Tightening things up

September 21, 2015 -  By
Jonathan Rigsbee founded GrowinGreen in 1999 after spinning off from a former partnership that wasn’t working out.

Jonathan Rigsbee founded GrowinGreen in 1999 after spinning off from a former partnership that wasn’t working out.

Despite hardships, Jonathan Rigsbee’s North Carolina lawn care business continues to grow.

Jonathan Rigsbee knows how to make the best out of a bad situation. Throughout his green industry career, the president and CEO of GrowinGreen, a Kernersville, N.C.-based lawn care company, has experienced ups, downs and everything in between.

Perseverance and innovation have helped the company thrive in ways Rigsbee never expected. With tried-and-true business practices and a loyal team by his side, he continues to grow his $2.2 million company, learning lessons and embracing change along the way.

“If it hadn’t been for being very proactive, we could have lost everything,” Rigsbee says. “It was a team effort, and it took changing the whole way we did business. We had to work with the resources we had, pull advice from others and push forward.”

Rigsbee began his green industry career in 1988. His first venture into owning his own lawn care business came in 1995 when he and a partner started a company called Turf Appeal. After three years, Rigsbee and his partner “couldn’t stand each other,” so Rigsbee took 10 percent of Turf Appeal’s customer base, equaling about $40,000 in revenue, and started GrowinGreen in 1999. Thanks to Rigsbee’s industry contacts, GrowinGreen did $200,000 the first year and grew from there. Over the years, in addition to acquiring more residential customers, GrowinGreen subcontracted commercial work for two other companies, comprising about 25 percent of its revenue at the time.

Nearly a death blow

Business was good, until the company faced a major setback in 2010 when GrowinGreen began using the herbicide Imprelis, manufactured by DuPont. In June 2011, Rigsbee began to get calls about curling, gnarled and dying trees. Within a few months, more than 215 GrowinGreen customers had trees that were killed or damaged by the herbicide, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a stop-sale order for Imprelis. Rigsbee had to create a special internal division to deal with customer claims. For seven months the company’s sales team was dedicated to seeking out the damage and working with affected customers.

“It could have been a death blow to our business if not for the team we had pulling together, proactively looking for damage and being upfront with our customers about what happened,” Rigsbee says.

Fortunately, most of GrowinGreen’s customers remained loyal. Through it all, the company lost only one residential customer. But the situation prompted the firms for which GrowinGreen subcontracted commercial work to bring their spraying in-house. These moves were a big hit to GrowinGreen during an already difficult time. The loss of three key employees; the rising costs of fuel, fertilizer and health insurance; and Rigsbee’s personal battle with a reoccurring illness only added to the hardship.

“We already had a plan in place to replace the commercial business—we knew they were too big a part of our revenue—we had just intended to spread it out over time instead of losing them both at the same time,” Rigsbee says.

“We decided to shift our focus from ‘growth, growth, growth’ to more personal customer service, customer retention and more training with the guys we had,” he added. “We began working with what we had a little more because things were drying up.”
Necessary changes

With the future of GrowinGreen in limbo, Rigsbee knew he had to make some changes. His first move was to 
restructure his team. He hired a general manager to oversee the day-to-day operations and promoted three senior employees to field managers, responsible for sales, training, customer service and technician support. Each field manager oversees one to four technicians. Rigsbee also created an in-house research facility and hired a full-time agronomist to thoroughly test all new products before use on customer properties.

The loss of the commercial contracts hurt GrowinGreen’s cash flow, so Rigsbee worked with his bank to restructure the company’s debt. He also developed a new payment structure for his customers to promote cash flow year-round. Instead of paying for each service as it’s completed, customers have the option to pay for the entire year’s services in 12 equal monthly installments. Depending on the number of services they receive and whether they prepay, customers can earn a 5 percent to 17 percent discount.

GrowinGreen lost only one residential customer due to 
Imprelis damage, but the company lost all its commercial work—about a quarter of its revenue.

GrowinGreen lost only one residential customer due to 
Imprelis damage, but the company lost all its commercial work—about a quarter of its revenue.

“If we do everything for $100 a month, it takes away the pressure of a $500 bill for seeding in the fall because it’s already figured in,” Rigsbee says. “This eliminates people from making emotional decisions about services, and has allowed us to sell more services and have more flexibility in the timing of them.”

Technology also played an important role in GrowinGreen’s survival. Rigsbee installed an in-house computerized fueling and filling station and assigned one employee to mix chemical products and fuel trucks. The system eliminates the need for technicians to calculate and mix their own product each day, and allows one employee to fill 3,000 gallons worth of mix in an hour—enough for 10 to 12 trucks a day. This task used to take about 12 man-hours. The process guarantees exact measurements and also helps eliminate product waste. Rigsbee also reconfigured his trucks to carry up to five different mixes and offer multiple services. (See September Efficiency Tip)

Each GrowinGreen technician also has a smartphone or tablet equipped with Real Green Systems’ Mobile Live software, giving them access to real-time customer data throughout the day. The software helps determine the most efficient driving routes, offers GPS tracking and monitors a vehicle’s speed.

Rigsbee says all these efforts have “paid off tremendously.” In 2010, before the Imprelis incident, GrowinGreen was a $1.3 million company. Revenue took a hit in 2011, but the company rebounded in 2012 and has grown each year since. Today, GrowinGreen’s customer base is 85 percent residential, 10 percent commercial and 5 percent athletic fields. About half of the company’s revenue comes from its recurring turf and ornamental treatment program. The the other half comes from a variety of additional services, such as aeration, mosquito control, seeding and vegetation management. While Rigsbee says he still has customers who have problems caused by Imprelis, he continues to make things right with every one of them, as he looks forward to things to come.

“It’s still out there and still a thorn in our side,” Rigsbee says. “But we made a commitment to see our customers through it, and that’s what we’re doing.

“We had no choice but to dig in and fight through,” he added. “We took the team that we had remaining, pulled them together, and tightened up what we were good at.”

 

Photos: GrowinGreen

 

Schappacher is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.

About the Author:

Emily Schappacher is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.

2 Comments on "Tightening things up"

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  1. Tommy cowett says:

    Jon is a great leader, his vision and commitment to his company is what makes everyday a great day.

    Tommy cowett
    Agronomist
    Growingreen

  2. Dee Reece says:

    Teamwork and the dedication of employees that pull together to help find the solutions to Growingreen’s problems make this a strong and growing company. Employees that take on their part of the load of work and more to help this company find the answers. Continued customer satisfaction and going as green as possible has been their rule of thumb. Continued growth to this company!