Turf Magazine - September, 2011

SOUTH FEATURES

Still Optimistic, Still Determined

In spite of staggering challenges, a Texas couple plants its dreams on the success of a lawn care franchise it won in a contest
By Ron Hall

Jeremy Brown, left, the company's sole employee, and Wesley Neukam.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF WESLEY NEUKAM.

Talk about starting over. Wesley Neukam and his wife, Marcia, are getting a fresh start this season as the owners of a Clean Air Lawn Care franchise in Corpus Christi, Texas. They earned the franchise after a YouTube video that Neukam posted last fall attracted the most online votes in a contest sponsored by the parent company.

Building a franchise

Building a business from scratch, particularly a lawn care business with its cutthroat pricing and ever-changing parade of competitors, is a tough go in any economy - in this economy, it's brutal. Not unexpectedly (and even with welcome support from Clean Air corporate), Neukam, 28, has been fighting an uphill battle for market share.

Clean Air Lawn Care in Corpus Christi

Owner: Wesley and Marcia Neukam
Market: Corpus Christi, Texas, and surrounding communities
Founded: 2011
Employees: 3
Services: Zero-Emissions Property Mowing/ Maintenance Services, Lawn Care
Website: www.cleanairlawncarecorpus.com

In spite of a continuing string of knee-buckling challenges (more on that later), he and his wife remain remarkably optimistic. "I love being my own boss and making my own schedule. I'm not bashful about saying I'm a workaholic, although maybe I shouldn't be so proud of admitting that," he says, admitting he approached this season with unrealistic expectations.

"When I looked ahead to the season I was thinking, 'This is going to be great; this is going to be fabulous. We'll be getting daily rain showers off of the Gulf, and we'll be ramping up pretty fast.'"

Wrong.

As of this writing, Corpus Christi, like much of Texas, has been experiencing an ever-worsening drought. By midsummer, Texas AgriLife extension personnel predicted that the drought will be the most costly the state has ever suffered in terms of lost crop and livestock production. In the face of the heat and lack of precipitation, many cities there have severely restricted landscape irrigation. Corpus Christi is not one of these. This city of about 350,000 people located on the Gulf of Mexico has yet to do so.

Thankful for irrigation

Neukam is thankful. Most of the properties under his care are irrigated. In fact, he says, most of them are over-irrigated, which bothers him. "I leave these customers a note letting them know that besides wasting water they're increasing the chance that their lawns will get a lawn disease, such as brown patch," he says. Beyond offering advice, Neukam also suggests upgrades to clients' irrigation systems. He says one of the most immediate and least expensive water-saving improvements is replacing older sprinkler heads with MP Rotator matched precipitation rate sprinkler heads.


Solar panels on the truck charge the 36-volt batteries used to power this Black & Decker walk-behind mower, 24-volt trimmer batteries and 18-volt batteries that power this hand-held debris blower.

Emissions-free services

While he, his wife, and their sole employee and longtime friend Jeremy Brown have only been able to grow the franchise a customer or two each week, Neukam remains convinced the business model of providing quiet, emissions-free lawn maintenance and organic lawn care services will become much more appreciated in his south Texas city.

He says it's mostly a matter of getting the word out and demonstrating the benefits of the service.

"The services we provide are quiet, they're zero emissions, and our fertilizer program is completely organic. Because of that, a lot of people think we're more expensive than a traditional lawn care company," says Neukam. "That's been a challenge, but it also gives me an opportunity to tell potential clients that because our lawn equipment doesn't need gasoline we're just as affordable as any other service."

Neukam's service vehicle is a Ford Ranger pickup equipped with solar panels on the toolbox. The solar panels charge the 36-volt batteries used to power his Black & Decker walk-behind mower, the 24-volt trimmer batteries and the 18-volt batteries that power his hand-held debris blowers. His current setup - thanks in part to the 102 days of sunshine the city receives annually - allows him to mow and maintain 15 properties a day without recharging any of his equipment.

"A lot of the time customers don't even know we've been on their properties, the service is so quiet," says Neukam. Next season he's planning to add a Hustler Zeon electric zero-turn mower, which will significantly increase the number and size of the properties he can maintain. A newer, fuel-efficient pickup is also in the company's future.

"It has to have good gas mileage because we report all of our emissions to carbonfund.org and buy offsets from it to make sure we are a zero-emissions company," says Neukam.

A winning video

The native Texan became the owner of a Clean Air Lawn Care franchise the unusual way - by winning "Opportunity 2011," a contest created by Clean Air Lawn Care "to give a rare opportunity to a hardworking individual" wanting to start their own business. The contest attracted entries from several dozen would-be lawn care company owners. By December 2010, just four final entrants remained, and each had posted a short video on the Internet seeking votes and telling viewers what earning a lawn care franchise would mean to them.

In his video, Neukam promised to donate 10 percent of his profits to charity each year, a promise he insists he will keep. This year, being a startup, the donation won't be what he had hoped, he says.

Clean Air Lawn Care, founded and based in Ft. Collins, Colo., advertises itself as "the nation's leading full-service sustainable lawn care company." As of this writing, the company has 31 locations in 11 states. There are five Clean Air Lawn Care franchises in Texas, including the new Corpus Christi business.

Neukam's YouTube contest video, recounting the family's financial and emotional struggles following the birth of their daughter Estella, touched viewers' hearts. Estella was born June 7, 2009, with a rare neurological condition. The disorder (holoprosencephaly) is generally so severe that a child rarely survives more than a few days or weeks after birth. Estella, who demonstrated an incredible will to survive, had other ideas. The Neukams responded by giving her all of their love and support.

The experience turned out to have moments of great joy, but was financially crippling as well as emotionally draining at times. The medical expenses were staggering. Marcia quit her job to care for Estella, and Neukam, dividing his time between his family and his career, struggled to keep his landscape company, Neukam's Landscaping in Kyle, Texas, going. Eventually, partly because of a long commute to his company each day, he decided to pack it up and make a fresh go of it in the landscape business in Corpus Christi.

A tragic end

Estella lived 17 months and died unexpectedly in November 2010. Tragically, the couple's second child, Heidi Marie, was diagnosed with the same rare disorder and, as of this writing, is 6 months old. As with Estella, Wesley and his wife devote all of their love and as much of their time as they can to her care.

Predictably, the financial burden is large, and Neukam drives a taxi on weekends. That he would choose to remain in the green industry in spite of these recent setbacks is likewise predictable.

He landed his first real job as a student working on the grounds at a Dallas-area school. Since then, in addition to running his own landscape company for several years, he gained valuable experience working for ValleyCrest and TruGreen.

Today he's building his reputation as "The Green Guy" in his market through his activities in service groups, such as Corpus Christi Clean Community, and by promoting his company's emission-free services. The local press has helped by running articles on the unique nature of his service and gave him some favorable press, he says.

Even so, in this economy and with the weather that Texas has been experiencing, he's having to work extra hard to grow his new lawn care franchise.

"It's going to take some time, but I'm really pushing," he says.

Ron Hall is editor-in-chief of Turf magazine.