Carolina Contractor Is Cultivating Relationships

Mike Stegall didn't become a police officer because he wanted to get rich. Nor did he suspend that career in May 1998 to become a landscaper for that reason. But today, at the age of 47, he considers himself to be blessed more than he'd ever imagined he'd be.

Stegall has a wife and three kids, rock-solid employees, loyal customers, top-of-the-line equipment, and a job doing what he loves to do. "I didn’t get into this business to wear slacks and a polo shirt," Stegall relates as sweat streams down his cheeks on a 102° day. "I like working in the field. My employees appreciate it, and my customers love it."

As the president of Manicured Lawn & Landscaping Inc. in Mocksville, NC, Stegall works up nearly as much of a sweat when managing his business from behind the scenes. His "7 Keys to Prosperity in the Residential Lawn Maintenance Business" guide all of his budgeting, pricing, marketing and customer service actions. The result is a residential maintenance-focused company that continues to grow—and is more profitable than ever.

Ways to build customer confidence

Everything starts with how customers "experience" Manicured Lawn & Landscaping in the field. That's why Stegall prefers to be in it, right alongside his two full-time employees, Matt Hendrix and Josh Locastro.

You won't see Stegall comfortably riding on a zero-turn mower, though. He's typically walking the property—pulling or spraying weeds, picking up trash, and looking for problem areas in the lawn.

"I think it's important for me, the owner, to be doing the detail work," Stegall explains. It's not just about making sure the finer details are perfect, either. It's also about communication. Many times, a customer pops out of his or her front door to ask Stegall a question or just say hello. "If I was on a mower, everything would have to stop," Stegall points out. "By focusing on the detail work, I'm able to stop and visit with the customer—but the crew keeps working and we don't fall behind."

Simple gestures like this, which add no additional cost, are what help Manicured Lawn & Landscaping provide standout customer service, one of Stegall's seven keys to prosperity. "It's such an impersonal world today," Stegall says. "Making clients feel loved is so, so powerful."

Employee confidence

Making clients feel loved requires a business to also make its employees feel loved. Stegall strives to do that by, first and foremost, leading by example. "I tell my employees that I want them to work with me, not for me," Stegall says. “You can have attractive vehicles, superior equipment and loyal customers, but it’s your employees that can make or break your company.”

Stegall states that he has been criticized for being too picky about who he hires. But that’s fine, he says, because Manicured Lawn & Landscaping pays its employees more than most companies its size. Stegall brags that he is very proud of his two employees, Matt and Josh.

Stegall obviously takes a lot of pride in his company, but also wants his employees to adopt that same sense of pride. There are a couple of philosophies he lives by that help him achieve that.

Just because you're not the biggest doesn't mean you can't afford the best. After seeking advice from other contractors and local equipment dealers like Weno Power Equipment located in High Point, NC, Stegall makes sure he's equipping his guys with the best tools available for the jobs they are doing. "I remind my guys that you have to pay to play in this business," Stegall says. "If you want to be the best, you have to provide your employees with the best equipment, period."

Currently, Stegall's core fleet includes Walker riding mowers for bagging, Gravely riders for discharging, Honda push mowers, Stihl blowers, and Echo trimmers and sprayers.

"One advantage of being a smaller company is that it's so much easier to take good care of your equipment," Stegall says. "My guys know they have the best, and it shows in how they operate and care for it." The fact that this company still operates its first Walker mower, purchased new in 1997 and now with more than 4,000 hours on the original motor, is a testament to this fact.

Another important tool in Stegall's arsenal is his tow-behind, vibrating-tine aerator from First Products. "Aerating is important when drought sets in, and this thing is still effective when the ground is hard and dry," Stegall explains. "This allows us to seed, fertilize and aerate, all in advance of a forecasted rain. This puts us way ahead of the game."

Stegall has also invested in a Super Lawn Truck. He especially appreciates the on-board fueling system, along with the impression it makes out on the street. "I had another contractor say to me, 'Mike, how many crews are you running now? I see your trucks all over the place,'" Stegall relates. "But I just have the one truck. People must be noticing it."

Make their jobs easier and more enjoyable. Stegall tries to do those little things that make an employee feel good about working for him. Examples include taking them to a baseball game, buying them lunch from time to time, purchasing them new work shoes or Tilley hats to help shield the brutal Carolina sun, or allowing them to bank overtime hours and cash them in during the off-season. Most of all, he gives them his trust.

Growing residential

Good equipment and employees are vital to retaining customers. Then, retaining customers is vital to growing a residential maintenance business. "Residential is very price-competitive," Stegall points out. "But you need to focus on your back door. You cannot grow if you don't keep what you have."

Sounds pretty simple, but Stegall says some companies are overly focused on gaining new customers. He prefers to focus on the clients he has—and allow word of mouth to do the rest.

Step one is building relationships. When Green Industry PRO was in the field with Stegall's crew this past July, a homeowner approached Stegall to say hi and ask how his daughter was doing; the homeowner had heard the daughter was sick and hadn't seen her at the YMCA in a few days. "When you establish this kind of connection on a personal level, it's much harder for that customer to fire you over something like price," Stegall says.

Step two is route density. "If I can land three yards on the same block, with no drive time in between, I've just positioned my company in a profitable situation,” Stegall points out. Building route density is the quickest way to profitably build a residential maintenance business.

That is why Stegall trains his uniformed employees to smile and wave at every customer, neighbor and passerby. This helps reinforce the idea that Manicured Lawn & Landscaping is an approachable, professional organization from top to bottom that is pleasant to do business with. "And you just never know when that casual greeting might turn into a new customer," Stegall adds.

That has happened more than once, to say the least. Thus, Stegall doesn't do any direct mail or door hangers to try and land new accounts. Rather, he personally knocks on doors to offer a quick handshake and a business card.

"I like to tell people that we're looking for new customers to join our family," Stegall explains. "I point out that we're currently servicing so and so down the street, and feel like we could also help with their needs. I also try to get the prospect to talk about their property and expectations, which opens the door for me to explain the benefits of working with my company."

Once working in a neighborhood, Stegall feels confident about holding onto accounts. One thing his crew does is stripe lawns at a 45° angle. "I've heard about other commercial-oriented contractors driving through one of our neighborhoods, thinking about making a push into residential," Stegall shares. "They see those stripes and think about the expense of driving all the way here just for one or two yards. We make sure we set the bar high—that's the best way to ensure your future success."

Also to ensure future success, Stegall has recognized an important trend in residential maintenance. "In a lot of cases, I'm dealing with the woman of the house," Stegall relates. "It typically takes a softer approach to develop a good rapport. You have to be attentive. You have to learn what floats the customer's boat. Maybe she wants that back deck cleared off perfectly. The point is that you have to find out, and that means you have to ask questions and listen."

Managing dollars to the bottom line

As proud as Stegall is of his sharp Super Lawn Truck, he's just as proud of his Honda Odyssey mini-van that has logged more than 225,000 miles. In fact, he says it puts the female customer at ease when he pulls up in it.

The Odyssey also helps put Stegall's overhead burden at ease. It is paid for, and gets much better gas mileage than the typical work truck many contractors like to tool around in. It's also productive. Stegall uses it not only for personal transport, but to haul plants for small install jobs, not to mention a push spreader and/or backpack sprayer.

"One reason my company is in the best condition of its existence is because we went into the recession with very little debt," Stegall says. His Super Lawn Truck and first commercial vehicle, a Ford Dump truck, are paid for. His equipment will be at year's end. Next year Stegall thinks he might have to replace a mower and a stick edger.

Stegall is quite OK with that. As pointed out earlier, he realizes that you have to "pay to play" in the maintenance business. He just doesn't like to finance more than one truck and one higher-dollar riding mower at a given time.

"I want to maintain that good credit rating for when and if I might need it," Stegall points out. "Sometimes doing too much at one time can hurt. There is a big difference between want and need. I try to focus on the need."

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