Turf Magazine - February, 2009

SOUTH FEATURES

The Grass is Greener on the Other Side

A couple moves from corporate America to small business owners
By Suz Trusty
Photos Courtesy of North Georgia Unlimited.
This installation project is now maintained by North Georgia Unlimited.

New Lawns, Inc., DBA North Georgia Unlimited, based in Norcross, Ga., serves the greater Atlanta area. Following a company buyout, the husband and wife team of Vail Frost and Linda Dekle decided to make the move from management positions in the corporate world to owners of a smaller business. They’d determined the location and key criteria of the potential company to most effectively use their expertise, but not what kind of business that it would be.

Dekle says, “We were in Atlanta, working with a broker on negotiations for an existing business, when a 10-year-old landscape installation company was placed on the market. The broker encouraged us to suspend negotiations to explore what he thought would be an even better fit. He was right.

“The books were real, with no ‘trust me’ involved. The entire 10 years of operation were recorded in black and white. The company had an excellent reputation. Though we didn’t have lawn and landscape industry backgrounds, key individuals within the company were willing to stay on and bring that expertise to the table.”

Thus, 11 years ago, they became owners of the company. At that time, the company did strictly landscape installation with 97 percent of the business focused on residential accounts. Since then, working in conjunction with their staff, Dekle and Frost have adapted the operations, added services and expanded into the commercial realm.

Members of the North Georgia Unlimited team pose outside their building with some of their equipment. Owners Vail Frost and Linda Dekle are holding the sign.

Evolution

Dekle says, “Three years ago, we invested in nearly a year of staff training on business skills, covering the basics from what overhead is to the more complex, like how to read a balance sheet. We wanted to equip them to understand the business principles involved in taking the company to a new level. Now, we can talk about the money when we’re bidding a job, determining what needs to be included in the budget to do the work and produce a profit.”

The company sought commercial builders with both small and large companies as potential new clients. As those relationships developed, the larger builders began requesting maintenance services for the landscape and irrigation installations. Not wanting to open the doors to another landscape company working on North Georgia Unlimited projects, they began providing those services.

The maintenance and the related services have continued to grow right along with the installation segment of the business. Territory expansion has followed the builders. Dekle says, “Once a builder begins using our services, we go wherever they go to continue and reinforce that relationship.”

Construction is in process on this wall.

The crew

Company services are coordinated by division, with many personnel filling different roles throughout the year. Clients can coordinate all services from any of the divisions through their project manager.

The installation division handles most of the enhancement projects, including conversion of plant beds, installing hardscapes, and adding fireplaces and outdoor living spaces. A dedicated irrigation division handles both the installation and service. Both of these divisions use Ford F-450 crew-cab trucks equipped with trailers. The equipment is loaded according to the day’s projects with most crews using a Bobcat, Caterpillar or Takeuchi skid steer.

right: This view shows the steps following installation. This side view shows the completed wall.

The company has one crew designated for chemical applications. They work with an Isuzu spray rig equipped with three tanks that are premixed each day for the pre-assigned route. A smaller truck is loaded with tanks to cover the additional time-sensitive spring applications. Dekle says, “Initially, our customers just wanted us to kill the weeds. As we’ve gotten greener in our thinking and have adapted our programs to deal with our area’s three-year drought, we’ve had to rethink what we wanted to provide. We still kill the weeds, but we’ve added sustainability for the existing landscapes and the new projects.”

The maintenance division has multiple crews, with people moving in and out of that division depending on the time of year and the workload. Many of the properties are in gated subdivisions or small commercial shopping centers. That division also does mulch touch-ups, some of the smaller enhancement projects, and all the twice-a-year seasonal color change-outs.

“Many of those color conversions have been adapted to the drought conditions,” notes Dekle. “We’re doing more with ornamental grasses, small flowering shrubs and native plants that have lower water requirements.”

Each crew is equipped with a Ford F-250 truck and a small, pull-behind trailer, both adapted with lockboxes and equipment boxes to keep things secure. The equipment is loaded depending on the day’s route, but generally includes walk-behind and ride-on mowers, backpack blowers, edgers, string trimmers and pruners. During the weekly site visits in spring and summer, the crew size is three or four, depending on the route. During the winter, site visits drop to every other week with two-person crews.

Landscape features at commercial properties are part of the North Georgia Unlimited maintenance program.

With local ordinances requiring all new properties under development to keep vegetation under control, an additional division keeps two crews busy from spring through fall operating the larger Ventrac machines for tough vegetation trimming.

Adapting to the economy

The economic downturn has hit Atlanta as hard as anywhere, and that’s on top of the three years of drought. Dekle says, “The housing market has slowed significantly, with tighter lending sources for potential buyers and for the builders. Some builders are continuing to do well; others have gone out of business. Those who seem to be more successful are considering what the market and customer want, and are changing their business model. There are fewer spec houses being built, with a greater focus on new homes customized for preapproved buyers. We used to work on 30 to 40 new homes a week; now it’s closer to 10.

“We’ve been rethinking our business operations and began making changes in the last six to eight months in response to the economy. What we are now has changed from a year ago. Our business is down about 40 percent across the board. We’ve been able to manage it at that level and hope to continue to do so.”

Some clients are replacing part of their lawn space with custom-designed hardscape features, like this one. Low-maintenance plant beds add interest and reduce mowing time at this site.

With employees being the major investment, cuts in that category were necessary to balance the workload and income reductions. Staffing levels are now 30 foreman and laborers, down from 65 before the down-turn. While new installations have dropped, the company has kept the majority of its maintenance contracts, and gained a few new ones. The flexibility of the workforce will become even more of a factor as staffing is adjusted to meet the changing marketplace.

Previously, all products including irrigation components were delivered to the company site. Materials for all the crews were pulled from that inventory and loaded as needed for transportation to the job site. Dekle says, “Now we arrange direct shipments to the larger commercial job sites for irrigation, hardscape and plant materials. All chemicals continue to come to our site for proper storage and mixing. We’ve reduced the double handling and invest less time in inventory management. Storing less inventory also helps the cash flow, giving us increased ability to manage our resources.”

More direct shipments will change the kinds of trucks and equipment needed as well, since less material will be transported to the job sites. Those changes are currently in the analysis stage.

Small upgrade projects, such as the installation of blocks to create this seating area, could be handled by either the enhancement or maintenance crews.

Dekle classifies the business as small to medium in size with overall annual sales ranging between $5 and $6 million. With the greater number of commercial clients, the irrigation division has grown from 5 to 7 percent of income to 15 percent. The maintenance division as tracked includes the chemical applications and vegetation control. That typically has accounted for between 35 and 40 percent of income. They’re anticipating an increase in that percentage by the end of the fiscal year.

She says, “The companies that survive the downturn will be more diverse, and stronger. We’re geared to achieve that, but since our fiscal year ends on June 30, it’s too soon to determine the precise impact of the changes we’ve implemented. At this point, we’re right on target.”

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.