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If you’re a design/build landscape contractor, we don’t have to tell you that it’s been a tough go over the last few years. If you’ve been smart enough and lucky enough to stay in business during this recession, when many of your competitors closed their doors, you’ve had to run lean and mean to do it.
When the new housing starts slowed down, or became nonexistent, many landscape companies had to find other ways to bring in revenue. Some of the ones that have survived have done so by refocusing on mowing and maintenance.
The fact is, mowing and maintenance can save your hide during the rough times. That was the case for Thornton landscape in Maineville, Ohio. “If it wasn’t for our maintenance business, we wouldn’t be here,” said CEO Rick Doesburg. “That saved our company.”
Six years ago, Thornton was 100 percent design/build, with the lion’s share of its business tied to new housing developments. In recent years, the company has survived by downsizing and refocusing. They haven’t given up design/build, but the company is about half the size it used to be.
When Thornton added maintenance, it included mulching, trimming, and insect and disease control for commercial clients, including large residential developments, condo complexes and HOAs. Some of these are properties for which they originally designed and built the landscapes.
“I’m a landscape architect by background—that’s kind of my love,” says Doesburg. “But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.” Doing what you’ve got to do will vary, depending on what part of the country you’re doing it in.
Gachina Landscape Management in Menlo Park, California, provides landscape maintenance, landscape management, irrigation management and irrigation analysis. Their client base is mostly commercial—office parks, HOAs and large corporate campuses in the Silicon Valley. it generates about $20 million a year for the company. Gachina also maintains all the parks for the city of Palo Alto.
But the heart of that business, according to John Gachina, president and CEO, is mowing and maintenance. “We make money by the quality of our turf. it’s a selling point for us. People see our work and say, ‘That place looks great; who did it? let’s call them.’”
But how do you make money mowing?
Sometimes the money is made by saving. Every landscape maintenance company has been squeezed ‘to sharpen its pencil’. It’s difficult to reduce your prices and still try to maintain the level of quality. Maybe it’s time to look around how you can save. You’d be amazed at how much you can pick up—a little here, a little there. More importantly, you’ll begin to realize how much money has been spent in the past that could have gone right down to the bottom line.
Buy quality mowers
When it comes to making money mowing, Gachina says it’s all about hours—reducing the time it takes to do a quality job. Their company mows quite a few parks and ball fields, so for those jobs, they use the largest mowers they can get.
He advises anyone getting into mowing to buy the best mowers they can. It may cost more upfront, but in the long run, it will cut labor costs. Using large mowers, one of his crews can mow a football field in an hour, versus two-and-a-half hours using smaller-decked ones. That’s labor saved, and that equals money.
Mowers that break down in the middle of a job cost money in time and labor, even if they’re under warranty. Consider this illustration: a contractor traded in all of his mowers for some new ones, all one brand. (Having all the mowers the same brand can be a good policy, as parts are interchangeable, and you go to one place for service.)
Since he bought several at one time, he got a great financing deal, which saved money upfront. however, the mowers didn’t hold up as well as expected in the field. So in the long run, he spent far more in repair costs and downtime than he saved on the deal. That’s money lost.
Gachina prefers stand-ons. he considers them quicker, more maneuverable and more efficient, even for large properties. “They have more power and do a better job on mulching. They give a good, clean cut, as fast as possible.” The company is replacing its 36" and 48" walk-behinds, as well as some of the smaller riders that are used on smaller turf areas, with stand-ons.
Pick the right dealer
Even more important than the mower you buy is the dealer you buy it from, in Chris Kujawa’s opinion. He’s the executive vice president of Kujawa Enterprises, inc. (KEI) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
KEi services large commercial and some residential clients with maintenance, design/build, holiday lighting, interior plantscapes and snow removal.
“Commercial equipment can be pretty comparable, in many respects,” says Kujawa. “But who’s your dealer? What kind of guy is he? You can buy the best mowers in the world, but still lose because the dealer is never there, or won’t pick up the phone. Or maybe he doesn’t have the parts or service you need.”
Check out a dealer’s reputation before you buy. Find out if he’s going to support you with people and good service in your area. Does his repair shop work fast, with a sense of urgency? Will he provide you with a loaner in place of a downed mower? A good relationship with a good dealer is crucial.
Make sure you know exactly how big the property you’re mowing is and how long your crew takes to mow it. This is critical, because the effects of underestimating are cumulative. If it takes your crew 15 minutes longer every week to complete the job, that adds up to a lot of money in labor and fuel over time.
Routing is not routine
Scheduling and routing your crews is the next vital consideration. “The thing about scheduling routine maintenance is that it’s not all that routine. That’s the area where most guys fail,” says Kujawa. “If you think this is simple, you’re going to find yourself out of business pretty quickly.” He elaborates, “To me, there’s almost a lean manufacturing process in routing mowing services. You have to be vigilant about it. There are a lot of planets out there spinning. You’ve got to get them all aligned correctly.”
Schedule your clients’ service days so that your crews spend as little time—and as little fuel as possible— driving to and from each job. (Remember, you’re paying your people even when they’re sitting in the truck). “You want to build route density,” says Kujawa. That means scheduling all the clients who live on the same street and around the corner for the same day, so your crews can knock them off one by one.
One wild card is the weather. “The one thing that you can count on about our weather up here in Wisconsin is that you can’t count on it,” says Kujawa. “It’s not uncommon for us to go through extremely wet periods.” Of course, drier climates have different issues. You need to be aware of changing weather, and growing conditions, and be able to adjust easily.
Scheduling can get complicated; what once took hours to do manually can now be done with a variety of scheduling software. Just make sure you look at many software products, to figure out what would work best for your company. Some may have a different approach than others.
Gachina believes wholeheartedly in mulch mowing, both as a moneymaker and a green solution. “Mulch mowing is a big win-win-win. You’re not hauling all those grass clippings in burlap bags, loading them onto trucks, then driving to landfills or greenwaste dumpsters.” That all costs additional money—in labor, time, fuel and dumping fees.
Mulch mowing, of course, is simply the method of pulverizing grass clippings and leaving them on a lawn. It’s healthier for turf, according to Gachina. The clippings provide organic matter that breaks down, returning nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil—“free fertilizer,” he calls it. Fertilizing less means spending less. He also thinks it’s the right thing to do for the environment.
Gachina Landscape mulch-mows most of its properties, with very few exceptions. (So does Thornton and KEI). Some clients with big estates still insist on having their clippings bagged because “they just don’t get it.” But it’s not just the odd customer who sometimes objects.
Gachina says veteran landscape workers sometimes have old habits that are hard to break. “Even though it means picking up catchers full of heavy, wet grass, some older guys have the mindset that lawns look better if you take the clippings off. You really have to train them and keep checking up. If you don’t, they’ll revert back to their old ways.”
According to Gachina, mulch-mowing is “very much a program and a process. You don’t just run out and buy a bunch of mulch-mowers— you have to change your practices.” That includes cutting down on watering schedules and mowing later in the day, after the sun has a chance to dry up the dew. His crews are instructed to do all other maintenance tasks first and save mowing for last.
“Our successes have come through giving our clients lots of personal attention,” says Doesburg. “Being available, communicating often about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and delivering what we promise.” He says that his crews try to exceed customers’ expectations by finding out their wants and needs, then going out of their way to fulfill them.
Fuel prices have gotten much more expensive in this country, especially in California. In response to that, Gachina is experimenting with propane. “We’ve converted six mowers to propane; it’s supposed to be cheaper. So far it’s working out fine, but we’re still trying it out before we go into it large-scale.”
“We’ve fitted out a few things with propane, just to get ahead of the curve,” says Kujawa. But KEI is not considering a wholesale changeover, because their mowers are refitted in the winter for snow work. Propane has been known to cause hard starts in below-freezing temperatures. However, a spokesman for the Propane Education and Research Council (PERC) said that was mostly the case with older technology, not today’s fuel-injected equipment.
Ivan Giraldo, president and co-owner of Clean Scapes in Austin, Texas, a full-service commercial landscape company, started converting his mowers to propane in 2006.
He did it to save money on fuel and because he believed, “it’s the right thing to do, environmentally speaking. We do government work, and here in Texas, they don’t allow you to use gasoline-powered equipment on ‘ozone days.’ Using propane gives us an edge over the competition.” Giraldo says his propane-fueled mowers last longer and need less maintenance.
“It’s the difference between paying $1.32 per gallon versus $3.80 per gallon,” says Jim Flippo, president and co-owner of Lasting Impressions Landscape and Golf Services. His company is a full-service commercial landscape company that maintains HOAs, corporate campuses, ball fields and golf courses, headquartered in Bowie, Maryland.
They have been running the numbers on propane for four years. Although he thinks the jury’s still out on whether propane mowers last longer or need less maintenance, so far he’s impressed with the fuel savings. Twenty-six of his company’s 80 mowers run on propane, and his fuel savings are edging up on three dollars per day, per mower. He’s found even greater savings running 15 of his trucks on propane. Pulling loads, his trucks cost 36 cents per mile running on diesel, 30 cents per mile on gasoline, but only 14 cents per mile on propane.
Another way of controlling fuel costs is by having your own tanks. You can get a discount of several cents per gallon by buying fuel in bulk. “We have our own tanks here in our yard,” says Doesburg. “Our crews fill up here every night when they come in. We don’t want them going to the gas station and wasting time buying snacks and things. When they leave here, they go straight to the job.” (One precaution: if you have your own tanks, make sure that employees aren’t fueling their personal vehicles with your gas.)
You don’t have to live in a major metropolitan area with big corporate campuses; there are still opportunities. Every town has school districts, shopping centers, restaurant chains and office parks. If they have grass, it needs mowing. You could be doing that mowing.
An ongoing revenue stream
Mowing and maintenance, like Rodney Dangerfield, can at times suffer from a lack of respect. Kujawa says that “Some design/build contractors look at mowing and think it’s easy. They lack a deep appreciation of what maintenance is all about.”
In his opinion, that’s an expensive attitude to have. He points out that in design/build, you do a $100,000 job once; it’s “one and done.” You might do some upgrades to it, but it’s not the ongoing client relationship that maintenance is. But maintenance brings in revenue on a steady basis. A maintenance contract over a 20-year period can be worth millions of dollars.
There is one pitfall to that long relationship, however, according to Kujawa. “The longer you go, the more valuable you become to the client, so you have to guard against vulnerability. You can’t just take your two-percent-a-year increase and call it a day, or eventually you’ll price yourself right out of the market.”
The green is out there
There’s a lot of green in grass. Mowing and maintenance can provide the kind of ongoing revenue stream that business owners dream about. In landscape, we have the good fortune to have a commodity that keeps growing and that needs constant care and attention. With some effort by you, it should keep your business growing strong, too… or perhaps even save it.