NORTH FEATURES


Father & Son Team Up for Success

Massachusetts-based The GroundsKeeper builds upon 16 years of growth
By Tom Crain


The GroundsKeeper, Inc.

Owners: Dick Churchill, president, and Brian Churchill, vice president

Founded: 1994

Headquarters: Ashland, Mass.

Markets: Boston's Metro West

Services: Lawn care and landscape maintenance, irrigation, landscape management, and snow and ice removal

Employees: 35

Website: www.groundsinc.com

The GroundsKeeper puts an interesting spin on the familiar father/son landscaping business model we all know. In this particular case, the son is the founder of the company and the father is a partner. The son provides the young energy and the father the business experience. The son is the landscape pro and the father is the snow removal manager.

However, this formula seems to be working just fine.

The Ashland, Mass.-based company experienced its highest revenues last year and has been growing steadily for 16 years. It's even developing a five-year plan to fully double revenues.

It all began when Brian Churchill started mowing his neighbors' lawns at age 12. When he was 15, he bought a truck, trailer, Bunton mowers and a couple backpacks. He didn't have his driver's license yet, so he had to hire one of his crew with a license to drive him around. This went on for a year.

When he graduated from high school, Brian attended the Stockbridge School at UMass Amherst, but kept his seasonal landscaping business going. Eventually he earned a degree in landscaping.

Working in the high-tech industry for 25 years, his father, Dick, after hours, served as his son's bookkeeper. His goal was to leave the high-tech world and move into the landscaping business with his son. However, he didn't want to jump right in. "Even though Brian wanted me to go into business with him once he graduated, I wasn't certain that mowing lawns could support two families," recalls Dick.

Since the son's residential mowing business didn't yet make enough money to support both of the families, Dick bought a local, three-truck commercial maintenance company that offered snow removal services. He ran it on his own the first year while Brian continued to service residential customers. The second year, the father and son team took a leap of faith and joined the two businesses together under The GroundsKeeper name. It wasn't very long before the business started to flourish.

"We divided up duties, primarily by me taking on the non-physical inside work including finances, AR/AP and marketing as president/COO," explains Dick. "Brian took on all the outside work, such as fleet maintenance, crew management and operations as vice president. That way, we managed more easily to stay out of each other's hair."

Dick Churchill, left, and his son Brian work well together. Dick handles much
of the administration and finances, while Brian manages operations, the
equipment and crews.
Click photo to enlarge.

Dick Churchill, left, and his son Brian work well together. Dick handles much of the administration and finances, while Brian manages operations, the equipment and crews.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE GROUNDSKEEPER, INC.

The rule around the Groundskeeper's headquarters is for the Churchills to maintain the inside/outside split in duties. Dick runs the office while Brian runs field operations. They both have been quite successful in partitioning the family from the business. "I think the father-son trust is important in our business relationship, and we have managed to keep the business issues at work and home issues at home," says Dick.

High-tech reports

In a competitive market where the big boys out-muscle the little guys, The GroundsKeeper stays in the game by being nimble and offering excellent service. On its home turf in Boston's I-495 corridor, a wide swath from Rhode Island to New Hampshire and Worcester to Boston, it's known for its meticulous precision on the job site and detailed reports provided to its clients. These detailed reports are made possible through a customized software program developed by Dick. No other landscaper or snow removal company has this type of detailed reporting program available. He leaned on his high-tech expertise to develop this unique system.

Nowhere is the process better demonstrated than with the company's snow and ice removal services.

When storms move in, area managers remain on-site to log in all of their workers, recording all movements and operations of their snow trucks and equipment. Within 24 hours a detailed report is generated that includes such actions as pay tickets for each crewmember, what equipment was used and how many pounds of salt and chemicals were dispensed. This report is made available to all customers as well as the management team.

Dick was motivated to come up with a better billing and tracking system during snowstorms when he was called in to run a salt truck during a major storm that dumped more than 100 inches of snow in the Boston area.

The GroundsKeeper uses a proprietary tablet computer app (the Salt
Logger) developed by Dick Churchill to streamline billing and tracking
during snow events.
Click photo to enlarge.

The GroundsKeeper uses a proprietary tablet computer app (the Salt Logger) developed by Dick Churchill to streamline billing and tracking during snow events.

"Filling out the paperwork and trying to keep track of the salting operation by hand was both time-consuming and aggravating," explains Dick. "I started to think there was a way that an in-truck computer would be helpful, so I started working on a touchscreen tablet computer app that I dubbed Salt Logger. Today, the Salt Logger computers are installed in six of our salt trucks."

Churchill worked with the engineers who built the Air-Flo spreader controller to have the Salt Logger computer control the salter, too. This makes the in-truck operation even more streamlined. He is currently looking into also creating a customized software program for summer landscaping maintenance work, including fertilizer spreading and irrigation.

Staying local

The GroundsKeeper has a standard crew of about 35
employees, 40 percent of which have been with the company
for five years or more.
Click photo to enlarge.

The GroundsKeeper has a standard crew of about 35 employees, 40 percent of which have been with the company for five years or more.
Another tactic to corral new business and keep the reigns on old business is for The GroundsKeeper to capitalize on its local and family-owned characteristics. "Our customers know our reputation means everything to us," says Dick. "Any of our customers can call and almost immediately get to someone who actually knows what is going on with their account. That's not so easily done with a national or regional company."

He also points out that, "While transparency is clearly something that our customers want, transparency at the nationals is defined as 'their' reports. We certainly have 'our' reports, but can (and do) change them to meet the specific needs of the customer. If we bid a job and mess it up during the bidding, then we eat it. We never go back to the client and discuss money. Again, not so easily done in a national or regional company."

Another edge that The GroundsKeeper believes wins over the commercial client is credentialing.

The Churchills urge their field managers to earn industry certification. They're convinved that it shows
their company is willing to go the extra step and is committed to providing the highest level service.
Click photo to enlarge.

The Churchills urge their field managers to earn industry certification. They're convinved that it shows their company is willing to go the extra step and is committed to providing the highest level service.

"Most of our clients representing the commercial owner and manager are certified in their own industry so they relate to certified contractors and understand the value," explains Dick. "We believe that knowledge and awareness of industry issues is critical to delivering a good product. An individual who is certified has demonstrated a willingness to go that extra step, and that is what is important to our clients."

Brian is both MCLP-certified in landscaping and ASCA-certified in snow removal. Dick is ASCA-certified. The GroundsKeeper already has MCLPs and MCAs along with certified landscape designers, certified snow professionals, certified horticulturists and certified pesticide applicators on staff. Even though it's quite a major expense, the company is committed to getting its account managers, as well as maintenance foremen, landscape-certified.

Providing certification training is also one of the many ways The GroundsKeeper maintains a high retention rate for its professional team. The Churchills are all too well aware of how first level laborers are treated so poorly by their competitors, and they refuse to do it that way.

"We have a standard crew of about 35 right now," says Dick. "Forty percent of them have been with us for five years or more. We work at loyalty from different levels, starting with an accurate paycheck every week, 50 percent of the season ensuring some overtime, and guarantee year-round employment to all of our foremen."

Company challenges

The biggest challenge is managing growth. The company tries to stay ahead of the curve so that its field crews have adequate equipment and aren't overbooked. It is striving to develop business systems to handle the increasing administrative needs and generate accurate financial reports in expenditures, profit/loss and ROI.

Currently, The GroundsKeeper's primary business is maintenance and its primary customers are businesses and large apartment complexes and condos. It does, however, maintain a small single-family residential base that Brian developed since he was 12 years old.

Last year, The GroundsKeeper expanded into bid work for landscape construction and is moving into the commercial buildings/campus sector. Snow and ice removal contributes to over 50 percent of its revenues. The mix has been top heavy towards snow, but the company is working diligently to even out the revenue between summer and winter business.

For the past 20 years, Tom Crain, based in Akron, Ohio, has been a regular contributor to B2B publications, including many in the green industry. You can contact him at tecrain@goingreenguy.com.