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Making Mow Money in 2014

Love your local lowballers and other tips for profitable mowing
By Ron Hall




Mower photo courtesy of Hustler Turf Equipment.
Money photo courtesy of shutterstock.com.

It's tough out there to make good money mowing these days. The competition is fierce. On one end of the spectrum you're competing against established operators, perhaps even a national or regional outfits. On the other end are the lowballers. The big established outfits drive you to be ever more efficient while the lowballers may drive you crazy. Don't let them.

When you encounter either on your route, smile and offer a friendly greeting. If you meet a lowballer in person shake his hand and thank them. He's not evil. He's just ... well, he's just one of the reasons why you're going to make more money mowing. (That is, of course, if he doesn't smarten up. Some do. Most don't.)

The fact is that the lowballer is, in a sense, good for you whether you realize it or not. Sure he may cause you some stress, but in most cases it's short term; he's here today, gone tomorrow. Even if he's not, chances are that most of the accounts he's landing, those who insist upon the lowest price, you don't want anyway.

Beyond that, the quality of your work and your reliability shine compared to his. That means a lot to the kinds of customers that you want. Given time they'll be looking for more professional service.

Quality trumps cheap

"Many times you find people who just want a cheap price for a 'mow, blow and go' job," says Joe Antonucci, Grass Gators, Inc. "When I come across one of these I explain to them that the minimum that I do is mow, edge, weedeat and blow the walks.

"If the job doesn't give the house curb appeal, then the neighbors and others driving by will not think much of my work. That explanation usually works, and I get a higher price for my basic cut," he adds.

Think about it; there's no reason to get yourself bent out of shape over lowballers. They've been around forever and they'll be a part of the industry as long as there's an industry. Take care of your own business and it will take care of you.

If you're reading this piece it's reasonable to assume that you're not a lowballer - or, at least, you're anxious to shed that image by learning what you can. You're willing to trade a few minutes of your time (minutes you will never recover) to learn how to make more money in the mowing business.

Practical info at hand

As I have never operated a mowing company and don't pretend to be an expert on the subject, I consulted the best source of information on the subject that I am aware of. I did a deep drive on http://LawnSite.com and shifted through its threads to "borrow" suggestions from knowledgeable independent operators who so generously share their experiences there.

These aren't paid consultants and they don't use PowerPoint, charts, graphs or fancy words to get their points across. They tell it like they've experienced it, which makes for real-world advice that's helpful and oftentimes entertaining.

http://Lawnsite.com, with more than 150,000 members, is the largest and most active online forum that landscape and lawn service professionals rely upon. Check it out. If you're not a member, become a member.

Let's start with the obvious. To make more money commercial mowing you either have to mow more, charge more or reduce your costs. If you can do all three you're on your way to becoming a mowing rock star. Admittedly, accomplishing all three is too tall to take on at a time. Indeed, of the three options, being able to charge more than what you local market will reasonably bear seems to be the biggest challenge, discussions on http://LawnSite.com suggest.

That leaves selling more work and doing whatever you can to maximize the time that you (or your crews) are cutting grass. This translates into spending less time behind the windshield of your service vehicle, and less time gassing up, repairing equipment, running back to the shop for parts or stopping for sodas between properties. When I say cutting grass, of course, I also mean trimming and edging. Let's start by discussing mowing efficiency - specifically all of those practical things that keep the blades whirring.

Actually, to get each work day off to a good start usually starts with what you do at the end of previous day's production. That's when smart operators clean and fuel their equipment, sharpen their blades and make sure their trailers are in order. Use an air compressor to blow off your mower(s) before washing and greasing them. Don't power wash them.

Before leaving your maintenance yard and after servicing each property, take a quick walk around your trailer to make sure that it's latched and that you're not forgetting something or leaving something loose or on a fender, such as your cell phone.

"Buy the best equipment that you possibly can, and the biggest trailer that you can afford," says LawnSite member Double D. He suggests that the well-equipped trailer should also carry a fire extinguisher, a first aid kit, extra blades, belts, extra pins, extra trimmer head, a new spark plug for each piece of equipment, a 12-volt quick starter and a spare tire. Another poster also suggested Fix-A-Flat, a portable air tank or a 12-volt compressor.

"I swear, mower tires are lined with magnets!" posts another longtime LawnSite member. The air tank or compressor also comes in handy to blow debris off the mower and its air cleaner between properties.

Once you and your crews are in production you want to keep producing. And, even if the day brings an unpleasant surprise or two (almost inevitable), you've done what you can to prepare for these emergencies and keep the blades spinning. This includes locking up your truck and any loose tools on your trailers. They have a habit of 'walking away' when you're busy on a property.

And don't forget taking care of yourself and your crews either. On hot summer days stock an ice chest with water on your trailers. Are you using sunblock, and also, hopefully, keeping insect repellent handy?

"Pay yourself first," advises Eslawns, Portsmouth, Va., "No, I don't mean salary. I mean 10 to 15 percent off the top. Don't convince yourself you can't afford to. You can't afford not to."

When Only the Best Will Do



While mowers fueled by "clean" diesel aren't getting the same press as EFI and propane mowers, they, too, offer substantial fuel savings.
Photo courtesy of Grasshopper.

Your long-term success as a mowing contractor requires that you use the most reliable and productive equipment that you can afford to give you an edge over competitors, either established operators or newcomers who don't understand their costs, says Ray Garvey, marketing coordinator, Grasshopper.

"New lawn care companies may enter the market annually, but unless they do their homework and invest in commercial-grade, minimal-downtime, fuel-efficient equipment, more experienced lawn care contractors can win contracts and prosper season after season," he adds.

Mower manufacturers, working in a business environment every bit as competitive as yours, realize this and are constantly innovating, upgrading and adding to their offerings. (Turf magazine will be reporting extensively about the features and benefits of all of the new mowing products being unveiled at the 2013 GIE+EXPO.)

High-end commercial-grade mowers come in most of the colors of the rainbow, in various sizes (mowing widths) and in a handful of very different configurations. The most popular are the zero-turn mowers, which are available as mid-mount, front-mount and stand-on units. It's estimated that mowers in the 54- to 60-inch cutting range make up about 80 percent of the professional market.

But, let's not forget those nifty relatively new 30-inch-cut trim mowers and the larger walk-behind units that are often equipped with sulkies.

Right mower, right job

Each mower type and size has its advantages, depending upon your unique service strategy and the properties (residential, commercial, industrial, government) that you mow. Some are better suited for sloped properties, such as Cub Cadet's new steering wheel zero-turns, while others offer a superior cut on undulating properties where Lastec's articulating mowers come to mind. Finally, some applications, such as highway rights of way or large industrial properties, require a large PTO-driven mower that's pulled behind a tractor.

As if you aren't challenged enough by the incredible variety of professional-grade mowers, you're now also confronted with a growing number of fuel choices. While gasoline-powered mowers still comprise 85 percent of the commercial mowing market, diesel remains an attractive alternative for some, propane continues to grow in popularity and battery-powered mowers are starting to be manufactured and promoted as commercial units.

While the trades have done a good job pointing out the cost savings associated with propane fuel, and the fuel and cost savings arising from the adoption of mowers with electronic fuel-injected engines (and more recently with EFI engines fueled by propane), they've been a bit remiss on reporting on the long-term fuel and cost savings offered by diesel-fueled mowers.

Apart from dramatically reduced emissions because of ultra-low sulphur ("clean") diesel, diesel-fueled mowers can realistically cut contractors' fuel costs in half, says Garvey. Grasshopper and other major mower manufacturers offer heavy-duty mowers with diesel engines.

Do the math

The fuel savings arising from propane, EFI and diesel all come with a higher up-front cost, of course, so it's up to each of you to measure mowers and fuel options one against the others in terms of price, cost of operation and performance.

Selecting the "right" mower (or mix of mowers) that allows you to mow as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible as your mix of properties allows (and still meet your customers' expectations) can save you thousands of dollars over the course of a season. That's money in your pocket or to grow your business.

Base your mower choices on durability, reliability, productivity, operator comfort and ease of use, service and support and the lowest possible costs of operation. Think long term, says everybody interviewed for this article.

Daryn Walters, director of marketing at Exmark Manufacturing, says his company follows an "evolutionary rather than revolutionary" process when developing new products. He says his company recognizes that mowing pros are practical and conservative and that they purchase mowers based on a "prove-it-to-me" attitude. In other words, you can expect to see continued innovation in liquid-fueled, rotary-bladed equipment into the foreseeable future, continued improvement to technologies you've already come to trust.

An example, says Walters, is the industry's acceptance this season of his firm's Lazer Z X-Series zero-turn mowers with the RED on-board intelligence platform. Sales of the units exceeded company expectations in 2013, its rollout year. The RED-equipped, E-GOV (electronic governor) Kohler EFI-powered mowers in 60- and 72-inch cutting widths debuted at the 2012 GIE+EXPO.



Exmark says that it will begin offering its RED E-Gov technology on its Lazer Z S-Series mowers as well as its X-Series units.
Photo courtesy of Exmark.

Walters says the technology eliminates governor drop and maintains engine RPM and blade speed under varying conditions, which improves fuel efficiency up to 25 percent without reducing cut quality. It also offers system monitoring that tracks engine temperature and oil pressure. If it senses that either exceeds a critical range, threatening a catastrophic engine failure, it puts the machine in "safe transport," which allows the operator to drive the unit back to the trailer for servicing.

"What we're doing in that regard (RED) is dramatically different," says Walters, adding that Exmark will begin offering the same technology on Lazer Z S-Series mowers.

Frank Nuss has been with Excel Industries (Hustler and Bad Boy mowers) for more than 25 years. One of the biggest changes he's seen during his tenure with the Hesston, Kan.-based mower manufacturer is the improvement in the supply chain that mower manufacturers rely upon.

"We've come a long way in terms of the development of hydraulics and other components developed specifically for commercial mowers," says Nuss. "A manufacturer is only as strong as its supply chain."

Bigger and faster

Nuss says that for the past few years what he's hearing from just about every contractor is that they want to do more with less. That trend is driving the growing popularity of bigger, faster mowers.

Not surprisingly, Excel is responding with the Hustler Super 104, the first product in what Nuss describes as "a new category" in the commercial mowing market. The Super 104 features an air-cooled Kawasaki X1000 engine, 104-inch cutting width, Hyper-Drive System and hydraulic wing deck, among other features. The company is promoting this unit as an affordable wide-area mower with the maneuverability of a zero-turn.

"Contractors can replace two or three traditional zero-turns with this mower and have less maintenance to perform, too," says Nuss. He adds that the unit, with its wings in the up position, fits easily on a large landscape trailer.

The unit carries a pretty hefty price tag, he admits, but Nuss maintains that price is becoming less of an issue with experienced contractors who run successful, profitable companies. What they want is durability, reliability and the ability to get onto and off of properties as efficiently as possible. They've learned that in the long run productivity keeps them ahead of the crowd.

"The contractors that have been in the business for a while, the guys with a little grey in their hair aren't dinkin around with the cheap stuff," says Nuss. "They know that if they can count on their mower to give them reliability and speed, a couple of mile per hour over the cheaper unit, they'll make more money."

Multiple features

John Deere's Jamie Palmer points to three main innovations these past few years that he feels will help you mow more efficiently and make more money.

"The first, which is a John Deere exclusive, is Mulch-On-Demand. By making it possible for an operator to switch from mulching to side discharge mowing with the flip of a lever, the operator can keep clippings from going places clippings don't need to go," says Palmer, the company's commercial mowing product manager.



Mowers equipped with John Deere's Mulch-on-Demand feature keep clippings from going where they shouldn't go.
Photo courtesy John Deere.

"The second is the advent of closed-loop electronic fuel injection. Yielding up to 25 percent fuel economy than carbureted engines, electronic fuel injection, very similar to automobile systems, has become available to zero-turn mowers," he adds.

Third, Palmer touts the availability of Parts Onsite, another company exclusive that's offered by some of its dealers. He says it maximizes uptime by offering to stock replacement parts on customers' sites, "so there's no downtime waiting on parts such as blades, belts, filters and other consumables."

What does future commercial mower development look like, and what does it mean to your success as a contractor? In a word it looks good. Innovation is ongoing reports every person we contacted for this article.

"Future product innovations will address changing workforce demographics, which include an aging workforce, tighter labor supply and thus a need for more robust and efficient equipment," says Garvey. "We examine the equipment characteristics that empower a single employee to be the most efficient, productive worker he or she can be."

He adds, "We foresee near-term innovations such as drive systems that require no maintenance - not even an oil change - for up to 1,000 hours and ergonomic operator stations that include multi-point suspension systems for all-day comfort and productivity. Gains in fuel economy are a given, but we'll couple them with increased productivity to make them truly sustainable."

Another LawnSite member suggests keeping a three-ring binder in every truck with your emergency contact information on the first page. His binders also include numbers for his insurance company and copies of Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) along with copies of the driver's licenses and medical cards for all of his authorized drivers. Finally, he's also recorded a description and serial numbers of all of the equipment in his truck and on his trailers.

Customer care tips

"This is also a good spot to keep a price list or other 'ballpark' quote guides for your on-site staff to look at," he writes. "Every employee that might come in contact with a customer or prospect should have some sales literature at hand."

The LawnSite member also creates a log sheet for each client. It specifies exactly what he and his employees will be performing at each location, customer contact information and the client's billing schedule. It also includes items to watch out for at each property, such as locking or closing gates, sprinkler heads, pets and specific customer requests on services such as trimming and pruning.

LawnSite member Homer reminds everyone to keep their mouths "in check" when their servicing clients' properties.

"Nothing like spitting out a flurry of cuss words to look over your shoulder and see them standing there," shares Homer. "It doesn't sound very professional for customers to hear inappropriate things."

Enjoy the good, prepare for the bad

Finally, realize that there is never a "new normal," a cliché that reared its annoying head in the wake of The Great Recession of 2008-2009. Recognize that the economy and the industry are constantly evolving, and that you must adapt to these changes.

To that point, the Recession, now several years removed, awakened the industry to the necessity of generating reoccurring revenue. That realization (which was staring the industry in the face all along) put the spotlight on commercial mowing's importance as a revenue generator.

The U.S. business cycle is characterized by good times and not-so-good times. These are easy to identify in our landscape/lawn service industry, especially after the fact. Optimism reigned during the good times, such as 2003-2007. Then came the housing and construction bust, and the resulting credit crunch.

The severe downturn punished the cash poor, the overly optimistic, the over-extended and the inefficient. It removed the weak and the marginal service operations. In a sense, it culled the herd. That's not a bad thing for the industry and not for you either if you're knowledgeable and versatile.

Each economic downturn forces each of us to revisit and to examine our business practices, products and service offerings. And it often offers established companies, efficient companies (smart, entrepreneurial newcomers, as well) new opportunities.

"Appreciate the good years and prepare for the lean ones. Thank God for all that you have," posts ESLawns.

"Oh ya, hug your wife and kids every day before you leave and tell them you love them," adds Homer.

Ron Hall is editor-in-chief of Turf magazine and has been an editor, researcher and writer in the green industry for more than 29 years. Contact him at rhall@mooserivermedia.com.