From the NFL's Gridiron to the Green Industry

Steve Olson had a partner when he co-founded his Middleton, WI-based landscape company in 1997. Now, after flying solo since 2005, he has a new partner in former NFL Pro Bowl wide receiver Al Toon (New York Jets, 1985-1992).

Bringing an “outsider” into a family business is never easy, regardless of whether or not that outsider is a celebrity. But Olson says he couldn’t have asked for a better transition.

“It has taken a positive company to the next level,” Olson says. “Over the first four or five months since we formed the partnership, we’ve seen what the Toon brand brings to something. So when you combine the two brands, in combination with our shift toward more service diversity, we’re humbly saying that we have a very, very favorable outlook for the future.”

Laying the groundwork

The company’s outlook was looking pretty good already. Steve Olson and Jim Wills founded Olson Wills Landscaping in 1997. Wills left the business in 2005, but Olson maintained the company name for branding purposes. One thing that didn’t remain the same was the company’s overly heavy focus on residential design/build.

Olson wanted more revenue diversity, primarily because his company was somewhat reliant on new home construction. The company now offers the full gamut of maintenance, lawn care, renovation and cleanup services, in addition to pest control, tree/shrub care, irrigation and snow removal. Swimming pool construction and concrete work represent the two newest areas the company has diversified into. Landscape design/build continues to represent the lion’s share of revenue.

At the peak of the season this year, the company employed 84 people. There are generally 15 landscape crews, in addition to 10 maintenance crews and one irrigation. Olson’s son and company vice president Aaron Olson, together with longtime employees Ryan Doescher and Wayne Golz, are placing considerable emphasis on growing the maintenance division. Olson’s daughter Tasha Severson handles the day-to-day office tasks and customer relations.

Mid-season acquisition

Olson and Toon go way back. Olson once installed some landscaping for Toon while working for another landscape company in the 1980s. More recently, Olson’s company was doing the maintenance on some of Toon’s properties in the Madison, WI, area. Early this year, Olson asked Toon to appear in some TV commercials. Toon agreed, but then got to thinking that this might be a company he’d like to get involved with.

“I’d been looking for a local, personalized business in the Madison area to invest in,” Toon says. “I liked that it was a family business, and that it was structured well and very sound financially. It was a strong brand that was growing in the marketplace. So for me it was a natural fit. In fact, this represents the first time I’ve been willing to put my name on one of my business investments. That says a lot.”

By the end of July, Olson Wills Landscaping became Olson Toon Landscaping. New doors began to open almost immediately.

Before embarking on an eight-year career in the NFL, Toon was a standout on the Wisconsin Badgers football team. After his football career ended, he and his family decided to call Wisconsin home. Toon helped found Capitol Bank in 1995 and continues to sit on its board of directors. He also sits on the boards of National Guardian Life Insurance Company and the Green Bay Packers. Needless to say, Toon is very well-connected and respected in the business community.

This, combined with Olson’s existing connections and reputation in the landscaping business, leaves the duo feeling pretty good about their prospects going forward. They also feel pretty good about how quickly and seamlessly they’ve gelled as business partners.

Sharing the guts and glory

A self-described “landscape design and horticulture guy,” Olson says he is now the chief marketer of the company. He also spends a lot of time pouring over financials and accounts receivables. “Our accountant says he’s never had a client like me who wants to know everything right now, but I think that’s what it takes today,” Olson says.

Toon says he did a lot of observing during his first two months with the company. Drawing upon his experience in the banking, insurance and property management industries—not to mention his stint in the restaurant business as a Taco Bell franchisee—Toon sees some opportunity to implement systems that will increase office efficiency and improve the customer experience. He and Olson are also taking a very active role in sales.

It’s important to remember, these partners point out, that although they sit atop the company’s organizational chart, the company’s success is absolutely a total team effort. “There are no celebrities in this office,” Olson says. “Al and I have a great brand between us—but the proof is in the pudding. You have to deliver a great product. It’s the guys who are designing and installing and maintaining landscapes out in the field. I built this company because of my employees, and now Al is going to help us take it to another level. It’s all about the whole.”