The TruGreen story fascinates me. I have been reporting on the company for the past 30 years. Admittedly, the announcement this past December that TruGreen was merging with Scotts LawnService surprised me… but not by much.
After a tough couple of years, TruGreen began turning its fortunes around again these past two years. That shouldn’t be surprising, given the improving U.S. economy, and fact that the company and its parent company, ServiceMaster, divorced in January 2014. This meant the owners of the newly independent company could focus solely on its health. The fact is, TruGreen had to improve it.
One way for it to grow again was to buy other companies. This past year TruGreen returned to acquisition mode, snapping up four well-respected, independent lawn care companies prior to announcing the Scotts LawnService deal this past mid December.
That’s primarily how TruGreen has grown these past 25 years—through acquisitions. The company’s recent merger with Scotts LawnService prompted one poster on Turf magazine’s popular LawnSite forum to comment “If you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em.” Accurate or not, TruGreen’s 2.3 million customers and $1.3 billion in revenues (once it folds in the Scotts business) seem to have been built largely on acquisitions these past 20-plus years.
In 1992 TruGreen, a subsidiary of ServiceMaster, gobbled up industry leader ChemLawn. The resulting company, renamed TruGreen-ChemLawn, boasted 1.5 million customers and $450 million in revenue, reported the Wall Street Journal at the time.
Four years later, ServiceMaster purchased Columbus, Ohio-based Barefoot Inc., then the second largest lawn care company in the United States. That acquisition gave TruGreen-ChemLawn about another 500,000 customers. At the time of the Barefoot acquisition in 1996, TruGreen-ChemLawn numbered 2.5 million customers with more than $550 million in revenues, said the Columbus Business Journal. (In a strange twist given the recent TruGreen/Scotts LawnService deal, Barefoot was actually a 1975 spinoff of Scotts Co.)
Assuming the WSJ and the CBJ reported accurately, while TruGreen will have more than doubled the revenue by merging with Scotts LawnService, the number of customers it will be serving this coming season appears to be fewer than the mid 1990s after brought ChemLawn and Barefoot into its fold. And this includes customers added to its total after it purchased many other much smaller independent lawn care companies.
In recent years I’ve wondered just how much organic growth the professional lawn application industry is experiencing from year to year.
Is homebuilding activity across the United States robust enough to generate a healthy percentage of new lawn care customers? Are lawn care companies growing primarily by acquiring other companies? Or, relying upon salesmanship and superior service, to snag other company’s customers?
But, let’s get back to the TruGreen/Scotts LawnService, which may be the only company, given its footprint across most of the United States, who can answer that question accurately.
Scotts Miracle-Gro is receiving a cash distribution from the joint venture of about $200 million. It will also keep a stake of about 30 percent in the new business. An investment fund managed by Clayton, Dubilier & Rice will remain TruGreen’s majority shareholder.
The Memphis Commercial Appeal reports the merger of the two companies may eventually result in a public stock offering. In the event of an IPO, Scotts Miracle-Gro has the option to participate or retain its minority ownership positions.
The success of the merger (and the possibility of a big payoff to investors via an IPO) will depend upon many factors, some of which the new company’s management can’t control. These include the weather. Unfavorable spring weather can cause serious service delays and challenge lawn care companies to give customers an acceptable level of weed control. Drought in major markets is always a concern, as well. Many customers in the lawn-rich Midwest and East do not have irrigation systems.
Then there’s the economy, of course. While most green industry service providers, coming off of two strong years in a row, expect consumer demand to remain strong at least for the next couple of years. But that’s never a gimme, for those of you whose memories don’t go back to 2008.