N.C. entrepreneur Mark Lay reflects what he’s learned in 30 years of running AATex-Lawn

AATex-Lawn Co.

Officers: President Mark Lay, COO Cory Lay, Bill Neave, Client Services Billy Everhardt, Operations Manager Albert Hernandez, Office Manager Lisa Shaffer, Production Manager Robert Mullis, Office Coordinator Lori Austin

Founded: 1980

Headquarters: Indian Trail, N.C.

Markets: Charlotte and surrounding counties and communities

Services: Turf management, plants & tree care, irrigation, floraculture, snow & ice management, aquatic management, landscape lighting, storm cleanups, landscape renovation and design, installations, hardscapes, drainage and lawn care

Employees: 55 peak season

Website: www.aatexlawn.com

Mark Lay admits he doesn’t like change. Still, the president and chief executive officer of AATex-Lawn Co. has developed a knack for rolling with the punches during his 30-plus years in business.

Not surprisingly, Mother Nature has forced the company to make some of these changes. After a recent season of record rainfall seriously hampered production, Lay and his partner/brother Cory called in consultants to help them get them back on track. Then they and other landscape company owners in their market battled through two consecutive years of drought. More recently, the 2008-2009 recession and the sputtering, uncertain economy it spawned in its wake have added new challenges.

These days, Lay measures success by personal growth, as well as the bottom line. However, he says he’s not encouraging his three children (two daughters and a son) to become entrepreneurs.

Still, Lay has a career he can honestly say he loves. He won’t say the same about his other early start in the job market as a mechanic.

“When you’re working on people’s cars and you get everything buttoned up for them, they always feel like you’ve cheated them,” he observes. “I didn’t like that. I had been cutting grass for about 10 years at that point, and people were always glad when you got done. It just seemed to have a spreading emotional high for everybody and I liked that.”

Just bumpin’ along

Lay began AATex-Lawn Co. in 1980, and he says it “bumped along” with a few employees doing a mix of residential and commercial work in the greater Charlotte, N.C., area over next decade and better.

When the Lay brothers developed and began following a business plan their company started heading in the right direction.

Its only major change came in 1990, when Cory joined the operation after his discharge from the navy. Today, Cory is vice president and chief operations officer (COO) and supervises operations in the field while his older brother handles administration.

By the end of the 1990s, the Lay brothers were working with PLANET (the Professional Landcare Network) and trying to figure out how to grow their business. Then, in 2002, disaster struck.

“It rained about twice as much as it’s supposed to in seven months,” says Lay. “We had not lost a customer. We had fulfilled more than our obligation to every job, and we were broke, just totally broke.”

Because of their PLANET contacts, they had been exposed to the idea of hiring a financial consultant, and they decided they needed just that sort of help. However, it wasn’t easy.

Brothers Mark, left, and Cory Lay divide responsibilities in their Charlottte, based operation. Mark handles administration while Cory focuses on field operations.

“It was hard for us to ask for help, to realize that maybe we didn’t know all the answers,” says Lay. “We tell the story that it was so hard on us to ask for help that when we got done with the phone call we had to lie down on the floor because we were exhausted.”

Ultimately, the brothers were able to put together a business plan and a budget. They were also told to get out and sell their services. For each of the next three years, the business doubled.

The company still operates off a three-year plan, although Lay says looking that far down the road isn’t always easy. And, change has continued to be the order of the day, particularly in 2008 when Wells Fargo acquired the Charlotte-based Wachovia, a huge presence in their Charlotte market. The phones stopped ringing, says Lay.

Charlotte, N.C., which lies in the so-called transition zone, presents unique challenges for keeping home lawns attractive. In recent years the challenges have been compounded with cyclical seasons of drought and heavy rains.

Today, “We know where we’d like to go in three years, but with gas at almost $4 a gallon, we try to be optimistic, but flexible,” he says.

The important stuff

Optimism and flexibility are most evident in how AATex-Lawn is making it through this on-again, off-again economic recovery.

“We have totally focused on what’s important here, and I mean totally,” Lay says. “The first year, we reorganized and made some cuts and we thought, ‘We’ll barely make it like this.’ But, every year since then we’ve done some until I think we’ve got a great business model and operating way more efficiently. Our overhead is way down.”

Today, the litmus test is this: is the customer paying for this?

“We used to have a cleaning service that cost $150 a month,” he relates. “We had a discussion about who was going to do the cleaning without a cleaning service; it was never going to get done. I laugh about that now because we haven’t had the cleaning service for four years, and it’s not a big deal.”

Services such as design/build were put on a back burner along with other items Lay describes as “our extra work.”

However, a lot of the company’s slimming diet took place inside the walls of its 12,000-square-foot headquarters.

“We’ve taken our management roles and made them management/sales, and we’ve taken administrative roles and made them customer service/administrative roles,” Lay explains. “The business model has changed. We used to have a little piece of pie for sales and a big piece for management, but now all our management is sales. The same is true with administration. Through technology we’ve gotten more customer service people.”

The bottom line: “It really brings what’s important into view, and that’s a good thing.”

Lay believes things are starting to look up. If nothing else, he says this past summer saw more people doing more in their yards than in recent years.

“They’ve been getting trees and shrubs replaced and doing small landscape jobs,” he says. “I think people are seeing a little more consumer confidence and they’re willing to tackle the patio, the retaining wall, the drainage work or improving the quality of their turf.”

However, after pruning his design staff because of the economy, he’s also beginning to build that back up again. A recent acquisition brought two more account managers and a landscaper to the company, and Lay feels that expertise will help AATex-Lawn get back to doing the smaller projects that are growing in demand.

It’s a position he likes to be in. Acquisitions have added spray service clients and beefed up the company’s share of residential business. His company operates over a 50 square mile area and is capable of providing just about any service that clients might want, including landscape lighting and aquatics.

“We started in commercial mowing, but as the business grew we wanted to better serve our customers,” he explains. “We didn’t want to have people using us for one thing and somebody else for something else.”

Who doesn’t recognize a crew/training room? Just about every landscape company of any size has a similar one, complete with schedule boards, file cabinets and, of course, a large plastic water container. Here, Mark Lay meets with the troops.

While Lay would definitely like to see the business grow from its current 55 employees and 20 crews, he says his greatest success may be his own personal growth and what he needs to know to be the person who gets things done for AATex-Lawn.

“I would have taken making a little more money along with it,” he says. “But, I feel pretty successful in that part of it. I’ve learned a lot and I’ve been able to help my kids with knowledge and perspective.”

And, that includes being a little wary of entrepreneurship, mainly because of the time and effort it’s taken from his family and his personal relationships. Still, whatever his kids end up doing, his main advice is to have a plan and then persevere.

“You’ve got to be dedicated to your goal,” Lay concludes. “It doesn’t matter what you do. Procrastination and self-justification don’t have anything to do with success; it’s results.”

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