Company stays grounded in Washington, D.C.
With a name like terra, you’ve got to be grounded. Owner Thomas Carter makes sure his Washington, D.C.-based company is grounded on sound business practices. He has a firm foundation to build on: a degree in business from Catholic University and 10 years’ experience directing marketing programs for private companies in the energy and defense sector. After laboring for others in an office setting, Carter was drawn to the return to the landscaping industry he’d worked in throughout high school and college, and his entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. He first contemplated seeking arborist certification, but he turned to a readily available resource for funds, his lawn mower.
“I began providing lawn maintenance services, working with my mower and the assorted tools I’d accumulated for my own yard,” he says. “Friends were my first clients. That soon spread to others in their neighborhoods; within two months, I’d hired my first employee. Within three months, I bought my first truck.”
Customer service was the focus at startup in 2005, and remains so today. With terra, inc. now a full-service landscape company, Carter says, “My entire staff of 27 understands the importance of delivering reliable performance and budget-conscious solutions to enhance the appearance and increase the value of our clients’ properties.”
Ready to roll
The company services approximately 500 clients, which is 45 percent residential and 55 percent commercial. Carter says the maintenance levels are dependent on the property owner’s wants and needs and their budget parameters. Residential clients always contract for mowing and spring cleanup, and many add fertilization of lawns, trees and shrubs; twice-a-year color change-outs for the flower beds; and landscape bed maintenance, including weeding, mulching and pruning.
Commercial contracts include fertilization and mowing. Since most sites are irrigated, mowing is generally once a week. Some commercial clients also opt for bi-weekly landscape bed maintenance. “We’re always open to what the client wants, asking their color preferences and the look they want to achieve. We’ll make recommendations based on the plants that will be most effective in site conditions, but will go with some very unusual combinations if that’s what it takes to please them. We want a fresh look every season, even for the colleges that always want to feature their school colors, so we’ll vary the plant selections to make it happen,” Carter says.
Most residential and commercial clients also contract for aeration and seeding or overseeding as required. Additional services the company offers include fall cleanup, sodding, mulch applications, pest control, resodding and tree and shrub health care.
Carter has chosen to concentrate on maintenance as the core of the business, covering turf, flower beds and landscape features. The company also handles most design/build projects within the small to midsize range in-house, though each project is evaluated to determine the cost-effectiveness of that versus subcontracting.
Carter refers to his subcontracting arrangements as partnerships, noting they must be good for the client, the subcontractor and terra. He says, “For other services, my qualifying question is, ‘What’s my ROI?’ I’m a licensed pesticide applicator. I could purchase equipment, train crews and handle the control product applications in-house, but the ROI after covering startup costs doesn’t equal those generated by our core services. So, I’m partnering with companies that concentrate on the application services, have proven their expertise and dependability and are well-priced.”
Carter also subcontracts major shrub and tree care, working with a fully licensed arborist company. The hardscape company he’s partnered with excels in design, going beyond good installations to what he terms, “works of art.” On large hardscape projects, one of terra’s landscape crews may work in conjunction with the subcontractor’s crew to complete the work more quickly.
The company’s crew-level personnel are split into the mowing division and the landscape division. Carter says, “Mowing crews can get in a zone when that’s all they’re doing, with each person knowing exactly what to do in what order at each property. That also allows the landscape crew to better concentrate on the other features of the property.”
One senior manager oversees the mowing crews and one the landscape crews. There’s also a full-time sales manager and an office manager that handles most of routine components of the business side. Carter continues to fill multiple roles: part owner-manager; part customer service; part sales and marketing; and part cheerleader, encouraging his staff to deliver their best. “I still set the schedules. I go to the nursery to select plants and to the farms to pick the sod. I may jump in a truck and take another load of mulch to a job site if that’s the quickest way to get it there,” he says. “About the only thing I don’t do anymore is wash the trucks.”
Each three-person crew has a crew chief who oversees the schedule and the crew, and drives the truck. The manager accompanies the crew for the first trip to a new property to map out the game plan. Once set, the mowing crew is generally good to go on its own. For the landscape crew, the manager will continue to accompany them a few more times until he and the crew chief feel they’ve mastered the idiosyncrasies of the site. Carter says, “Obviously, the crew chief or the client can request a manager site visit at any time. We also check with the client periodically to ensure everything is running smoothly.”
Carter always purchases new equipment, looking for the most efficient models. He initially used Fuso trucks and added a few Fords, and new trucks are now predominantly Chevy 4500s. He says, “Our local Chevy dealer works closely with us, customizing the box to our specifications. It’s simplified that purchase process.”
Turf is primarily turf-type tall fescues or zoysia, so only rotary mowers are needed. When adding a new riding mower, Carter asks the crew that will be using it to do the testing. That has resulted in a range of equipment, with some Scag Turf Tigers, some Exmark zero-turns with 60 and 48-inch decks, and one Toro 52-inch rider. Walk-behind mowers include Exmark and Bob-Cat models with 21, 36 and 48-inch decks. Residential mowing crews only use walk-behinds, but the larger units are equipped with a velky. Most of the smaller equipment-blowers, string trimmers, edgers and chain saws-is Stihl.
For efficiency, Carter wants all crews to have the string trimmers, blowers, edgers and minor hand tools they might need to keep everyone working all the time at every site. Every truck has a backpack sprayer for spot-treating weeds, and pole pruners and hand pruners for unsightly or low-hanging branches. Landscape crews also have loppers, chain saws and extension chain saws, trowels, shovels, brooms, organic fertilizer, organic control sprays, mulch, zip ties, even rubber bands for retaining, while masking, the foliage of daffodils.
Carter is keenly aware of the cost-to-value factor, for his clients and his company. He says, “I don’t see the primary challenge of this industry as competition. If your company does a good job, you’ll get plenty of work. The key is efficiency. Greater efficiency means more profit. A truck coming back because they forgot a piece of equipment equals lost time, which equals lost money.”
The crews closely track time spent at each site and anything that affects their schedule or the quality of maintenance. In addition, the landscape crews record how their time is allocated on the site and how much material is used for what purposes. The office manager compiles the information from each crew’s report, tracking data by crew and by site. Material costs are also closely monitored.
Carter says, “Contracts are set for the year so we have to keep track of what we’re using, what it costs and how our time is allocated so we can determine margins and measure profitability. If we’re over or under budget in any area, I want to be aware of it and adjust for it, whether that’s changing products, improving practices or revising our charges. I love what I do, but this isn’t a hobby, I have to make money at it.”
When terra started, they put out flyers in neighborhoods where they were working. The company now does little “traditional” marketing, though they occasionally send mailings into targeted market areas where they have a strong customer base. Most of the company’s new business comes from referrals.
Carter says their trucks serve as traveling billboards. “Our company name is unique and we have a cool logo that really stands out. Our crews have good-looking uniforms that feature the logo, too. And, we do good work, so our second largest source of new business comes from those who see all that. Our full-time sales manager concentrates most of her outreach to potential commercial accounts. The portfolio will become more commercial as we continue to grow. Our tracking shows sending crews to one site is more cost-effective on the wallet, trucks and equipment.”
The company is involved in professional associations, including the Property Management Association (PMA) and the Washington Metro Chapter of Community Associations Institute (CIA). Carter says, “Our entire management team is always networking. Everyone we meet is a potential opportunity. The guy at the coffee shop could be president of an HOA.”
Suz Trusty is a partner in Trusty & Associates, a communications and market research firm in Council Bluffs, Iowa. She has been involved in the green industry for over 40 years.