Your behavior appears to be a little unusual. Please verify that you are not a bot.


Pros share tips to maximize value in the face of labor and cost challenges

July 20, 2022 -  By
0 Comments
Frank Maxey, fleet manager for Earthworks, says this Exmark 144-inch mower speeds up mowing times on a big commercial property from a day and a half to half a day. (Photo: Danny Hurley)

Frank Maxey, fleet manager for Earthworks, says this Exmark 144-inch mower speeds up mowing times on a big commercial property from a day and a half to half a day. (Photo: Danny Hurley)

It’s an interesting time in the green industry. Demand for services continues to be at an all-time high while labor, inflation, fuel costs and product availability continue to keep landscape professionals on their toes. With these challenges, companies look for new opportunities to maximize time and labor. Pros share why they’ve got the right stuff — everything from equipment to new technology — to optimize their operations.

Go big or go home

Earthworks in Arlington, Texas, manages primarily commercial properties and offers 60 percent maintenance, 23 percent design/build, 12 percent irrigation and 5 percent tree care services. The company came in at No. 82 on the 2022 LM150 list with $31.4 million in 2021 revenue.

Fleet manager Frank Maxey says Earthworks deployed several 104-inch deck wide-area mowers for a government contract. Earthworks faced a major challenge because only a select group of employees can manage this property given its nature, which complicates hiring crew members.

“We’re thinking, what can we do to speed this process up where we are running two 104s side-by-side?” he says. “We ran into an employee issue — we can’t get employees.”

LSM Outdoor Power in Burleson, Texas, Maxey’s local dealer, told him about a new, larger Exmark mower — the 144-inch Lazer Z zero-turn mower. The dealer encouraged Maxey to give a demo unit a spin. Maxey says the first thing he noticed was the power of the Exmark 144-inch mower.

“I started going through all different kinds of grass from ankle- to knee-high,” he says. “It never slowed it down.”

He conducted a head-to-head comparison between the 104-inch and the Exmark 144-inch mowers.

“I was making two and a half passes to (the 144’s) one,” he says. “I said ‘this is a no-brainer.’ This is going to eliminate a machine on this particular property that we’re dealing with, and it’s also going to eliminate a man.”

Maxey estimates a standard large-deck mower costs around $30,000 and the employee to run the mower would make around $35,000 to $40,000 annually, which would pay for the investment in an Exmark 144-inch mower.

“Now, what’s taken us a day and a half to mow has taken us a half a day,” he says.

As for the 104s? Maxey said he reassigned the mowers to another commercial property, cutting down mowing time at a city or school site nearby.

“We’re thinking a year ahead as far as equipment,” he says. “We’re already into the negotiations for some of the autonomous mowers, but when we saw the 144 prototype, we knew that this was something that we needed to be involved with.”

Going from one to 20

Bradley and Tyler Kesecker of Emerald Island Lawn Service say the company’s PermaGreen spreader-sprayers cut application times in half. (Photo: Emerald Island Lawn Service)

Bradley and Tyler Kesecker of Emerald Island Lawn Service say the company’s PermaGreen spreader-sprayers cut application times in half. (Photo: Emerald Island Lawn Service)

When Bradley Kesecker started Emerald Island Lawn Service in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1999, he was a one-person show, offering lawn care, shrub care and mosquito control to a primarily residential clientele. He added one PermaGreen spreader-sprayer to manage his accounts in 2005. Emerald Island now uses more than 20 spreader-sprayers for its 20-person crew and $4.5 million business.

“He was trying to do too much work alone,” says Tyler Kesecker, Bradley’s son and area manager for Emerald Island Lawn Service. “He bought the PermaGreen to help with the workload. Now every truck has one as we’ve grown.”

Tyler Kesecker says he and his father like PermaGreen spreader-sprayers due to the ease of use, reliability and the company’s customer service.

“I’m in east Tennessee in the mountains and it does well on the hills,” he says. “If we didn’t have (the PermaGreen) it would be twice the labor to do the work we do.”

Tyler Kesecker says he and his father opted for more efficient applications of fertilizers and herbicides from SiteOne using LESCO fertilizers coated with Acelepryn as preventative treatments for fall armyworm and other pests.

“We’re doing fertilizer and insecticide applications, weed control applications and a bunch of side applications at one time,” he says.

He says customers seemed to appreciate that using fertilizer coated with another turf treatment means fewer visits from Emerald Island Lawn Service crews.

“If they’ve said anything, we just tell them we’re trying to eliminate stops and use less fuel. Our customers understand the need to be efficient if we are delivering the best service possible,” he says.

Too many hats

Velvet Green Organic Lawn Care in Wakefield, Mass., has a strong crew of 10 workers. Adding to that group of 10 is challenging, says Tom Johnson, manager of business operations for the primarily organic lawn care and soil testing company.

“Being a small business, each employee wears many hats, and it can be difficult to get someone with the knowledge, reliability, common sense and customer service aspect of what we’re trying to go for,” he says. “It is tough to get someone through the door, on the phone, for an interview or just to pick their brains.”

As Velvet Green Organic Lawn care in Wakefield, Mass., grew from 200 to 800 clients, the team couldn’t keep up with the volume of calls and enlisted the services of Slingshot. (Photo: Velvet Green Organic Lawn Care)

As Velvet Green Organic Lawn care in Wakefield, Mass., grew from 200 to 800 clients, the team couldn’t keep up with the volume of calls and enlisted the services of Slingshot. (Photo: Velvet Green Organic Lawn Care)

While he may be the manager of business operations, Johnson says he wears many hats.

“I am not just sales. I’m not just customer service. I’m not just finance,” he says.

Johnson said while he may have several roles within the operation, he primarily spent his day fielding customer calls as the business grew from 200 customers in 2018 to 800 in 2022.

“I would get to work on Monday and I would have 15 voicemails,” he says. “Each voicemail would be someone needing a callback. In that time span, I would miss five more calls. So it would be like two steps forward and then one step back.”

Velvet Green started using Slingshot to help field the volume of inquiries and cut down on customers and potential customers leaving voicemails. Agents at Slingshot capture the information needed from potential customers so the team at Velvet Green can give them a service quote quickly.

Johnson ballparks the time Slingshot saves him a week to around two to four hours. That might seem like a small number, but during the busy season time is at a premium.

“Slingshot has definitely helped us manage our business better with time, allowing calls to go through and knowing that someone on the other end will pick it up,” he says. “A new customer or an existing customer will always be talking to someone. That really helps to manage expectations of customers.”

Getting efficient

Like most business owners in the green industry, Caleb Gettle, owner of Left Side Lawn Care in Evansdale, Iowa, struggles to find part-time help for his 20 percent commercial, 80 percent residential turf care business. While Gettle’s fertilizer and weed control business has grown, he says he has scaled back on monthly lawn maintenance properties because he’s struggled to find help to keep up with demand. He’s constantly looking for ways to do more with less.

“I’m looking for equipment that is reliable, durable and able to speed the process up while being on these properties day in and day out,” he says.

Caleb Gettle, owner of Left Side Lawn Care, worked with D&K Trailers to design a 24-foot custom hydraulic dump trailer with a bull gate to access two mowers and dump on the go. (Photo: Left Side Lawn Care)

Caleb Gettle, owner of Left Side Lawn Care, worked with D&K Trailers to design a 24-foot custom hydraulic dump trailer with a bull gate to access two mowers and dump on the go. (Photo: Left Side Lawn Care)

Gettle contacted D&K Trailers to help him design a 24-foot custom hydraulic dump trailer with a bull gate to access his two mowers and dump on the go.

“Whether it be spring or fall cleanups, dethatching or bagging lawns, this trailer is capable of handling it all,” he says. “This unit allows me to be fully functional working on my own.”

The driver’s side has two built-in swinging doors that latch to the trailer to hold it open while operating the dump. The trailer comes with an oversized hydraulic ram pump and 7,000-lb. tandem axels to handle heavy loads. The dump trailer includes a built-in tarp system to cover debris.

“I convert more revenue over because of the efficiency of this unit,” he says. “I complete more jobs in a timely manner and allow myself more time to focus on the fertilizer and weed control side of the business, which has grown substantially in size due to fewer businesses offering services.”

Gettle says he also added a 42-inch Exmark Navigator zero-turn mower. To manage mower bags, leaves and clippings, he added the company’s power dump accessory. With the power dump function, he backs up the mower to the bull gate on his trailer, flips a switch, the hopper lifts and a gate flips up on the back end of the accessory to empty debris.

“This small unit has saved me numerous hours of trimming out a property due to being able to navigate close to edging and tight areas, as well as saving my back on lifting heavy bags of leaves/grass clippings from lawns,” he says.

Getting smart with tech

Like most green industry operations, Emerald Lawns in Round Rock, Texas, struggles to find workers. Paul Laberge, vice president of operations, says the lack of labor coupled with the housing boom in Austin presents several challenges for the lawn and tree care operation that serves a 90 percent residential, 10 percent commercial clientele for the more than $16 million firm.

“Being a luxury service, you’ve really got to provide a value and show value each time you’re out there,” he says. “You’ve got to really separate yourself.”

Emerald Lawns uses Anuvia’s homogenized fertilizer to get good color on clients’ lawns. The company follows up with applications of organic fertilizer to keep soil fertility in good condition while reducing the amount of nitrogen applied.

“(The price of fertilizer has) just gone through the roof this year, like 30 or 40 percent or more in many cases,” he says. “That’s a huge impact on everybody’s bottom line because when you’re making your budget at the end of last year, you’re not counting on fertilizer costing double by the time you get to use it.”

Laberge says Emerald Lawns prides itself on the personal touch, but he also recognizes the need for equipment to speed up fertilization and lawn care stops. The company uses Z-Spray spreader-sprayers to cover more ground.

“They’re doing 3,000 or 4,000 square feet a minute as opposed to 1,000 square feet,” he says. “There’s a little bit of give and take, you lose a little bit of personalized touch. I feel like the customer would rather see that you’re out there doing it by hand, but in the end, they just care if it’s green and the weeds are gone.”

Laberge says there’s also a big focus on route density — clustering stops to make the most of fuel and time. Crews work four 10-hour days. This, Laberge says, makes crews more efficient and cuts down on drive times.

“I spent four hours labor versus five (labor) a week, per man, driving,” he says.

Emerald Lawns also deploys Verizon Connect Reveal GPS monitoring. Laberge says this technology provides a lot of insight into how crews operate vehicles, especially in the hot Texas sun.

“Some of the trucks were getting started at 6 a.m. and not shutting off till 4 p.m.,” Laberge says, noting once the team reminded drivers they shouldn’t be idling their vehicles, the company saw huge savings. “The first year we started monitoring, our fleet grew by like, 12, or 14 trucks and we saved $38,000 to $50,000 in fuel.”

Christina Herrick

About the Author:

Christina Herrick is the editor of Landscape Management magazine. Known for her immersive approach to travel from coast to coast in her previous stint as senior editor of American Fruit Grower Magazine, she uses social media (Twitter/Instagram @EditorHerrick) to share her experiences on the road with her audience. Herrick has a degree in journalism from Ohio Northern University and has been in B2B publishing for seven years. She can be reached at cherrick@northcoastmedia.net.

Post a Comment