Customized Before Custom Was Cool

Kevin Vogeler had his eye on a market niche when he started Turf Care Enterprises in 1986. “We focused on a small but growing market that was looking for more natural programs using little or no chemicals,” Vogeler recalls.

That represented about 20% of the total lawn care market. Today it’s more like 80%, according to Vogeler. “Just look at what our competitors are marketing,” he adds. “They have started to do the same thing we did 20-some years ago.”

An increase in competition sometimes requires a shift in strategy. “We are basically the same company with the same focus on high quality and service,” Vogeler points out. “The biggest change is that our prices had to become a lot more competitive.”

Turf Care Enterprises’ prices were 15-20% higher than the competition’s 20 years ago. Now they’re only 5-10% higher. The company continues to focus on its IPM (integrated pest management) approach—with emphasis on customizing to each individual customer’s property.

Branching out

Turf Care Enterprises has never focused on being the biggest—just the best. “We specialize in providing superior service to achieve superior results,” Vogeler says. The company took the same approach when it branched into the tree care business.

“In our early years, we formed a relationship with a high-end tree care company,” Vogeler relates. “They would recommend us for lawn care and we would recommend them for tree care. Unfortunately, their level of service did not match the high standards our customers had come to expect from us. We were getting too many complaints that appointments were missed and treatments were applied at the wrong time. We looked for other tree services to work with, but realized that nobody would be able to match our high standards. So we started our own tree care service in 1997.”

Roughly 22% of the company’s total revenue now comes from tree care. Furthermore, 40% of their lawn care customers purchase some type of tree care services—and that number is growing.

“Years ago, most people only wanted to spend money on caring for their lawn,” Vogeler says. “I’m not exactly sure what has happened, but people are looking differently at their trees and shrubs today. Maybe they had a tree die. They not only lost a tree, but had to pay to have it taken down, and then had to pay to buy a new one. That’s why we train our salespeople to not just sell services, but to sell the concept of helping homeowners save money over the long run.”

“I think the economic situation has helped drive demand for tree care, as well,” says Dan O’Brien, plant health coordinator at Turf Care Enterprises. “People are focusing more and more on their home’s value. Healthy trees are a direct factor to the curb appeal and value of a home.”

“Whatever the case, homeowners are starting to realize what they have invested in their trees and shrubs, and that it’s worth protecting that investment,” Vogeler adds.

Tree care picking up speed

Increased public awareness of Emerald Ash Borer is helping to further fuel tree care demand in Chicagoland. “We’d also had the Asian Longhorned Beetle epidemic,” Vogeler says. “The movement is starting to pick up speed. Our tree division has already been growing faster than our lawn care division for the past three years. We’re very excited about the future.”

Roughly three years ago is when Turf Care Enterprises started to explore the use of a new product called TREE-ge (by Arborjet). O’Brien had heard about it at trade shows and conferences, but initially didn’t think it would do much beyond what his existing tree injection treatments were already doing. That opinion changed when O’Brien attended a University of Michigan researcher’s seminar.

“The presenter said the control rate was 99% on every single tree they’d tested,” O’Brien recalls. “That blew my mind. I immediately called Mark Simon from distributor Arthur Chelsen to find out if we could get it. We picked up a kit to test for a while, and were surprised by how fast the uptake was and how quickly the product showed signs of working. We started using TREE-ge within an hour of its release and haven’t lost one tree in three years.”

Having a tool like this in their tree care arsenal is a big advantage, O’Brien points out. “Something that provides this level of control with minimal impact to the environment around the plant is phenomenal. Customers love the idea that they don’t have to worry about their kids or dogs around the tree. The tree is safe and so is their family.”

That approach is what has worked for Turf Care Enterprises since 1986—long before the rest of the market followed suit.