Sweet Ride in a Great Industry
Terry Kurth reflects on Weed Man and his long career in lawn care
1970 in Mississauga, OntarioBegins franchising:
The late Desmond " Des" RiceTurf Holdings, Inc.:
U.S. Weed Man franchisingEstablished:
1995 by Roger Mongeon, CEO, master franchisor Weed Man U.S. locationsWeed Man Madison (Wis.):
Co-owners Terry and Andy KurthFounded
Madison, Wis., and surrounding communitiesServices
Residential lawn fertilization and pest control servicesWebsite http://madison.weedmanusa.com
Terry Kurth, director of development for U.S. operations for the Weed Man Lawn Care investment group, remembers one of the accounts he was calling the day he was in the hospital with his wife awaiting the arrival of their first child, working to get his first business, a Barefoot Grass Lawn Service franchise, off on the right foot.
That was back in 1978, and even today much of Kurth's long-term success stems from his continuing commitment to customer service.
Kurth is one of those people who are always planning a step or two ahead, dating back to the days when a soils professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison turned his interest from agriculture to turf management. After graduation, he accepted what he thought would be his dream job, a golf course superintendent. The only problem was that it offered little room for advancement, and within a couple of years he was looking elsewhere.
"I had always respected the [Marysville, Ohio-based] Scotts Company, and they had some openings for sales reps," Kurth explains. "I applied, but instead I was contacted by their Pro Turf Institute to go out and give seminars around the country."
Doing presentations to golf course superintendents and lawn contractors, Kurth says he learned a great deal. However, the travel became old, and what he calls "a little bit of entrepreneurial spirit" began to kick in.
He also found himself moonlighting for one of the Scotts marketing staff that was in the process of developing Barefoot Lawn Grass Service into a lawn care franchise.
"At that point, I thought maybe it's time to come home, start a family and start a new business," Kurth says. "At the end of February 1978, I started one of the first franchises of Barefoot Grass."
Those phone calls from unexpected places led to a big payoff for the young business owner. Less than 20 years later, Kurth owned Barefoot franchises in Madison, Appleton and Green Bay, Wis.; Lexington, Ky.; and Peoria, Ill., and enjoyed annual sales of more than $3 million.
However, the sale of Barefoot to the TruGreen Company left Kurth set financially but effectively retired while still in his 40s, a situation neither he nor his wife, Kathy, found acceptable.
"She said, 'I married you for better or for worse, but not for lunch,'" he relates.
Fortunately, he had an ace in the hole in the Oshawa, Ontario-based Weed Man.
"Weed Man was looking to come to the United States, but the founder didn't want to deal with the legalese of setting it all up, so a fellow by the name of Roger Mongeon bought the master rights for his holding company," says Kurth. "Mongeon is the biggest holder of Weed Man franchises in Canada, and he flew me to Toronto and we came up with the idea of sub-franchising."
For the three years of his non-compete clause, Kurth worked at selling regional franchises for Weed Man. At the end of that period, though, he was back setting up his own Madison-area franchise, as well.
Why a Weed Man franchise when Kurth readily admits he probably could have been successful starting on his own with something called Terry's Lawn Care Service?
There are several reasons he joined Weed Man, starting with their systems, volume buying power and synergies of marketing, he explains.
"Right now, there are roughly 110 Weed Man franchises around the country, and any and all of them will pretty much bare their souls to each other because we're not competitors," he says. "Plus, Weed Man has been around for more than 40 years, and while people spend a lot of money on consultants every year, Weed Man franchisees have us as in-house consultants with proven track records."
Today, Kurth sells and mentors Weed Man franchises in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin and the northern 40 percent of Illinois, including Chicago, and he has franchises in Madison, Appleton, Green Bay and Milwaukee, Wis., as well as Rockford, Ill.
Additionally, he's a minority shareholder in the Minneapolis franchise, and plans are in the works to open a Chicago franchise overseen by a Kurth-trained manager. His son, Andy, who serves as general manager, handles much of the day-to-day operation of the franchises.
Andy has his own UW degree in agronomy and turf management, and at 30, his father says he's already got a dozen years experience in the business.
"In our particular market, we play up that strength," Kurth says. "We combine that with quality products and the way we teach and train and try to develop our people and hire to a caring attitude. That's what we feel are some of the keys to our success."
Hiring great people is where it really starts, not just in the Weed Man locations away from Madison, but even locally, where Kurth says many accounts don't know him. To them, the company is the voice on the phone and it's the tech servicing their lawn.
"Employees have to share our core values and culture," he says. "Part of our branding is based around promises kept. I'm a consumer, too, and it bothers me when someone makes a promise they can't keep."
As part of that, new employees are asked to sign a sheet with the company's core values, which follow the acronym Promises Kept, and Kurth says if there is a problem and an employee has to be disciplined, they're reminded that they signed off on those values.
The company also works hard to keep its employees.
"There's no question that money is a motivator," he says. "But, if you're respected in the workplace, if you're challenged, if you're learning something and you feel you're bettering yourself as you move forward within a company, that's big, too."
A case in point: several employees who were instrumental in helping the company recover from damage caused by the application of the now recalled Imprelis herbicide received large-screen TVs as rewards.
Kurth believes in turning bad situations into positive ones through proactive efforts. His quality handling of a product contamination situation in his Barefoot Grass days earned the company recognition from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Connecticut Mutual Insurance when they awarded him the Blue Chip Enterprise Award.
"At the end of the year, when things were kind of fixed, we personally dropped off a 10-pound box of steaks at the home of a retired executive along with a note saying, 'I hope this leaves a good taste in your mouth for Barefoot Lawn Care Service,'" Kurth says. "I got a note back saying, 'The way you handled this should be taught in business classes, and the steaks at the end were the gild on the lily.'"
Weed Man's revenues exceeded $100 million in 2011, growing by more than 4 percent. Founded near Toronto by the late Desmond "Des" Rice in 1970, Weed Man took off when Roger Mongeon began U.S. franchising and attracted pros, such as Terry Kurth.
That episode might not have made it into his alma mater's business classes, but these days the Kurths are having an impact in the UW agronomy program, having provided the seed money that, coupled with some industry dollars and funds from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, has endowed the Terry and Kathleen Kurth Wisconsin Distinguished Turf Grass Graduate Fellowship.
"I'm a believer that you can't give back, so you try to pay forward," Kurth says. "We have some beautiful lakes here, but runoff and the phosphorous issue became a big thing. My thought was we do a lot of research at the university, but we really don't talk about the value of turf enough. This way we're able to pay for books, tuition and some of the research for a master's degree candidate."
Although he describes himself as 30 percent retired, Kurth remains active in a host of industry organizations, from the Mid-America Horticultural Board to the Wisconsin Green Industry Federation.
With seven grandchildren and vacation homes in northern Wisconsin and in Alberta, Canada, it might be tempting to retire a little bit more fully, but Kurth doesn't seem at all tempted - at least yet. A big part of that is his attachment to the industry and the people in it.
"There's a feeling of community and camaraderie within this great green industry that's hard to beat," he concludes. "It's hard to leave it because it's extremely comfortable and extremely challenging, and that's a nice combination.
"If I dropped over tomorrow, there are no regrets. I've done more than I ever dreamed I'd have as an 18-year-old, and I count my blessings every day."
K. Schipper is a writer and editor specializing in B2B publishing. She is a partner in Word Mechanics, based in Palm Springs, Calif. Contact her at email@example.com.