NORTH FEATURES


Green, Growing and Successful

Blades of Green stays nimble to meet clients' changing needs
By Debbie Clayton




Company founder Mark Leahy, left, with is brother, Brad, who joined the company in 1999 and now heads its Pest Control division.
Photo courtesy Blades of Green.

Mark Leahy, 43, started in the green industry as a kid mowing lawns. By the time he was 16, and a high school student at Southern High School in Anne Arundel Country, Md., he was cutting 80 lawns a week. After high school he attended the University of Maryland where he studied turf management.

In 1989, Leahy founded Blades of Green in tiny Hardwood, Md., which is essentially a crossroads just south of Annapolis. He's been working diligently to build his company's footprint in Maryland and its reputation for consistent, customer-pleasing service ever since.

Blades of Green

Founder and President: Mark Leahy

Founded: 1989

Headquarters: Harwood, Md.

Markets: Anne Arundel County and surrounding communities and counties

Services:Landscape installation, lawn care, tree & shrub care, bed weed control, bagworm control, mole control, flea & tick control, aeration and overseeding, renovation/power seeding, disease control, organic lawn care and pest control (ants, spiders, crickets and "other creepy crawlers")

Employees: 32

Website: http://www.bladesofgreen.com

Blades of Green technicians service lawn care and pest control clients in nine of the state's 24 counties. Leahy tries to keep of his customers within an hour drive of his office. Maryland is a small state but the traffic, because of nearby Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, can be brutal. Many of Blades of Green's clients work for the federal government or are government-related contractors or their employees.

Leahy says that when he sensed the U.S. economy going into the tank in 2008 he immediately cranked up his company's marketing and advertising efforts. He credits that decision with keeping his company growing. Even so, he says that he's gradually getting out of landscaping and mowing to concentrate on lawn care and pest control.

Leahy says he become interested in adding pest control services to his company while attending a lawn care/pest control conference about six years ago.

"The speaker at the conference said that if you can operate a lawn care company, with all of its uncertainties and complications, adding pest control, by comparison, will seem easy," recalls Leahy. Very much aware of the increasing regulatory scrutiny being directed at lawn care in his market and also realizing that the fickleness of Mother Nature, Leahy became more and more convinced that pest control was something he wanted to add as a service.

Challenges a'plenty

"Our market is a strong market for lawn care, but it's also one of the toughest parts of the country to grow grass," says Leahy. Every year brings unique challenges to customers' lawns. This season 16 straight days with measurable rain caused serious disease issues on many lawns. Red thread, brown patch, pythium and dollar spot - name it and it probably showed up at one time or another this season on clients' lawns.

If you can keep turfgrass green and healthy through Maryland's hot, humid summers, he reasons, why not offer pest control services, too?

So, some months after the aforementioned lawn care/pest control conference he began discussions with Neal Blackwell to purchase Blackwell Pest Control in nearby Upper Marlboro. While the two men couldn't come to an agreement initially, eventually they did and Blackwell Pest Control became a part of Blades of Green.

Experienced managers

"The valuable part of that deal was having Neal Blackwell. He's been in the pest control business for 27 years, and we're very fortunate to have his knowledge that we can count on to train us," says Leahy.

He says the biggest day-to-day challenge he faces is finding enough people, like himself, who don't mind putting in a full day's work with an eye to someday getting ahead in the industry.

"This is a tough labor market," says Leahy. "We're always looking for great people, technicians and managers. But, it's sometimes hard to hire people in this region who are willing to work through the season. We hired 10 people this spring, and we hired another five recently."

While Leahy sees being able to acquire good frontline employees as one of his company's biggest challenges, being able to retain good managers may be one of its greatest strengths, as evidenced by the addition of Blackwell.



Alan Dufoe of FMC, left, and Blades of Green Lawn Care Manager Kimberly Bohn examine a beautiful lawn that's been treated with Solitaire herbicide.
Photo by FMC.

Mark's younger brother, Brad Leahy, after graduating from Highpoint University, joined him in 1999. Initially, Brad, took on most of the responsibility for landscape design and installation, but now heads the Pest Control division.

Another valuable member of the Blades of Green team is Kimberly Bohn, who joined the company almost five years ago. Bohn has navigated her own path through the turf industry. A part-time job at a local golf course during high school led her to pursue a four-year turf management degree from Penn State University and become an assistant golf course superintendent right out of school. It was interesting and challenging, but she wanted something different.

"I did a bit of soul searching and decided to go into sales with LESCO, which is now John Deere Landscapes," says Bohn, who subsequently worked in three JDL locations in Maryland. "I enjoyed that aspect of the business very much and learned a whole lot about fertilizer and control products, particularly what works and what doesn't."

Ten years later, a client - Mark Leahy - convinced her to make another change: In 2009 she became Blades of Green's lawn care manager.

"In the last four years, I've done a little bit of everything," says Bohn. "When I started, I was out in the field a lot more. But we've hired five new technicians and five new office staff. Now I'm focused more on management and training."

The lawn care division handles mostly residential customers, offering a five-step lawn care program, as well as tree and shrub care, flea and tick control, deer reduction service and mosquito control.

Full-service lawn care

"We can also add grub control, lime treatments and ant control for any lawn care customer," she explains. "And we offer custom lawn care programs with organic options to customers with special needs."

Training forms the backbone of Blades of Green's lawn care group. Bohn holds an intensive training session at the beginning of each of five rounds, in addition to weekly sessions on Tuesday mornings as a refresher for the current round and to cover any new issues.

This year, those issues included major chickweed problems in Round One and Round Two, when Blades of Green applies preemergence herbicides and liquid fertilizer.

Another problem during that timeframe was red thread. "We don't apply a fungicide for red thread, opting instead to use nitrogen to push the disease through," Bohn adds. "But this year, heavy rains flushed out the nitrogen, so we had more red thread than we normally would have had based on these weather conditions."

Round Three issues usually include nutsedge, ground ivy and crabgrass breakthroughs. But Bohn began using Solitaire herbicide about three years ago and now obtains excellent postemergence weed control.

She says the product controls nutsedge, violets, clover, dandelion and "just about any weed problem we get at that time of year." She adds that having the ability to treat with one product in one tank makes her and the company's technician's lives "a lot easier."

Getting the application done at the time technicians are on the property is a major key to success, Bohn stresses.

"With Solitare, we don't have to mix two or more products, just put one product into the tank and go," she adds. "We'll use it through fall as a spot spray. I've noticed violet populations decline significantly on many of our lawns since we started using Solitare."

Rounds Four and Five involve phosphorus-free fertilizer applications and lime treatments to adjust soil pH. A new Maryland fertilizer law dictates all treatments be completed by Dec. 1 this year. "It will make it more of a challenge getting our last round finished in time, but I'm sure we can handle it," she says.

Now more heavily involved in designing programs and customizing applications, Bohn spends about 60 percent of her time in the office. When she does outside property visits, it's generally for quality control and technician evaluations.

"But I still go out and spray when needed," she adds. "After all, working with turf is why I got into this business to begin with."

Debbie Clayton is an experienced writer who has participated in and reported on the green industry and its issues for more than 25 years. Additional reporting by Ron Hall, editor-in-chief, Turf magazine.