New business finds success with high-quality products, customer education
Andrew Blank operates Lawn Angels of Wayland, an upscale landscape construction company in Massachusetts. “We used to offer lawn maintenance services, but we now focus on high-end landscaping projects,” he says. In his years in the lawn and landscape business, Blank found he had a difficult time finding suppliers of high-quality materials. “I was fed up with people selling lower-quality materials,” he says. For example, he wasn’t happy with the quality of the mulch—dominated by ground-up pallets and stumps and pine—available to him on the market.
“Landscapers are creatures of habit,” says Blank. “There’s a limited number of suppliers in the area, and contractors have gotten used to buying lower-quality materials. Since that’s all they see, that’s all they think there is.”
About a decade ago, Blank began manufacturing his own mulch using a higher-quality organic material, with higher-quality “filler” materials, such as spruce and fir. “Getting away from all of the carbon dyes and liquid dyes and getting back to the good old days, when mulch was mulch: the real stuff,” he explains. “It generally lasts longer, which saves the customer money. You’ll get two to three years out of it, versus a lower-quality mulch where, when you get a heavy rain, all of a sudden the dye runs off and you’re left with wood chips and some hemlock.”
Not only was he using it on his own projects, but he began to sell the organic mulch to other landscapers in the area. “We wanted to offer a better product at a better price, while at the same time keeping the earth a little more healthy,” Blank explains. “We also do custom blends with our mulches, so we’ll blend them per the customer’s request.”
He says the price of the mulch has come down, but even if it were more expensive it would be worth it to landscapers looking to do quality work for their clients. “You’re getting a better name, you’re doing a better project, and your customers will be happy,” Blank states. “The biggest reason most companies fail in the service business is because of things they could have done. They’ll do 99 percent of a project well, but for some reason they skimp on the last 1 percent. What do you think people are going to remember?”
After finding success in offering a high-quality mulch through his landscaping business, Blank took a bigger step in spring 2010 when he opened Organic Mulch & Landscape Supply of New England (www.organicmulchsupply.com), a business designed to serve the full range of needs of lawn care and landscape professionals. “We want to get back to the old way of having a quality product and customer service,” he explains. “The whole premise of this business is to be a one-stop shop, so we offer everything from truck washing, welding, equipment service, truck service, body shop, small engine repair, large engine repair, you name it. We take dumping [debris]. We sell mulch, grass seed, loam, fertilizer, skid steer attachments, snowplows, salt, sand, ice melt, and not only can you purchase plows, but we’re open 24 hours before, after and during a storm for service in case anything breaks.”
While the initial target audience was professional landscapers, Organic Mulch & Landscape Supply of New England has also seen retail demand and even sells some products in bulk shipments to other sellers. “We have a very high-tech computer system that when a customer comes in, it can scan their card and knows who they are, what their quantities and price breaks are, and then automatically gives that information to the tellers in the store,” says Blank. And, he points out, “Ninety-nine percent of what we sell is 100 percent organic.”
Blank says that many landscape companies share that philosophy. “We started with about four customers [and grew] to over 350 in just three months. And, we’re not on the main road, these are referrals. They’re people who are fed up, like I was, with people saying you’re going to get loaded up with 13 tons and you end up with 7 tons, and when you complain they just tell you to take your business somewhere else,” says Blank. Those lawn and landscape customers also drop off grass, leaves, brush, loam, concrete, etc., which the company recycles for use in other applications.
The company also offers its customers information on the products it sells. For example, a “Sustainable Lawn Care” workshop provides information on different organic materials and composts that are available to help improve the health of turfgrass. “If we can help educate our customers, they’re better off, and that makes us better off,” says Blank. “It’s just common sense.”
Organic Mulch & Landscape Supply of New England is the distributor for Pearl’s Premium grass seed in the Massachusetts area, so use of this product is an important part of the class, as well. “We want to educate the public on real green landscaping. Pearl’s Premium is a self-sustainable lawn,” states Blank. “It grows to 4 inches high, and that’s the highest it grows to. Normal grass is mowed at 3.25 to 3.5 inches, so you have at most a .5-inch to .75-inch difference at its tallest versus a mowed lawn, and it generally takes a month or more to grow that high.”
Blank says that Pearl’s Premium does grow very deep roots—a reported 12 to 14 inches versus 3 to 4 inches with traditional lawn grass. “Which means no need for irrigation or watering in the summer,” he states. “If you stick a shovel 3 or 4 inches into the ground, it’s dry as a bone. If you stick it 14 inches in the ground, it’s moist. That’s where the drought resistance comes in. And, two of its seeds create a natural fungus that repels insects. It’s really an excellent product.” In October 2010, Pearl’s Premium won a $50,000 prize in MIT’s MassChallenge to acknowledge the best start-up companies and best innovative concepts in the world.
At first, many lawn and landscape professionals attending the workshops are wary when they hear about the minimal mowing requirements touted by Pearl’s Premium, says Blank. “You’re really only cutting it once a month in the spring, and then two times in the fall and never in the summer. The only way you can kill this product is to mow it too often. We’re holding workshops to explain to landscapers that this new product is out there, and they can either adapt to it or fall behind on it,” he says.
Pearl’s Premium is applied like regular seed. “It’s 20 percent bluegrass, so it looks like regular grass; it doesn’t look thick and rough. It just has characteristics never seen before,” says Blank. “It’s been installed on more than 5,000 properties, and a lot of corporations are switching to it because it’s saving them 75 and 95 percent of their maintenance expenses a year.”
While reports of a down economy are commonplace, Blank says he hasn’t felt it. “Business is booming,” he reports, a fact he credits in part to offering environmentally friendly products, which are in demand now.
Blank says he also has worked hard to search out products in other parts of the country and world and introduce them to lawn and landscape pros in New England. “We hold workshops all the time. We’re not just selling them something. We’re standing behind our products and explaining why they’re better. Educating our customers is the key,” he explains. “Our job is to help them do their jobs well; that’s what keeps our business sustainable.”
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.