Chris Daley, founder and owner of Daley's Lawn & Landscape, Pleasant Valley, N.Y., is only in his mid-20s, but is already something of an industry veteran. Pleasant Valley is a village of about 2,000 people located a short drive north of New York City.
The residential market offers the opportunity to sell landscape upgrades and a variety of different services to each client, in this case hydroseeding.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF CHRIS DALEY.
A young start
"I got started in the business when I was about 13 - I started mowing grass in my aunt's development, and I had about three or four lawns," he recalls. "I just kept growing and growing, and now we're mowing about 100 lawns a week."
Along the way, the business obviously became more professional. When Daley started out, he was using a riding mower. "From there I moved up to a walk-behind, then I had a zero-turn and the walk-behind, and now I have a whole fleet of mowers." (Currently, he's using a fleet of Exmark mowers.) It's been a couple of years since Daley has personally had time to get on a mower; a crew handles that job. He's been focused on growing the business. In 2003, Daley formed a formal LLC. Since that time, he started selling bulk landscape supplies, began offering landscape construction services, became a dealer for Unilock and opened a garden center.
Daley's Lawn &
Pleasant Valley, N.Y.
Founder & Owner:
Landscaping, Mulch/Topsoil Bulk
Supply, Garden Center, Authorized
Unilock Dealer and Installer
12 in peak season
"It got to a point after I got out of high school where it seemed things kept picking up and I was getting busier and busier. I just sort of decided at that point, 'This thing is taking off, so I should run with it and see what happens,'" Daley explains of the company's growth.
Residential vs. commercial
Within the lawn care side of the business, Daley has been expanding as well. Recently, he's added more commercial accounts to what was once primarily a residential customer base.
"I wasn't too sharp on the commercial thing. That's something that I continued to learn as time went on. That's an area that we've really pushed into just in the last two years," says Daley. "Now we have a couple of years under our belts on a few substantial size properties, so now we have that experience; we've learned how to bid the jobs and how to actually perform the work and the services on those properties."
He says that commercial maintenance has proven to be a steady source of work for his business. "Commercial work covers your overhead costs - it pays your bills," Daley explains. "Residential is also good, though, because you can continually keep upgrading and selling different services to a customer. That way you have a little more opportunity to show what you are capable of doing. There's more of a profit margin in residential. But in order to get into the commercial side of things, and to be able to pick and choose what kind of work you want, you have to be able to get your name out there and be recognized as someone who knows what you're doing."
Daley's Lawn & Landscape offers a full slate of landscape installation services and is a licensed dealer for Unilock.
Daley says his experience has shown that having a mix of both types of customers is beneficial. The bigger checks that come in from larger commercial properties help him budget his business for the year. "That's an area where I've learned a lot and we've really improved in the last few years," he explains. "Learning how to budget the company properly - when to spend money and when not to spend money - has been very important. We've tightened up our belts tremendously."
Good business sense
A friend with a business degree joined the company, and Daley credits him for helping him to understand the "business" of landscaping. "A lot of guys get started in this business and think, 'Wow, look at all of this money coming in. I'm going to go spend, spend, spend.' But you have to be able to budget yourself, know what bills you have due, and how much money you need for materials, etc.," he explains, adding that as his business has grown, so have the pressures of managing these issues. "There are days where I probably would prefer to be a little bit smaller," Daley jokes. "Now we're at the point where if we don't continue to grow at least a little bit and bring in more revenue, we could be in trouble."
Daley says the one thing he wishes he'd done differently when he was building the business was to keep tighter control of spending habits. "I probably would have been a little more cautious of the money I spent," he points out, adding that those investments in equipment have paid off in the long run by allowing him to grow the company. "It seems like a lot of guys try to grow too big too quickly - they buy equipment and then try to grow into it. It worked out for us, but you have to be careful," he adds. Daley's also learned to be selective about what time of year to purchase equipment, to avoid having the new tools sitting idle during the winter months even while payments are being made on it.
Another business challenge he notes these days is the number of people getting into lawn maintenance without insurance and workers' comp, which is driving down rates for the legitimate businesses. He says, "Once customers get a taste in their mouth for getting something done cheap, it's difficult to get them back. These guys might only be in business for a couple of months, but they take everyone else down with them during that time."
In the beginning, Daley had success building his reputation by going door to door and talking to people face-to-face. These trips to new developments and nicer neighborhoods paid off. "That's really the way I got going," he says. Since his business picked up and that process became too time-consuming, Daley has relied more on signage, door hangers, radio commercials and word-of-mouth. "We really try to work on our customer service, because we've gotten a lot of jobs in certain neighborhoods."
A more recent development that helped build name recognition was Daley's purchase last year of a garden center. While he's running the two as separate entities, being able to provide installation helps him build relationships with retail customers. "We've got our name right out there on the side of the road, and we're picking up work from people who don't want to do the installation themselves," he explains.
Daley's Garden Center & Bulk Supply also sells wholesale to other landscapers, and even makes its own topsoil, which is used by Daley's landscape crews. Being able to purchase bulk materials in larger quantities for his wholesale supply business helps reduce his costs on the landscape side, he points out.
With these various enterprises, Daley doesn't get a lot of time off. His family owns an oil company, which has provided him the opportunity to work in the winter making deliveries while running the lawn and landscape business in the summer. Even so, he has added snow removal to his list of services, so it's truly a year-round profession at this point.
Daley says the lawn and landscape industry is a good place for a young person with the right work ethic to start a company. "It's a good business to get into, if you're willing to work hard and take pride in what you do. If you want to just go out and make a few dollars, you're better off just going to work for someone else," he explains. "You'll get paid more working by the hour, and you won't have to spend all the money to buy equipment and spend the time building up customers." In other words, if you want to start a company from the ground up, be prepared to work hard and budget wisely.
Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.