Class project turns into thriving business

A decade ago, Darin Bowers, then a student at Eastern Illinois University, wrote up a business plan for a lawn maintenance company as part of a class project. The concept was to emphasize professionalism and business fundamentals, and the business plan so impressed the teacher that he encouraged Bowers to run with the idea.

Nine years later, Pro-Mow Lawn Care, Inc., handles about 1,000 accounts in and around Charleston, Ill., and the company was recently honored with the Charleston Area Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business of the Year Award. Scott Bierman, general manager at Pro-Mow, says the award is a testament to Pro-Mow’s business philosophy, and a special honor for a company still relatively young and growing.

Pro-Mow Lawn Care, Inc. was initially created by owner Darin Bowers (right) as part of a college class project.Today, General Manager Scott Bierman (left) oversees the company’s 1,000 lawn maintenance accounts.

Currently, Pro-Mow’s customer base is about 60 percent residential and 40 percent commercial. During the peak season (April to November), the company employs about 20 to 25 full-time staff. During the winter months, that number shrinks to just a handful who stay onboard primarily to work on equipment maintenance and repair.

Bierman says that finding good employees who want to work a seasonal job is one of the company’s biggest challenges. “Many times they’ll find year-round work during the winter and they don’t always come back, and I understand—people have families they have to provide for. In most cases, our foremen come back, it’s the technicians we lose,” he explains. “A lot of our new employees come from word-of-mouth—our current employees talking to their friends and family and people they know—and they’re probably our best hiring tool, because our employees know what’s expected within our company, so they’ll know if someone is going to work out or not. We also run advertisements in the local newspapers, and there’s a university here in town, so I look there as well to find guys who are going to school and who might be looking for a seasonal job. We also use the unemployment office, it’s free and we get a pretty good response out of that.”

Things start to get busy again for Pro-Mow around mid-March, and it’s important to have employees in place at that time. “We do a lot of training before the season gets going,” explains Bierman. “About one week before we get started, I’ll have everyone come in for a few days to get used to the equipment and give them a chance to ask any questions they might have.”

Even for those with prior lawn care experience, the hands-on time with the equipment is important because it gives Pro-Mow a chance to teach them the company’s own lawn maintenance techniques. “We teach them how to weed-eat properly, so they’re not walking around the house any more than they have to. We have ways to edge driveway and beds so you’re not always backtracking. Then, with our mowing, there are certain patterns that we try to incorporate into certain yards with our striping kits,” Bierman says.

The training also covers basics such as how to trim with a weed-eater without going all the way down to the dirt, but Bierman says much of the training is really focused on efficiency. “For most of the employees, the quality will come in a couple weeks as they get used to each individual property, but speed is something you really need to teach them. In our nine years in business, we’ve found ways to do a good job quickly, and in this industry, time is money. You can’t spend half an hour walking every yard looking for what needs to be done,” he says.

With 1,000 lawns to maintain, scheduling is a critical factor in operating efficiently. “We use CLIP software,” says Bierman. “Everything is set up on a four-day-per-week schedule. Every Monday, for example, all of the mowing crews have a certain route to follow. If a lawn on that route doesn’t need to be mowed, it will be the following Monday before they’re back there.”

The company has six mowing crews, two “project crews” that handle shrub pruning and mulching, and two crews that focus on fertilization. Each crew is a two-man operation: one foreman and one technician working together. Crews work that way Monday through Thursday, generally putting in 10-hour days. “Friday is an alternate/makeup day,” Bierman adds. “If we got rained out one day or whatever has happened, Friday gives us a day to try to make up that time.”

A special two-man weekend crew works on Saturday or Sunday to handle some of the bigger commercial mowing accounts that Pro-Mow cares for. “We do those on weekends to help ensure we don’t bother the businesses. The guys who work on the weekends have other full-time jobs during the week—they do the mowing for some extra money,” says Bierman. This strategy keeps the equipment busy on the weekends and avoids the need to pay the regular week crew for overtime hours.

Pro-Mow uses a fleet of Exmark zero-turn mowers with 56 or 60-inch decks. “We used to lease the mowers every two years, but in the last few years we’ve phased out of that program and have begun buying the mowers,” says Bierman. “Part of the reason we’ve decided to do that is because we now have a mechanic who comes in three days per week, about every other day or so, to sharpen blades, change the oil and look the equipment over. If the guys have problems out on a property, they can call him and he can make a special trip out to look at it.”

Bierman says Pro-Mow intentionally uses one brand of mowers and has recently begun to further simplify its equipment inventory. “We’ve always had Exmark, but we used to have a number of different size decks,” he explains. “The problem is that when you start ordering blades or oil filters, it becomes a challenge. We’ve gone to just two deck sizes, which takes away a lot of the worry about whether we have the right parts on hand.”

The same philosophy is applied to the rest of the equipment the company uses. All of the trimmers, edgers, blowers, etc., are Stihl. “As much wear and tear as we put on them, we still have some blowers that are seven years old and they’re working just fine,” Bierman praises. “The key is to buy good quality equipment and then keep up with the maintenance.”

Pro-Mow purchases its equipment from MLB Outdoor Products in Charleston. “They’re great, if the guys have a problem during the day they can stop by there and they’ll drop everything to get it fixed. Or, our guys can call them when they’re out in the field if there’s a problem with some piece of equipment, and they’ll try to talk them through some of the different things to look for. We spend a lot of money with them, and they know that if we’re not out there mowing, we’re not making money,” says Bierman.

Pro-Mow uses all white Ford F-150 trucks. “Just about every year we purchase a new one and substitute it into the fleet,” says Bierman. Just as the company places an emphasis on efficiency when mowing lawns, it also creates each year an account schedule that routes crews efficiently through different neighborhoods, ensuring there is no backtracking during the week. This helps keep mileage on the trucks to a minimum—critical with fuel prices as high as they are.

All employees wear company uniforms of jeans and polo shirts. “We’ve spent a lot of time building up our image over the years, and that’s what our customers recognize,” says Bierman. He says he’s observed some of the other lawn care companies in the area beginning to follow some of Pro-Mow’s strategies for creating a professional image. “I think they’ve seen how successful it can be when you run a lawn care company like a professional business. We don’t really do any marketing at all. The only marketing we do is our 14 trucks driving around with our company information on them, and we also volunteer our services to help maintain a local nature center and a couple historical societies in town. Some of our longest customers have heard about us this way, but our biggest source of advertisement is word-of-mouth from existing customers.”

When the local newspaper ran an article about Pro-Mow’s designation as Small Business of the Year, “We got so many nice letters from existing customers, and we’ve had a number of inquiries from perspective customers. Now, when we show up to meet with them, they don’t want to talk about their yard. They want to talk about our business,” Bireman says.

Right now, Pro-Mow is considering enlarging its existing garage facility to handle additional employees and equipment. “There are 6 or 7 acres that we own on this site, so there’s plenty of room to expand,” says Bierman. A bigger facility would allow the company to continue growing its business, he says. “We’re always looking to expand. As long as there’s more work out there, we’ll go after it.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer andeditor who is always on the lookout forinteresting and unusual stories.