From the Ashes of the Great Recession
South Carolina's Great Lawns of Georgetown finds success in tough economy
The Team. Holding the sign: Abraham Hinojosa Sr., left, and Ron Cox. Standing (l. to r.): Abraham Hinojosa Jr., Vern Gary, Enrique Diaz, John Kozalas, Michael Pavao, Jay Tisday, Peter Stevens, James Chavez and Malik Canteen.
Photos courtesy of Great Lawns of Georgetown.
In 2008, the worst financial crisis to hit the United States since the Great Depression forced Harmony Township in Georgetown, S.C., into bankruptcy. Peter Stevens, a native of Zimbabwe, was employed by Harmony Township. He and Michael Pavao negotiated for the subdivision's property maintenance equipment in lieu of back pay and entered the property maintenance business for themselves, naming their company Great Lawns of Georgetown.
"With that, we went out knocking on doors," says Stevens, adding that at that point, they only had one customer. "That is the most difficult thing I've ever done. You won't believe how many dogs bit us."
Great Lawns of Georgetown
Owners: Peter Stevens and Michael Pavao
Headquarters: Georgetown, S.C.
Markets: Georgetown, Pawleys Island and Litchfield, S.C.
Services: Mowing, edging, weeding, blowing, debris collection, shrub pruning, trimming, irrigation installation and repair; fertilization and chemical applications and tree consultation
Within five years of starting up, 50 percent of all businesses fail, according to U.S. Small Business Administration statistics. Yet, that would not be the fate of Great Lawns of Georgetown. Rather, the company has grown to 15 employees who provide landscape maintenance services to high-end properties, is soon to pass the half-million-dollar mark in revenues and is budgeting 22 percent growth for 2014.
The company's services include maintenance of properties, yards, lawns and gardens with mowing, edging, weed-eating, blowing and debris collection; planting bed maintenance with weeding, shrub pruning and trimming; irrigation installation and repair; fertilization and chemical applications for shrubs and turf with insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. The company also provides tree consultation services.
Stevens attributes his partnership with Pavao, along with hard work and persistence, with underscoring the ability to double the efforts entailed in a typical start-up.
As they entered the market, Stevens and Pavao found the same type of competitive environment common nationwide: as the real estate economy decreased, the number of people getting into landscape maintenance with a lawn mower and a truck increased. In their region, they're called "Chuck in a truck."
Stevens and Pavao definitely didn't want to be "Chucks in a truck."
Drought offers opportunity
"Our business model was as such that we decided we were going to start in Georgetown, a blue collar community, and move towards Pawleys Island, a higher-end community," says Pavao. "We hung flyers door to door and started to meet people. As time passed, we met some business owners, people in passing who gave us a shot. They referred us to other people and we grew."
Pavao says he and Stevens chose the name Great Lawns of Georgetown to associate the business with its service area.
"We wanted to make a statement with our name that what we were about is great lawns," he says. "Peter and I did some reading and we learned how to take a lawn from where it was to being great. In that particular time there was a drought. It may have been very difficult, but it was an opportunity because so many lawns were looking so bad.
"We convinced customers to do the fertilization when it was raining or projected to rain and we showed improvement in that. After a period of time, the results we achieved made the customers happy, so we built a certain trust. Then we expanded our skill set from there. Peter has been doing all of the schooling on that."
Stevens decided he would soak up all of the industry education and affiliated credentials he could. He became a landscape industry certified technician through PLANET, an ISA certified arborist, a state-licensed Category 3 chemical applicator, and a master gardener through Clemson University.
He also became a U.S. citizen.
Pavao's strength is administrative. He schedules the company's three crews. He and Steven each head up a crew and work in the field. Gerry Schumacher supervises the third crew. The company serves 113 customers.
Stevens and Pavao are not just business partners; they also are neighbors. Schumacher is also their neighbor. He joined the company after finding work as a master plumber and master electrician as a result of the Recession.
"It got Michael and I thinking that he'd fit perfectly as an irrigation specialist," Stevens says. Since Schumacher came on board, that newly added irrigation services "really took off," says Stevens.
"With his confidence in business, we saw the potential in him to be more than an irrigation specialist," Stevens adds. "Once he learned more about landscaping, he developed into our general manager. His skill set brings so much diversity, such as accent lighting."
When Schumacher suggested to a client that a live oak tree was the central feature of the property and that accent lighting would draw attention to it, the client agreed. "It looks beautiful and the homeowners are beside themselves," notes Stevens. It's indicative of the extra touches his company brings to clients.
You have to understand people, not just understand how to mow a lawn, says Co-owner Michael Pavao. This includes employees and clients.
Growing on their own
The business partners do not take their success for granted.
"It's a fickle business," Pavao notes. "Sometimes, somebody will drop you for a $5 cut in the mowing rate. We're constantly renewing. We're constantly growing. Our crews' skill base is growing. Our sales are growing, which is the most important thing.
"We've done all of this without getting any loans from banks, because in this time, you cannot get money from a bank. It's harrowing, but it's real rewarding. We're really proud of what we've done." The men pull only a small salary from the business and put most of the revenues back into the business to stimulate its growth.
Stevens opines that it's probably good that he and Pavao could not get loans to help start their business (family members did help). "We might have spent that money where it might not have been needed," he says.
Other factors that have propelled the company's growth include attention to detail and the willingness to perform tasks not typical of landscape companies, says Pavao.
"We have a fair number of customers who are older and have needs at this point in their lives," he says. "We've changed light bulbs. We've hung flags for people. We do all sorts of things that people who are older might need or people want a certain convenience that isn't generally considered landscaping. We do it anyway to help them out to keep a long-term personal relationship. We have quite a few customers who have been with us from the beginning.
"You have to understand people, not just understand how to mow a lawn," Pavao adds.
Image counts, too, Stevens points out. The firm's vehicles have signage, employees wear company uniforms and the company carefully maintains its equipment.
Safety procedures are another way in which Great Lawns of Georgetown seeks to distinguish itself.
"We see guys working for other companies in shorts, sometimes with no T-shirts and no safety glasses on. You just cringe when you see that," Stevens says. "We bring a lot of safety education to all of our employees. Equipment is the first thing we check when we're on a property."
Because of the challenges competing with low-price companies and Georgetown's 16 percent unemployment rate, getting a foothold in some areas has been difficult, admits Pavao.
"We've been forced to make very difficult decisions in our growth," he says. "You always try to expand your footprint, so you want to get a presence in the community. But if you only have one customer in that community and you have to drive 15 minutes to get to the community, you may decide after a period of time that it's just not worth doing that because it costs you money every time. Ultimately, you make the decision to abandon working for that particular community because you don't have the cash to stabilize yourself so you can build in that community."
For example, in one development the company services a client so wealthy the guesthouse he had constructed rivals his own house. His wealth reflects the general standard in the development. Even so, and after four years working on the property, Great Lawns of Georgetown has yet to add another customer in that development.
By contrast, in another high-end community, Great Lawns of Georgetown went from one customer to 18 in 13 months in another high-end community within its market area. "There doesn't seem to be a rhyme or reason to it. You have to be in the right area in the right time, say the right things, have the right presence, and follow-up. A little bit of charm never hurts," says Pavao, crediting his business partner for those clients.
Stevens' credentials help current and potential clients appreciate the benefit of doing business with someone who has industry knowledge about what treatments are effective and environmentally friendly, he points out.
"A lot of the time, they have no idea," Stevens points out. "Because it's been done a certain way - possibly incorrectly for a long time - a lot of homeowners think that's the right way to do it, which is not the case. We bring to them so many more up-to-date techniques that are the right way of doing things. We communicate those things to the customer to tell them why we're doing them when we're doing them."
The same holds true for irrigation.
"A lot of folks are overwatering and a lot of the time irrigation systems were installed into homes when they were brand new and the landscaping has matured. A lot of the shrubs don't need watering. A lot of the established azalea bushes and camellia shrubs don't need the same amount of water that a lawn does, so you have outdated irrigation systems," Stevens says.
"We try to educate our customers that if we re-position heads and focus zones, they could water your lawn significantly more in comparison to their established shrubs. For the most part, homeowners appreciate knowing that."
Cleanups and fix-ups
There is no down time during the year for the crews of Great Lawns of Georgetown. The company is busy in the fall with property cleanups, overseeding and mulching. Spring brings spring cleanups caused mostly by the shedding of the live oak trees.
Stevens says it's also apparent to him and Pavao that there had been poor landscape planning during the construction boom.
"I imagine a lot of contractors were racing to get these houses up and just throwing in the landscaping; we're seeing the results of that. There are homes in some subdivisions surrounded by very poorly-tended irrigation systems that are washing palmetto palms and lawns and some shrubs, so they're drowning one thing and under-watering the other thing," he says.
"A lot of thought was omitted because you have some shrubs that don't like as much sunlight and some that need sunlight. Convincing the homeowner that this is an issue and these are the consequences is another thing."
Stevens says he and Pavao are constantly looking to be creative and expand the business. That's why he obtained arborist certification through the International Society of Arboriculture.
"Someone may have a tree that's not looking well and the tree company shows up and says let's just cut it down as opposed to an arborist showing up and seeing what the problem is and trying to fix it with corrective pruning instead of just cutting it down," says Stevens.
Great Lawns of Georgetown deals exclusively with Husqvarna for its lawn maintenance equipment, which includes six zero-turn lawn mowers, enough weed-eaters and blowers for the entire crew, six heavy-duty hedge trimmers, edgers and chain saws.
The Husqvarna dealer enables Great Lawns of Georgetown to operate in part on credit, allowing the company to keep its cash flow going even. It also performs major repairs on the company's equipment and is generous is providing loaner equipment, Pavao says.Great Lawns of Georgetown performs its own minor and routine maintenance on the equipment.
Being a young company, it's essential that Great Lawns of Georgetown continually engages in marketing efforts. The most successful to date has been Angie's List. The vehicle signage has also been a marketing hit.
"You would not believe how many people have called us and said they saw our vehicle drive by and asked us to come to their yard and do an estimate," Pavao says.
Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.