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Spring 2012

How a landscaping company reinvented itself

Changes pay off as market segments move with the economy

Carl Williams, Lawn Sense

Carl Williams, Lawn Sense

The ability of a landscaping company to adjust to changes in the marketplace can often be the difference between success and failure. The Great Recession certainly demonstrates the potential peril of remaining stagnant.

Carl Williams, general manager of Lawn Sense, has skillfully navigated the challenging economy by reinventing the lawn and turf management firm he owns with his wife Brenda.

“We’ve changed our emphasis a couple of times — from maintenance to installation to lawn care,” Williams says. “And along the way we invested a lot of resources in marketing, purchased the best equipment for our needs at the time, and even came up with a new name for the company. The result has been growth each of the 15 years we’ve been in business.”

The name game
The Monroeville, Pa., company began in 1997 as Williams Landscaping. Initially the focus was on maintenance work but, as with many landscaping operations, the firm identified better opportunities.

“I discovered that the lawn treatment side of the business had a good profit margin and there was less competition,” Williams says. “It was apparent that firms doing this type of work were not selling what customers needed, but what they wanted customers to buy. Whether a lawn needed a lime treatment or not, they were selling it.

“That was the impetus behind changing our name to Lawn Sense in year three,” he says. “The name was an important way to differentiate our services — taking care of someone’s lawn in a sensible way — from every other landscaper. I figured the name Lawn Sense would brand our business and help us stand out.”

Landscape installations

At one time new home landscape installations were an important part of the business for Lawn Sense.

“We had a good run for about seven or eight years,” he says. “Construction was booming and we did installations for some big regional and custom builders.”

When this part of his business slowed down, Williams decided that to maintain a presence in the installation marketplace he had to find the right niche. He considered two options: the $2,000-to-$8,000 project and the $50,000-to-$200,000 job.

“The latter seems to fit us best,” he says. “Our ability to more accurately bid a project has improved. We have enough data over the past 10 years that we are comfortable with higher priced jobs. We are not scared to do them. I think we have found the right place in the installation market.”

Williams believes larger projects have a greater margin for error, which tends to eliminate some of the competition. “Just like I learned early on with lawn care, that service work is a better niche for us than cutting grass, the same is true in the installation field.”

Lawn care advantage
When installation work began to decline, Williams ramped up his efforts in the lawn care side of the business. Today he has about 1,200 customers where his crews regularly apply granular fertilizer and herbicides. About 15 to 20 percent of them purchase other services from Lawn Sense.

“The diversification into lawn care has really paid off,” he says. “It enabled us to get through the decline in installations and continue to grow our business. One of the keys to making it work is operating it as a route business. Drive time will kill you. So we try to keep our routes tight. In addition, we try not to compete on price; instead we use only top-shelf products. For example, most of the fertilizer we apply has a high percentage of slow-release ingredients. Another point of difference: We have people in the field who can identify problems and offer solutions. That makes customers more confident in our abilities.”

One thing Williams did not realize when he entered the lawn care business is that it’s all about marketing and that it takes a while for people to recognize your name and want to buy from you.

“Every year our marketing has improved,” he says. “Five years ago we were spending about $300 to acquire a new lawn care customer. Now it’s about $120. We primarily go after new customers through direct mail, and to a lesser extent we will do some door hangers and advertise at hockey rinks and ball fields. We purchase mailing lists for targeted ZIP codes around the Pittsburgh area through a marketing company. It has worked out very well.”

Retaining lawn care customers is critical to Williams’ business plan. “I believe the industry average is a 20 percent cancellation rate per year,” he says, “so if we can keep our rate at 10 percent, that’s a big savings and a real boost to increasing profits.”

Tool carriers and attachments
Williams began operating Bobcat® loaders 11 years ago when he entered the lawn installation business. Today’s equipment inventory, purchased from Bobcat of Pittsburgh, includes a T190 compact track loader, an S250 skid-steer loader, an M-Series E35 compact excavator and numerous Bobcat attachments, including an auger, hydraulic breaker, brush cutter and landscape rake.

Williams’ Bobcat loaders help with maintenance, brush cutting, loading equipment and materials such as salt and mulch, snow removal and lawn installations. The excavator is used for building retaining walls, patios and various types of drains.

“The operators really like the E35, especially the very smooth, easy-to-operate controls and reach capability,” Williams says.

Williams purchased the E35 — his first excavator — when he was awarded a contract for a significant revitalization project in downtown Pittsburgh, which included planting 600 trees.

Working in streets surrounded by heavy traffic, his crew saw-cut 3-foot by 10-foot pits where the new trees were planted. After removing the concrete the E35 excavated the pits. His Bobcat skid-steer loader hauled away the soil and brought in the trees.

“We had to deal with several restrictions, including how long the pits could be open without a tree in them, and do what we could to have limited impact on vehicle and pedestrian traffic,” Williams says. “The project, which lasted about 15 months, would have been even a nightmare without the excavator. Our E35 was a big time-saver. It worked out great.”

“Reliable Bobcat equipment has made a significant impact on the business,” Williams says. “This industry is so competitive that you need good equipment to give yourself an advantage. On installation jobs, Bobcat machines are a key element in the bid; they make us money.”