In his 35th year in the industry, this successful Springfield, Ill., operator isn’t about to hang it up
Jack Robertson, president of Robertson Lawn Care, Inc., Springfield, Ill., greatly enjoys providing lawn care. He enjoys working with people to solve their special lawn issues and delivering the service. But, his favorite part of the business is developing promotions to keep his company growing.
Jack Robertson discusses growth at Robertson Lawn Care, Inc.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF ROBERTSON LAWN CARE.
Robertson Lawn Care, Inc.
Owner: Jack Robertson
Headquarters: Springfield, Ill.
Markets: Springfield, Ill., and surrounding communities
Services: Fertilizer and weed control applications, grub control, and aeration
Employees: 7 full-time, year-round; 12 peak season
Robertson, 56, is now in his 35th year of operation, and has no plans to retire and sit on a beach. “I expect to work as long as I’m healthy and able to do so. I’m not looking for a door out,” he says.
He attributes much of his satisfaction in his work to his avoiding the excessive hours sometimes associated with green industry work. “I’ve never worked the 50 or 60 hours that some people talk about,” he says. “I don’t try to do everything myself. One of the things that people have to do is to delegate, to trust other people to do their jobs.”
Robertson worked in the lawn care industry during summer while in college. He bought a lawn care business and launched Robertson Lawn Care in 1977. He finished his bachelor’s degree in agronomy at Western Illinois University while running the business, and his company continued to grow each year. He bases that growth on meeting customers’ expectations. “It’s being real about the customers’ expectations and what we can do. We don’t promise what we can’t deliver,” he says.
A number of elements contribute to beautiful lawns, and Robertson points out that his lawn care firm is only one-third of the equation.
“We deal with customers’ care of their lawns, and with Mother Nature who throws us curves,” he says. He cites the current spring 2012 weather as a prime example. “We were already into May-type weather by the end of March,” he said. “We had no winter snow and no spring rains.” The Midwest had record low snowfall during the winter of 2011-12. Normally April is the busiest time for lawn care companies, but Robertson Lawn Care was into its busy time in mid-March, which is in line with this year’s early blossoming times that are running three to four weeks ahead of average.
Robertson field techs always wear the firm’s distinctive red shirts.
While referrals are always important in the lawn care business, Robertson emphasizes that his customer referrals are based on the quality job that his company performs rather than on customer incentives. In addition to keeping the name of his company visible, he relies on awareness that his company provides high-quality service.
Robertson realizes that he’s been extremely fortunate in keeping quality people within his organization. “Brian Cox, who was with us 30 years, moved to Minnesota this year, but we have Mike Harris who has been with us 31 years, Paul Kittilstad 12 years, and our office manager, Debbie Barry, 11 years,” Robertson says.
“I consider that I work alongside people, not that they work for me,” he says. “Flexibility is one of our really important benefits. If people want days off, all they have to do is tell me and they will have those days off.” Robertson also notes that employees do not have quotas. If his technicians want to spend some extra time with customers that’s fine with him. He’s convinced they contribute more in the way of good will for the company than treating a few extra square feet those days.
Robertson Lawn Care employees seven full-time, year-round employees, and averages about 12 workers during its peak season.
“We make our last application in December, and take two weeks off for Christmas,” Robertson says. “We come back in January and start working on our spring schedules.” Seasonal staff members are paired with experienced staff who provide hands-on training. Robertson’s wife Debbie works in the office, and his daughter Samantha occasionally works in the business, as well.
Robertson considers company visibility very important, and encourages activities that keep the name of Robertson Lawn Care before potential customers. “Our offices are very visible, and we encourage people to come into our offices. Often they bring in prepay checks, and they can see where we are, and see our offices and our equipment,” he says.
The company does various promotions throughout the year. One of his favorite is working with the local sports radio station offering two free open day St. Louis Cardinals tickets. And, two years ago, he sent out Thanksgiving cards to his most loyal customers and invited them to come into the office and pick up free pumpkin pies. Of the 200 cards his company delivered, 113 customers picked up pumpkin pies. Last year, he sent thank-you notes in the spring to all of his customers thanking them for their business. “We didn’t include any promotional sales in the cards, just a simple thank-you for their business,” says Robertson.
Robertson Lawn Care also advertises on unique billboard displays and on bus route benches. He says that innovative marketing projects, such as donating packages to silent auctions for various organizations, are ways to get the company’s name out there. “We don’t donate lawn care, but rather family fun packages that my wife, Debbie, puts together,” he says.
Challenges to success
In spite of the national 2008 recession, the economy of the Springfield market, because it’s the Illinois state capital, remained relatively stable. Even so, some customers adjusted their lawn care spending. “Customers may decide to do fewer applications, and we are flexible in the number of applications. We do make sure they understand that their results may not be the same,” says Roberson. Also, the lack of new home construction in his market has reduced opportunities for new business, he admits, adding that this has made customer retention a bigger issue than ever before.
While the state of the economy is always a concern for contractors, Robertson says that the weather remains the number one challenge in delivering services. “We can’t control the weather,” he says.
Robertson Lawn Care is big on service, not gimmicks.
Also, like everyone else in the lawn care business, he’s dealing with increased fuel and product costs. “We raise prices to offset increased costs,” he says. “But I don’t include fuel surcharges as fuel prices increase. Our accounts are mostly prepaid, and my increased costs in delivering those services are not the customers’ problems.”
Although technology has changed the way businesses are managed, Robertson emphasizes that his use of technology has been gradual. “I don’t want to become too dependent on technology. We need to be in constant contact and the phone is still the most important contact. People can get estimates and schedule online, but I want customers to call us, so I can talk to them and let them get to know me,” he says.
“Not that much has changed in my 35 years in the industry. We’re still spreading granular fertilizer and preemergent weed control, and we’re still spraying for weeds, using much of the same type of equipment,” he notes. Robertson purchases most of his products from John Deere Landscapes in Springfield.
One thing that Robertson emphasizes is the networking benefit of the professional lawn care organizations. He is a member of the Illinois Professional Lawn Care Association and the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET). He has served as a national board member of Professional Lawn Care Association of America (PLCAA) in the 1990s. PLCAA and Associated Landscape Contractors of American joined forces to form PLANET, a more encompassing network of green industry professionals.
In spite of the Midwest’s unpredictable weather, in spite of rising fuel and product costs, in spite of economic turmoil or uncertainty, professional lawn care is here to stay, Robertson is convinced.
“We expect to continue to grow. There’s room for growth throughout the lawn care industry including do-it-yourself lawn care,” he says convincingly.
Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer from Mt. Zion, Ill., and has been covering the green industry for Turf for more than 20 years. You can contact her at NFRIGGS@aol.com.