Humble, but Hungry

Elizabeth River Lawn & Landscapes and sister company Evergreen Turf Management have grown six-fold since 2005 by focusing on superior quality and customer service in lawn care and landscape management.

The Elizabeth River Lawn & Landscape management team. Back row left to right: Chris Gonzales, Jason Fawcett, John Fremont. Front row left to right: David Hartung, Chris Wilson. Not pictured: Tyler Hill and TJ Moore.
The Elizabeth River Lawn & Landscape management team.
Back row left to right: Chris Gonzales, Jason Fawcett, John Fremont. Front row left to right: David Hartung, Chris Wilson. Not pictured: Tyler Hill and TJ Moore.

In the span of two years, Jason Fawcett went from not knowing if he even wanted to forge a career in the Green Industry to running a company about to embark on an explosive growth spurt that has completely changed the complexion of his business—and his life. “Oh, I’m full-time now,” Fawcett says.

Elizabeth River Lawn & Landscape in Suffolk, VA, is doing more than six times the volume it was doing in 2005. Sales have grown 64% this year alone. The company has gone from eight year-round employees to 26, and from 22 to 48 in peak season.

“Through it all, my guys have been fantastic,” says Fawcett, now age 26. “The growth has been tremendous, but we’ve been able to keep overtime to under 6%. I have very talented, loyal employees, and for that I am blessed.”

Fawcett’s not done counting his blessings, and all indications are that his company is not done growing. “We’re now starting to look at the possibility of opening satellite offices,” Fawcett says. “Some of our bigger property management companies are requesting that we service additional properties in new areas, so we’re in the process of figuring all of that out. I’d say that within the next three years, we’re going to be in some new markets.”

No Substitute for the Basics

Within the next year, Elizabeth River Lawn & Landscape plans to launch a more aggressive advertising campaign in its current markets. This is quite a departure from what the company’s strategy has been thus far. “We’ve spent the past 10 years growing by word of mouth and referrals,” Fawcett says. “Our limited budget has contributed to our creativity. We’ve always been eager to provide potential new customers with a list of current customers to show the longevity of our relationships.”

Elizabeth River has customers in both the residential and commercial arenas. Fawcett tells, “We started out mowing 30 yards. Soon we had 90. Then we started picking up multi-family units and other big commercial properties.” Today, roughly 60% of Elizabeth River’s maintenance business comes from commercial accounts, while 70% of its installation business is residential. Lawn care is split 50/50, while irrigation is 80% residential.

“As we’ve continued to grow, we’ve worked hard to maintain the personal touch of a small, local company,” Fawcett relates. “Biweekly site walks, which we refer to as drop-bys, help maintain our professional relationships. Our general manager (Chris Gonzales) has been instrumental in the balance of our work efficiency and time management. At the same time, it is crucial that our crews are provided with the right tools for the job.

“My grand-dad, now deceased, had always taught me that in order to run a really successful company, you had to buy the absolute best equipment available, do the job as efficiently as possible at the lowest cost to you, pass that cost onto your customers, and then provide unbelievable service,” Fawcett continues. “That’s what we’ve always tried to do.”

Subcontracting to Yourself

Now Elizabeth River Lawn & Landscape is trying to grow its lawn care business. “This is where our more aggressive advertising and branding campaign comes into play,” Fawcett points out. “Competition is very tough in lawn care. Plus, we want to expand into different geographic areas. We want to make our mark in customer service, but it’s going to take some aggressive advertising to get the word out first.”

In the past, Elizabeth River had experimented a bit with golf tournament sponsorships and advertising in high school event flyers. Now a direct mail campaign to certain zip codes is being explored. “This is something we would contract out—the design, printing, everything—because we want it to be high-class,” Fawcett says.

Elizabeth River handles all of its lawn care services through a separate sister company called Evergreen Turf Management. Fawcett’s father Roger is president while Fawcett himself serves as vice president. Roger also serves as CFO/safety manager of Elizabeth River. The father-and-son team are co-owners of both companies.

Aside from their owners, Elizabeth River and Evergreen Turf do share equipment once in a while, but that’s about it—everything else is separate. “When Elizabeth River has an account that requires lawn care services, whether it’s fertilization or aeration or whatever, we sub that out to Evergreen Turf,” Fawcett points out.

The primary reason the Fawcetts have decided to keep the companies separate is because some of Elizabeth River’s competitors feed them lawn care work. Showing up to those properties with an Elizabeth River Lawn & Landscape truck could open the door for the property owners to inquire about Elizabeth River’s maintenance and installation services—and that could damage relationships with the other contractors.

Pay as You Go Fawcett is adamant about the importance of relationships: with customers, colleagues, employees and suppliers. “We could not have grown the way we have without the support of John Deere Landscapes and Land & Coates (equipment dealer),” Fawcett says.

Another lesson his grand-dad had taught him is that you should never finance your business with your accounts. “My family’s concept has always been that you pay as you go, and take care of those who take care of you,” Fawcett shares. Fawcett’s mother’s side of the family has owned and operated Fink’s Auto & Body and Fink’s Towing for years. “My company tried doing open accounts with our vendors once, but it got real deep on us real quick,” Fawcett recalls. “We’ve since instituted a policy where we only allow accounts to go $1,500 to $2,000. On a very rare instance we might allow up to $6,000 or so. I just don’t feel comfortable being in a position where paying back debt could be difficult.”

Making this work comes down to one thing: communication. “We have weekly staff meetings, and we lay it all on the line with them,” Fawcett says. “We want to make sure that our managers understand what’s happening from a business perspective. We’re very vocal, and it’s understood that people are going to be held accountable for their actions. That said, there isn’t a manager who works for me that I wouldn’t trust with the keys to my house.”

Next Level vs. Comfort Level

“Trust” is the operative word as Fawcett plots the next three years. “As we look to expand and open additional offices, I’m going to need leadership and strong management right off the bat,” he says.

A second focal point is reputation. When you’ve built up a strong reputation in a given market, that needs to carry over to your new market—which is easier said than done. “Popping off another million in sales with a new branch can help you, but it can also hurt you,” Fawcett says. “Will we be able to provide the quality and service we need to in order to keep accounts? Are they historically high-turnover accounts in general, where the property manager is more concerned with price than quality service? Those are things we have to really think about.”

Elizabeth River Lawn & Landscape is also looking at growth through acquisition. “We have our eyes on a company or two,” Fawcett says. If it works out, great. If it doesn’t, that’s OK, too. “We will always remain humble, yet hungry. Right now my organization is an oiled machine, but we need to make it a finely tuned, well-oiled machine—without losing sight of customer service.” At the end of the day, that’s what it all comes down to, regardless of how big your company has become.