Tulsa’s Lawn America wins by sticking to its core services

Todd Dechant, left, Oxcart inventor, and Brad Johnson of Lawn America partnered for this past April’s Day of Service project at Johnson’s alma mater.

Brad Johnson learned the key to business growth early on: stick to what you enjoy doing and what you do best

Johnson founded and owns Lawn America, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The company provides lawn care services, fertilization and pesticide work, period. He doesn’t do mowing or maintenance, though his company also provides holiday lighting (Christmas Décor) for the off-season.

Lately, however, he hasn’t had much of an off-season. “We’re going strong all year without much slack time,” says Johnson, a Tulsa native who earned a master’s degree in education from Oklahoma State and taught middle school science for seven years before getting into lawn care. He ran his previous company, Green Up, for 10 years before selling to a national firm. After his non-compete agreement expired, he started Lawn America in 1999.

“We had a fast build-up in the early years, growing about 20 to 25 percent each year,” notes Johnson. “It gets harder as we expand into eastern Oklahoma. Tulsa isn’t a huge market—about 800,000 people, including suburbs. Since we now have almost 13,000 customers, we’ve adjusted our growth goal to 11 percent per year moving forward.”

Lawn America

President: Brad Johnson

Founded: 1999

Headquarters: Tulsa, Oklahoma

Markets: Tulsa and surrounding communities with a push into eastern Oklahoma

Services: Lawn care, tree & shrub, snow removal, Christmas lighting

Website: www.lawnamerica.com

Currently, Lawn America encompasses 49 employees, including five team leaders, route managers, technicians, upper management and office support staff. The company handles roughly 90 percent residential and 10 percent commercial customers, including sports fields such as the Drillers, Tulsa’s Double-A affiliate of the Major League Baseball Colorado Rockies.

Offering a basic four-step program to all customers, Lawn America ramps it up to seven steps for customers valuing extra service. With 85 percent of its customers’ lawns planted in bermudagrass or zoysiagrass and about 15 percent in fescue, extra service mostly means additional weed control.

Weed capital

“We affectionately call Tulsa the Weed Capital of the World,” Johnson remarks. “We don’t have much insect pressure, just the occasional grub or bermudagrass mite problem. And every 10 years or so, we get a fall armyworm invasion – they’ll chew bermudagrass down to the nub, but it always comes back. However, weeds can give us a run for our money.”

The usual suspects like crabgrass and nutsedge predominate, but more difficult weeds such as dallisgrass often make appearances, as well. “This year we had a late freeze and it took a while for bermudagrass to turn green in the spring,” adds Johnson. “So the winter weeds and even some of the new summer weeds started growing like crazy. It’s tough to control them in a bermudagrass lawn that’s still semi-dormant.”

Round one includes preemergence weed control and fertilization, round two a slow-release fertilizer and round three features an application of Echelon herbicide from FMC Corporation for six- and seven-step program customers. A combination product, Echelon provides both preemergence and postemergence control of crabgrass and nutsedge, in addition to postemergence suppression of broadleaf weeds such as oxalis, spurge and dandelions.

Rounds four through seven include fertilization, postemergence weed control and disease and insect control, as needed. The company also provides tree/shrub service, mole control and fescue seeding, as well as liquid soil amendments. “But we won’t be offering maintenance operations,” Johnson says. “We’re still sticking to our lawn care niche.”

Inspiring Community Spirit

Lawn America, with Brad Johnson at the helm, has embraced PLANET’s Day of Service each year since the program’s inception in 2009. The annual Earth Day (April 22) program encourages companies to improve their communities through volunteer projects.

This year, Lawn America chose to improve the grounds of Tulsa’s Will Rogers High School, Johnson’s alma mater. The company partnered with a local landscape firm to install new plantings in the front of the school’s campus.

“We’ve been treating this 1-acre turf area for free for four years now,” notes Johnson. “Will Rogers is a magnet school that serves the inner city and helps student get college credits. We wanted to beautify the school grounds by planting trees, flowers and shrubs that the students will now maintain.”

Tulsa-based Lawn America has provided gratis services the past four years to the grounds at Will Rogers High School. Photos courtesy of OxCart Products.

In addition to local partnerships, Johnson relies on help from industry partners like Kansas-based OxCart Products. The company donated one of its utility carts for use in the Day of Service project, which Johnson used to haul multiple loads of dirt from the curb to where they needed it: close to the school for planting beds. “Otherwise we would have used wheelbarrows, which would have taken much longer and been more labor-intensive and possibly hazardous.”

In addition to participating in the Day of Service program each year, Lawn America donates time, supplies and services for many other community activities, including building two Habitat for Humanity homes in the past several years.

“Our crews volunteered to work every Saturday for two-and-a-half months for both Habitat Homes,” notes Johnson. “But we had assistance from other people too … some local retirees and folks from the University of Tulsa helped us build the houses.”

Volunteer work is time well invested, says Johnson. “There’s no better way to engender community spirit for our crew and our city, as well as maintain higher visibility in our area,” he says.

Incentive-based program

Lawn America rewards employ- ees through an elaborate incentive-based program. Basically, employees are rewarded on outcomes, with bonuses accounting for as much as 40 percent of their salaries. Not only do employees stand to earn more, they have incentive to remain at the company.

“Experienced technicians servicing the same property year after year means customers receive better service,” Johnson notes. “So everyone wins.”

In addition to sticking to his niche, Johnson has become a master of marketing. He recently hired a full-time social media guru to establish a major presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and a blog on the company’s website.

A bit of a Renaissance man, Johnson hiked the Appalachian Trail a few years ago to raise money for charity and wrote a book (A Compassionate Journey”) about his experiences. He also owns a 20-acre hobby farm outside Tulsa, where he grows blueberries and blackberries and raises chickens and goats.

“I have no farming background, but I did teach science and consider myself a lifelong learner,” Johnson explains. “Staying active keeps you young.”

Deborah Clayton is a experienced business writer who loves to share stories about successful small businesses.