The Science of Subs

"A different way of looking at things." That's how author and landscape contractor Ken LaVoie describes his book entitled, "How to Start a Lawn Care Business a Whole New Way."

"After being in business 20 years, I've learned so many lessons either accidentally or through trial and error," LaVoie says, "and I've become passionate about sharing what I've learned. Over the years, I've mentored a number of young contractors, in the process rekindling my desire to share my lessons with other owners."

One lesson LaVoie learned is how to work with subcontractors. As he writes, "Here in Maine, we work only six to seven months steadily and predictably, and one to two months part-time, and then we have a solid four months of winter. My experience has shown that most people we hire and train find alternate employment during the winter, then stay with that job, leaving us in a position to find, hire and train a new employee all over again. Training is probably the least profitable activity for a lawn care contractor. Not only is the new employee learning, but whoever is training him or her is going to be less productive in the process.

"What I like about hiring subs is that they're already trained, they already have a plan for winter, and they're going to be back in business next year. They have their own work load to keep them busy when we can't." LaVoie also points out that subcontractors have their own equipment, which means you pay for equipment and manpower when it's being used, not when it's sitting idle.

There's another advantage to working with subcontractors, LaVoie adds. "With subs, they are their own managers. They manage their own time, resources and work load. You simply let them know what needs to be done, by when, and set a few standards. Other than that, they're on their own, letting you tend to bigger and better things."

A Working Relationship

LaVoie notes that having a fair payment arrangement is critical to developing a long-term relationship with subcontractors. He pays his mostly by the job, thus holding them accountable to a certain price. "If they're efficient and get done quicker, you're sharing the profits with them." The system upholds two important rules for the author: The golden rule of treating others how you wish to be treated, as well as the spiritual rule of to get something, give it away.

This contractor uses subs in two different scenarios: For big, time-consuming jobs, and for simple tasks and highly specialized jobs. LaVoie puts mulching, edging and cleanup work in the first category, and pesticide application and tree planting in the second.

"What I look for," LaVoie emphasizes, "is to clean our plate of large, time-consuming tasks that can be handled just as competently by someone else so we can focus on getting more work and taking even better care of the clients we have."

Sounds like a plan. LaVoie, who lives in Winslow, ME, has several other tips for contractors just starting in business—or as he says, for those who want to look at growing a business from a slightly different perspective. A copy of his book and optional program, complete with sample letters, forms and estimating tools, is available on his website at Lawn Guru.