Industry consultant Fred Haskett, head harvester with The Harvest Group, says that one of the biggest mistakes young contractors make when it comes to their buying strategy is just to buy the cheapest thing out there. It’s a trap that he also fell into 30 years ago when he was a young landscape contractor.

“You eventually learn that there are four key parts to the puzzle and those are price, durability, performance and the ability of your local dealer to support you,” Haskett says. “You must evaluate all four of those pieces before you determine whether something is a valuable buy. Price is just one piece of it.”

Price is also not as simple as what’s on the price tag as you must look at overall value, agrees Brian Schoenthaler of The Grasshopper Co. He says that a landscape contractor must aim to break down what the cost of the equipment will be from point of purchase through the entire lifespan of that piece. In other words, be realistic about what you’re going to get out of it.

“For example, if a buyer purchases a piece of mowing equipment for $6,000, they might think they have a mower and got a good deal,” he says. “However, if the mower costs them $2,000 in the first year due to downtime, malfunctions or lack of durability in the application, then no savings were realized in the original purchase.”

He adds that contractors should also think about what additional productivity the mower can bring through accessories or implements to give value-added features.

“A mower that can not only mow, but switch to an aeration implement or a snow-clearing implement, adds value in that you can get year-round use without buying several pieces of equipment with multiple engines to maintain in order to perform these same tasks.”

The ideal mix of mowers

When determining the right amount and the right type of mowers for an equipment fleet, professional landscape contractors should start the process by answering some key questions, says Nick Minas, product manager for John Deere Commercial mowing.

  • What type of properties are being maintained?
  • Is this a government job with any restrictions?
  • What is the average size of your jobsites?
  • How large is the landscaper’s business?
  • What is the budget?

“Answering these questions creates a starting point for landscapers to work with their dealer in order to determine what equipment is needed,” Minas says. “The dealer will help identify the right machine mix, as well as quantity, for the landscaper’s fleet and can discuss other important features, such as deck size and horsepower.”

Mowers should also be matched up appropriately with your crews, says Jamie Briggs, product manager for Exmark. In other words, try to understand the level that each member of your crew is operating in order to determine what is best. Some employees will work best with equipment that’s simple and easy to operate, such as a trim mower. Other employees have no problems safely and efficiently maneuvering a zero-turn mower around properties.

“Your goal is to match each person on your crew with the equipment they’ll be most efficient working with,” Briggs says. “You also want to use the most productive mowers on each property as is practical. Just because a 72-inch mower covers more area, it may not be the ideal choice for a highly landscaped property with tighter spaces. It is important to size your equipment appropriately for the property being maintained, but look for the largest practical option to achieve maximum productivity.”

Haskett says the decision on mower size can be calculated during the estimating process. Each area of a property will support a certain size deck. Haskett says that when estimating a property, you should determine what percentage of that property is mowed with a 48-inch deck versus a 21-inch deck, and so forth.

“If you’re estimating that way, and keeping all of that information in your database, then you can produce a report that tells you the acreage you are going to be producing with each different mower deck,” Haskett says. “It’s a math exercise, but one that can be very precise about getting you the right mix of mowers and improving how you will be able to execute jobs as a result.”

A wise mower turnover strategy

Having systems in place so you can make sound decisions regarding your mowing fleet is important. Scott Bierman, owner of Pro-Mow Lawn Care in Charleston, Illinois, says he has checks and balances in place to ensure he has accurately compiled the ideal fleet for the busy season. He also has systems in place for determining the ideal turnover strategy for his business.

Bierman says he buys mowers new and typically runs them three to four years, which equates to approximately 1,200 to 1,500 hours, before he sells them.

“We have found that this is about the time frame in which we get the most value out of the mowers before they start nickel and diming us on repairs,” Bierman says. “We evaluate them every winter during the offseason. We look at hours and overall condition of the mower to determine which ones we need to replace for the upcoming season. With the number of mowers we have, we try to replace three to four per year to keep it on a consistent replacement schedule. Years ago, we purchased eight new mowers at the same time and that is when it became apparent that cycle was not going to work long term.”

Justin Paul, owner of Paul’s Lawn Care in Wachapreague, Virginia, takes a different mower turnover approach. He runs machines until they have very little life left in them. He says it’s one of the reasons why he buys diesel mowers from Grasshopper – because they last a long time.

Paul does all of his own maintenance and is careful to budget appropriately for parts so that he doesn’t deal with a lot of downtime. He’s also incredibly proactive when it comes to preventive maintenance and says he has been lucky never to have encountered a major breakdown or loss. Paul buys new and runs the machine until he eventually sells it to a homeowner.

“Just because the mower has completed its commercial life does not mean it’s not suitable for a homeowner who is cutting their 20-acre yard once a week,” Paul says. “The nice thing about diesel machines is that they hold their value, so we’re usually very happy with the resale value we get on our machines when the time comes.”

While most landscape business owners say they do ultimately sell their used mowers, Haskett says another consideration that is often overlooked is keeping older machines on hand as in-house loaners.

“My advice would be that you evaluate your machines in the offseason and determine which ones you might retire,” Haskett says. “But instead of retiring them, keep them for reduced service cycles or in-house loaners. I also refer to this as buffer equipment. The machine might not have enough life in it to carry on every day, but for a temporary situation, it would work just fine. Practicing this can help keep your production going as you grow your business, limiting dreaded downtime.”

Haskett recommends keeping at least one of each type of machine on hand as a buffer.

“Be sure to think about building that buffer fleet out first,” Hasket advises. “Then start thinking about selling machines that you’ve retired.”

In terms of what machines are ready to retire, Haskett says it comes down to which machines have reached a point of excessive repair time. Of course, everyone has a different definition of what excessive repair time means.

“To me, if a machine is having downtime on a regular basis, more than once every couple of months, and the repairs are major – not a belt or a blade here or there but engine repairs or major component replacements – then this machine should likely be considered as a buffer,” Haskett advises.

Smart buying decisions

Being prepared to visit your dealer or a trade show and research potential buys is an important step in compiling your ideal fleet. John Deere’s Minas says that most landscape contractors who attend trade shows or make dealership visits have a good grasp on what they’re looking for, as they are in touch with their businesses.

Minas says two valuable pieces of information are needed when evaluating a buying decision: the types of customers serviced and the types of properties serviced.

“With this information, the dealer can provide recommendations around what is best for their fleet to help boost profitability and productivity,” Minas says.

Of course, buying isn’t the only option. Exmark’s Briggs says they’re beginning to see a shift from buying to leasing in the industry.

“Leasing helps smooth out monthly cash flow and allows contractors to get into new equipment before the old mowers lose the majority of their resale value or are worn enough to incur significant maintenance costs,” Briggs says.

“They get the benefits of the equipment on the front end of the lifecycle as opposed to needing to manage it through the later, more maintenance-intensive and expensive portion of the machine’s life. By turning mowers over every three years, contractors also take advantage of new technologies that can increase productivity and/or reduce costs.”

Lease or buy, choosing wisely when it comes to the mowers that are right for you is important. Grasshopper’s Schoenthaler says that today’s landscape contractors are often more informed than ever before when they walk into a dealership or step onto a trade show floor.

The Internet and social media are now playing important roles in their ability to gather information and validate choices that they are considering making, Schoenthaler adds.

While Haskett says that trade shows can be an excellent place to evaluate and even buy equipment, he’d offer one important word of caution: make sure you will have dealer support.

“Contractors often get excited about getting a great piece of equipment at a competitive price when they buy at a trade show, but without dealer support how will you keep it running?” he questions.

“When I first started out, I shopped on price. Today, I shop on dealer capability first. Figure out what’s available locally to you before you make that decision to buy.”