Turf Magazine - February, 2009
The Grass is Greener on the Other Side
A couple moves from corporate America to small business owners
|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
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.
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.
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
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
||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
“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
|Landscape features at commercial properties are part of the North Georgia Unlimited
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
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
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
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.