A teacher building a second career in lawn care

When Jeff Hamons gets done work as a third-grade teacher, his day is just beginning. He has built a second career in the lawn and landscape industry, and he uses nearly every waking hour to fit it all in. Hamons Custom Landscaping (www.hamonslandscaping.com) serves the Kansas City area with a full range of turfgrass treatments, as well as landscape designs and installations. Over time, he’s found a winning formula for balancing that work with his teaching duties.

Hamons got his start in the landscape industry working for a landscape firm during college. He continued running crews for that company in the summers as he began his teaching career. Then he started subcontracting smaller jobs for his boss. “And, like many people who start their own businesses, I eventually thought ‘Well, he’s making all this money, why shouldn’t I?’” recalls Hamons. “I soon realized it’s because he had a lot more headaches to deal with.”

Photos Courtesy of Hamons Custom Landscaping.
Jeff Hamons has built dual careers as a third-grade teacher and a lawn care/landscape professional. His schedule doesn’t allow him to offer mowing services, so instead he focuses on turfgrass applications and, during the summers, landscape installs.

Hamons decided to start his own company, largely to create a second source of income so his wife could stay at home once they had children. “Looking at the salary of a teacher, we knew we had to either cut our lifestyle way back or increase our income,” he says. For Hamons, the green industry was a perfect fit. “Lawn and landscape was a passion of mine, and it fits in fairly well with the teaching schedule; I can work afternoons, weekends and summers,” he says.

He formed his company eight year ago and now has a 3-year-old child. During that time, he’s formulated successful strategies for combining two careers with the needs of his family.

“I don’t do mowing, simply because the scheduling would be too difficult for me. It’s something that’s needed on a weekly basis. I could probably do it in a perfect world, where the weather cooperated, but a couple of rainy days would really put me behind.” Instead, he focuses on fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide applications, as well as services such as aerating and seeding. When a customer requests mowing and prefers to deal only with Hamons—and write one check—he subcontracts the mowing to a local firm that he knows has a reputation for quality work.

Hamons has also learned to limit the number and types of customers he takes on. “I have become more specialized or niche oriented, serving higher-end customers. One positive aspect of having limited time is that I turn away almost as much work as I take on sometimes. So, I can choose just the customers I want; that really has helped. It took me some time to learn how to do that. Years ago, I saw the potential with every single potential customer, but I learned that it’s easy to become over-scheduled.”

Hamons does some reciprocating with companies that specialize in lawn mowing, exchanging leads on potential customers. “My Web site has also been a big draw,” he says of his primary marketing efforts. His target customer is somewhat different than the one sought by most companies. “In this area, which may be different than other parts of the country, there are a lot of people who still mow their own lawns. They just want someone to take care of fertilizing and weed control; there’s a big market for that,” he explains.

For Hamons, a base of about 35 to 40 customers (for turf applications) seems to work best. “That gives me plenty of time to be able to do landscape installations,” he explains. It also provides flexibility during the busy seasonal seeding and aerating periods.

Hamons had a trailer custom built for his needs, with an enclosed front end on a traditional landscape trailer.
“It helps me be efficient and is perfect for saving me time, my most precious commodity,” he explains.

Summers provide a greater degree of flexibility. “It’s sort of a myth that teachers have summers off anymore. We work well into June and come back in early August, but it’s still 10 weeks, which is a nice chunk of time that I can use,” he says. Primarily, his summer months are devoted to landscape installations. “I focus mostly on softscape work, such as plantings. If there’s small amounts of hardscape involved, I’ll take that on, but I’ve found that companies specializing in hardscape work can typically do that work more efficiently.”

Hamons rents larger equipment, such as skid steers, when needed. “I’ve figured out that I can’t justify the cost of purchasing equipment because I can’t keep it busy every day. Renting works very well for me,” he says. “Or, I will subcontract that portion of the job out. I’ve really discovered, especially in the last few years, the value of finding good subcontractors to work with.” While he handles all lawn maintenance treatments himself, he hires at least one employee to assist in landscape installation jobs.

He does own smaller equipment, such as sprayers, spreaders and aerators. “My turf program is primarily organic-based, which is another niche that I’ve been able to fill,” Hamons says. “I do spray herbicides, but it’s tailored to the needs and to the degree that a customer wants the products used: from a weed-free lawn that’s sprayed for all weeds to a lawn that receives no herbicides at all. Being a smaller company, I’m really able to customize programs for each customer.”

Working primarily for himself does have other advantages, as well. “Often, people are put off when a guy shows up in a nice, clean polo shirt and a nice clean truck to sell them the job, and then they never see him again. When I talk to them about selling the job, I’m also the one who will be doing the job. Many customers have let me know that has value to them.”

There are challenges to his dual professions. “I’m very upfront with customers that it’s more difficult for me to return phone calls during business hours than it is if they call a company with a receptionist,” he says.

Hamons uses e-mail whenever possible, which allows him to communicate with customers, even late at night. He has also added an electronic payment option to his Web site. “Being able to offer that adds another level of professionalism,” he says.

During the school year, Hamons is often still at school working until about 5:30 p.m. “One or two days a week, I can leave by 3:30 if I need to get some lawn work done,” he says. Mostly, though, he uses the afternoons after school to do estimating and selling, and to return phone calls. On Saturdays during the school year, he typically puts in a 10 to 12-hour day. “One of the things I had to learn as a new family guy was that I needed to invest time in my family. I used to work Sundays, as well, but that would cause a lot of stress, even before kids,” he admits. “Once I realized how important that time was and stopped working on Sundays, it really helped,” he says. In the summer, he works Monday through Friday only.

He’s learned to work smarter rather than longer, he says. “In reality, just by tweaking my business and becoming a better businessman—choosing the right customers, selling better, estimating better—I make more money by working fewer hours.” He has the same expenses as someone working only in the lawn and landscape business, but with fewer billable hours to pay for those fixed costs.

Hamons says that he has experienced some bias against “part-timers” when participating in online green industry forums. “And, I understand that, especially on the lawn mowing side of the business, there are so many people who do it part-time and don’t bring a sense of professionalism,” he concedes. “But, the people in the industry who know me realize that I’m not part-time. I work at least 40 hours a week at the lawn and landscape business, while also working 40 hours a week as a teacher, and I maintain the professionalism of a full-timer. I’m insured as much as they are, and I maintain the necessary certifications and licenses.”

At the same time, he is careful to preserve his professionalism in the classroom. “I am very diligent about keeping my two careers separate. I think that’s especially important for me, because public school teachers are held to a high level of integrity. So, I’m very careful to never do lawn and landscape business while I’m at school, even returning phone calls,” he says. “And, I have customers who are the parents of students, so I have to be upfront with them and say, ‘When I’m at school, I’m not your lawn care person, I’m a teacher, so don’t send a note in your child’s backpack asking me about your dandelions.”

So, which is more stressful, a class full of third-graders or a business with customers and bills and equipment and Mother Nature to contend with? “They work very well together!” he says. “Sometimes, after a long day at school, I really like going out and digging holes, because rocks don’t talk back. I love teaching or I wouldn’t be doing it, but sometimes it can be too stationary, too much time inside. I like having that hard labor component of working outside, too.”

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.