LawnTailors succeeds by combining old school with new
While Jarlath Connolly was young, he worked with his dad Michael and two brothers in all aspects of LawnTailors (www.lawntailors.com), the family’s landscaping business. His dad’s inelastic demand for executing on the minutiae drove him crazy, so for more than a decade he had struck out on his own.
The only son to return to the family business, Jarlath learned to accept his dad’s maniacal practices for detail. Michael was pleased that one of his sons came back to inherit the business. “The main caution that I had for Jarlath was that he came back to the business with ideas that were too big and too fast,” says Michael. “It’s all because he is highly ambitious and quite a good salesman. I’m from the old stock, wanting to always know where the end was.”
The Connolly father-son team is a rare case of inter-generational respect and shared power. When Jarlath came back to LawnTailors, Michael gave him what he needed to build and shape the company. Jarlath, in turn, was smart enough and confident enough to learn from his dad at key moments. It’s a powerful bond that exists, unlike what you find with many family landscaping businesses
Michael and Jarlath have built a rapidly growing, privately-held company with annual revenues around $10 million. LawnTailor’s client roster is 85 percent commercial and 15 percent residential, including Travelers Insurance and Genesis Healthcare corporate office parks in Hartford, Conn.; Cityplace at Promenade retail center in Edgewater, N.J.; the 43-acre Holy Family Monastery and Retreat Center in West Hartford, Conn.; and the Connecticut towns of Avon and Farmington.
LawnTailors offers integrated landscape management practices including design and installation; mowing, trimming and edging; fertilization, horticulture management and IPM; stone masonry, habitat and conservation management; and snow removal.
In New England, the company is widely recognized for treating woody ornamentals and trees. It has developed and trademarked its own IPM program, which includes a soil analysis-driven lawn plan, plant identification, common bugs and diseases watch list, extensive monitoring (versus broad spectrum spraying) and pest and disease diagnosis.
In addition to their landscaping expertise, LawnTailors’ other top experts bring experience from places like the West Palm Beach Wildlife Preserve, Barefoot Grass, Natural Choice and ChemLawn. The traditional leadership team consists of a president, controller, vice president of operations, chief of stone masonry, vice president of client services and manager of landscape maintenance. It also added a chief of landscape design who specializes in working with under-used native plants and incorporating them into landscape designs; and a chief horticulturalist who is also an instructor for the Master Gardener program at the University of Connecticut.
Michael is first-generation Irish, born and raised the son of a farmer in County Galway. He ended his education in high school tending the family farm until he was 26. In 1964, he immigrated to the United States, and landed his first job in Hartford, Conn., as a bull-gang worker loading up to 250 pounds of beef in the railyards. He then became an accomplished grocery store butcher, and between shifts he mowed and tended lawns, gaining a following in the upscale neighborhoods of West Hartford. He eventually left the grocery business and moved full time into landscaping. During the 1980s he grew the company substantially, managing multiple crews while maintaining a hands-on approach. Most of his business came from word-of-mouth referrals from customers, many of which have been with the company for decades.
Jarlath left the family business to attend Bentley College, where he studied business communication and computer information systems and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration. For 12 years, he worked with MediaMap, a computer software startup company south of San Francisco, where he helped grow a 10-person information services company into an industry leader serving Fortune 1000 marketing/PR departments and many top PR agencies in the country. During this period, MediaMap was recognized on the Inc. 500 List of America’s Fastest Growing Companies. His role included leading the services, sales and marketing to organizations.
This is wear Jarlath learned the importance of the renewal and ongoing value of the existing client. “Sometimes we had to spend more on a customer and even lose money if it meant ensuring the value and integrity of our brand equity,” says Jarlath. “I took these lessons back with me to LawnTailors.”
After raising a family, he decided that the pace as a software marketing professional was too fast. When he left the Bay area to rejoin his dad, he spent nearly a year studying landscape marketing while learning about horticulture at the UMass Green School.
“My profs were hammering the idea of monitoring, IPM and proactive management,” says Jarlath. “They also hammered into us ‘right plant, right location’ and ‘minimizing the use of herbicide and pesticides.’” He combined what he was learning at UMass with his already acquired skills of identifying the market and client needs.
Jarlath came up with an integrated solution model for clients as the right approach in terms of what was right for the landscape (simple example: appropriate timing of fertilization applications with mowing and irrigation); right for the client (a one-stop-shop for convenience and reduction in budgets that results from having one vendor); and right for his company (winning from a profit and growth standpoint).
With this approach, Jarlath’s been able to take on corporate clients, including Travelers Insurance. “By providing year-round integrated landscape management for them, our business has grown substantially,” says Jarlath. “In addition to core maintenance, fertilization/IPM and irrigation services, we also design and plant their annual flower rotations.” Just last year, LawnTailors created a stunning flower display at their corporate headquarters that won the prestigious Hartford Blooms award.
In addition to the focus on integrated services, Jarlath also brought in the idea of sustainable landscaping, now representing a nice business supplement and a growing segment for municipal clients. At first, he wasn’t quite sure what to expect from his dad. “Although he’s not as inspired by the environmental stuff that we do, he allowed it to happen,” says Jarlath.
Jarlath became fascinated with natural garden environments when he lived in the San Francisco Bay area and was introduced to Hawk Hill. This bird sanctuary in the Marin Headlands is part of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, a program of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy in cooperation with the National Park Service, where thousands of birds-of-prey in migration are funneled. It is the most significant of its kind in the western United States.
“Part of the reason that we focus on the municipal market is because we love the environmental work that we get to do,” says Jarlath. This work includes invasive plant management including watercourses, trail construction and management, open-space management and habitat redevelopment.
LawnTailors eradicates thousands of cubic yards of invasives likes barberry, multi-flora rose, bittersweet and buckthorn for various New England towns and land trusts. Some of the company’s current projects include the management of barberry for the Land Trust in the town of Farmington, Conn.; conversion of a nonproductive apple orchard into a natural habitat of native grasses for the town of Pepperel, Mass.; and a monarch butterfly garden and tulip study plot at a local primary school.
As long as Jarlath runs LawnTailors, he will follow his dad’s legacy for creating beautiful landscape designs, maintaining gorgeous turf and keeping clients. “Dad has always been very proud of his work and he is relentless in focusing on the little details that when combined add up to something really beautiful,” he recalls. “We’ve been a successful father-son team because we’re able to have very good open conversations. Dad wanted to remain involved.”
Although Michael is mostly retired and living in Florida now, he’s there for Jarlath when he needs him.
For the past 20 years, Tom Crain has been a regular contributor to B2B publications, including many in the green industry. He is also a marketing communications specialist for several companies in the travel, agriculture and nutrition industries.