Talking with Titans: Jennifer Lemcke - The Edge from the National Association of Landscape Professionals

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Talking with Titans: Jennifer Lemcke

Jennifer Lemcke is the CEO of Weed Man, Mosquito Hero and TurfBot. She has been in the industry since 1993 and has led Weed Man in unprecedented growth over the years. She is driven by providing for her people.

What has it been like working in every position in the company at Weed Man?

It has probably been the best thing that I could have possibly done for my career and also for my deep understanding of the company and what we require from our people. So it allows me to have a lot of empathy for each role. What are the challenges? What are the opportunities for success? How to define a win in each position, so I would say absolutely the best thing I’ve ever done.

It was intentional. My dad wanted me to understand the company from every angle, which made sense because as the company grew, I was one of the very few people in the entire company that had all of those perspectives. So it allowed me to go after big projects that nobody else could understand because I understood every piece of the business.

What were some of your biggest challenges over the years as a woman in the industry?

It’s a good question, and it’s a little bit potentially unfair to other women in the industry because I have never faced some of the things that they’ve faced. So for me, I’ve always had my dad as my mentor and he clearly believed that a woman can do anything because he put me in all of those roles. So I never had a boss that thought I was not capable. They worked to make sure that I was going to be capable.

The part that was tough was being a mom. I’m a daughter. I’m a wife. My husband works in the business. I’m a mom, and I am a CEO. I’m a very, very hands-on CEO, so my franchisees can have a piece of me anytime they want. That’s just my style. When people say work-life balance, that’s not something I could get my head around because I’m a firm believer that there are times where my family was first and the company came second.

But there were absolutely times in my career where my career came first, and my family came second. Not that I missed any big things, but I certainly missed a lot of little things. That was difficult and it used to really make me emotional when I was living it. I’m still living it, but I don’t have the day-to-day pressures anymore.

What was it like when Brenda Rice asked your dad to purchase the worldwide rights to Weed Man?

For us, when that happened for my dad and me, believe it or not, nobody else knew. There were only three of us that knew in our company that this was even happening for a period of time. We needed board approval and all of that though. When it first came, it was excitement. We were a $200 million company in the U.S. and we were a $50 million company in Canada. We were behaving to that size.

We weren’t behaving like a $300 million company. We were really not capitalizing on the synergies of the brand as we came together. To be able to take that and really give an opportunity to my team and expand their jobs and their opportunities to grow within the company and create more jobs was really exciting to me.

Did you ever expect Weed Man to become as large as it has with its franchises and revenue?

Yes. I also am very competitive, and I like to win. Those are the reasons why I get out of bed in the morning. To help people and to win and I don’t like losing at all. I’m very, very driven in that way. My kids have always played competitive sports and I wasn’t one that was like, ‘Oh, just have fun!’ That’s not my personality. We’re here to win and we got work to do and if you don’t win, you need to assess what you could have done better, not just the team, what you could have done better.

So no, I’m not surprised. A) We’ve got great people and it all starts with that. B) We’re all driven to win and that’s our culture.

Where do you see Weed Man in the next five years?

I see us as being a $500 million company and really pushing to be in the next ten years a billion-dollar company.

What caused you to decide to turn your mosquito control service line into a sub-brand of Weed Man?

A lot of franchisees in the U.S. had been asking can we start up mosquito services and there seemed to always be challenges for us to be able to do that. When we bought Canada, I knew that we were going to have to divert our attention to bring them on. Although we’re the same brand, we were kind of different, so we needed to really take a year to get to know people, understand what their wants and their needs, deliver some of the systems that we had developed and see who is going to take what and who is going to run with it and then who we needed to work with.

I wanted to give something to the U.S. side and I was like, let’s just launch mosquito services and we launched it just under Weed Man. We didn’t do a sub-brand on it. For us to really push the brand in the digital space, we needed to create a brand that people can say, ‘Oh, they do mosquito services.’ With Weed Man, it’s a stretch for lawn care, let alone mosquito services. We needed to rebrand at the following annual conference. It was a home run. Best thing we’ve ever done.

Now we need to have our franchisees focus on it like it is a separate brand, although it’s it is part of it. We need them to truly focus because there are huge opportunities in this space. For us to dominate in this space, we need to really pay attention. I think we’ve got the message across and we’re starting to see traction on it. We’ll finish the year off at approximately $10 million on mosquito services. But we’re not where I want it to be. I was expecting to be at minimum at $14 million. I really wanted $18 million, but we fell short of that. But we’re on our way. I think we did a lot of push at the conference. So I think a lot of people are going to be aligned.

Where do you see the TurfBot brand expanding in the near future?

TurfBot is a little bit different. We are in ten markets. TurfBot is an add-on to Weed Man, but it is separate, so they’re buying a separate brand. With TurfBot, we’re not just promoting a brand. We’re promoting a whole new way to do something. It’s taken off in Europe but not in North America.

For us there are two reasons why we got into this. The environmental story behind it is good. With the push of society going from gas to electric, robotics is becoming a bigger thing. It’s coming, but to be on the cutting-edge, leading it, it’s a lot. Robotics is different. Mowing is not new, but definitely robotics doing the mowing.

And the other reason we did it is to reduce labor and we’ve not attained that. The technology’s not quite there where it can truly replace a human. You still need a lot of human interaction. Robot gets stuck. Robot falls off the curb. Robot gets stolen. Robot stops going back to the center to get charged so you’re continuously needing to send somebody to go and make sure the robot’s okay. That is not really our goal. We feel like the technology isn’t quite where it needs to be. We think it’s going to get there. It’s just going to be a slower grind for us to get there.

We are opening up a call center to help our franchisees so they can focus on the technical side and just have somebody really check on the robots and service the customer. We’ll take care of the marketing side for them. We’re hoping that’s going to help really push us to where we want to go.

We had budgeted about just over 1,000 mowers and we got about 700 mowers, so it wasn’t a catastrophe. But it wasn’t where we wanted to be. When there’s a bar, I never like to be under it. I like to be over it. And so, for me, it wasn’t a home run; it’s probably a second base hit. We’ll continue to refine work with our suppliers, which is Husqvarna right now, and look for other alternatives in the space.

What advice would you give to others trying to grow a successful business?

Surround yourself with good people is number one. As you grow a business, you don’t want to be a one-hit wonder, so when you find something that works well, make it a procedure. Create a process behind it, so that you’re able to repeat it and then once you got it, then it allows you to now train other people because it’s a process. A lot of people they start a business and they’ll dabble.

Dabbling is not a sustainable thing and our industry has a lot of dabblers. You see guys or women that get to a certain size in their business and they’re stuck. They can’t grow beyond that because they haven’t stepped back and proceduralized what they know how to do so the business is all about them. They’re the salesperson. They’re the customer relations person. They got to be involved in everything. There’s nothing that can happen that they can’t be involved in. That limits your growth.

I would say surround yourself with good people and work very diligently on when you do something and it’s right, and you’re able to repeat it. Then proceduralize it so then you can hand it off to somebody and the day-to-day doesn’t fall on you all the time.

This article was published in the March/April issue of the magazine. To read more stories from The Edge magazine, click here to subscribe to the digital edition.

Jill Odom

Jill Odom is the senior content manager for NALP.