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Fearless experimenting equals success for entrepreneurial brothers

February 11, 2016 -  By

Brothers Bob and Jim Hawkinson run their Florida-based landscape business with entrepreneurial eyes and innovative spirits.

Brothers Bob (left) and Jim Hawkinson run a commercial landscape company and have invented several landscape-related consumer products.

Brothers Bob (left) and Jim Hawkinson run a commercial landscape company and have invented several landscape-related consumer products.

The Hawkinson brothers have always been inventors at heart. From cofounding their company, Total Lawn Care, nearly 34 years ago, to constantly dreaming up better ways to do everyday things, they’ve never been satisfied with the status quo.

“Every piece of equipment we’ve ever bought, we’ve made modifications to improve it,” Bob Hawkinson says, laughing. “We have always been wired that way.”

“We’re not afraid to experiment,” Jim Hawkinson adds. “Actually, we enjoy experimenting.”

The brothers’ love for the outdoors and their entrepreneurial, innovative spirits are the motivations behind running their business and creating new opportunities for success. They look for ways to capitalize on big ideas and surround themselves with creative, business-savvy people who inspire them to keep growing and improving.

“Everything runs in cycles and you have to adjust to them and accommodate them to ensure that you have long-term sustainability as a company—it’s a constant tweak, a constant improvement,” says Bob Hawkinson, who also is the founder of the North Florida Inventors Group. “The market doesn’t reward inefficiency, so we are always trying to find the systems and equipment to gain advantages.”

Total Lawn Care is a Jacksonville, Fla.-based primarily commercial maintenance company serving 14 counties throughout North Florida. With 75 employees at peak season, the bulk of the company’s business is maintenance and enhancements (70 percent), with the balance being fertilization, pest and irrigation services. Clients include multifamily complexes, HOAs, industrial properties, municipalities and retail establishments. Total Lawn Care started out also serving residential customers, but after about four years the brothers decided they found it more rewarding to work with their commercial clientele.

“We found that if you do residential it’s hard to do commercial because they are really different businesses—the equipment needs are different, the clients are different, the billing cycles are different,” says Bob Hawkinson. “We find the commercial side to be dynamic and always changing. It’s very competitive so it keeps you on your toes.”

Total Lawn Care’s goal is to be each client’s favorite vendor, Bob Hawkinson says. The company achieves this feat by striving to be “a little bit better than everyone else.” The company focuses on its quality of work and the expertise of its team members, and runs as lean as possible to stay competitive and flexible. It strives to make sure customers are never surprised by anything, and rely on customer feedback, surveys and good, old-fashioned conversations to make sure they’re are satisfied.

“If you’re a commercial property manager, you probably deal with 20 different companies that provide all different services—we want to be their favorite,” Bob Hawkinson says. “We’re always looking at what is in the best interest of the customer and making sure we are matching what we sold them and that we are being as efficient as possible.”

New solutions

One way the Hawkinson brothers improve efficiency is by combining their experience and their inventive natures to create new products and solutions.

For instance, Total Lawn Care uses proprietary business management software, and it runs custom-designed trucks and trailers that the brothers say are safer and more efficient than the industry standard. For example, wider doors and extended ramps make it easier to load equipment, and a longer trailer tongue prevents jackknifing. Bump rails keep crews from slipping and banging their shins, and spring assists on the ramps help protect their backs.

Each piece of the company’s equipment is engraved, detailed with reflective tape and painted with the company’s colors for safety and also to prevent theft. They even have custom-designed safety equipment, such as the chaps Jim Hawkinson invented to be more hygienic and comfortable in the heat.

Meanwhile, the Hawkinsons are using their experience to create products on the consumer side of the industry.

“I have been working around buildings for decades, so when you see problems you think, ‘Hmm, there must be a better way,’” Bob Hawkinson says. “Because of our exposure to the landscape, we see problems that happen and we come up with solutions that work.”

For example, their company, Weed Recede, produces a biodegradable mulch bag that acts as a weed barrier and then disintegrates into the soil. They designed the disappearing mulch bags as a solution to the more than 2 billion plastic mulch, rock, sand, soil and shell bags disposed of in the U.S. each year—many of which they’ve thrown out themselves.

“You have 250 plastic bags to get rid of after a job, and they aren’t recyclable, so they go to the landfill,” Bob Hawkinson says. “We thought we could use the packaging as a product.”

Working with producers of biodegradable plastic, Weed Recede is geared toward sustainability-minded consumers who want to control weeds without the use of herbicides or traditional weed cloths.

Weed Recede was a winner at the 2011 Jacksonville Startup Weekend, and was recognized as the Most Innovative Emerging Business at the 2015 Think Beyond Plastic competition. Last September, Bob Hawkinson participated in a two-week acceleration program and expo in Menlo Park, Calif., where he had the chance to pitch his idea to capital investors. After spending the past few years getting the patents, licensing and technology in place, 2016 is the year Weed Recede biodegradable mulch bags will come to market, he says.

Other products the brothers have invented include the EcoBoundry rock border system, the Speedy Paver easy underlay system, ColorPocket plant-through garden bags and the Gutter Guppy rain downspout diverter and dampener.

All these products solve problems the Hawkinsons have encountered while working on their clients’ properties. For example, the Gutter Guppy diffuses the force of water coming out of the downspout, reducing erosion. EcoBoundry is an efficient way to surround a building’s foundation with rocks, which separates it from organic material and protects it from insect damage.

Going forward, the brothers plan to make headway with their product launches, while continuing to grow Total Lawn Care organically and through acquisition. They declined to provide annual revenue, but they say the company made its first acquisition three years ago and looks for other opportunities to grow—while no doubt thinking up new ways to improve along the way.

“All of our customers are trying to improve their little bit of the world by having a better looking property at a competitive rate,” Jim Hawkinson says. “I like being able to help them do that.”

Photo: The Florida Times-Union

About the Author:

Emily Schappacher is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.

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