A lawn mowing business turns into lucrative career
Clement Brothers Lawn & Landscape in Naples, Maine, began in 1977 when Roger Clement, the oldest of three brothers, began mowing neighbors’ yards.
“My parents had a big property and my father had a lawn mower, and at a pretty young age my brother knew that he wanted to go to college and have a lot of things in life he knew wasn’t going to be handed to him, so he started mowing neighbors’ lawns. It took off from there,” says Mark Clement.
Roger left the business, and Mark is now the owner. The company has grown from a lawn mowing and trimming business to a company that handles lawn care services, landscape services, snow removal, property maintenance and stone work.
“My middle brother Brian and I ran the business until 1990,” says Clement. “We were both college students and worked when we weren’t in school just mowing people’s lawns and doing cleanups.
“In 1990, he graduated from college, and I decided at that point in time that I wanted to take over the business and make a career out of it. I wanted to be outside anyway, and I was really enjoying how the business had grown to that point in time,” says Clement.
Clement returned to school in 1990 to get a degree in horticulture so he could focus on building the business with a professional, more experienced background. Since then, the business has grown at a steady clip.
“I never wanted it to grow faster than I could handle,” he says. “I always wanted to stick to my core principles of integrity, dependable service, honesty and being able to master a particular service before stretching myself too thin.”
Naples, Maine, has a year-round population of 2,500 people. As such, Clement operates in a small market within a large geographical service area, having to travel a 25-mile radius to do his work. “The big reason for the success is that it’s a small market,” notes Clement. “I grew up in this town. For quite a few years, we didn’t have any names on any of our trucks, but people knew us around town as ‘the Clement boys who mowed the lawns.’”
The business grew through word-of-mouth and networking their mother did at the local dentist’s office where she worked. The competition has increased, but 33 years of experience has helped retain a loyal customer base.
The majority of the Clement Brothers’ clientele is residential lawns, with about 5 percent of business in the commercial sector.
“I’ve always been told by the experts that I should have more of a commercial mix and be less dependent upon residential,” says Clement, “but I really like building those customer relationships with residential clients. A lot of our clients have been with us since we began.
“The thing I’ve loved about having a lot of residential clients is the loyalty. If you take care of them and have a good relationship, and you’re always giving more quality as you learn more, they’re not going to go shopping every year like the commercial clients are.” Commercial clients tend to work only from a bottom line practice, he says.
Every winter, Clement sends a mailer to clients with a checklist of services that they would like for the year. Service usually begins with a spring cleanup, followed by organic fertilization. Garden and flower beds are mulched and lawns mowed, and the crews also install flowers.
Clement Brothers has an organic gardening division, which has been the fastest-growing segment of the business over the past 10 years. Clement has incorporated organics into all landscaping practices, and he sees the organic movement growing bigger in the industry. “They’re already talking about banning pesticides in New Hampshire and in Maine,” he says. “That is going to be one of the biggest changes we’re going to see in the next decade.”
Dedicated gardening crews take care of garden design, installation and maintenance, which includes hand-weeding, pruning, deadheading flowers, fertilizing and overall care. “I realized a long time ago I had all of this money tied up in mowing equipment and I didn’t like to see it sitting on a trailer while those couple of guys who should have been mowing were trimming somebody’s flowers or spending an hour weeding gardens,” says Clement.
He hires people who have degrees in horticulture to serve as crew leaders “Those guys are really knowledgeable, and they do everything related to gardening with a professional image,” Clement says.
In summer, the population in Naples mushrooms to 15,000 with the influx of summer residents. The majority of Clement’s clients live on a freshwater lake, so there is concern about runoff. “They come to Maine because the water and air is clean and pure and they love it here,” says Clement. “We all realize together that if we’re not good stewards for clean air and clean water, we’re going to lose it all.”
Clement tries to educate clients about the importance of keeping water clean and keeping runoff to a minimum. His company tries to minimize runoff through shoreline stabilization projects. “We are educating people about native plants and indigenous species in their landscapes, which I think is important in trying to cut back on invasive plants, fitting in with the whole organic approach to fertilizing plants and lawns,” he says.
Clement says his biggest challenge is finding good help and trying to attract workers to the industry, but the uncertainty of winters and being unable to provide steady income has a negative impact. “Being in a small market, and not having a lot of commercial opportunities, sometimes I’m at the mercy of deciding how big this business is going to be without traveling a great distance, and I don’t want to do that,” he says.
Clement Brothers employs 15 people, but in winter the staff is reduced to five. Clement employs college students and oil truck drivers looking for work to generate income during the months when they aren’t driving.
One service that is difficult to plan around is snow removal. Clement says it would be great to be able to have a staff of 15 year-round, but the snow season can be unpredictable. “You can’t depend on the amount of snow from year to year,” he says. “Some years we get lots of snow, and other years we don’t get much at all. It’s hard to have yearly contracts for snow removal for a customer. Some winters you’d make out really well, and others you’d starve.”
Last winter was a “famine” winter for snow removal business, while the two preceding winters, Clement says, “It seemed like it snowed every other day, and by the time you got cleaned up from one storm, we were getting another storm.”
Because of the long distances, Clement structures the routes so they are close together, incorporating fuel and time efficiency into the workday. “When it comes to mowing, I’d like to have one stop on a street where they mow three or four times without loading back up and leaving,” says Clement. “Same thing with snowplowing; obviously it’s not worth it to drive 20 miles to plow one snowy driveway.
“In the wintertime, when the roads are bad and safety is an issue, my coverage area for snowplowing is a lot smaller area than the coverage area for landscaping. “When it comes to snow, you pretty much have to be everywhere at once,” Clement points out.
Clement’s fleet includes eight four-wheel drive dump trucks, all of which can be retrofit with a plow and a salt spreader.
Clement participates in Project EverGreen’s GreenCare for Troops program, which connects people in the green care industry with the families of soldiers in active military service whose properties need maintaining.
“We have one family we’ve taken care of over the last two summers and are hoping that we can attract more,” says Clement. “We advertise that through the local newspaper in the spring, and it’s on our Web site. That’s something I feel pretty strongly about.”
One of Clement’s growing non-landscaping services involves watching properties while the owner is out of town. “That’s fairly big because of all of the people who have a second home here,” he says. “They want the peace of mind to know their property is being looked at when they are not around. They can have a great security system and a backup automatic generator, but they also want to have somebody to be on call to make sure the generator is working properly or somebody can respond to an alarm to their home in the middle of the night.”
Clement says that despite the economy, people in his region continue to want to keep their properties maintained. “We live in a beautiful area, and with the way the economy has been in the last few years, while people are not spending money on big-ticket items and taking big vacations, they always want to improve their landscape and make their home more valuable, so when the real estate market turns around their home will be more valuable,” he says.
Carol Brzozowski is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for numerous trade journals for more than a decade. She resides in Coral Springs, Fla.