Second time around

February 22, 2018 -  By
Photo: Timothy Devine

Paul Wagner, president, Fit Turf, Centennial, Colo. Photo: Timothy Devine

As he was selling Detroit-area lawn care company Masters Green to Trugreen in 2008, Paul Wagner said he felt like he was losing an old friend.

In no time, he started laying the groundwork for his next venture, Fit Turf, because he wasn’t ready to retire, and lawn care wasn’t not going to be a part of his life.

“I felt like there were still a lot of challenges and unfinished business, and that makes it a lot of fun,” he says.

Today, Wagner is “a young 57.” With more than three decades of industry experience under his belt, he plans to tackle those challenges for the long term at Fit Turf with a team that includes his 30-year-old daughter, Dayna Macbeth, operations manager, and his wife, Stephanie Wagner, CFO.

With Wagner’s experience and a growth mindset, the $6.1-million company with four branches in two states is positioned for further success.

Tale of two companies

Wagner’s foray into lawn care was spraying lawns for a small company called Accu-Spray during college.

“They paid more than everyone else, and I needed to work full time in the summer,” says the Ferris State University alum.

After graduating in 1982, he took a sales job at Trugreen, which he says had only 11 locations at the time.

“The economy was fairly weak,” Wagner says. “I’d taken sales and business classes, and I knew about lawn care.”

Slowly but surely, Wagner became a top sales rep, eventually rising to sales manager in the new Toledo, Ohio, office. He was recruited to work for Orkin’s lawn care division in Atlanta in the mid-1980s, before getting out of the industry for a few years to work in the cabinet industry.

In 1989, he found himself back in Michigan with a young family and no job. Masters Green was born. His plan was to sell a few lines of cabinets and fertilize lawns on the weekends.

He committed himself to selling lawn care for 12 weeks starting in January with the goal of getting to 600 accounts—the number at which he determined he’d be profitable—by spring.

“I knew I had to make 50 lawn care program sales per week—and I’d literally stay on the phones until I had at least 10 sales per day,” Wagner says.

He met his goal and went full time in his first season. Masters Green did $120,000 in revenue that year with about $30,000 in profit, which Wagner put back into the company. He recalls it lost money the following year when he hired a couple technicians and “got the train rolling.”

Over the course of 19 years, Wagner built Masters Green to a company with more than 18,000 customers in Metro Detroit, eventually selling to Trugreen in 2008.

He quickly got Fit Turf off the ground, having purchased the domain name two years prior. During the process of selling Masters Green to Trugreen, Wagner began scouting new potential markets, one of which was Denver.

He liked the area’s demographics, the potential for tree care sales and the small lawns. The average Fit Turf client in Denver has a 3,500-square-foot lawn.

“If I was smart, I would have waited a year,” he says. “I tend to just make decisions and go for it.”

Go for it, he did. This year, Fit Turf turns 10 and is projected to gross $7.5 million. Wagner sounds nostalgic as he reflects on his first company—and how it was different from Fit Turf.

“Believe it or not, I started Masters Green with $3,000,” he says. “You couldn’t do that today.”Wagner says the first seven years of a lawn care company are the most difficult as you build up your customer base and develop your processes.

He also says starting your second company in the same industry isn’t necessarily easy.

“I could make 50 sales a week back then by myself,” he says. “There wasn’t caller ID or voice mail. People were excited when the phone rang. Nowadays, people are so busy; it’s harder to get their attention.”

It’s also difficult to enter a new market with different agronomic conditions. Plus, your expectations are high and the concerted effort to set up systems and processes takes time and energy, though it’s ultimately worth it.

“I’d have to say it’s equally as stressful as starting your first company,” Wagner says.

Photo: Fit Turf/Jackie Batch

Dynamic duo Paul Wagner’s daughter Dayna Macbeth, who grew up in and around the lawn care business, helps lead Fit Turf as its operations manager. Photo: Fit Turf/Jackie Batch

Ultimately, he’s pleased with the results the second time around.

“I think Fit Turf is a better company than Masters Green,” Wagner says. “We have more structure now than we did then. I felt like I shot from the hip a lot more then.”

Many good things occurred naturally at Masters Green, but it wasn’t necessarily by design.

“I had a vision of how I wanted Fit Turf to be,” he says, adding it’s always evolving. “You have to keep putting more paint on the canvas.”

Continuous improvement

Being open to change is vital, Wagner says. Changes that make things easier for customers are what gets him excited.

“If you make it easy for them, they’ll want to do business with you,” he says.

With this in mind, the Fit Turf team has rolled out several changes the past few years that are improving the customer experience and streamlining operations.

For example, about 65 percent of customers are now on credit card autopay—up from zero four years ago.

The company now asks all clients to provide a credit card number to be charged the day after a service occurs.

“There’s usually no questions asked,” Macbeth says. “It’s easy for the customer, and it’s easy for us.”

Photo: Fit Turf/Jackie Batch

Fit Turf has four locations in two states: Colorado and Michigan. Photo: Fit Turf/Jackie Batch

It also saves Fit Turf time and money, not having to follow up on unpaid accounts or send accounts over 90 days to collections.

“I like not having to send people to collections,” she says.

The transition with existing customers has been gradual but beneficial, Macbeth says, noting the office staff simply called through a list to notify customers about the change in policy and add credit card numbers to their accounts.

The company also automates most of its client communications, including “call-ahead” notifications and service summary notifications.

“Call-aheads” are now “email-aheads.” About 90 percent of clients have email addresses on file.

The night before treatments are scheduled, Fit Turf sends an email to clients who’ve requested prior notification, including a photo and short biography of their technician.
“It’s a nice way to be transparent, and it makes it easy to reply,” Wagner says.

The messages are dispatched through Fit Turf’s software provider, Real Green Systems.

It was a change not everyone was willing to make at first.

“A lot of technicians hated the idea of sending emails to people rather than calling them,” Macbeth says. “They were worried dogs were going to be out in the yard or gates were going to be locked, and that just wasn’t the case.”

The email is convenient for the customer to reply to, and it prevents the deluge of calls the office used to receive when it sent out a prerecorded phone message to “call-aheads.”

“Our phones would blow up because all the calls went out at the same time,” Macbeth says. “Now, people check their email at different times of the day, and they can reply back to”

To respond to these client queries, all support team members can access the shared email account. Fit Turf uses a flagging system to communicate the email status internally.

Despite the changes, the company is flexible to clients’ preferences. For example, customers in Denver are more open to digital and automated messages, Wagner says.

“Metro Detroit is more blue collar than Denver, and they’re a little more old-fashioned, so not everybody has email or wants it done that way,” he says. “They want to get an invoice and write a check.”

Graphic: Landscape Management

Graphic: Landscape Management

For now, the Fit Turf team is happy to accommodate some clients, but it would prefer to continue pursuing the most modern forms of communication—for clients’ convenience and efficiency—rather than doing things the way they’ve always done them.

“Pretty soon, most of our customers are going to be millennials, so we have to think 10, 15 years down the road and make sure we’re changing along with the types of customers we’re servicing,” Macbeth says.

Fit Turf is also piloting a few new initiatives this year that it hopes will pay off.

One is tracking the results of customers’ lawns with photo documentation. Technicians will begin taking photos of clients’ properties during round one fertilizer applications in April. The images will be recorded via Mobile Live, a component of their software program.

“With homeowners, it’s hard for them to remember what your lawn looked like in the spring if you’re not really paying attention,” Macbeth says. “So this is a good way for us to have that documentation.”

Vehicle accidents posed a challenge for Fit Turf last year, which has prompted the team to consider how it can minimize risks and maximize safety. For example, the company is planning to implement bonuses for technicians who remain incident-free, and it’s decided not to allow managers to take home their vehicles like they used to.

Macbeth is also turning to technology, such as truck-tracking reports available via Mobile Live to incentivize drivers who don’t speed. And she’s investigating other services, such as in-truck devices that detect collisions, monitor risky maneuvering and track driver behavior (like texting while driving) in real time.

It’s all in an effort to run a better company with better results for employees and customers.

“We’re not perfect,” says Macbeth, “but we’re always trying to make ourselves better.”

Along these lines, Wagner says a focus at Fit Turf is making the company people-centric.

“We’re paying attention to treating employees really well,” he says. “I think that’s the root of success in business. If you don’t treat them well, they’re not going to do a good job for the customers.”

Fit Turf treats employees well by trying to create a positive environment—one new initiative is a “praise board” to recognize employees—and above-average perks and benefits.

Another recent boon is an improvement to the health care offering in 2018. For employees with five or more years of tenure, Fit Turf covers medical premiums at 100 percent, up to $400 for individuals and up to $800 per month for families.

“If somebody’s been here for five years, you can bet they’re a darn good employee,” Wagner says. “I want them to stay here, and I’ll pay for that.”

Everyone has access to the company’s snack station, which is stocked with items like Gatorade, healthy snacks and Emergen-C.

“It doesn’t cost a fortune, but those are nice things to have,” Wagner says.

“It’s hard to get great people, so when you get them, you have to keep them.”

Game of square feet
Small lawn sizes were one thing that attracted lawn care veteran Paul Wagner to the Denver area to start Fit Turf in 2008. Customer lawn sizes in the Denver branch average 3,500 square feet.

“A lot of people think the money’s in big properties, but it really isn’t,” Wagner says, noting a key metric he tracks is how much the company is earning per square 1,000 square feet. Each Fit Turf branch is different, but Wagner estimates his company’s lawn care program makes about $15-$17 per 1,000 square feet in Colorado compared with about $10 for the same area in Michigan.

He recognizes it’s tempting for lawn care firms to lower the price of their core lawn care program because they’re making money on ancillary services like aeration and perimeter pest control. But he warns against going this route, saying it devalues the service they’re providing.

“The most service calls are going to be on lawn care,” he says, explaining why it’s unwise to drop the price of the program. “You have weeds, color, rain, diseases, insects and more to worry about. I’d rather have fewer customers at the right prices, so we can give them the best service.”

Photos: Timothy Devine (top) Fit Turf/Jackie Batch (2,3)

This article is tagged with , , and posted in 0218, Cover story
Marisa Palmieri

About the Author:

Marisa Palmieri is an experienced Green Industry editor who's won numerous awards for her coverage of the landscape and golf course markets from the Turf & Ornamental Communicators Association (TOCA), the Press Club of Cleveland and the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE). In 2007, ASBPE named her a Young Leader. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Journalism, cum laude, from Ohio University’s Scripps School of Journalism.

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