No Pain, No Gain

Maurice Dowell, CLP, and his wife Donna have some stories to tell about adversity and growth. Owners of DOWCO Enterprises Inc, in Chesterfield, Missouri, the couple was married in 1984, incorporated their young lawn maintenance business in 1985, and then paid their dues learning about such things as cash flow, how to deal with late-paying customers, the value of diversification, how to control growth, what to do when a key employee leaves—and the list goes on. It’s a list of growing pains that has a happy ending, though, for a full-service landscape management company that today generates $2.1 million in sales, primarily in lawn maintenance.

“I love maintenance,” says Maurice. “It’s repetitive, it’s a service one can standardize, and it’s a healthy cash-flow generator.” It can be very profitable, too, if you understand and focus in tight on your market niche, he adds.

Growing pains

Maurice started mowing lawns in 1980, but continued to work part-time for the next five years. He met Donna in 1984 while both were sales associates at Sears. Two years later they shed their “day jobs” to focus their attention on their growing business. “We learned to get creative with cash,” Donna remembers. “Personal credit cards and our wages often helped pay our employees, and we learned quickly to avoid buying something if we couldn’t pay for it. Maurice became relentless with receivables, too, constantly reminding ‘late-payers’ that their invoices were past due.”

The couple must have felt like vagabonds during the early years. They lived in a trailer while funneling business earnings to pay for new trucks and equipment. Finding a place to store and work on equipment was an ongoing challenge, until they found an ideally situated two-acre parcel of land.

“Factoring in appreciation and the savings on daily windshield time it has afforded us, the property has since become a true bargain,” Maurice relates.

The land also sits plumb in the center of a growing St. Louis suburb, and is ideally located to support the kinds of services DOWCO offers.

Just what kinds of services does the company offer? Providing maintenance services accounts for nearly 70% of its annual revenue, and half that figure comes from serving high-end residential customers. Irrigation repair, landscape design, lawn care and snow removal round out DOWCO’s service offering.

“We have seven mow crews, three landscaping crews, two fertilizer crews, one tree and shrub crew, and the ability to run two irrigation crews when necessary,” Maurice explains. “In maintenance especially, we find two-person crews to be the most efficient, and we’ve learned the value of standardization.

“All crews operate the same equipment – same trucks, trailers, and mowers. For example, 52” Ferris mid-size mowers equipped with Velke sulkies are ideal for our properties, and each crew goes out with two of them. Everyone knows how to operate the mowers which share identical controls and repair parts.”

Tricks of the trade

Years of experience has paid off for Maurice and Donna who willingly share some of the lessons they’ve learned. “I think we do some pretty cool things,” Maurice adds with a smile. “To help cash flow, we offer customers a five-percent pre-paid discount (it was six last year). The move costs us a few percentage points, but we make some of it back in a money market account. The money is inexpensive operating capital for us, and the discount gives our customers a break.”

He continues, “We’ve also made extensive use of new technology. Bar-coded time cards and GPS-equipped trucks help us keep our payroll in line and better manage our people. Employees simply scan in the morning and scan out at night. Their time at work automatically downloads into our computer system. With the GPS system, we know when trucks leave, how long crews spend on jobs, how fast employees are driving, and so forth.”
Adds Donna, “We have more than 900 customers who receive one or more of our services. If a customer questions when our crew provided the service, we can simply show them a computer printout with the exact time and day of the service.”

To energize its safety awareness program and help contain insurance costs, the company recently instituted a “Safety Bingo” game. For those unfamiliar with the game, the rules are simple, says Donna. “Employees get a bingo card and every day a number is drawn until someone wins. If there’s an accident of any nature, the game ends and a new one begins. In the meantime, Bingo winners receive neat gifts. In fact, we just gave away a big screen TV, and our next winner will get a DVD player.”

Demonstrating with safety cones how long it takes to stop a truck and trailer and having the fire department come in to instruct employees about the proper use of fire extinguishers are among other safety initiatives. The company is also a member of PLANET’s STARS ((Safety Training Achieves Remarkable Success) program.

To improve productivity, every Wednesday, DOWCO employees participate in a 30-minute “working smarter” training session. “Before we started the program, I told program founder Jim Paluch that we couldn’t afford 30 minutes a week,” remembers Maurice. “He told me that we couldn’t afford not to.”

Turning the corner

It took the new owners 10 years or so to crack the $500,000 barrier, and a little over another 10 to reach the $2 million plateau. “One of the best moves we made early on was to get connected,” Donna emphasizes. “We joined PLANET’s legacy groups PLCAA and ALCA in the 1990s and immediately help was only a phone call away. Until we could afford to pay for outside advice, we formed a board of directors comprised of relatives, friends, business associates, and even customers, and we took their advice seriously. Later, we worked with green industry consultants Frank Ross and Bob Coulter who have helped us with budgeting and long-range planning issues.

“We also shopped around for a bank that would work with us to get a Small Business Association (SBA) loan and a line of credit. All banks aren’t created equally and ours has become a great business partner.”

Bankers can help in so many ways, Donna adds. Just as one example, DOWCO’s bank helped the owners set up a system to scan checks into their money market account, saving them a trip to the bank and allowing their money to earn interest that much faster.

Finding employees was a challenge early on, too. Maurice says the H-2B guest worker program has alleviated labor shortages, and being a bit unconventional helped the company grow career-minded managers.

“When we find good people, we work to create a win-win for them and for us,” he emphasizes. “We find a position that fits their talents, try to be flexible with their schedules, and make sure they are compensated fairly.”

Adds Donna, “We’re also taking advantage of a new work force, women who are looking for careers in the green industry. Just one look at our staff tells part of the story. We have two female account managers, a female landscape designer, and a female production manager. The makeup works especially well in our market as the major decision maker is frequently female, and gender often reduces the intimidation factor when purchasing lawn care.”

Looking back over the years, Maurice and Donna emphasize how important it was for them to gain control over their growth and business. “I admit, there was a time when we lost control,” says Maurice. “We were growing and making very little money. The business was running us.”

Donna agrees, “We learned to put systems and safe-guards in place to control payroll and overtime. We acquired a line of credit to help us meet expenses when we had a bad snow year or drought. We’ve also learned to diversify our service offering and customer base. I recall how painful it was when we lost one large customer who represented 50% of our business.”

Maurice just shakes his head. “When you buy a new truck, trailer and maintenance equipment, and put a new crew on to provide the service and have no customer, your investment becomes a liability. That’s not good business.”

Target market

DOWCO has since fine tuned the way it does business. In addition to its target high-end residential customer who owns a $750,000 home on 1.2 acres of land, the company also serves large sub-divisions and commercial establishments. Still, it’s that high-end customer who gets the lion’s share of the Dowell’s attention.

“I truly believe that part of our success is being able to focus in on a market niche and put the right support systems in place,” Maurice relates. “To compete successfully in the high-end market requires that we deliver a quality product, present a professional image, respond quickly to requests, and have a person and not an automated voice answering the phone. These customers like to be pampered, too. We bring in newspapers and remove trash cans from the curb. Our employees turn off equipment when the homeowner walks by and we are vigilant about inspecting properties.”

DOWCO caters to them in others ways by setting up its mowing schedule to mow commercial and common-area properties early in the week and homeowners on Thursday and Friday.

“Many of our customers like to entertain, which also means they like their landscapes in top shape for the weekend,” Maurice adds, noting that being a one-stop shop is important for them, as well. “Our customers want to make only one phone call for all their landscape needs, and that’s the main reason we’ve added irrigation, lawn care, and installation/design to our service offering.”

When asked what the future holds for their company, the owners say they don’t want to have to add another 1,000 customers and employ twice as many people to double their sales revenue. As Donna points out, the best of all worlds would be to grow their business with current customers and be even more selective with new customers.

Would they consider selling their business for the right price? “Not a chance,” says Maurice emphatically. “Our son Ryan and daughter Kelly work with us when they’re not attending college. They’re interested in the business, and the last thing we would do is squander an opportunity for them if they want to have a future here. Furthermore, why would we even consider nipping this business in the bud just as it’s ready to blossom? We’ve figured it out, as least that’s what we would like to think. Now, we want to improve on systems and programs we have in place.”

The point is well taken. After all, a measure of business success is not how much pain the owners suffer, but rather how much they gain from going through the experience.

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