San Antonio Family's Livin' Their Dream

Certified Lawn & Landscape

San Antonio, TX
certifiedlawn.com
Founded: September 2005
Owners: Jon, Liza, Jose and Esther Zertuche
Employees: 9 peak season,
6 off season
Sales Mix: 80% maintenance,
10% construction, 10% irrigation
Customer Mix: 100% commercial, including high-end residential property managers and a public housing contract
Fleet includes one Hustler 60-inch mower, two Cub Cadet 60-inch mowers, one LESCO 72-inch mower, one LESCO 60-inch mower, one Mahindra tractor with front-end loader and 72-inch deck, Echo debris blowers and string trimmers, four trailers, one Hummer H2, one Chevrolet 1500, two Chevrolet 2500 4x4s

Since the age of 19, Jon Zertuche has worked in the landscaping business, earning his stripes as a laborer and eventually foreman for a handful of larger companies. Backed by his father Jose, a retired Boeing executive, he decided to break out on his own in September 2005. "I was scared," Jon relates. But he was also determined.

So was Jose, Jon's wife Liza, and several other members of the Zertuche family who have each played a role in the rapid success of the business (see "Strength in Family" on page 10). Now with a large government account in its portfolio, Certified Lawn & Landscape in San Antonio, TX, has become a company Jon had only dreamed of owning one day.

The question now is: Can the Zertuches maintain what they've so quickly built? There are plenty of reasons to believe they can. They have extremely loyal customers who have kicked the referral engine into overdrive. They have loyal employees offering a diversity of skills. They have a refined estimating system to help maintain profit levels. They run lean, and have a business plan charting the company's next several years.

LOYAL CUSTOMERS AS THE FOUNDATION

The next several years, Jon tells, will hopefully include growth in the construction division. "We're doing some construction work now; mainly enhancements for our maintenance accounts," Jon points out. "We've also partnered with a local builder. We typically do three or four installs a month starting in early March, but we'd like to do more."

In its first three years of operation, Certified Lawn & Landscape has focused on commercial maintenance. This year includes three new accounts that have driven annual sales up more than 30 percent. One of them is a large contract with a federal government account (see "Landing the big fish" later on).

The Zertuches are quick to give credit where credit is due, though. Like many budding contractors, Jon got his start by breaking off from an existing landscape company—and winning business from a couple accounts he had developed a good rapport with. These customers helped sustain Certified Lawn as it got its bearings.

One of them is property manager Rick Dean of Creston Ridge mobile home park (a YES community). Dean says he has stuck with Jon because he's so responsive. "Jon has a great attitude," Dean tells. "He returns my calls promptly and always has his crew jump on situations. It's not uncommon to see him or Liza on the property themselves if that's what it takes to make it right."

The 67 acres at Creston Ridge take a four-person crew an entire day to service. The contract calls for 26 visits a year. Two other mobile home parks are also part of Certified Lawn's portfolio. Jon loves this type of customer because drive time is minimized. This is especially the case with Creston Ridge, which is right next door to Certified Lawn's leased storage facility.

Most of Certified Lawn's customers are within a 30-mile radius. One, however, is 65 miles away. "It doesn't bother us too much," Jon points out, "because we budget for the extra drive time." This account, Alpha Barnes Real Estate Services, is a classic example of how things can quickly snowball—in a good way that is.

Alpha Barnes' regional manager, Tammy Flores, was dissatisfied with her current lawn maintenance provider. She found Certified Lawn & Landscape through its ad in The Vendor Guide, a bi-monthly publication designed to help property management firms source qualified service providers and other vendors. Jon placed a bid on a nearby property, won it, and later was awarded seven more, including the property 65 miles away.

Flores has been very appreciative of how proactive Certified Lawn is. "She likes our Service Maintenance Report, which must be signed by both the property manager and foreman before we leave the property," Jon explains. "We want any questions answered right away, before they turn into problems."

Similarly, the Quarry Apartments and Condominiums site manager for Westdale Management Company, Whitney Metheny, notes the improvement in maintenance since Certified assumed the contract for that property. She has also received kudos from Westdale Management during their visits regarding the Quarry's much improved landscape appearance.

Another example of Jon's proactive approach is the laptop computer he keeps in his increasingly famous Hummer. "I can prepare proposals and other paperwork on-site right after meeting with the client," Jon says. "They don't have to wait for me to get back to the office, re-sort everything out and get back in touch with them."

LANDING THE BIG FISH

Speaking of proposals, a 128-pager that took about a month to prepare has recently landed a huge government contract. This account consists of 27 properties that each get 24 visits per year. "We hit 14 properties one week and 13 the next," Jon points out.

Jose researched and downloaded the Lawn Maintenance Request For Quote (RFQ) from the federal government agency's website. From there Jose put his skills to use in preparing the proposal. A retired quality control engineer for Boeing, he's a master of minutiae.

The proposal included nearly five pages of detailed descriptions of all the work that would be done—property inspections, chemical treatments, debris cleanup, mowing and trimming, irrigation, tree and shrub care, you name it. Mechanisms to enhance communication, safety and professionalism were also described.

"I figured that if we could show how thorough and detailed we could be with our proposal, the government agency would feel good about what we could deliver with our maintenance and lawn care services," Jose relates.

PROFITS REQUIRE SELECTIVE APPROACH

Bidding is also one of Jon's specialties. "I've been doing this so long that I can pretty much look at a property and know what it's going to take from a man-hour standpoint," Jon adds. He tries to be both competitive and practical—and cautious as it relates to profits.

"If I think a crew can get through a property in two and a quarter hours, I'll usually budget for three," Jon explains. "It's not to be greedy or cheat the customer. Things happen some days that slow us down. It all evens out in the end. We have to maintain our profitability."

That's why Certified Lawn & Landscape has had to let a few customers go as the company has grown. That wasn't the case when they were first starting out a few years ago. "I was willing to do just about anything, whether it was building a fence or cleaning gutters," Jon recalls. "Now we try to focus on what we do best, for customers who make it worth our while."

For now that's commercial maintenance, with a little bit of lawn care, irrigation and installation tossed into the mix. Jon hopes there's more of that in the future as the company continues to evolve. "I'm not afraid to have a door slammed in my face," Jon says in reference to his sales efforts. "I just want a chance to peak in, because, for whatever reason, I have nearly a 98-percent closing ratio."

If you ask long-time customers such as Rick Dean, the reason is quite clear. Jon and the rest of the Certified Lawn staff are proactive, responsive, and a joy to work with. When you love your job as much as the Zertuches do, good customer service falls right in line.

STRENGTH IN FAMILY

Finding employees hasn't been too much of a problem for Jon Zertuche, Certified Lawn & Landscape's vice president of operations. After he offered jobs to his immediate family members, he only had a couple positions to fill.

Jon says working with family is one of the things he loves most about owning his own company. The key to working with family, he relates, is making it all about business—at least when they're on the clock.

Family members working in the business include:
• Father Jose (vice president and chief financial officer) and his wife Esther (secretary)
• Wife Liza (president)
• Daughter Jennifer and her husband Jon Oyervides
• Liza's parents Irene and Everett Patino
• Non-family members include Michael Alderete, Jose Olvera and Chris Orapeza

Jon is looking to add a few more employees this year as Certified Lawn & Landscape begins servicing the recently added government account. He already has a beat on a couple prospects who'd be a perfect fit, even though they aren't biologically family. That's OK, because everyone who works at Certified Lawn is really family anyway.

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