Dena Kreher was looking for a company to buy. Her brother-in-law, who began as a franchisee for a major national lawn care brand but broke ties with the franchise over a decade ago, was looking for a new partner for his company, Paradise Lawns in Freeburg, IL. Since Dena’s husband, Mike, had once worked for a lawn care company, and Dena had gained quite a bit of management, financial and administrative experience while working at a bank, the opportunity seemed like a perfect fit.
So five years ago, Dena bought out her brother-in-law's partner for a 50% stake in Paradise Lawns. In 2009 she quit her job at the bank to focus solely on the reborn lawn care company. Most recently she assumed 100% control. She now had her company—and it was all hers. Dena manages the office, provides support to her operations manager, and will even go out on routes with her crew.
"All of our employees respect Dena not just because she is the boss, but also because she isn't afraid to get her hands dirty," Mike says. Mike still works for an electrical manufacturer, but also spends plenty of time supporting his wife with marketing efforts and other odds and ends. But make no mistake, Dena is driving the ship at Paradise Lawns. She continues to manage the company's finances and office functions. Dena also coordinates scheduling and routing, and works with vendors. "As a smaller company, though, I have to remain pretty much hands on with everything," Dena adds.
Additionally, Dena has a full-time office assistant, along with an operations manager who oversees crews and the equipment fleet. Dena also recently hired a sales manager to help Paradise Lawns take the next step in its evolution.
Taking green a step further
Thus far the evolution has been quite a trip for the Krehers. "We've had nothing but an upward trend over the past five years," Dena says in reference to the company's 16-21% annual sales growth, year over year. "I guess we're just lucky."
You've needed more than luck in the recent economy, though. You've needed a solid vision which your employees buy into, forward-thinking management, and innovation at every level. Paradise Lawns strives to excel in each of those areas.
The phrase "taking green a step further" has become much more than just a slogan at Paradise Lawns. It also goes way beyond the concept of offering an organic-based lawn care program. "Taking green a step further" has become a blueprint as to how employees deliver a superb customer experience.
"We're trying to instill the values of doing a quality job first and foremost," Dena says. "We must train our employees to take their time, and that we're more interested in quality than quantity. It's also important that we talk to clients in a professional, friendly way. It's about doing everything the right way from the client's perspective."
"For example," Mike adds, "our employees will always grab a backpack blower to clean granular fertilizer off of a sidewalk. Not all lawn care companies will do that. But you can't just stuff the bill in the door and leave."
Employees of Paradise Lawns now regularly use the phrase "taking green a step further" in conversation with both clients and one another. Employee buy-in was made much more possible because employees played a role from the start. "Our kick-off meeting early this year was where we introduced the concept of 'taking green a step further,'" Dena tells. "We asked employees what that phrase meant to them. They all came back with similar ideas." Those ideas were then drafted into Paradise Lawns' eight-point promise.
Make training fun
With the proper corporate vision in place, more effective training helps staff proficiency and morale reach an even higher level. Also new this year, Dena implemented an annual skills competition day in June. The goal is to make training fun while fostering camaraderie among staff.
"This concept originated because we had several new technicians joining our staff this year," Dena says. "We wanted a better way to train them than to just cram a bunch of information at the start of the season. Training can be boring. We want to get creative in how we get information to our employees, help them understand it, test them on it, and also do some team building."
The skills competition day, held right at Paradise Lawns' facility, is meant to be both educational and fun. Tasks include weed identification, lawn measuring and invoice note taking. But employees also played fun games where they had to name the artists behind different songs with the word "paradise" in them, or guess which bios belonged to which employees.
"Skills competition day was a hit," Dena says. "We'll do it again next year, probably in early June again."
Aside from skills competition day, Paradise Lawns does conduct other forms of training. "We do a lot of training early in the year," Mike points out. "New employees spend a good two weeks with veteran employees learning how to operate equipment and treat lawns."
"Our entire staff also comes in for an all-day, pre-season kick-off meeting," Dena adds. "We go through our program for the year, talk about the products and equipment we'll be using, and spend a lot of time on any new services we might be offering." This past year, Dena even brought in a guest speaker to talk about emerald ash borer. She has also invited different suppliers to come and talk about products and equipment."
The science of upselling
Preparation is very important in the lawn care business, which is why effective training is very important to Dena as she works to grow her company. So, too, is soil testing.
"When servicing so many lawns, some adapt well to your program," Dena says. "But with others it's like, 'What's going on?!' The difference isn't the program, it's the soil itself. So we've gotten into soil sampling. When a customer questions the effect of our program, the first step is to take a soil sample. We send it to an independent lab for analysis. The results tell us what needs to be done."
For example, soil with a high ph level would need an application of ammonium sulfate to help lower the ph to an optimum level. Conversely, that soil would not need a fall lime application, which Mike says has become common practice for some lawn care contractors. Being in the Midwest with primarily clay soil, all too many contractors assume all lawns need lime. This could not be further from the truth.
"Liming is what really encouraged us to get into soil sampling in the first place," Dena points out. "A competitor was offering free lime treatments, and our sales reps and technicians were getting push back from clients who wanted us to match that offer for their lawns. Instead, we took the direction of educating our customers on the importance of taking a soil sample to accurately determine which amendments are truly needed and at what quantities.”
“Throwing lime on a lawn with high ph can actually make things worse," Mike adds. "We actually started seeing this in the field when that other company was offering the free lime treatments. You never want to guess at what a lawn needs. A soil sample is our road map."
Paradise Lawns also took the approach of not offering soil samples at no charge. According to Dena, “Customers perceive more value with a billable service in comparison to something that is free. They are also more inclined to make the necessary corrections based on the results of the soil analysis.
“While there are some customers that just want us to take care of their weeds—and aren’t as interested in a thick, green lawn—most customers are interested in doing everything the right way, which goes beyond just offering a standard fertilization and weed control program,” Dena continues. “Taking green a step further starts with customer education, listening to customer needs and desired outcomes, and providing innovative service offerings to exceed all of their expectations.”