All American Turf Beauty grows at a manageable rate

Photos Courtesy of All American Turf Beauty.

All American Turf Beauty is one of Iowa’s largest independent lawn care services, with a base of 7,500 customers spread over 230 cities and towns in Iowa and Minnesota.

It began in 1976, when Daryle Johnson launched the lawn service business with a four-application spray program that was, at that time, new to the state of Iowa. His wife and business partner, Linda, and the couples’ children formed the marketing division, going house to house putting brochures on the doors of homes in targeted neighborhoods. Augmented by customer referrals, that effort built first year client numbers to 95.

The second year ended with 400 accounts, and the third with 900. Initially working from Winterset with a warehouse in Des Moines, the company set up a branch office in Ames in 1978. A third branch office opened in Waterloo in 1980. Growth was so rapid, and sustained, that in 1983, All American Turf Beauty was ranked number 323 on Inc. magazine’s “Inc. 500” list of the fastest growing companies in the United States.

Nearly half of the lawn service applications are granular, with the turf specialists using walk-behind spreaders.

Managing growth

Johnson says, “It’s been a collaborative process from the very beginning. With Linda’s support, the combined efforts of dedicated personnel, and the growing leadership of our son Kevin, the rapid growth was manageable. We had mini-offices spread across much of Iowa, with several people working from their homes. We added aeration and seeding services. In 1989, we established a commercial department that concentrated on schools and parks operated out of what is now our headquarters location in Van Meter, Iowa.”

Johnson, who serves as CEO of the company, stresses the importance of teaming good people with the technology and equipment that will provide the most efficient operations. He found potential employees in graduates of Iowa State University and Northwest Missouri State.

That progressive outlook is a key factor to company operations and contagious among personnel. Johnson says, “Kevin, now company president, has long been a driving force. He’s our start-up person, establishing the commercial branch and then introducing the irrigation design, installation and maintenance services in 1990. Many others have been an integral part of our staff from 15 to 30 years, including Jim O’Loughlin, our marketing manager, and Clarice Baiotto, our comptroller.”

All American Turf Beauty’s signature project using the architectural landscapelighting of their Nite Time D_cor franchise is the Stockman House, the Frank LloydWright-designed property in Mason City, Iowa.

The lawn care services are continually fine-tuned to meet client needs. Along with aeration, seeding and irrigation services, additions include sodding, edging, mulching, general clean up, pruning, tree fertilization, perimeter insect control treatments around homes and other buildings, and flowerbed installation, color change outs and maintenance.

The current basic lawn care service is a six-step program providing fertilization and preemergence and postemergence weed control, and individual services can be added at any time.

Some accounts prefer a more inclusive package of services set-up on an annual basis. Johnson says, “Some clients, especially on the commercial side, want to work with a single service provider. In that case we’ll handle everything the property needs: the mowing, irrigation, mulching, edging, pruning, flowerbeds, tree fertilization and snow removal. Four years ago, we purchased a complete grounds maintenance company in Des Moines. We now do the mowing and all the related services in the Des Moines metro area and have added snow removal there as well.”

The Christmas Décor franchise was added 12 years ago as a means to extend the working season. They now own four franchises, serving residential and commercial accounts in most of the cities in eastern Iowa, including Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, Dubuque, Iowa City, Ames and Des Moines.

Seven years ago, the company added Nite Time Décor architectural landscape lighting from the same franchiser. All American Turf Beauty’s signature landscape lighting project is the Stockman House, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed property in Mason City, Iowa.

This example of the company’s work shows why The Christmas D_cor franchiseshave been so successful for All American Turf Beauty.

Organization

The base full-time staff is 45, including office personnel. Fall is the busiest season, with aeration and seeding added to the general lawn care workload and Christmas lighting installations beginning in September. The staff count spikes up to 85 as crews are added each week to put up lights.

Coordinating the services generated by each location is a branch manager, who spends most of their time working from the office, and an office manager or clerical person. Each lawn service crew has a foreman or person in charge, even if there are just two people on the crew. The irrigation department operates with a manager and two foremen, with crew members pulled from other staff areas when needed.

Two-person mowing crews work four 10-hour days each week, and they work the same route with specific accounts scheduled for each day. Each crew is equipped with a truck and trailer, a 60-inch Exmark or Ferris riding mower, a 36 or 40-inch walk-behind mower, a small trim mower, backpack blowers, string trimmers, edgers and hand tools.

Special services crews work as two or three-person teams, depending on the project assignment. They tackle the add-on services and may be on a property for one day or several days at a time.

A dedicated flower specialist focuses on the flowerbed design, installation, color change outs and maintenance for the majority of accounts in the Des Moines area.

Lawn applications have expanded to 18 turf specialists, all individual operators. Each works from a spray truck with the main tank filled with the basic formula used for the current seasonal application. Three extra tanks are prepared for additional treatments, such as perimeter spray, grub control or spot weed control. Because nearly half of the applications are now granular, a walk-behind spreader is mounted on each spray truck with the appropriate materials also on board.

Johnson says, “We look for that one-stop efficiency and have invested in the equipment to deliver it. Our sprayers are very efficient for precision application. They’re all stainless-steel and plastic, which reduces maintenance time. Some of our turf specialists also are equipped with the PermaGreen ride-on spreader/sprayer combination for the larger lawns.

“We also have a turf Kubota with a 21-foot boom and back-mounted spreader for the high-acreage properties. Back when we only had 1,200-gallon trucks and sprayers, it didn’t make sense to expand the territory for commercial accounts. With the improved equipment and materials now on the market, we can spread out across the region to serve any accounts that are within driving distance.”

Each of the turf specialists works from one of these multi-tank, fully equippedtrucks. Both the 800 number and the Web site address are prominently posted,making each truck a mobile ad.

Technology

Many lawn care companies use computer technology for accounting and marketing, and stop there. All American Turf Beauty seeks ways to take advantage of advances in technology.

“We couldn’t operate at the level we do without our computer network,” notes Johnson. “The laptop and printer in my van make it a portable office. All of our managers work with a similar setup, and many of the staff members that focus on sales do, too. All of the offices are linked online. Our Van Meter office knows when something is done in Waterloo or Ames.

“We track all of our products and materials by computer. For example, all of the Christmas merchandise is inventoried via the computer system and tied into the leasing data for each item.”

In 1995, the company converted its employee 401K profit sharing plan to an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). This process will steadily transfer the ownership of the company to the employees. Johnson says, “We felt it was an excellent opportunity for the employees, and it honors their commitment to doing the best possible job, which makes the business better overall.”

With all this in place, the company is hitting its target goal of 5 percent growth each year. Johnson says, “Our growth has been driven by developing good programs, treating customers with honesty, having good people and adding services that are needed.” That’s the All American way.

Suz Trusty is a partner in Trusty & Associates, a communications and market research firm located in Council Bluffs, Iowa.