Struyk Turf combines lawn care and the legislature

How many people have a lawyer treating their weeds or a state representative aerating their lawn? For those living in southwest Iowa, the answer is quite a few. Doug Struyk, co-owner of Struyk Turf Maintenance, Inc. with his dad, Garry, is an attorney currently serving his third term in the Iowa State House of Representatives.

While the green movement may be sweeping the country, it’s nothing new for the Struyk family. Garry started the business in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in 1970, developing a granular-based turf maintenance program specific to the needs of area lawns. Doug says, “I started working on the truck routes when I was 12. During the summers when I was in high school, I’d start the day at 4:30 a.m., going to work with dad. Then, I’d take the afternoons off to play golf while he kept working.”

Doug earned a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Iowa State University in 1992. The first summer of college, he returned to work in the family business. The following summers, he worked on the ISU research farm. While in grad school, he did research and classes Mondays through Wednesdays, and then made the trip back home to work in the business Thursdays through Sundays.

Doug switched from his ISU grad studies focused on plant pathology, deciding instead to seek a law degree at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. He says, “I had taken some business law classes. Dad had served on the industry boards working on the administrative rules that resulted from the Clean Water Act. I thought the combination of horticulture and an understanding of the law would be a good mix for an industry facing regulation and scrutiny.”

Photos by Steve Trusty.
Garry Struyk pushes one of the Scotts spreaders used for granular applications. Doug Struyk, left, and Garry Struyk stand beside another form of their marketing: the company identification and the big phone number on their trucks.

He worked in the legal profession, clerking the three summers during law school prior to graduation, but still “helped out in the business when dad needed me.” He passed the bar in June of 1996, and then he accepted the position of state horticulturist with the Iowa Department of Agriculture.

“Dad and I kept talking about the business,” he says. “There was a good base of personnel that could help it expand, but he didn’t have quite the right mix to manage that growth. I came back into the business August 15, 1997, to make that happen.”

It was an interesting transition. According to Doug, Garry tested him to “make sure I was serious. He gave me the grubbiest aerator we had and sent me to the lawns. I lost 15 pounds my first 15 days on the job. But, I’d always worked on our equipment during Christmas break, taking the machines apart, checking for worn parts and rebuilding them, so I fixed that machine and outperformed everyone else.”

It took about two years and dedicated effort from both Struyks to sort out which areas of company operations each would handle. Additional changes were made when Doug was asked to run for office and then elected as representative of the 99th district.

Doug says, “Now, almost 11 years into the partnership, we’re very comfortable with what we’ve worked out. Dad handles day-to-day operations and does the book work every night. To provide the flexibility of scheduling I need as a representative, I’m my own crew. I handle all the sterilant applications and the ornamental plant beds and other specialty areas. We both do estimates and deal with any site or customer-related problems. We work together on the major decisions, such as personnel issues, product selection, services offered and overall company direction. I do a bit of legal consultation in my spare time. And, I still bring our crew in every winter to work over the equipment.”

Struyk Turf has expanded over the years, adding customers as well as services. Garry says, “We strive to be large enough to meet our customers’ needs, yet small enough to provide excellent service.” They currently have nine additional crew members. Two of these work in two-person teams and four individually to cover assigned routes. Another crew member concentrates on perimeter pest control and the newest added service, mole control. The area of service has been enlarged, covering about 2,800 square miles and reaching over state lines into sections of Omaha. One crew always works out of town, two crews split the Council Bluffs residential customers, and one crew services most of the commercial accounts, including the majority of the athletic fields. The rest of the crew covers residential accounts in various areas.

Doug Struyk with one of the Lesco backpack sprayers Struyk Turf Maintenance crews use for spot application for weed control.

The five-step lawn care program for fertility, weed and insect control still uses primarily granular applications. Liquid products are added for broadleaf weed control and yellow nutsedge. Additional services extend to late fall fertilization; seeding; tree and shrub fertilization; flea, tick and chigger control; mole control; soil amendment applications; and core and deep-tine aeration. Equipment includes Scotts spreaders, Lesco backpack sprayers, Ryan aerators and the 54-inch deep-tine aerator from Southern Turf Works.

The company maintains the high standards that Garry established back in 1970. He says, “Our applicators are certified professionals who are individually licensed by the Iowa Department of Agriculture as pesticide applicators and regularly attend educational seminars to remain knowledgeable of lawn care innovations. They are trained to apply every product correctly, to identify turfgrass problems and to complete applications at the proper time. One of the things that helps set us apart, and that we focus on throughout our operations, is that all these things be done in a courteous and professional manner.”

Doug’s role in the Iowa legislature allows him to provide input from the small business perspective. He asks the key question for every regulation proposed: “What ramifications will this have for small business?”

For example, a regulation for chemical lawn application as proposed called for notification no less than 24 hours and no more than 72 hours prior to the application of not only the property owner, but also every contiguous landowner. Doug says, “For residential areas, that could entail the three properties in front, the three properties in back, plus the two beside each site. Our crews generally treat about 100 lawns a day. That’s 900 phone calls. It’s typical of the types of regulations that impact small businesses in all industries—something that sounds good until you actually consider the mechanics and the expense.”

The same kind of examination of all the potential areas of impact guides the Struyks in making their own business decisions. They initially offered Christmas light installation and removal as a way to extend their season and keep up cash flow during the winter months. However, as that niche grew, it created conflict with late fall lawn service opportunities, and created an escalating liability risk with crew members up on ladders in less than ideal conditions.

Doug says, “When we broke down the numbers at the end of our seventh year in that niche, it no longer balanced out on the positive side. Because of the number of accounts, we had to start the installations by October 15 to complete them all by December 1. We were leaving too much lawn work on the table, and our mindset from the beginning has been to do nothing that might lose the turf customer. We dropped the light installation service and added a more aggressive late-fall fertilization and seeding marketing program. And, we purchased the deep-tine aerator and began providing that service for athletic fields and other commercial accounts.”

They started the mole control program in 2007 in response to a growing problem in their service area and the introduction of Talpirid by Bell Laboratories. Again, they explored the potential to make the right move. Doug says, “The crew member doing that work for us had actually been trapping moles for five years before we added this service. He’s developed a good eye for identifying the active feeding runs as compared to the traversing runs, so he can quickly determine where to treat.”

With this, and all services, Struyk Turf expands on their base. Garry says, “If you have someone who is buying one service from you, they’re your best potential customer for another service.” So, there’s a bit of direct advertising included in all correspondence. Inserts are included when an invoice is left at the property or mailed to the customer, and in every estimate and every mailer sent out during the year.

They use other avenues of promotion, too. Newspaper ads appear weekly from early spring through late fall. Company general information is included on their Web site, www.struykturf.com. The details of all the services offered are listed.

With the combination of technical know-how and business expertise, they’re savvy in maximizing their time as well. Another section on their Web site is “Commonly Asked Questions.” One question is, “How long should it take to make an application to my lawn?” The answer is, “Our sprayers and spreaders are calibrated to apply the correct amount of material when 1,000 square feet are covered per minute. The average lawn should take 10 minutes.”

In business, time is money, and these small business owners know it. Maybe more turf maintenance companies should consider putting a lawyer on their lawns.

Suz Trusty is a partner in Trusty & Associates, a communications and market research firm located in Council Bluffs, Iowa.