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.
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.”