Turf Magazine - February, 2009

NORTH FEATURES

Success on a Shoestring

Desire and drive help build MRW Lawns
By Suz Trusty

Photos Courtesy of MRW Lawns, Inc.

An MRW service technician makes a horticultural oil application.

MRW Lawns, Inc. has come a long way since partners Rick LaNore and Wayne Spangler started the company in LaPlata, Md., in 1988. LaNore says, “I’d read a book about starting a business on a shoestring, and that sure described us. All we had were my assets: $500 in the bank, a 1988 GMC pickup truck, an electric string trimmer and a really old walk-behind lawn mower. But, we both had the experience, desire and drive to make it work.”

LaNore had spent eight years working as a lawn specialist for another lawn service company. That’s where he met Spangler. As their friendship grew, so did their desire to work in their own business. LaNore says, “Wayne, at only 20, just had himself to support at that point. I was 30 years old, with a wife and two young children.”

Armed with several thousand photocopies of a flyer created by LaNore’s wife, Barbara, LaNore and Spangler started walked the neighborhoods of potential customers, knocking on doors. They’d ask the homeowner to walk the lawn with them, point out what they could accomplish for that property, write their program on the back of the flyer, and ask them for their business. LaNore says, “It was simple and direct. Successful, too—our closing rate was upwards of 50 percent. In the first couple months of operation we were able to get the insurance together and become certified. Everything took off from there.”

They began driving targeted neighborhoods on Saturday nights and putting flyers in the delivery tubes of the local newspaper so homeowners would get them with the Sunday paper. Each partner worked at least 80 hours a week, tackling the lawn service accounts during the day, and making sales calls weekday nights, all day Saturday and part of Sunday. That first year they did mowing, fertilization and pesticide applications, renovations and seeding, leaf removal and gutter cleaning.

MRW started the spring of 1989 with about 100 accounts, mowing half of them. They determined mowing was taking precedence over their primary service objective, so they eliminated it by the start of the third year. They hired their first employee late in 1989 and set up a third service route.

Equipped for efficiency

When the company started, most of the lawn applications were granular. The vans were equipped with 200-gallon Lesco tanks for herbicide applications. Tree and shrub applications had reached about 10 percent of the total lawn care program. A separate truck was equipped for these applications, and the designated operator covered all the accounts requiring that service.

About two and a half years ago, MRW switched to Isuzu NPR cab forward vehicles for these applications. LaNore says, “The bodies are custom built for us in Florida. Each has a 500-gallon fresh water tank that we don’t mix in. Next to it are two 75-gallon tanks, used mainly for tree and shrub applications. The 100-gallon tank designated for lawn use is located under the belly of the truck. It’s the only tank that herbicides are used in, so we wanted it completely separated from all other tanks.

“Rather than starting a route with one tank premixed according to a preset, calendar-based program, we now have the ability to custom blend for specific applications. All treatment is based on integrated pest management [IPM] principles, and each operator is trained to follow IPM procedures. They walk the property to make a visual assessment of conditions and customize the applications to meet the needs of that site. It’s made our already environmentally conscientious program even more so.”

MRW now has seven of these trucks. One operator with one vehicle can handle two or three liquid applications during one stop. For example, they can spray the lawn for weeds, treat the trees and shrubs with a fungicide and do a perimeter application for insect control. The lawn fertilization could be added, either as a liquid mixed with the weed control product or as a granular application.

LaNore says, “With this setup, we’ve become more diversified, increasing the menu of services we offer. We’re able to handle the tree and shrub work, and most other specialty applications in conjunction with the lawn care program at least 80 percent of the time. It’s really increased our efficiency, reducing the number of trips made to a property while increasing the number of billable services delivered at each trip.”

The current program

Bobby Hudler worked his way up through the ranks during his 15 years with the company, and now serves as branch manager. LaNore now serves as technical director, deciding what products to use and handling the purchasing with suppliers. The program varies each year, depending on what produces the best results. He says, “A lot of insight on that comes from the turfgrass research at the University of Maryland and input from Maryland Cooperative Extension and my suppliers.”

Service technician Merve Roussell sprays a lawn.

Spangler serves as sales manager, making sales himself and supervising the other sales representatives. The partners work together on marketing and jointly oversee the upper management of the production department.

While MRW used to offer several lawn care programs, they’ve simplified the process with one lawn program consisting of seven applications throughout the year, which the customer can choose from for a personalized program. The fertilization segment combines granular and liquid applications, with granular products used as conditions dictate.

The tree and shrub program consists of five applications. “One of the things that makes the total program so successful is the use of horticultural oils. We make one application in the early spring prior to bud break and a half-rate summer oil application just before leaf fall. These two applications reduce the number of pests likely to cause problems. The other three applications cover our standard IPM procedures, with custom blends matched to landscape needs. To date, we’ve only marketed our tree and shrub fertilization program to targeted customers, but we’re planning to expand that,” LaNore says.

The perimeter spray program consists of five applications. The control products are pyrethrum-based for seven-week residual control. A granular product is used during the colder weather.

Core aeration, slicing, seeding and compost topdressing services are offered in the fall, extending over a 13-week period. Fall cleanup and mulching services are also offered, though these are provided through an outside contractor.

MRW monitors the environmental impact of all aspects of their program, and LaNore believes that it should be emphasized by all lawn care companies. He says, “Maintaining lawns and landscapes is important for the environment of our urban and suburban communities. But, improperly done, it can have an adverse effect. We have the responsibility to offer quality programs that match site situations rather than selling customers product applications they don’t need. We also must make sure all of our applications are handled responsibly, spraying liquids only in quantities needed and where they are needed and removing any granular product from impervious surfaces to help reduce runoff.”

Economic changes

Following the largest season of growth in 2007, MRW Lawns has seen the impact of the economic downturn in 2008. “We only ran two seeding trucks this past fall, and used one of our sales representatives to operate one of them. We’ve not had the volume of new accounts we had in previous years. We ended the year with a net gain of 100 accounts, which is probably significant in challenging times, but not what we had planned to achieve,” LaNore says.

The company is keeping their options open for the spring of 2009. They’re implementing a major price increase, but feel those adjustments are needed to balance the escalated costs they’ve encountered. LaNore says, “We’ll watch spending closely. We want to ensure we’ll have the capital to start strong in the spring.”

Staffing positions may also change somewhat, switching some of the sales force to production, depending on market conditions at that time. LaNore says, “Our staff understands the challenges and realizes everyone will have to work at top efficiency to make sure we get the work done.”

Service technician Clay Fortney sprays azaleas.

Industry outreach

Giving back to the industry is another priority for MRW Lawns. LaNore says, “I didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, so much of my education in the business has come through the cooperative extension outreach services. As their student, I’ll never graduate, because there’s always something new to learn.”

LaNore has been on the board of The Maryland Turfgrass Council since 1996, serving two of those years as vice president and two as president. While vice president, he coordinated the trade show. The industry survey was published during his first year as president, bringing that three-year project to fruition. In 2006, the report was published on the impact of the turf industry on Maryland economic conditions in 2005. LaNore was also instrumental in producing an industry-focused coloring book and he produced the program book for the turfgrass conference for several years.

LaNore says, “I had the opportunity to meet and network with people from all segments of the turf industry while serving on the board. It allowed me to work with them to make an impact on the council’s primary function, raising funds for the turfgrass research facility.”

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.