says. “We’re a team. They’re motivated to help you to be better and more successful.”

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