Our Level Up series shares the strategies that help landscape and lawn care companies get to the next level.
It was third time’s the charm for Mark Utendorf when he found a career in the landscape industry that he wanted to do for life.
Throughout high school and college, he worked for nursery businesses. After graduating from Illinois State with a business degree, he worked for several Fortune 500 companies. Then he spent a year working as a landscaper at his friend’s company. Utendorf says he wasn’t a fan of the business model and moved on. In 2007, that same friend offered to sell his separate lawn care business to Utendorf.
“I was in banking at the time and said, ‘Yeah, I’m interested,’” Utendorf says. “I was back into the green industry for really the third time, and I’ve been riding that one ever since and will retire as a green industry professional.”
Now the president of Emerald Lawn Care, Inc., based in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, Utendorf wants to grow his company as big as possible.
“I’m not saying ‘gosh, I want to be at 15,000 lawns,’” Utendorf says. “I want to be the best. I want to be the premier provider.”
Changes and Challenges
Emerald Lawn Care serves affluent residential clients in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, with their primary offering being fertilization and weed control. Utendorf says over the years, they’ve removed and added various services.
He says they’ve gotten out of mechanical aeration, moved to liquid aeration, and stopped doing tree and shrub care.
“It was just a big distraction from lawn care, so we got out of that service,” Utendorf says. “We’re actually looking really closely at getting into robotic mowing.”
He says he’s still waiting to see how the robotic mowing business unfolds. The company has also added mosquito and perimeter pest control.
One of the main challenges Emerald Lawn Care has faced is regulatory issues, so Utendorf is actively involved in advocacy efforts. He understands that getting involved with the legislative scene can be intimidating with the whole regulatory environment. He has often participated in NALP’s Days on the Hill.
“It’s a little hairy when you sit down with these folks,” Utendorf says. “You got to be able to think on your feet, but by the same token, it’s critical that they understand what’s going on.”
He says they are always looking for different ways to improve when it comes to pesticide usage.
Keys to Success
Despite starting during the recession, Utendorf says they continued to grow steadily. He credits Real Green’s software, which gave him structure for his business.
“We just plowed right through 2007-2008,” Utendorf says. “We’ve never had a downturn because as long as you’re providing good service, you almost can’t screw it up because it just continues to grow.”
Utendorf says his corporate marketing and banking background helped prepare him for running his own business. He also sought out a lawn care mentor who could bring him up to speed on the turf aspects.
“He really accelerated my background in turf,” Utendorf says. “I went from zero to 100. I was a banker on March 16, and I owned the lawn care business on April 16.”
Utendorf says educating himself is one of the keys to his company’s success. He says reads all of the industry magazines cover to cover and is active with his local state association and NALP. Utendorf says he’s taken advantage of his NALP membership in multiple ways.
He was an early user of the Trailblazer program (now known as NAVIGATE). He met with Matt Jessen of Green Lawn Fertilizing and says it was an amazing opportunity to see a world-class competitor in the industry. He’s also been able to network with individuals like Bob Mann, Jeff Fedorchak and Jennifer Lemcke.
“Bob Mann is critical to our industry,” Utendorf says. “There are so many people that I’ve met through my meetings with NALP. All those relationships lead into other relationships.”
He also attends industry events and looks forward to attending ELEVATE in Texas. He recommends those newer to the industry get involved with a peer group.
“I’m a firm believer in just talking to everybody and educating yourself,” Utendorf says. “That’s what I did. I went to every industry event within several 100 miles. I talked to all my competitors and really, I found that everybody was willing to talk to me.”
He also makes a point to educate his employees and his clients. They focus on educating their employees so that if someone calls their office, everyone can talk about every product and service they offer.
“If it gets really technical, like disease questions or something like that, we’ll refer you to our operations manager or our sales and service manager,” Utendorf says. “But that happens pretty rarely. Almost every question that we get asked by a customer or by a lead or prospect, we can handle right there.”
While their company is more expensive than other businesses, they spend more time educating and less time selling to customers.
“I think that’s our number one differentiator and one I really hit hard with our staff,” Utendorf says. “You got to treat every question like you’ve never heard it before. You treat every question like it’s super important, regardless of whether it’s somebody asking you about a dandelion or somebody asking you, ‘Do I need to be concerned about the toxicity of this product?’”
They cover cultural practices with clients, such as how to mow and water their lawns. Utendorf says because they are only 20 percent of the equation, they work to educate their clients on how to provide the other 80 percent of the work.
“If you think we’re just going to come out and spread fairy dust on your lawn, and all of a sudden it’s going to be green and weed-free and perfect if that isn’t how it works,” Utendorf says.
Early on, Emerald Lawn Care grew significantly through utilizing large yard signs and having an aggressive SEO strategy in 2007. He says while these methods’ effectiveness has waned with the increase of competitors, they helped the business significantly at the start. Utendorf says taking the time to hire qualified individuals like an office manager also helped him in the beginning.
“The bottom line is, maximizing your digital presence, hiring the best possible managers as quickly as you can and reading every possible thing you can get your hands on gets you to level up,” Utendorf says.
Recruiting and Retention Methods
Currently, Emerald Lawn Care has 18 full-time technicians, three field managers and four office staff members. Utendorf says while they don’t use the H-2B program, he still advocates for those who do use the visa program.
“We’re all part of the same program,” Utendorf says. “If the landscapers can’t find the foreign workers, then now they’re fighting for the same guys that I’m fighting for.”
As for where he finds his employees, Utendorf says they are always recruiting everywhere, from using Indeed to talking to people at restaurants.
“We have little cards printed up; if you talk to somebody and you think they might be a good candidate, we hand them one of our little cards,” Utendorf says.
He says they have had times when they were overstaffed, but Utendorf says they have grown to accommodate those new hires. Employees can earn up to $1,000 in referral bonuses, receiving $250 the first day the new hire starts, $500 after they stay for six months and another $250 if they stay for a whole year.
When it comes to retention, Utendorf says they strive to make the job as easy as possible with well-maintained quality equipment.
“Probably the number one thing that we do that and is blows people away, especially other lawn care companies, is we pay our guys year-round,” Utendorf says.
During the off-season, Emerald Lawn Care’s employees are paid 80 percent of their compensation. They only have to show up for training days. Typically, they’ll have one training day in December and three or four in late February or March.
Utendorf says he’s been paying his staff year-round since 2008. He acknowledges it’s expensive, but almost all their employees return in the spring. They have been burned a few times when someone starts during the off-season, gets paid and then doesn’t show up to work in the spring.
As the company has grown, Utendorf says it’s been easier to maintain their company culture as they’ve gotten better at hiring value-match employees.
“We share what our values are,” Utendorf says. “We essentially tell people, ‘Hey, as long as whatever you’re doing is consistent with our values, we’re never going to have an issue with you.’”
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