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Pros share secrets to evolving businesses with the times

April 20, 2022 -  By
Industry professionals reflect on the innovations that have changed their businesses. (Photo: Steel Green)

Industry professionals reflect on the innovations that have changed their businesses. (Photo: Steel Green)

Remember when the style of the TV show “Miami Vice” was hot? Crockett and Tubbs represented peak fashion in their bright sport coats, speaking on a car phone that was both wired and the size of a brick.

Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas patrolled the mean streets of Miami in the 1980s. Dan Lyster, owner of DTL Total Turf Care in Downingtown, Pa., winces at the thought of a time much more recent, 2012. “Ten years ago, I did nothing efficient, so don’t take me back that far,” he says, laughing. “I just knew the days I got to fertilize lawns; I was way more excited than the days I got to cut lawns.”

Landscape Management asked landscape professionals around the country to consider how they used to work a decade ago and what improvements they’ve made since then that have changed their operations for the better. The answers we got were both diverse and insightful. It turns out all these companies have found a way to be lean, mean and green in 2022.

Two good decisions

Lyster found his way into the industry working for his parents, who owned a mom-and-pop family garden center in the Philadelphia area since the 1970s. As a kid, Lyster would advise his parents’ customers on what seed to buy or what products to apply. It became a passion that turned into a lawn mowing company.

In 2019, DTL Total Turf Care transitioned out of landscape maintenance and is now strictly a lawn fertilization company. “I figured I should focus on one thing; as someone who was trying to start a family, it made sense,” Lyster says. “And frankly, the margins are better.”

Lyster believes two decisions he made at around the same time have dramatically improved his company. One was adopting a customer relationship management (CRM) system. The other was abandoning push-spreaders for a motorized ride-on.

“In 2019, we adopted Arborgold Software. I started using a Steel Green spreader around the same time,” Lyster says. “Those two things really streamlined me.”

Arborgold allowed DTL to streamline proposals for customers. Now, his clients can get estimates without his company even visiting their properties. Instead, DTL uses the square footage from satellite imagery. Once a homeowner accepts their estimate, DTL can add the new location to the most efficient place in the company’s routes.

One of Lyster’s favorite time savers is building reports. Arborgold tracks chemical applications, wind speeds and weather, so he doesn’t have to go back in and create those reports himself. He says that feature alone saves him hours in a week.

Steel Green spreader-sprayer allows him to switch from granular to liquid fertilizer easily. (Photo: Steel Green)

Dan Lyster says his Steel Green spreader-sprayer allows him to switch from granular to liquid fertilizer easily. (Photo: Steel Green)

Lyster says the increased amount of work his company was getting led him to buy a Steel Green spreader-sprayer. His company of six people now has four of the machines, with a fifth on the way.

“I went from push-spreading lawns with a push-behind spreader to a Steel Green, and I was able to do multiple acres on one fill-up at a good speed, and I wasn’t getting tired,” he says. “It’s very versatile for us because we do a lot of granular fertilizer, but then we also do a lot of liquid. They have the ability to do one or the other in a pretty quick pit stop at the shop. That’s been huge for us.”

New machines also have made it easier to hire employees, Lyster says.

“It’s always appealing when you’re hiring to have good equipment, so the guys don’t have to hoof it all day and walk all day,” he says. “We want the guys to have a level of comfort.”

No “dead-walking”

Joe Chiellini was a firefighter for 30 years and worked his way up to captain before retiring from the fire department. He now focuses his energy on being the president and CEO of ASI Landscape Management, a $15 million company in the Tampa, Fla., area. ASI is a full-service landscape management firm he started as “something to do” on his days off from the fire department.

He says he has tried to instill the same mentality of what life was like in the fire department to his company, which means he wants it to feel like not just a place to work but like a brotherhood.

Chiellini doesn’t hesitate when asked what changed his company for the better: bringing in a board of advisers.

“Ever since I’ve had one, it’s changed my business,” Chiellini says. “It has helped everything from operations, accounting, sales and marketing … you name it. It’s been so key looking at things from a global perspective. A lot of people get lost thinking we’re landscapers and we just cut grass. It’s a business, and you have to treat it like a business.”

Once he started working with his advisers, Chiellini realized that a lot of people want to help small businesses like his. He looks for people who’ve been outside the industry because they bring in fresh ideas from their own fields. 

“They’ll ask questions, some of which people in our own industry won’t ask because they think they’re dumb questions, but they’re not,” he says. “They just want to know how we go about things. I look for one person in operations, one in sales and marketing, and one in accounting and finance.” 

As far as technology advances, Chiellini says with the help of his vice president, Mark “Slim” Almeda, and his operations team (he calls them “studs”), they’ve improved their efficiency by using Weathermatic controllers and mounting Stihl battery-powered string trimmers to their riding mowers.

“The Weathermatic timers all work off an iPad, so it’s not the old-school approach of going and turning on a dial, finding a problem and digging with a shovel to look for it,” he says. “We’ve been able to attract some college talent, maybe some kids that are more technologically inclined than they are with the shovel. Little things like that have made a big difference.”

The idea of mounting electric string trimmers came as a result of watching crew members wasting time walking from one location to the next. They called it ‘’dead-walking.” Now, the same person operating the mower will hop off and deal with the fence line or a tree ring while he’s there.

“The reason (the string trimmers) had to be electric is because we have an issue with a pull cord in the gas one,” Chiellini says. “The cord can get pulled, or it can break, so the machine doesn’t start. Now, it’s just a matter of pulling a trigger. Little things like this have really brought up our production rates.”

Keeping crews informed

Annette McCarthy, COO of RJ Lawn and Landscapes, has adopted an app-based approach to handle the demands of their clientele. (Photo: RJ Lawns and Landscape)

Annette McCarthy, COO of RJ Lawn and Landscapes, has adopted an app-based approach to handle the demands of their clientele. (Photo: RJ Lawns and Landscape)

RJ Lawn and Landscape is a full-scale lawn and landscape company in the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa. The company will celebrate 25 years of business next year, and it has grown from a company of 10 to almost 90 in that time.

Annette McCarthy, COO, started out on a mowing crew while still in college. She discovered the company in a workforce development program and learned she enjoyed the outdoor work. After college, McCarthy moved on from the company but was called back eight years later to see if she wanted to be its designated “office person.”

“I was the office. I was the only person here,” she recalls. “I think I was the first non-friend, non-family person the company ever hired.” 

She says the area RJ Lawn and Landscape is a fast-growing area. Because of the demands of their
clientele, McCarthy says it is necessary for them to be heavily invested in technology.

“We’re constantly striving to work smarter, not harder,” McCarthy says. “Everything we do now is app-based.”

McCarthy and the team at RJ looked at several different software programs before deciding on adopting Asset.

“What I like about it is it’s all-inclusive,” she says. “If a customer calls in, it starts with logging the phone call. Then it turns into a contract and a schedule distributed to the crews via an app. Then we’re recording their material, their time, our inventory and our costs. We even do our payroll and invoicing in it. We don’t have to use several platforms.”

McCarthy says RJ made the switch first with work orders in 2015, then went all-in the following year. She says it was challenging but also essential to make the switch. The memory of what it was like before Asset is still fresh enough to recall the pains of the old way of doing business. 

“We were filling out paper tickets and turning them in,” McCarthy says. “Excel is great, but if you’re spending all your time there, you’re missing a big chunk of info that everyone should have access to.”

Because it’s a live system, RJ can have all 15 of its office personnel in it at the same time. This is especially helpful during snow season when users can see the progress of the crew during an active snow storm. When a crew member takes a photo of a plowed lot, the photo is instantly uploaded into the system. 

“It also helps us with informing our crews in the summer,” McCarthy says. “Having budgets is only effective if it’s current. Having a less robust software, where you’re having to slice and dice it or put it in Excel to output that to your crew is cumbersome and too slow. You’re too slow to a change in the field. That can bring your team morale down. Being able to see it all the time is super-empowering.”

The combo technician

Palmer Higgins is the president of Mainely Grass, a lawn care and pest control business with 100 employees serving the New England area.

Higgins came to the company almost four years ago from his involvement as a partner in Chenmark, a family-owned business that has been acquiring lawn and landscape companies. 

“I come from a financial background. I had to get educated on agronomy and pest control,” Higgins says. “The team has stuck with me as I’ve navigated that learning curve, and I now know a lot more about the science behind what we do compared to three years ago. I feel like I’m just now getting on par with the people who’ve been in the industry for decades, so now we can have these very technical conversations instead of just strategic conversations.”

Higgins was first involved in Mainely Grass when he ran the acquisition of the company for Chenmark and again as they added some tack-on acquisitions to the business. Now that he’s worked as president for a few years, he’s been able to put his own stamp on operations.

“I had this thesis coming in that we probably just need to orient ourselves a different way to make the business even better,” Higgins says. “Our team was already really good, and our capabilities were already really good. It was a matter of organizing things in a different way, to do it a little more efficiently.”

Higgins focused on the way the business utilized technicians. That led to the creation of what he calls combo technicians.  

“Everyone wants to sell to the next-door neighbor. How can we raise manufactured density while we’re waiting for neighbors to sign up?” Higgins asks. “That concept led to combo technicians or combo routing. (Before,) if someone left the shop for the day, they were only doing one particular kind of work. If they left to do lawn care work, they were only doing lawn care stops. The next day, they might swap out their equipment to do mosquito work. If they have the licenses to do both and the equipment can fit in their vehicle in a safe, reliable way, why not do more than one job?”

The revamp came through re-orienting trucks, adding some equipment and reworking schedules. The results have been “phenomenal,” Higgins says, and there’s no going back to the old way.

“Maybe a mosquito house is closer than your next lawn care house,” he says. “It’s a way to manufacture density when you might not have sold to the next-door neighbor.”

More lean, less mean

Things are changing at Holtz Landscaping and Holtz Garden Center in Ham Lake, Minn. Owner Tim Holtz has decided to sell his lawn care business to focus on his growing irrigation company, Holtz Irrigation.

Holtz himself has changed as well. It was when he bought the Garden Center — about 33 percent of his business — that he learned something about himself. Holtz realized he liked his company being lean and green, but it was the mean part he needed to do something about. 

“My wife brought it to my attention. When we bought the retail store 15 years ago, she told me I had to lighten up because I was making the girls cry,” Holtz says. “I’ve been working with young men my whole life. Yelling at them in what I call my ‘emphatic voice’ didn’t work, they thought I didn’t like them anymore. That was my first realization that I needed to change my managerial style.”

One thing that made him easier to work with was when he accepted he couldn’t do everything himself. He needed to let go of some of the work and delegate. It’s made him a better manager, he says.

“Twenty years ago, I was in the trenches. I’m old school; I was an iron-fist guy,” Holtz says. “I’m 63 now; most of my guys are in their 20s, 30s, some 40s. There’s an art to delegating to this generation.”

Seth Jones

About the Author:

Seth Jones, a graduate of Kansas University’s William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, was voted best columnist in the industry in 2014 and 2018 by the Turf & Ornamental Communicators Association. Seth has more than 19 years of experience in the golf and turf industries and has traveled the world seeking great stories. He is editor-in-chief of Landscape Management, Golfdom and Athletic Turf magazines. Jones can be reached at sjones@northcoastmedia.net.

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