Baltimore Company Erases Tough 2009

Like many lawn care and lawn maintenance companies in the U.S., Pro-Lawn-Plus was off about 10% in 2009. But the Baltimore-based firm has recaptured most of those lost sales this year, thanks to favorable weather conditions, an acquisition that’s allowed for the penetration of new markets, and a ramped-up commitment to customer service.

COMPANY SNAPSHOT

Employees: 19 … Sales Mix: 90% lawn care, 10% tree/shrub … Customer Mix: 80% residential, 20% commercial … Services Offered: weed management, soil testing, organic root stimulant, seeding, aeration, tree/shrub care, root feeding, perimeter pest control, flee and tick control.

Company president Mark Schlossberg, with a B.S. degree in agronomy, has been running Pro-Lawn-Plus since 1991. He’s the current president of the Maryland Association of Green Industries, which monitors legislation that could ultimately affect lawn care professionals. Schlossberg is also a past president of the Maryland Turfgrass Council and board member of the Maryland Green Industry Council.

Focus on Fall Add-ons

“It’s been one heck of a year so far,” Schlossberg exclaims. “We had snow cover all winter long. It started melting in mid-March, and the soil temperatures were way above normal. We started seeing crabgrass germination by April, which really helped kick-start spring sales.”

As wet as the winter was, things dried up quickly in the spring. “We normally have a period of drought in late-July into August,” Schlossberg relates. “But this year we had drought in June. Having an early drought like that causes more permanent turf damage.”

The result has been a lot of calls this August—with plenty more expected to come. “We’re anticipating quite a bit of seeding business this fall, in addition to post-emergent treatments,” Schlossberg says.

In 2009, many customers cancelled their fall seedings because there was no summer drought in the Baltimore area. The turf looked great, so people held off in order to save some money. This drop-off in fall add-on services was the big force behind Pro-Lawn-Plus’ 10% sales decrease. “But we only lost 5% of our customers altogether,” Schlossberg points out. Many of those customers have come back this year, helping Pro-Lawn-Plus recapture much of that 10% sales dip.

Acquisition Fueling Growth

The company has also picked up some new customers—roughly 110 of whom are in a market Pro-Lawn-Plus had abandoned in 2006.

“Early this year we’d purchased a smaller lawn care company in Harford County,” Schlossberg tells. “We had some accounts there several years ago, but sold them to one of my employees; we just didn’t feel like we wanted to be in that market at that time. But when another company owner contacted me earlier this year about buying his accounts, I talked it over with my managers and we thought, ‘Let’s go for it.’”

This time the timing was right. “The company’s pricing was really close to ours, but what was even more appealing was the fact that they hadn’t been selling add-on services,” Schlossberg says. “We see a lot of potential to grow sales without having to add many new customers.”

Quick Response Customer Service

Keeping customers is priority number one. “My wife and I immediately started calling all of our new customers after the acquisition was complete in order to ensure a smooth transition,” Schlossberg says.

As for the customers in its existing markets, Pro-Lawn-Plus will continue to do what it has done for more than 30 years: make lawns beautiful using several methods. Its experienced staff, many of whom have more than 15 years experience, make that possible. The company will also continue fostering loyalty through outstanding customer service and quick response.

“This is an extreme example,” Schlossberg relates, “but we had an equipment issue on a customer’s lawn earlier this spring, and ended up burning around 2,000 square feet of turf. I hired a watering truck to go out and water it. When the drought hit in June, other areas of his lawn went dead. But I made the decision to re-seed his entire lawn, not just the 2,000 square feet we were responsible for. This is a good customer we want to take care of and keep for a long time.”

Customers are given cell phone numbers for Schlossberg and his managers. “We’re available any time, and we actually answer our phones,” Schlossberg says with a chuckle. “When a customer can call with a problem on a Saturday, and we can be there right away on Monday, it makes a big difference.”

Making the Case for the Lawn Care Industry

Schlossberg is also trying to make a difference when it comes to promoting the virtues of the lawn care industry. “As current president of the Maryland Association of Green Industries, I spend a lot of my time on government relations,” he says. “I attend fundraisers for key committee members, and overall work to promote the professionalism of the lawn care industry. I make the case for the responsible use of pesticides in creating healthy turf that’s useful for the environment.

“It’s also important to promote the fact that lawn care companies are small businesses that create jobs and are good for the local economy,” Schlossberg continues. “Government relations takes persistence and time, but it’s so important these days. If the country continues to move left, a pesticide ban like we’ve seen in Canada could happen here. It’s our job to make sure the public and government officials are informed.”

In the meantime, Pro-Lawn-Plus is viewing the next few years as a learning period. “We don’t offer an organic program, but are experimenting with certain organic products,” Schlossberg says. “For instance, Nitrozyme is a seaweed extract we’re using as a root stimulant. We’ve had good success selling these treatments and they’ve worked quite well. We want to start working with products like this now in case something does happen to greatly limit our use of pesticides down the road.”

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