Jeremy Eck (right) and Clint Harlan, his partner in the sod installation company
While 75% of Spruce It Up's maintenance revenue now comes from commercial accounts, the company's roots are in residential.
Acquiring a reputable commercial maintenance company in 2002 helped jumpstart Spruce It Up's landscape installation division.
From left: Jeremy Eck, landscape supervisor Billy Cummings and maintenance supervisor Andy Eck.
Even at the age of 16, Jeremy Eck displayed a level of maturity that was rather unusual for a teenager looking to mow neighbors' lawns during the summer. That maturity is what won his first customers over, and it's what has enabled him to make all the right decisions for his growing business.
Actually, you could point to many reasons why Eck's eight-year career has been such a success thus far. With an associate's degree in turf and landscape management, he takes extraordinary pride in his profession. He takes calculated risks, keeping in mind both the near- and long-term effects. And above all else, he believes quality matters most.
GROWTH REQUIRES LEADERSHIP
One of the best decisions Eck says he made was when he decided to invest in more effective crew leaders. When Spruce It Up Inc. in Springfield, MO, was just starting out, Eck hired some of his classmates to deliver the young company's services. They delivered pretty well, but were limited in the number of hours they wanted to put in.
"I decided to hire two mature men to run my crews," Eck says, adding that one of them happens to be his father Andy. "To help with retention, I offer them a year-round salary, even if they don't work full-time in the off-season. We also provide a group health insurance plan to all of our employees."
Having more mature, career-minded crew leaders helps with quality control. Plus, they also allow Eck the freedom to spend more time working on business growth.
"I handle all contracts and the initial pricing for most of our lawn maintenance jobs, but our crew supervisors handle the interaction with their respective customers," Eck points out. "This frees me up to stay in touch with the larger homeowner associations and commercial accounts to make sure we are meeting their expectations. That personal touch makes them feel like they are more than just a job to us."
GROWTH THROUGH ACQUISITION
Starting out as a 100% maintenance company, Spruce It Up soon began supplementing its service offering to facilitate growth and offset seasonal downtime. While landscape construction, irrigation and snow removal now contribute to annual income, roughly half of total revenue still comes from lawn maintenance services performed throughout Springfield, MO's eight-month season.
However, a much larger percentage—roughly 75%—of the maintenance business comes from commercial clientele. In 2002 Eck made a big push in this area when he purchased a 15-year-old company that had specialized in commercial and large residential properties. The acquisition included a valuable account list, three trucks with snow plows, a tractor with 15-foot batwing mower, three zero-turns, and an assortment of other smaller equipment.
"Spruce It Up had mostly average-sized residential properties at that time,
so the first thing I did was form two new maintenance crews, in addition to the one I already
tells. "I hired two full-timers and two part-timers to run those new crews. I also
consolidated the routes in separate areas of town."
Eck says his loan officer was the one who'd told him about the potential acquisition. Because the company had mostly commercial accounts with snow plowing contracts, acquiring it seemed like a good way for Eck to grow his business quickly, without having to do it one customer at a time.
"I kept the same name and phone number, and made it a division of Spruce It Up so customers would see little, if any, transition," Eck explains. "At the time I was 19 years old. Although my younger age has sometimes worked to my advantage, there were other times where I was seen as too young and inexperienced to successfully take on big commercial accounts. This was a way to do it 'behind the scenes' so to speak."
Although he has lost a few of the accounts he attained as a result of the acquisition, Eck says he's hung onto enough to justify his decision. "I do act impulsively at times, but being willing to take risks is what has made my company grow," he says. "I still gross annually what I initially paid for that company in 2002, so I think it's been worth it."
Having more commercial accounts and larger residential customers has also allowed Eck to expand the construction side of his business. "I invested in an irrigation plow, a couple skid steers and a mini excavator so we could install the complete landscape packages being requested by some of our mowing customers and custom builders," Eck explains. "Having the ability to install the complete package is definitely a plus, and results in better scheduling from beginning to end."
GROWTH THROUGH STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP
Speaking of the complete landscape package, Eck had noticed a trend of more customers asking for sod installation. Rather than continue to sub this work out, he wanted to start offering this service himself. A partnership was formed with an irrigation company that also had jobs requiring sod. They bought a truck, trailer and two customized sod rollers that allow them to install 40-yard rolls of sod.
"The business is a separate entity from our two companies, but allows us to earn income that would have otherwise gone to a subcontractor," Eck explains. "We try to lay the sod ourselves to keep overhead down. If we're crunched for time, we use employees from either of our companies; I have one and the irrigation company has two or three. They are always eager to earn extra money laying sod."
Eck and his partner Clint Harlan decided to start a separate company to protect their established companies from further liability, and to diversify and create a safety net to fall back on. "We also set up the company separately to track exact income and expenses, and to keep it fair to each other as 50/50 partners," Eck says.
QUALITY LEADS TO QUANTITY
In the eight-plus years Spruce It Up has been in business, the company has added services and grown considerably. Still, Jeremy Eck realizes that he cannot accept every job that comes his way, often due to labor constraints. That's why he and his staff work hard to provide superior service to those accounts they do take on.
"I know my business could probably be bigger," Eck says, "but would it be any better? Superior quality of service is more important to me than adding to my number of customers. That philosophy has seemed to keep the quality referrals coming in, which keeps our company growing anyway."
Spruce It Up has grown to a point where a larger facility would really come in handy. "We have 4,500 square feet of indoor storage/shop space, but are looking for a larger piece of land for a bigger facility," Eck says. Investments such as this can sometimes put a strain on growing companies, due to the added overhead. But Eck's trying to see the bigger picture.
"We now pay monthly rent for the two buildings and land we use," Eck points out. "My anticipated loan payment would not be any more. Plus, we find that better equipment maintenance comes from having an indoor shop with sufficient space.
"Furthermore, an employee's pride in his equipment and job transfers over to better service to our customers," Eck continues.
When you put it that way, it's easy to see why Eck thinks a better facility is an important investment. It fits right into his motto of "quality, not quantity." Because when you focus on quality, the quantity often takes care of itself.
Spruce It Up has a great working relationship with its bank. That relationship has been invaluable as the company has grown, requiring additional vehicles and equipment. It also allowed Spruce It Up to acquire that 15-year-old maintenance company back in 2002.
Jeremy Eck says hiring a competent CPA from the outset has been just as important. "Our CPA has helped guide our business decisions, pointing out the personal tax consequences of those decisions for our S-corporation."