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How a Florida couple’s investment in a trailer and a topdresser changed their lives

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Tracie O’Brien loads compost into a Kart Mate, an articulating zero-turn cart that mounts to a mower. (Photo: David Steele)
Tracie O’Brien loads compost into a Kart Mate, an articulating zero-turn cart that mounts to a mower. (Photo: David Steele)
Tom and Tracie O’Brien needed a change in order to face labor issues following the pandemic. (Photo: David Steele)
Tom and Tracie O’Brien needed a change in order to face labor issues following the pandemic. (Photo: David Steele)

COVID-19 did not kill Oxford Lawn in Wildwood, Fla., but it sure did change it.

Husband/wife owners Tom and Tracie O’Brien, transplants from New Jersey, bought a small company of about 20 residential mowing accounts 16 years ago and built it up to 400 clients. After a few years, they added irrigation services. Their coverage area was The Villages in Florida, a massive retirement community of 71,000 homes.

“When you have (400) properties to maintain, you really cannot miss a day,” Tom O’Brien says. “I guess we’ll blame it on COVID because the employees’ attitudes changed and that was the turning point: trying to get good, reliable, solid people to show up five days a week all year round. We were having a real problem finding people to keep coming in consistently, and we needed to get out of that grind. The stress level was insane.”

The O’Briens moved to Florida from New Jersey to get away from “the rat race.” Back then, Tom owned his own auto shop and Tracie was a hairdresser. Tom says that 20 years ago, he realized the auto manufacturers were trying to phase small businesses like him out and force car owners to go back to their dealers for maintenance.

“Mercedes was the first one to do it, then BMW,” he says. “The writing was on the wall.”

Now, history was repeating itself, except this time it was COVID that was phasing out O’Brien’s business. A change was necessary.

It’s tricky

The good news was that Oxford Lawn had developed a strong reputation in the market. The O’Briens saw topdressing services were taking a foothold in the Florida market to bring properties back to life. The process of topdressing involves spreading a layer of material around a property to improve the health of the soil. Oxford Lawn spreads Comand from LifeSoils, an organic compost specifically blended to rejuvenate lawns.

“In Florida, it’s all sand and clay. Nothing grows good in sand and clay,” Tom O’Brien says. “It’s all new construction down here. They strip the land, mix the sand with a bunch of clay and then compact the heck out of it. Grass has no real chance of survival. The fertilizer companies we (work) with would recommend our (topdressing) service to properties.”

The O’Briens wanted to see if they could move away from mowing — which necessitated multiple employees — and focus their business on topdressing. They bought a 12-yard dump trailer to see if they could do it.

“Before we made a huge investment in this space, we bought a trailer and an aerator, and we just worked out of the back of that trailer … and it was killing us,” Tracie O’Brien says.

The numbers were working, but the effort was not. Shoveling compost into a topdresser was labor intensive. They had enough work lined up to justify buying a machine to solve their labor problem.

“That was when the light switched on,” Tom O’Brien says.

It’s like that

Tom O’Brien was researching ways to make his business less labor-intensive by watching YouTube videos. He came across Mulch Mate’s videos, hosted by Nick Carlson, the founder and CEO of Dawson Manufacturing. The problem was, at the time, Mulch Mate was loading mulch into wheelbarrows, not topdressers.

He decided to call Carlson and describe the problem he was having. It turns out, his timing was perfect.

“My theory is, spend the money. Don’t worry about it. If you have the equipment, it’ll make you the money back.” says O'Brien. (Photo: David Steele)
“My theory is, spend the money. Don’t worry about it. If you have the equipment, it’ll make you the money back.” says O’Brien. (Photo: David Steele)

“(Nick) was like, ‘Dude, that is exactly what I’m setting this (DMT) up for,’” Tom O’Brien recalls. “It was a pretty funny conversation. He turned me on to the DMT trailer, which was a trailer they had just come out with.”

In fact, Carlson says he developed the Mulch Mate DMT trailers specifically with the topdressing community in mind.

“They have to take the compost to the job site, but you also have to take the equipment too, which creates a logistical nightmare — especially when you have to take two trucks and a trailer and then another truck and … it just becomes a big rigamarole,” he says.

Carlson says while most of the world was in a COVID nightmare, that was the time when he threw himself into developing the DMT. The first trailer was released in October 2020. The O’Briens were one of his first customers for the new system. Today, about 50 percent of the products Mulch Mate produces are DMT trailers.

What makes the DMT special are hydraulics to lower and raise the trailer. When the trailer is fully loaded, it can be lowered to the ground so it is safe to drive from job site to job site. But when it arrives at the work site, it can be raised 16 inches so the topdresser can quickly be loaded with material.

“Topdressers are really tall because they’re trying to get a lot of volume into them,” Carlson says. “The DMT is great because you pull up to the job site, drop the gate, pull up the topdresser, press a button and the trailer hydraulically lifts up. Put the topdresser underneath the Mulch Mate, press a button and in nine or 10 seconds, it’s completely full. And this is all a one-person operation.”

The DMT also has room in the front to store equipment. Tom O’Brien calls the DMT the best investment he’s ever made in his life. He and his wife are now a two-person topdressing team, reliant on no one except each other, a trailer and a topdresser.

“The two of us absolutely kill it in a day,” Tom O’Brien says. “The profit margins are much higher doing the lawn rehab work than it was with the weekly mowing service. The schedule is more flexible. It’s a much less stressful life and it has given us our freedom back.”

The O’Briens use an ECO 250 from Ecolawn to apply the topdressing materials. Tom O’Brien says he prefers this topdresser because of the way it dispenses material — it throws it rather than drops it. If he gets in a tight space, say around an air conditioning unit or a pool, he can throw the material forward, saving time on spot-spreading on foot. He also likes that the machine can adjust from about two or three-foot widths to a 10-foot width for wide-open areas.

Walk this way

O’Brien says he’s happy that he’s not getting beat up by shoveling the compost anymore. When the Florida sun gets hot, it limits how much shoveling he can do, he says. Now, everything is automated.

Carlson is thrilled with the success the DMT trailer has brought the O’Briens.

“I don’t know how old Tom is, but he’s not 20,” Carlson says. “And he was able to reduce the size of his business, increase his profits and reduce fatigue. (The DMT) is a money-printing machine.”

At the end of 2023, the O’Briens sold their mowing business. They are now completely in the topdressing business. O’Brien says half of his 2024 is already booked out. Many of his jobs are one-and-done, while some are two applications spread a few months apart.

The topdressing market is becoming recognized as a way to improve lawn health in Florida, Tom O’Brien says. Most of their work is residential, with some HOAs and sports fields. In the immediate future are two Orlando-area hospitals, and coincidentally a Lamborghini dealership to harken back to Tom’s early days as a mechanic.

“The (DMT) unit was a big investment for us, but we did the proof of concept to make sure we had the numbers to support the investment,” Tom O’Brien says. “My theory is, spend the money. Don’t worry about it. If you have the equipment, it’ll make you the money back.”

Photo: Seth Jones

Seth Jones

Seth Jones is is editor-in-chief of Landscape Management, Golfdom and Athletic Turf magazines. A graduate of Kansas University’s William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Seth was voted best columnist in the industry in 2014 and 2018 by the Turf & Ornamental Communicators Association. He has more than 23 years of experience in the golf and turf industries and has traveled the world seeking great stories.

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