Teen mowing job turns into professional career

Natural landscaping elements are used in a water feature on this lawn.
Photos courtesy of Kurt’s Turf.

Kurt Knaack owns Kurt’s Turf (www.kurtsturf.com) in St. Charles, Ill., and provides lawn care and landscaping services in the western Chicago suburbs. He employs two crews regularly, adding a third crew during the busier lawn care season. About 75 percent of his work is lawn care maintenance with the remaining 25 percent in landscaping and hardscape design work. Services include everything from mowing to overseeding, fertilizing, aeration, weeding and fall cleanup, as well as plant installation and maintenance, and hardscape design and build projects.

Kurt’s Turf provides services in a 30-mile radius in Chicago’s western suburbs, mostly in Kane and DuPage counties. As Chicagoland has expanded farther west, the number of homes throughout the western suburbs has increased with rural areas between established cities giving way to residential developments. Although development has pretty much come to a standstill these days, the customer base has remained strong for Knaack with his long history of reliability. And, changing demographics have increased the customer base as more people find less time to do their own yard maintenance.

“The economic slowdown hasn’t affected us as much as I thought it might,” Knaack said. “Actually, the economic slowdown has helped us in the landscaping work. I think people sometimes realize they aren’t going to be moving and want to fix up their homes by adding special features.” Lawn services have also not been significantly affected. Although the Chicagoland area has had a significant number of foreclosures, and some customers have been lost due to moves, new customers have been added, keeping the number of maintenance accounts about the same.

Knaack established his lawn mowing customer base at the age of 13 and maintained it through high school. Upon entering college, he relied on his parents, Keith and Roberta Knaack, a great deal to help with the mowing to retain his customers while he earned a business management degree at Northern Illinois University. “My parents helped out a lot,” he said. “My dad always helped with the repair and since he’s retired, he continues to do that, and my mom takes care of the office work and phone calls.”

Perennials are used extensively in residential landscaping.

A number of Kurt’s Turf customers are on contract for complete lawn care, which includes a four-treatment lawn program, and others are on contract for regular mowing. Other customers call for mowing while on vacation or mowing for special events. Landscaping and hardscape construction work has gradually increased and become a significant portion of his business.

When Knaack began mowing yards to earn his own money as a teenager, he began building customer relations, some of which remain today. “One thing that’s different is that for a long time people were hiring me because they knew me. I don’t have that same relationship with newer customers. Our newer customers are hiring us for the quality job we do and our timely operation. They want the job done professionally.”

Knaack used to hand out flyers to advertise his business, but now most customers come through word-of-mouth referrals and people seeing employees of the company working in their neighborhoods.

Concern about all work being done professionally is high on Knaack’s list of priorities. “In the beginning, I was doing it all myself,” he said. “I had a small mower and few complaints.”

Knaack cited rain as the biggest challenge to his work. “Sometimes we get really backed up on lawns. We try to do our best not to mow when yards are wet, but there are definitely times that we have to go in and mow.”

The newer, faster equipment used by the company means more lawns can be mowed in less time. Still, despite the increase in business, Knaack remains focused on high-quality work and customer satisfaction.

He noted that the bigger, heavier equipment now can create problems when yards are wet. “My first mower was a Scag 36-inch walk-behind, and that’s what we still prefer for small areas and along fences. We use a Toro 52-inch rider zero-turn. It’s bigger and heavier and can create problems if the yards are wet. I try to train employees to stay out of areas that can cause problems. We also use an Exmark walk-behind that’s not as heavy as the 52-inch rider, and can be better. The employees like our Wright Stander a lot, though customers sometimes have issues when the yards are wet.”

Employee training is an important aspect in assuring that work is completed to meet his high standards. “It’s a fine line with employees. I try to allow them to find ways to do things better. It’s hard to give up control. We have good employee relations, and try to treat them well.” While there is some cross-assignment for the lawn care crew in mowing, trimming and mulching, the hardscape crew is mostly dedicated to that work.

Rock and mulch are combined with turf for an appealing landscape.

New work has to be carefully scheduled. “We try to keep enough work for our employees, but not lower our standards to get it done,” he said.

Knaack said that mulch is significant in his landscape work and is usually replaced or upgraded each spring. He recently started having mulch delivered by semi-loads to a temporary holding site at his home where his crews can pick it up as needed for individual projects.

Upgrading older-style landscaping in older homes is a major focus of the company. “People used to have yews with everything green,” Knaack said. “Now they want more the perennials with color, and low maintenance is important. They want their yards to look nice, but want low maintenance or someone to do the maintenance.”

With today’s interest in more extensive hardscapes and outdoor kitchens, Kurt’s Turf is performing an increasing amount of hardscape work. “People began asking me to do different things,” said Knaack, “so I learned how to build retaining walls and do other hardscape work.” He uses primarily Unilock products in his hardscape projects.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and has been covering the green industry for Turf for almost 20 years. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.