Turf Magazine - February, 2009

CENTRAL FEATURES

Staying Ahead of the Competition

Buckeye EcoCare continues to grow by adding services
By Suz Trusty
Photos Courtesy of Buckeye Ecocare.
Hydroseeding on the 35-acre hospital site.

“It’s not rocket science,” says Mark Grunkemeyer, owner and president of Buckeye EcoCare. “Ask people what they want, then give it to them on schedule and honestly at a competitive price, and you will grow your business,” he says.

He’s proved that point throughout the time the Centerville-based company has been serving Dayton and the Miami Valley area of Ohio. They now have approximately 7,000 clients, servicing 3,500 acres of commercial properties and 3,100 acres of residential properties.

Grunkemeyer started the business in 1984, when the national lawn service company he had been working for was about to be sold. Armed with experience, and an associate degree in turfgrass management from The Ohio State University, he had a game plan.

He launched the business as Buckeye Custom Lawn Care, conducting a soil sample for each client and personally maintaining the property based on those results. By the late ’80s he’d grown the company to a size that required hiring additional personnel.

Smiling faces show the heart behind the Project EverGreen lawn makeover, which served the double role of thanking a service man and his family and giving back to the community.

When the first environmental activist scare occurred in the early ’90s, he changed the company name to Buckeye EcoCare. “I realized how important it was to not only operate an environmentally friendly company following integrated pest management [IPM] procedures, but also to deliver our message to the public. We developed a statement that explains what EcoCare stands for, and incorporate it in our literature and post it on our Web site,” he says.

Employees make the difference

In successful service companies, the employees buy into the mission and work to ensure they deliver what it promises. Grunkemeyer concentrates on establishing that level of staff accountability. The first step is hiring responsible people.

He says, “Finding good personnel is one of our industry’s major challenges. Every year we send a letter to all the regional two and four-year colleges offering turfgrass programs, reminding them that we are seeking energetic, young graduates who are willing to work in our environment. We want good people from any age or ethnic group that are seeking a career, not just looking for a job.”

New employees start on the commercial properties, working as lawn technicians under the supervision of experienced crew leaders. “After they’ve worked six months to a year in that position, we can determine if they’re the right fit. We assess their work ethic, attention to detail, how they react to added responsibilities and how well they work with people. We encourage them to keep growing professionally, and the good ones respond. Over 80 percent of our lawn technicians are licensed,” Grunkemeyer says.

Lawn technicians that pass the assessment evolve to route manager positions. Once they are trained and licensed, they are assigned to a specific geographic area and become responsible for every aspect of that route, including inspecting the properties, making the applications and completing the paperwork, communicating with their clients, handling the sales, responding to the callbacks, and anything else needed to “take ownership” of their route.

Grunkemeyer says, “We provide them with a fully equipped truck, technical and clerical support and all the other resources required to do the job. Eventually, they become responsible for the revenues with financial incentives for them if they grow their route every year.”

The company holds weekly staff meetings to inform technicians and route managers on programs or product updates, and alert them on what to watch for.

A route manager discusses a lawn issue with one of his clients.

Grunkemeyer says, “The big, national companies probably do a better job of flinging fertilizer than we do, but we do a better job of property assessment and looking out for our clients. Following our IPM program, about four years ago our personnel detected a change in chinch bug activity. The pests were attacking irrigated Kentucky bluegrass lawns rather than drought-affected turf, with one generation of chinch bugs appearing in late June and a second in late August. We changed our program, moving the typical summer insect control application to a late spring and early summer application, as always, based on IPM observations. That dramatically reduced our insect callbacks.”

The business side

Buckeye EcoCare has 30 people on staff from early spring into December, and 10 to 12 of those are year-round employees. Five or six of the full-time employees are on the outside maintenance staff, working on trucks during the winter months. The others are on inside maintenance, handling the computer work, getting out the annual renewal letters, and calling unsold leads.

Grunkemeyer has used the Real Green Systems computer software program since that company came on the market. He says, “Our office staff makes all the computer entries. During the season, the route managers turn in hard paper copies of the invoices left with their clients, which include all the details of the applications, and those are entered by the clerical staff.”

The company offers prepayment discounts to their residential clients, which generated about a 30 percent response in 2008. Route managers come in one day a week during the winter to call their clients, thank them for their business and ask for the renewal. If the clients have prepaid, they call with a thank you and let them know they look forward to working with them again in the spring.

Services offered

The current lawn care program for residential clients offers a maintenance level with five visits per year, a “groundskeeper” level with six visits per year, and a “premium” level with nine visits a year. The maintenance level includes five timed-release fertilizer applications, spring preemergence crabgrass control, two applications of broadleaf weed control and grub protection. The groundskeeper level adds core aeration in either the spring or fall, and the premium level covers all that plus monthly growing season checkups and preventive disease management. They also offer three earth-friendly programs labeled green, greener and greenest.

Attention to detail is evident on this property, which is under the Buckeye EcoCare premium lawn care program. The landscaping and meticulous lawn add value to this home.

Grunkemeyer says, “We use a combination of granular and liquid products if the customer has no preference. All of our lawn care accounts are serviced by a single operator, primarily our route managers. Their trucks are set up with dry boxes that can hold dry fertilizer and combination products. A walk-behind broadcast spreader is mounted on hooks on the back of the trucks. Each truck has a 600-gallon capacity sprayer with auxiliary pumps, hose and hose reel. About 80 percent of the tanks are split into one 400 and one 200-gallon tank, providing the option of an additional application on one trip, a really nice tool for the IPM program.”

The tree and shrub program was added 13 years ago, and two trucks and operators are devoted to that service. “It accounts for approximately 10 percent of our overall business, with about 90 percent residential clients. It’s chemical maintenance based on strict IPM procedures with only affected areas treated, even with the dormant oil applications. We deep-root fertilize, treating only plant materials in the zero to 3-year-old range,” Grunkemeyer says.

An interior and exterior pest control program was introduced four years ago, and at this point is a single route with one person servicing the entire city.

The seeding and sodding service has gradually evolved over the last 15 years. Grunkemeyer had observed the performance of tall fescue lawns compared to bluegrass lawns during the region’s hot summers, and started aerating and overseeding the bluegrasses with turf-type tall fescues. Next, he bought a slit seeder for hand-slice seeding, then, when drought conditions hit and more lawns needed major repair, he purchased a tractor and tractor-driven slit-seeding machine.

Grunkemeyer also expanded the business to handle lawn installations. He says, “As some of our clients moved from an old subdivision to a new area, we’ve recommend having their lawn professional put in their lawn rather than a builder or developer. That expanded the lawn installation business. We don’t try to compete with the sod suppliers, using sod primarily in the high-traffic or high-visibility segments of the site in conjunction with the slit seeding. Green Velvet Sod Farms is both our sod and seed supplier. We completed our largest seeding project last year, a 35-acre hospital property that took a combination of sodding and hydroseeding.”

Buckeye EcoCare had a strong 2008 season, with only the seed and sod installations down from the previous year. The tree and shrub and pest control services were flat. However, residential business showed 9 percent growth and commercial business 25 percent. “Most of that double-digit growth came in April or May. It was so rapid our crews were working straight through just to keep up. While we love new business, I’d prefer a more manageable rate of 10 percent net growth each year,” Grunkemeyer says.

In 2009, he is devoting more marketing and advertising dollars to stimulate growth in the lawn care segment of the business. “When I first started this company 25 years ago, a wise person told me, ‘If you’re standing still, all your competition is passing you.’ I’m determined to never let that happen.”

Giving Back

Grunkemeyer believes in giving back to the industry and the community. In December 2008, he completed his second term on the board of directors of the Ohio Turfgrass Foundation (OTF). He was instrumental in developing OTF’s Statewide Turfgrass Economic Impact Survey, which showed an impact of $4.2 billion, with more maintained acres of turfgrass than statewide soybean production.

In June, Grunkemeyer and staff members teamed with Green Velvet Sod Farms on a Project EverGreen Green Care for Troops project. They replaced a chinch bug-riddled lawn with a combination of seed and sod, donating all materials and labor. The recipient was Steve Stolly, a former Air Force pilot and current reservist. He had been repeatedly deployed over the last several years. Grunkemeyer says, “It was rewarding for all of us to play a role in thanking him for his service to our country.”

Suz Trusty is a partner in Trusty & Associates, a communications and market research firm in Council Bluffs, Iowa. She has been involved in the green industry for over 40 years.