Lawn Doctor franchise system is an attractive option for some in the green industry
Lawn Doctor, founded in New Jersey in 1967 and now boasting some 450 franchise locations across the country, is a leading choice for lawn care operators wanting to become franchisees. “It’s a pretty interesting American business story,” explains Scott Frith, vice president of Lawn Doctor. The company was founded by Tony Giordano, an entrepreneur and owner of a hardware store. “As people moved out from the city into the suburbs, they didn’t know how to take care of their lawns, so Tony sold them the products they needed,” says Frith. More support was needed, so Giordano began offering seminars to educate homeowners on how to care for their lawns and use the products properly. “Eventually, he saw the opportunity to serve the market directly and started his own lawn care service. The story goes that a writer interviewed him about his new business and said, ‘Oh, I understand, you’re sort of like the lawn doctor,’ and the name stuck with him, so Lawn Doctor was born.”
Giordano recruited Bob Magda, a friend and engineer by trade, to partner with him, and Magda began designing the company’s first piece of automated lawn care equipment. “He created this pretty sophisticated tractor-combine, which was pretty large, to service homeowners and, ultimately, through many different advancements and innovations of that technology, that’s the patented application equipment that we deliver to our franchisees today to service homeowners with,” explains Frith. “That’s a core part of our history and something that we still design, build and make available exclusively to our franchisees.”
As Giordano was establishing his Lawn Doctor business, franchise development was just starting to really take hold in America. “He was going to business seminars and realized that this was not something he could grow all by himself with his own capital and energy. He knew he needed other entrepreneurs to see the vision and share that dream, so he decided that he would opt for the business format of a franchise,” explains Frith. The first franchise opened in New Jersey in 1967, the same year that Lawn Doctor was founded. From there, the franchise grew outward, first regionally and then nationally.
Frith’s family has long been at the center of Lawn Doctor, with his father Russell (currently the company’s CEO) a businessman with franchise experience and himself an early Lawn Doctor customer hired in 1978 to help grow the brand’s franchise system.
In the early years, Lawn Doctor focused much of its energy on simply educating the public about the services it provided. The key message was how hiring a lawn care company could improve the lifestyle of homeowners. After that came a marketing message that underscored how Lawn Doctor was different from other lawn care companies in its approach and the equipment it used.
In some ways, that remains a key part of the marketing strategy today, both to homeowners and to those interested in purchasing franchises. In general, name recognition is one of the biggest strengths of a national franchise system. “In service businesses, there’s an intangible aspect to it. People want a good service at a reasonable price, and to feel like they’re not being taken advantage of. Brands offer that,” says Frith.
At its headquarters, Lawn Doctor operates a museum that showcases how the company has grown, innovated and evolved over the years. One example is the development that’s taken place with company’s specialized lawn care equipment. Models have ranged from the first large, heavy, tractor-based model that was transported from site to site in rudimentary horse trailers to today’s small, maneuverable, cutting-edge model.
Along the way, fertilization and weed control spraying have been combined into a single unit. Today’s “Turf Tamer” is designed for efficiency, and Lawn Doctor reports it can service 1,000 square feet of lawn per minute. Making the equipment smaller, faster and better has allowed the company to drop the price for franchisees, who in turn are more efficient and can realize a higher profit margin while offering a better price for their customers, explains Frith. “Fundamentally, as that technology has evolved, it’s really changed our business model,” he explains, “and today, we also have added a stand-on piece of equipment and a ride-on and a power seeder. They’re all patented and we manufacture all of them.”
Frith says it’s pretty unique for a franchise to design and build its own equipment for franchisees. In addition to the equipment that has been a key part of Lawn Doctor from the beginning, the company now also provides franchisees with custom-designed software to help them run their businesses more effectively.
The past model of marketing in the lawn care business often meant sending out postcards to perspective customers; some would place calls and leave messages. The lawn care company might then try to make an appointment to meet up with the homeowner to inspect the lawn and write up a proposal. There’s no telling how many potential customers are lost through slow communication or other breakdowns. “We’ve tried to put systems in place so that phone calls are answered in the first few rings; just that is a differentiating factor in this industry. Because people will move on to the next company,” says Frith.
Lawn Doctor has taken it a step further now that many customer leads come in via the Internet. The company has developed an “e-proposal” system for new customer inquiries, which allows franchisees to respond quickly with an accurate price quote. “We use an aerial photo of the lawn that’s integrated with the square footage of the lawn, and includes a price, that can be e-mailed out to the customer,” explains Frith. “The customer is at the center of everything we do, and people who contact us over the Internet are going to expect something to pop up in their in box that says, ‘Here’s what we can do for you.’” Workshops, field days and business meetings are offered to train franchisees how to use e-proposals and respond quickly to sales leads.
Last year, Lawn Doctor also launched a new operating software to help franchisees better manage sales, routing of vehicles, employees and day-to-day operations. Franchisees were given three years to convert to the new system, but 80 percent did so in the first year. “That’s unheard of in the franchise business, but they like the value that the new system offers. By using this new software, franchisees are telling us that they’re able to scale their business more than they thought possible; that it’s freed up their time to add more customers or be able to make lifestyle decisions about how to use that free time,” says Frith.
The changes in equipment and technology over the years are good examples of how Lawn Doctor is continually evolving, says Frith. “If you’re evaluating a franchise, you want to know that they’re going to be around tomorrow, but you also want to know that they’re not the same company today that they were yesterday—that they’re constantly innovating to stay relevant.”
Someone interested in becoming a Lawn Doctor franchisee fills out a basic form online or calls to speak to a franchise recruiter. “It’s a very casual conversation at first, to find out what they’re interested in and what area they’re interested in operating in,” says Frith. “After that we tell them all about our company to see if they’re still interested. Then there’s what we call a ‘Discovery Day,’ where they come to see our plant, see the equipment being manufactured, visit our corporate headquarters, learn about our technology, field training, system and meet our people.” Eventually, a Franchise Disclosure Document (like a stock prospectus) is provided to tell perspective franchisees the important financial data, as well as the business structure and legal background, of a company. No matter what franchise you might be talking with, that’s an important document to review and understand, says Frith.
Those completely new to lawn care, or who are moving from management jobs at other companies into their own business, Frith says there’s a significant, growing trend of existing lawn care company owners looking into opportunities through Lawn Doctor. “Local lawn care operators are just getting squeezed. They like the business, they like doing what they’re doing, but they don’t have any support. It’s just them. If there’s a brand that can help open more doors for them, and a comprehensive system that can help drive down their costs, it can give their business a better opportunity,” says Frith. “It’s everything from help with routing efficiency to buying groups to bring down material costs to marketing partnerships to lower those costs. At the end of the day, they can put more money in their pocket.”
Lawn Doctor offers new franchisees support from the get-go, visiting them on-site every six weeks and spending three days with them to help set up their technology and initial systems. Frith says that working with a national brand through a franchise system provides entrepreneurs a chance to make it on their own, with help and guidance to “keep them between the rails” along the way. Many see the opportunity this way, he says, “I can tap into a brand; I can tap into a support infrastructure; all the support tools are there, but it’s up to me and I have my own business that will give me an income and help me create value over the long haul.”
Along with the benefits of a franchise system, there are some constraints. Frith says the biggest challenges often occur with those already in the industry who want to convert their business to a Lawn Doctor franchise: “They might say, ‘Well, I use a pickup truck, and I use this particular spreader, and I use a spray tank, and I like to do things this way.’ You really have to go through a process with them to explain the value of the way we do things. For example, we use vans, and we use our patented TurfTamer equipment with ground-metered distribution.” Consistency is a fundamental tenant of franchise businesses, he explains. A “Franchise Agreement” is a written document that governs the relationship between the franchise brand and the franchisee, and lays out what services can be provided, how the brand is portrayed and certain other things that are required to be done a specific way.
In addition to these requirements, there are recommendations regarding what other franchisees have found to work well. “There is a lot of flexibility built in,” says Frith. “For example, we don’t set prices. We might recommend pricing based on consumer research, but it’s up for the franchisee to set prices. If someone wants to really come out of the gates with aggressive pricing and grow their business quickly, we can build an ‘operating plan process’ for that. If someone wants to focus more on very profitable customers and wants to price themselves accordingly, there’s a process for that.”
Frith says one of the most important decisions Lawn Doctor has made is to establish four separate committees made up of franchisee owners that have conference calls once a month and get together for two-day meetings twice a year to discuss strategies in different areas to be sure that decisions being made make sense. “We feel that if franchisees are included, we’ll have a better product at the end of the process,” he explains. “We can find out what’s practical at the unit level to be sure we’re doing the right thing for the customer and for the franchisee.”
Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.