Our Level Up series shares the strategies that help landscape and lawn care companies get to the next level.
Affiliated Grounds Maintenance Group, Inc. (AGMG) based in Lake City, Pennsylvania, was founded in 1998 and has a presence in over 39 states by working with over 5,000 affiliate partners.
AGMG boasts of a contractor retention rate of 99 percent and a customer retention rate of 98 percent. The company serves all commercial clients. Their services include snow and ice management, landscape maintenance, parking lot sweeping, pressure washing, and additional exterior services like line striping and crack sealing.
President and CEO Crystal Arlington, LIC, says she doesn’t have an ideal company size for AGMG. Arlington says she’s comfortable where she’s at and semi-retired seven years ago but is still actively checking in on the everyday happenings with the business, asking for profits and losses and participating in sales meetings.
“As long as I’m steady, I’m good and if we grow that’s even better,” Arlington says.
Working with Affiliate Partners
AGMG works with thousands of contractors and companies on a national level. More than 80 percent of the contractors reach out to Arlington to work with her company and around another 10 percent come to AGMG through their website while they are searching for businesses to partner with. The rest Arlington reaches out to in certain towns to see if they would be interested in taking on a job.
Arlington says she chose to go the contractor partner route because she wanted to help others.
“We grew up very poor and I like being able to help other small companies grow, give them advice, help them along and give them that income base,” Arlington says. “To me, that’s more self-satisfying than having 10 more percent go in my pocket because I opened a franchise.”
AGMG partners with reputable companies in a given area and personally inspects the business’s facilities to determine the age of equipment and the knowledge of the staff and office personnel. Companies that choose to partner with AGMG are able to reduce their administrative overhead as AGMG handles all the sales, marketing and paperwork for approved affiliate partners.
Additionally, AGMG provides on-going mentoring to its partners on business, operations and other industry-related areas. AGMG also maintains regional offices in Jacksonville, Florida, Chicago, Illinois, Nashua, New Hampshire, and Wichita, Kansas. Territory account managers monitor facilities to ensure quality service.
Arlington was introduced to the industry early on as her father worked for a nursery. Growing up, she would weed gardens and mow neighbors’ lawns, pulling her lawn mower in a wagon behind her 10-speed bike.
In high school, she wanted to be a cosmetologist and own her own salon, but she found out she was allergic to the chemicals she was using so she was unable to follow through with that plan.
“I did own a hair salon for a long time, I just couldn’t work in it,” Arlington says. “I did that while I was also doing my lawn care company.”
Arlington says always wanted to own her own business. She became pregnant at 15 and had a child at 16. She stayed in high school and put herself through college.
“I knew by the time I was a senior in high school that I wanted more for my child than what I could even do for myself,” Arlington says. “So, that pushed me to want to dictate my own hours.”
Now she mentors local teenage mothers and encourages them to not drop out of school. She also gives back anywhere from 20 to 30 percent to her local community.
“Even though I grew up very poor, I just did not want to be a government handout,” Arlington says. “I wanted to do more. I wanted to have more for my children, and I just kept chugging and I just kept taking chances and I just kept doing what I had to do. And now we have three children, six grandkids and everything’s great.”
Arlington says she had to build her business from the ground up. Starting out she couldn’t get loans, but now she says she can walk into any bank and they are eager to help her.
“It’s very nice going from a pregnant teenager to the professional in the community that everyone wants to work with,” Arlington says.
Being Female in the Industry
Arlington says she hasn’t had much of an issue being taken seriously in the landscape industry, but when it comes to snow care she has to deal with it every day.
“Landscaping has come a long way and I attribute that to all the organizations like NALP and they’ve made great strides for women in our industry,” Arlington says. “As for the snow plowing, we’re still working on it. It’s getting better. I’ve made a lot of noise on that side of the spectrum and there’s a lot more women speaking up over there now.”
She says she still has customers who don’t expect a woman to talk about lawn care, but once she’s made her presentation, they’re shaking her hand.
“I’ve been doing it my whole entire life, so I don’t find it to be hard as long as you know what you’re talking about, and you don’t disrespect other people for it,” Arlington says. “I don’t find myself to be better, I find myself to be equal.”
Keys to Growth
As for AGMG’s keys to growth, Arlington credits her company’s success to the knowledge her professional staff brings to the table, the loyalty and dedication to answering phone calls 24/7 and simply staying out there selling and upselling.
“It’s mostly people in my C suite who take calls so as president and CEO I take phone calls, even on holidays,” Arlington says. “My CFO takes phone calls. My national sales account manager fields calls and then I have other certified staff that can field calls throughout the night.”
Her company’s safety record has also helped them grow. She says their commitment to safety for 10+ years is impressive to a lot of bigger corporate commercial accounts.
“For my company’s growth, I would have to say my safety awards and my certification have been some of the number one reasons why I can sell big national accounts,” Arlington says.
AGMG earned NALP’s Best of the Best Safety Award this year, which is presented to landscaping companies who have maintained the Overall Safety Achievement award – Gold level status for three consecutive years.
“Also, the continuing education that NALP provides not only for my staff, but they also have stuff out there for the end-user,” Arlington says. “I think when I give people that information and let them research it on their own instead of trying to push them into something I think they might need, I think that has been a huge factor in the growth of my company.”
Arlington says she also likes to read the books that are offered through the NALP bookstore.
“I think those are just amazing tools to help any company,” she says.
Arlington says 80 percent of the time they’ve had steady growth but have experienced some market booms when they land a big national account where it seems they’ve doubled in size overnight.
“That does happen, but in the same respect national accounts always go to the cheapest bidder so you might have them this year, and not have them next year so I call those my leaps and bounds accounts,” Arlington says.
Because of this, Arlington does not count them into the company’s growth unless they sign a three- to five-year contract. Arlington doesn’t share her specific revenue numbers aside from being in the millions.
“I never like putting numbers on things because I was the little guy only making $50,000 a year at one time and I like to speak to everybody across the board that’s in the industry,” Arlington says.
AGMG has their loyal customers, but due to the current pandemic, around 50 percent of these customers have put a pause on services.
“Now will things change when it starts snowing?” Arlington says. “Yes, because obviously the snow has to be plowed, but with lawn care, they just have been doing it themselves.”
When she first started out, it was just Arlington and her husband. In her corporate office, depending on the account she takes on, Arlington can have 30 to 40 people there, but right now due to the pandemic she has six full-time and four part-time employees working.
Arlington says when she does grow with the leaps and bounds account, her biggest challenge is having her corporate staff follow the system they have in place.
“There’s a reason we have certain systems for certain services, and if those aren’t being followed correctly then it screws up everything for everybody else that’s trying to follow that system as well,” Arlington says. “My biggest challenge is to make staff understand the importance of following a system that’s been in place for years.”
Since Arlington is semi-retired, she says she often observes what’s going on and takes feedback from everyone else working there.
“Between myself and my husband who’s the CFO, we try to lift up those negative people and if they continue to be what’s bringing down the other staff, we usually replace the negativity,” Arlington says.
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