Turf Magazine - February, 2011

CENTRAL FEATURES

Success at FS Custom Turf

Equipment maintenance and service are key elements
By Nancy Riggs

Left to right: David Blary, Nate Ellis and Chris Matlock discuss the importance of equipment maintenance performed during winter months.
PHOTO BY NANCY RIGGS

It's winter on the Illinois Prairie, and FS Custom Turf in Bloomington, Ill., is preparing for next season's lawn care. "During the winter, we're mostly getting ready for spring," said Chris Matlock, manager of the company. Matlock attributes the company's growth primarily to excellent service, and he emphasized the importance of equipment maintenance in being prepared to provide excellent service.


The Illinois Agricultural Association (IAA) building lawn receives regular service by FS Custom Turf.

PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRIS MATLOCK.

Matlock has been with FS Custom Turf since shortly after its formation in the mid-1980s. A Bloomington fireman, Rob Coleman, originally launched FS Custom Turf as a lawn care service, which was later purchased by Evergreen FS, one of a number of farmer-owned Midwestern cooperatives serving Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa. Matlock came to FS Custom Turf from a farm background after attending Heartland College in Bloomington. He is a member of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and the Illinois Sports Turf Managers Association.

Lawn care services provided by the company include applications of fertilizer and weed and grub control products, aeration and overseeding. Service is primarily provided in a five-county area that includes much of central Illinois. About 70 percent of the lawn care accounts are residential with about 30 percent commercial, which includes golf course work. In addition to providing lawn care, FS Custom Turf completed final grading and seeding on The Links at Ireland Grove, an executive golf course development in Bloomington.

FS Custom Turf also sells lawn care products to landscapers and other lawn care providers under the name of Green Lawn.

Bloomington's thriving economy for the past two decades spurred extensive development, and although that development has slowed, FS Custom Turf continues to be successful. "Our growth has slowed down some, but we're still growing," Matlock said. "Even in tough economic times, people still want their yards to look nice." The company's approximately 3,000 accounts attest to that fact.


The Bloomington Raiders football field, School District #87, receives lawn treatments and spring overseeding in Green Lawn Grand Slam, a 50/50 bluegrass rye mix.
PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRIS MATLOCK.

Service

"We're very strong on service," Matlock said. "When there's a call, we take care of it right away. We always try to do the work right the first time, and we have a 30-day guarantee. If we get a call that weeds are growing, I might suggest we give it a week. If they're still having a problem then, we do it over."

Lawn care programs frequently include six fertilizer applications, although some customers may request fewer applications. "We also do grub control and lawn aeration," Matlock said. Overseeding is provided primarily on golf courses or commercial sites. Pull-behind and walk-behind Ryan aerators, purchased from Birkey's Farm Store in Bloomington, are used for aeration projects. Other equipment includes Lesco spreaders from John Deere Landscapes in East Peoria and Toro sprayers.

Matlock emphasized the importance of aeration for area lawns. "We're somewhat challenged in that we grow cool-season grasses, but we have very hot summers. It's almost like being in the transition zone. The hot temperatures are hard on Kentucky bluegrass and fine-blade fescues." He cited soil issues in many residential developments, noting the common practice of topsoil removal. Matlock noted that aeration greatly improves the recovery of lawns following hot summers. "Lawns that are aerated will recover in about half the time as those that aren't," he said.

Weather dictates much of the way lawn care is provided. "We adjust the fertilizer applications when we have really hot weather," Matlock said. Weed control applications are also modified as needed based on weather conditions.

In the future, soil testing will be required when customers request phosphorus for their yards, as phosphorus use on lawns will be regulated by the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Illinois is one of four Great Lakes states that will be regulating phosphorus use, along with Wisconsin, Minnesota and New York.


David Blary, left, talks with Chris Matlock, while servicing a Toro sprayer.
PHOTO BY NANCY RIGGS.

Product sales

FS Custom Turf sells products to a number of landscaping companies. "We've been around for a long time, and people know us and our products," Matlock said. The company's supplier is Growmark, a federated, regional cooperative affiliated with the Farm Bureau, and its origins date back to Illinois Farm Supply Company chartered in 1927. It provides products and services to its member cooperatives and is a partner in a joint venture with Archer Daniels Midland in ADM/GROWMARK that markets products worldwide.

Products include herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, aquatics and grass seed. While grass seed is sold under the Green Lawn brand, Matlock noted that FS Custom Turf will sell grass seed in plain bags if customers want to market it under their own name. An extensive line of erosion control products is carried and includes Western Excelsior and other erosion control mats.

The off-season

While many lawn care companies provide snow removal services, FS Custom Turf uses the winter months to prepare for spring lawn care. Matlock said, "In December, we have customer contract renewals. That takes a lot of time through December into January as we get cards in, and some people like to prepay their accounts. We usually call on our commercial customers to line up their work."

FS Custom Turf uses yellow page advertising, but most of the business comes by word-of-mouth.

Equipment maintenance is a major consideration at FS Custom Turf. "All of our trucks have to be serviced with oil changed and tires rotated. Our trucks are gone over thoroughly for full maintenance," Matlock said. "We rebuild the pumps on all of our sprayers. We have only one backup and avoid the expense of having the extra equipment. We go over the big sprayers and rebuild pumps and booms if needed. We replace tines on aerators and do engine repair as needed."

Management challenges

Finding the right people to fill the part-time positions each summer is one of Matlock's biggest challenges. He emphasized the need for extensive training. "Most of the staff that is with me have been here 10 or 12 years," he said.

FS Custom Turf employs six full-time, year-round employees and adds about eight part-time employees each summer. Matlock said, "We use a lot of college students. We're usually working with at least four part-time employees who are new. Each new employee works with one of our full-time employees for 30 days. We don't place them with part-time employees since we consider that they're still learning. When we have had to fill a full-time job, we usually have a part-time employee who can move into that position."

Matlock emphasized that with little turnover, employees are familiar with their jobs. "I believe in empowering employees," he said. "I like to see employees making their own decisions. We cover a big territory, so on a day-to-day basis, they have to make decisions."

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and has been covering the green industry for Turf for almost 20 years. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.