Slusser’s Green Thumb evolves from selling plants into commercial landscaping

Slusser’s Green Thumb, Inc., Logansport, Ind., is family owned and operated. Company founder, Cecelia Slusser, is actively involved in the business on a daily basis as its president, and her son, Mark, is general manager. The company has evolved from Cecelia’s original gardening interests to a major player in Indiana’s commercial landscaping and roadwork.

Changes in the green industry spurred commercial opportunities, and Slusser’s responded by diversifying into several avenues of specialization. Mark credited maintaining positive relationships with clients while focusing on delivering excellent quality on time as key elements in the company’s success. He pointed to the importance of technology in efficient operation, and its role in the company’s acquiring extensive data to help assure accurate bidding.

A landscaped corner lot greets visitors with a carousel theme based on Dentzel Carousel, which is a designated National
Historic Landmark located in city park.

Cecelia’s interest in growing plants spurred the beginning of the business. She started selling annual plants and developed greenhouses in the 1960s. The business expanded into garden center sales, nursery, landscaping and lawn maintenance within a few years. After about 10 years, Cecelia was joined full time in the business by her husband Thomas, who had been working on Slusser’s projects in his off time.

Beginning INDOT bidding process

In the mid-1970s, Samuel C. Gray, an Indiana seeding and sodding professional, was preparing to retire, but wanted his business to continue. He asked the Slussers to take over his commercial accounts with the Indiana Department of Transportation, which required the Slussers to enter the competitive bidding process for the first time.

“It was scary,” Cecelia said. “I knew about flowers, but the bidding process was new.” With input from Gray, the Slussers moved into primarily INDOT roadwork. Eventually, the nursery, retail garden shop and lawn maintenance were deleted, and the company focused full time on heavy highway sodding and seeding.

About the same time, Slusser’s started growing its own sod for road projects. “We have seed blended to accommodate our projects,” Mark said. Slusser’s currently grows just over 300 acres of turfgrass with about 200 acres of Kentucky bluegrass and 100 acres of a turf-type tall fescue blend that’s 90 percent fescue and 10 percent Kentucky bluegrass. Turfgrass is grown only for Slusser’s projects.

Slusser family members have worked together since the
business was started. From left, Dan, Cecelia, Frank and Mark.

“We grow everything on dry land with no irrigation,” Mark said. “There’s usually a 30-day maintenance included on INDOT work.” A number of Slusser’s commercial landscape projects also include a maintenance period. After an extremely wet spring that lasted well into June this year, late summer has been very dry.

“We’ve had to use more water and water more frequently,” said Franklin Slusser, operations manager. “I have two full-time crews on water trucks.”

Slusser’s uses Trebro AutoStack and Magnum harvesters, cutting both standard and big rolls, depending on the specific job site needs. Slusser’s trailers carry Princeton piggyback forklifts for unloading turfgrass, although Mark noted that larger forklifts are often used on the larger landscape jobs.

Diversifying business

Slusser’s added commercial landscape build and design work to its road work in 1980, which was then designated heavy highway work. Commercial landscape projects include university grounds and sports fields, high school sports fields and business complexes. Seeding and sodding, as well as hydroseeding, is done in the commercial landscape work.

By the early 1990s, as government regulations created a new focus on erosion control, Slusser’s added erosion control to its list of services. Slusser’s uses primarily Western Excelsior erosion control blankets. Straw blanketing and coconut fiber netting is used when appropriate.

Sod is watered just prior to harvesting during very dry weather.

In 2005, Slusser’s added an office location in LaPorte, Ind., which offers the same services as the Logansport site, and is situated to serve far northern Indiana, northeastern Illinois and southwestern Michigan. The LaPorte site is managed by Chuck Shackelford.

A business mix of services now complements commercial landscape and heavy highway segments. These services are a significant part of Slusser’s and include irrigation design and installation, wetlands restoration, wildflower and prairie seeding, along with retaining wall and paver installation. With diversification, the company is now in a position to offer bundle packages.

Technology contributes to efficiency

As green industry opportunities have arisen over the past couple of decades, technology has become increasingly important to efficient operation. GPS is likely one of the most widely accepted technologies in the green industry for field application, and its utilization is varied. Budgets across the nation are tight now, and costs for public and private projects are becoming a higher priority.

A Trebro AutoStack harvester is used to harvest the sod.

Mark said, “GPS is an important tool in estimating job costs for mobilization, moving our equipment to complete a job.” GPS is also helpful in routing water trucks most efficiently to maintain completed jobs in the extremely dry weather common to the Midwest in late summer.

Cost containment is extremely important. “We gather megabytes of data,” Mark said. Job costs remain a concern throughout the industry. Regardless of the amount of experience in bidding jobs, the current competitive environment demands that companies have as much information as possible before bidding jobs. Mark noted that a number of changes can occur from the time of bidding to job completion, and can often complicate the project and increase costs. “There may be a shortage of straw or fertilizer,” Mark said. “There’s often a time lag, and we are bidding jobs at current prices which may change. It’s crucial to have all the numbers at hand.”

Providing quality

Slusser’s relationships with contractors are of major importance to the company. Mark emphasized that product quality and service on each project is key. While cost containment continues to be a high priority, on-time completion is a major focus throughout the green industry. Schedules can be disrupted by a number of issues that include product shortages and weather-related delays. “We do everything we can to meet deadlines,” Mark said.

Slusser’s is guided by its mission of ethical values focused on delivering the best possible product, maintaining good relationships with clients and vendors and maintaining a financially sound working environment.

“We live by our mission and values statement,” Mark said. “It’s a good road map for our business, and people know that.”

Slusser’s employs 24 people full time. “We have some 20 and 25-year employees, and several 10 and 15-year employees,” Mark noted. Slusser’s is a certified professional in erosion and sediment control and a member of the Indiana Contractors Association.

Family focus

With Cecelia at the helm as president, and Mark serving as general manager, two other sons are directly involved in the business. Dan is treasurer and oversees all accounting and finance functions. Frank is the operations manager, responsible for all scheduling and dispatching, and serves as safety officer for the company. Thomas retired in 2002.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and has been covering the green industry for Turf for almost 20 years. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.