Creating Yard Envy

After a successful 25-year career in sales management, Dean Cox wanted to start a business of his own. It wasn't going to be easy. He had no customers and very little equipment. One thing he did have, however, was a strong desire to become the preeminent lawn and landscape professional in the area. Just as the slogan states on the sides of his trucks, Cox wanted to be in the business of "creating yard envy."

Today Cox is helping 60-plus high-end residential customers create a little yard envy of their own. Annual sales for Chestnut Oaks Lawn & Landscape in Greenville, SC, have more than quadrupled in the past five years. Customer retention is 100%. Cox has built a successful business by telling himself each morning when he wakes up: "We are not going to be an everyday mow-and-go company."


When Cox decided to launch Chestnut Oaks in 2002, he sold his stock in the company he'd spent 25 years working for. "I bought the best equipment I could find, and lettered it with our company name, logo and slogan," he tells. "I also bought collared shirts with our logo for myself and my employees to wear." These were givens, Cox relates, because the high-end residential customer he wanted to target would never retain his services if they weren't proud to have Chestnut Oaks seen on their property.

As the old saying goes: You never have a second chance to make a first impression. Still, even the best first impression can be ruined by poor follow-through. That's why Cox's quest for professionalism goes well beyond a shiny truck and collared shirt.

Like many contractors, Chestnut Oaks places a sign in the customer's front yard as a form of advertising. "We'll never place a sign until we've gotten the yard to a point where it's something both the customer and we can be proud of," Cox points out.


In addition to the typical mow-trim-blow offering, Chestnut Oaks performs chemical applications, lawn renovation services and outdoor lighting installation. Cox also works with local builders to perform the landscaping for housing startups, installing native plants that are suited to the environment of the neighborhood.

However, 95% of the company's new customers are attained through referrals. "We don't advertise at all—not even in the phone book," Cox emphasizes. "In five years we've never lost a client to a competitor. We've let some go because they weren't profitable, but we've never been fired. We've been very lucky."

This proven track record is a result of more than just luck. "We tell our customers that we are on call for them 24/7," Cox says. "If a problem with their yard arises before our crew is scheduled to return the next week, I personally go and correct the problem within 24 hours of their call. We don't just mow their property—we manage it."

Ever the proactive owner/operator, Cox doesn't just wait for customers to call with emerging problems. He personally visits each property at least once a week to make sure the irrigation is on, check for signs of lawn stress or disease, or to simply visit with customers.

"We have limited the market area we're willing to cover so we can provide this personal service," Cox says. "We work within a 20-mile radius of our business, and refer potential customers who are outside of this radius to other maintenance companies."


Having been in business for five years, Cox feels like his company has matured to the point that he doesn't have to pursue business as aggressively as he has in the past. In the early years, Cox couldn't call a prospect fast enough upon receiving a lead from a current customer. These days, Cox graciously hands the customer a business card, asking that customer to invite the prospect to give him a call. After the two talk on the phone, Cox will meet with the prospect on his or her property.

"We feel like our work sells itself, so we don't have to," Cox says. "The part I usually do have to sell, though, is price. We are not the cheapest, by far."

Cox says his background in sales had prepared him for the questions and concerns that are often addressed when talking with a customer. "People can distinguish between a typical salesman and someone who is honest and upfront," Cox says. "I don't put pressure on anyone to use our services. I don't even call them back after we meet to discuss their property. I leave it up to them to call. Potential customers are already familiar with our quality and appearance."


Cox concedes that this philosophy goes against virtually every selling directive, but he believes you can really sell yourself on the quality of your work in this business. "Having said that," Cox continues, "when the customer and I agree on a price, we both sign a one-year contract that describes everything we will do on their property in that year."

Customers can cancel their contract at any time, though it's yet to happen. At the same time, Chestnut Oaks can cancel a contract if the account becomes delinquent for two months. Likewise, that is yet to happen. "We've never been left with an unpaid bill, or even questioned about one," Cox says. The company does not bill in advance. Rather, statements are sent out on the first of the month for the previous month's labor. Payment is due upon receipt.

"So far this has not been a problem," Cox says. "I believe it is because of the relationships we have with our customers. Many have become our friends, which is the thing I've enjoyed most about this business."

Chestnut Oaks Lawn & Landscape LLC
Greenville, SC
Owner: Dean Cox, wife Cindy runs the office while son Brian is the crew leader
Business founded: 2002
Estimated annual sales: $400,000
Business breakdown: 80% maintenance, 15% construction, 5% other services such as chemical application and outdoor lighting
Business mix: 90% residential, 10% commercial
Employees: 3 full time all year
Equipment includes Walker zero-turns, Tru-Cut reel mowers, LESCO zero-turn; Bobcat skid steer, Vermeer mini skid steer; Stihl trimmers, blowers and chain saws; Billy Goat push blowers; Walker Perfaerator, LESCO aerator, Ryan slitter; PermaGreen ride-on spreader