What to know before adding lawn care services

October 17, 2016 -  By
Photo: oasis turf & tree

Rob Reindl (right), owner of Oasis Turf & Tree, successfully narrowed his scope to lawn care.

Companies interested in lawn care must consider several factors before adding it to their offerings.

So you’re mowing lawns and doing other landscape maintenance, and the idea of providing fertilization, weed and insect control piques your interest.

If you’re a maintenance contractor, there are several reasons you may want to add turf and ornamental care—aka lawn care—to your menu of services. Maybe you would like to earn more revenue from existing clients. Maybe you see it as a resilient market that requires expertise the average homeowner simply doesn’t have. Or maybe you’ve heard lawn care is more lucrative than mowing and landscape maintenance.

Research shows the latter is true. The profit margin for lawn care services is 11 percent, compared with 3 percent for residential landscape maintenance and 4 percent for commercial landscape maintenance, according to preliminary results of the National Association of Landscape Professionals’ (NALP) “Operating Cost Study for the Landscape Industry” by Dan Gordon.

Regardless of the reason, there are a number of things contractors should consider before venturing into lawn care to ensure the move is successful and profitable.

“You have to start out asking what do you want to accomplish and what is your goal?” says Scott Kinkead, executive vice president at Turfco Manufacturing, a commercial lawn care equipment manufacturer in Blaine, Minn. “The more you can lay out what you want to do, talk to other people who have done it and utilize industry resources, the more you will know what to expect.”

Getting started

Rob Reindl left his career in financial services to start a full-service landscape company, Oasis Lawn & Landscape, in 1996. Nine years later, in an attempt to streamline his efforts, Reindl shifted gears to focus solely on lawn and tree application services. He changed the company’s name to Oasis Turf & Tree and invested about $30,000 in equipment, software and other office supplies. Today, the $4.1 million company offers lawn and tree care services for a primarily residential clientele.

“I learned a lot about the power of focus and read some articles about the success of companies that just do lawn care,” he says. “It was my belief that focusing on the lawn care side of things would give me the best opportunity to provide a good working environment for our team.”

Learning the ropes

Choosing the right equipment is one of the first steps to adding a lawn care division. Kinkead says it’s important for contractors to consider the different properties to be serviced—whether it’s fenced-in residential backyards or commercial lots—and select tools that can handle all of them.

He says ride-on applicators are great for covering large areas quickly. For example, the Turfco T3100 riding sprayer/spreader can fit through a 36-inch gate and has the capacity to cover up to 132,000 square feet with one fill.

“There are different ways of doing it,” Kinkead says. “You can start with just a push spreader and a backpack sprayer, but most contractors have a mixture of customers and you really don’t want different machines for different properties, especially when you’re just starting out. It’s good to have a machine that can handle anything.”

Because lawn care was one part of his original menu of services, Reindl already had the necessary licenses and certifications in place when he transitioned to Oasis Tree & Turf. He has a pesticide license through the Ohio Department of Agriculture and is certified through the NALP. Reindl also took horticulture courses through a night school program at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College and found a mentor in one of his professors, who helped him set up his lawn care program. For Reindl, the learning never stops. He and his crews attend annual industry seminars and conferences and use new research and information from The Ohio State University Extension in Columbus.

“If you want to continue to be the best, you have to take advantage of the resources because every year there is a better product or a better way to do things,” he says. “This is an evolving business that needs continuous, ongoing training.”

Dana Davis, senior consultant at Pro-Motion Consulting in Farmington Hills, Mich., says most states require owners of lawn care companies to obtain a pesticide license through the Department of Agriculture, plus a commercial business license. Requirements vary from state to state. For example, in Michigan, anyone who wants to own a business involving pesticides has to be employed by a company that works with pesticides for three years before he or she can obtain his or her commercial business license in that field.

“It would be wise to work for a reputable firm that does lawn care and fertilization for a few years and learn the business,” says Davis. “You will also learn things like customer service and the technical aspects of mixing and applying pesticides.”

Aeration is a great add-on service for any company looking to transition into lawn care, Kinkead says, as it’s an important part of any integrated lawn care program and is an effective upsell. While aeration can be profitable, it also can be physically taxing for technicians. Steerable aerators with a reverse can increase productivity and decrease strain because the operators don’t have to lift the machine to turn it. Riding aerators also can be a good option for larger properties and sports turf. Because aeration services are only offered during short windows of time in the spring and fall, Kinkead stresses the importance of having a durable, reliable machine.

“Aeration is the logical step and fits well with lawn care,” he says. “Because it’s offered during a compressed season, not having downtime is critical and being productive in that period of time is critical.”

Business savvy

In addition to being educated about lawn care products and procedures, contractors need to be savvy when it comes to the day-to-day business operations. Reindl says he became much more focused on marketing when he got serious about lawn care.

“A maintenance company is a production machine, and the lawn care side of things is a marketing machine,” he says. “Realize that not just the agronomic side of the business is important, but also the customer service, sales and marketing side is necessary to be successful in the lawn care business.”

Kinkead says marketing a new lawn care service to an existing customer base is the best way to get started. He also recommends trying to obtain as many customers as possible in close proximity to one another to cut down on driving time to and from jobs and to increase the impact of marketing signage and word-of-mouth referrals.

“When you’re getting started you’re going to want to keep as many properties as close together as possible for logistic purposes, and make sure you have good signage,” Kinkead says. “This allows people to see the quality of work you’re doing and makes them want to know how they can get their lawn to look like that.”

Industry peers are another important source of information. Reindl says his time spent networking at industry conferences is perhaps even more important than his time spent in the classroom. He says he’s found most people are willing to share information and experiences and help newcomers get their businesses off the ground.

“Meeting similar people and sharing frustrations and challenges and finding out what they’re doing about them is invaluable,” he says. “We were all small companies at one point in time and we are not afraid to reach out a hand and help people along the way.”

Along these lines, Davis suggests establishing a referral program with a trusted industry alliance. Finding a mowing company who will refer your lawn care services and vice versa is a great way to quickly gain new customers.

Reindl did exactly that with the owner of a local landscape maintenance company he knew through a Cincinnati-based networking group. Over about two years, the companies traded maintenance accounts for lawn care accounts and continue to refer customers today.

Picking a program

Another step toward adding lawn care and fertilization services is to decide on a program to offer. Davis typically recommends a five-visit program, and he says companies should require clients to receive the full program.

Chemical manufacturer and distributor sales representatives are good sources of information when establishing a program and choosing the right products to use. During his time working for a lawn care company, Davis would interview three distributor sales reps and choose one who could write seasonal programs, keep up with changes in the product labels and local regulations, and offer agronomic advice.

“When choosing a sales rep, you’re not just looking at products, but you’re looking for someone to work with and who will keep you updated on everything,” Davis says.

Reindl began with a five-visit program, but he has since increased it to six visits. Over the past several years, Oasis Turf & Tree has placed more emphasis on soil health, and Reindl says that six visits give the company more opportunities to reintroduce nutrients into the soil and to stay on top of problems as they arise, all while using fewer inputs.

“Our program is six steps, but that’s not because that’s the number of applications it takes to get results,” he says. “It’s about staying on top of weed issues and making sure you can diagnose the difference between insect damage, disease or drought stress before they become huge issues.”

Davis says offering free service calls to come back and spot treat weeds is a common practice, and lawn care companies should be sure these visits are built into the overall program cost. But there needs to be limitations to these call backs, he adds. Most pesticide labels indicate the maximum number of times a product can be used during a specific period of time, and operators should follow these recommendations regardless of customer complaints. Client education also plays a role here. If customers have an excessive number of weeds, Davis says to make sure they know how to properly mow, water and care for their lawn in between visits.

“You’re dealing with Mother Nature and weeds will pop up during hot, dry times,” says Davis.

“It’s important to set proper expectations for your customers,” Reindl adds. “There is nothing we could spray that would eliminate every weed in a yard. You have to continuously work to maintain thick, healthy turf.”

Photo: oasis turf & tree

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About the Author:

Emily Schappacher is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.

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