Advice from those in the industry

Gary Schnupp, center, owns Schnupp’s ProLawn Care in Lititz, Pa. He stands with his two employees, Derek Salmi and Eric Miller. He advises those going into the business to have a working knowledge of turf and ornamentals.
Photos by Wendy Komancheck unless otherwise noted.

Doug and Deb Keener, owners of Clean Cut, Inc. (www.cleancutinc.com) in Lancaster, Pa., have been in business for 22 years. The Keeners decided to go into business because they enjoyed working outdoors, so they quit their jobs and “jumped in with both feet,” says Doug.

Keith Breneman, owner of Breneman’s Landscaping, Stevens, Pa., has been in business for 10 years. He realized that he could make more money as a landscaper with his own company than he could working for someone else. “After college, I looked for jobs, but the pay wasn’t there to work for anyone else,” he says.

Breneman decided to open his own business. While he was in high school, he got experience by mowing lawns and working for a landscape company. “It just grew from there,” he says.

After high school, Breneman went to Pennsylvania College of Technology, where he graduated with a two-year degree in landscape and nursery technology.

Keith Breneman of Breneman’s Landscaping in Stevens, Pa., gets ready to plow during Pennsylvania’s 2010 Blizzard.

Chris Keyes of N and Z Landscaping (http://nzlandscaping.com) in Lancaster, Pa., relates that owner, Craig Zimmerman, “was working for another landscaping company. He and another employee decided to start their own business due to the amount of layoff time.”

Gary Schnupp, Schnupp’s ProLawn Care, Inc., Lititz, Pa., learned to set boundaries on how much work he and his crew would take on at any one time. He has the ability to control the destiny of his business, which is one of the reasons why he loves being an entrepreneur. “I discovered a need to manage turf on my own and become an independent business owner,” he says.

Schnupp also realized that he had more earning potential as an independent lawn care provider. The credentials he earned through Penn State’s turfgrass management program boost his reputation, and cemented his knowledge on turf needs and plant names. He found that his customers appreciate his plant know-how and trust him because of his knowledge and credentials.

Diversification

“I don’t have my eggs in one basket,” Breneman says. He has a mix of clients that include homeowner associations (HOAs), commercial properties and referrals from a local construction company that keep him and his staff busy.

Keith Breneman specializes in hardscaping. Here is a wall that he built for a local construction company.
Photo courtesy of Jackie Breneman.

“There’s plenty of work for all of us. I’m a personalized service. I’ll be out on the job site 90 percent of the time. People like that,” Breneman says.

Breneman gets about 35 percent of his work from a local construction company, where this contact has helped him meet new HOA clients. Breneman’s commercial clients include a local trucking company and a flooring company. “I like commercial properties because I can do everything for them: lawn care, landscape beds, trim shrubs. One person to do all of their work, [including] snow removal.”

N and Z Landscaping also provides snow removal services. Having a nursery at their site also helps to draw in new customers. They provide landscape design and installation, hardscaping and pond installation.

A landscape design including hardscapes and softscapes, courtesy of Breneman’s Landscaping.
Photo courtesy of Jackie Breneman.

Clean Cut furnishes its customers with “anything to do with maintaining your property, as well as design.” The Keeners have diversified their services to offer snow removal for commercial properties and other lawn care services. They also offer a professional holiday lighting service as an addition to the landscape business. Deb adds, “We also have a business called Weed Man, applications for lawns, fertilizer and weed control.”

“We opted out [of snow removal services] during the blizzard of ’96,” says Schnupp, because a vacation had to be cut short so he could return home to remove snow. The added stress and unpredictability of snow in south central Pennsylvania made this service a burden rather than an off-season moneymaker for him.

Hiring practices

Breneman and Schnupp both commented on how hiring dependable employees can be tricky. Early in, both experienced hiring headaches. However, both are pleased with the people who they now employ. Schnupp has two full-time employees, and his part-time help includes his wife, Ronda, the office manager, and Michelle Garber, who works part-time in the office.

Breneman has three full-time workers and hires college students on a part-time basis during the summer months. He opts not to hire high school students because of maturity issues. “The work ethics aren’t there,” Breneman says.

N and Z Landscaping hires three full-time and two seasonal employee, and Clean Cut has two full-time and five seasonal employees. To cut costs during the recent recession, Keener says, “We scaled back on employees.”

Getting the job done

Every lawn and landscape business needs equipment. However, when you’re starting out, there’s not a lot of money to buy these high-priced items. Some options include small business loans, renting equipment or buying used equipment.

Breneman owns four commercial mowers; three pickups, two with plow attachments; a dump truck; five weed eaters; three hedge trimmers; and a skid loader. He didn’t start out with all this equipment, however. He advises new business owners to buy new commercial mowers when they’re starting out “because breakdowns can cost money and time.” He recommends renting equipment that is only used occasionally. Plus, Breneman says that one mower is good enough to start with in the beginning. He also advises purchasing one push mower and one weed eater.

Schnupp specializes in lawn and ornamental tree and shrub care, so his equipment is specialized for those jobs. He owns three pickups, a van, two trailers, a tree and shrub spraying unit on another trailer; five PermaGreen ride-on sprayer/spreaders; a ride-on aerifier; two walk-behind aerifiers; a tow-behind aerifier; and an additional ride-on sprayer/spreader.

“Concentrating now on what best fits our niche. It’s not as labor-intensive as landscaping. And, quite frankly, can be more profitable,” Schnupp says. His clients are HOAs, residential and some commercial customers. He has his Pennsylvania applicator’s license, categories six and seven, which cover lawn care and ornamental trees and shrubs.

Breneman’s landscape business is evolving into perfecting a specialized service, too. Breneman loves to construct hardscapes. He says, “It’s adding another room to their house without moving. People are a little quicker to spend money on their own homes.”

He’s found that word-of-mouth advertising has helped him when it comes to growing the hardscape segment of his business.

A landscape bed designed and installed by Breneman’s Landscaping.
Photo courtesy of Jackie Breneman.
A cabana that Breneman’s Landscaping built.
Photo courtesy of Jackie Breneman.

Keener uses the phone book, the Better Business Bureau and the newspaper; N and Z uses local magazine and newspaper advertisements to get the word out about their businesses. Schnupp uses the yellow pages, a $30 credit referral and sporting club sponsorships. “Word-of-mouth is always best. Newspapers simply don’t work,” he says.

Pearls of wisdom

Advice to those considering going into the lawn care or landscape business.

Keyes says, “Be prepared to work very hard, not only physically, but mentally.”

“Know what you’re doing before you do it,” Schnupp says. “People are going to notice” if you don’t know what you’re talking about in the business. He also says to keep time for yourself and family to make it for the long haul and to avoid burnout.

Breneman says, “Ease yourself into business.” Don’t take on so much work that you can’t complete a quality job.

The current economy can cause anxiety for business owner, but owning a business in the lawn and landscape industry is possible with smart thinking, good ethics and fiscal responsibility. These time-tested values also help those already in business for themselves to weather this storm for long-term prosperity and success.

10 Tips for Planning Your Business

Before you hang out your sign, be sure you know what it takes to go into business for yourself. Contacting your local SCORE chapter is an affordable avenue to writing a business plan, making up a business budget and designing a marketing strategy.

SCORE offers the following tips on becoming an entrepreneur:

  1. Clarify your business’ purpose and set goals for your business.
  2. Define how passionate you are about the lawn care and landscape field.
  3. Understand that you’re going to work hard and long hours in the beginning, so you should be willing to commit to your business for the long haul.
  4. Know your competition by completing a competitive analysis. Research how many other lawn care and landscaping businesses are in your local city, county, region and state. Then, look at your overhead, such as how much you need to spend on promotions, advertising, distribution, quality and service. Can you keep up and/or exceed your competition?
  5. Create a brand and show the world your professional image. You can do this simply with a professional logo, business cards and stationery.
  6. Get a Web site—SCORE suggests that you make getting a Web site a top priority because it’s the modern version of a calling card. “Give people a place to go to learn about your business.”
  7. Get that first sale under your belt, even if it’s from friends and family. One sale leads to more sales.
  8. Get folks to give you testimonials from your early customers. Post them on your Web site and promotional literature.
  9. Find ways to get the word out that you’re in business. You can do that through promotions, e-mail campaigns or other marketing techniques.
  10. Don’t be an island. SCORE says: “Seek help from current business owners, professionals, financial institutions, vendors, government agencies and trade associations. SCORE counselors are a great source for free, professional advice on starting your own business,” from SCORE’s “Start Your Business on the Path to Success with SCORE, www.score.org/newsroom_path_to_success.html .

The author is a freelance writer based in Ephrata, Pa. She writes for various trade magazines focusing on landscape companies, agriculture and business.