Farm boys grow up working the land and tackling daily chores revolving around crops, livestock and the “home place.” By the time they are 12 or so, they take on the responsibility of mowing the family’s lawn. That’s how it began for Brandon Buch, along with helping his dad on their 100-acre crop and hog operation just northeast of Fairfield, Iowa.
“My buddy and I started a lawn service the summer before our sophomore year in high school,” says Buch. “Our parents told us we needed to get a job. With a lawn service we could work outdoors, make a little money and still have some time to do kid stuff.”
Blue Ribbon Lawn and Landscape
Owner/Founder: Brandon Buch
Headquarters: Fairfield, Iowa
Markets: Fairfield, Iowa, and surrounding area, with some accounts in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines; and New Windsor, Illinois
Services: Mowing; lawn care including fertilization, weed, insect and disease control, aeration and turf establishment; plant and plant bed maintenance and mulching; irrigation design, installation and maintenance; landscape, hardscape and water feature design/build; outdoor lighting; snow removal; and holiday lighting
Employees: 15 peak season
Their grandparents became their first customers. As they drove their mowers from yard to yard, an acceptable practice within the small, close-knit community of 10,000 in the far southeast corner of Iowa, more people asked the two young workers to mow their yards. “In a few weeks, we had 15 yards. Then they started asking if we’d pull weeds or do some mulching. ‘Sure,’ we said,” relates Buch.
By mid summer of the next year they had 30 paying customers. “We could have had more, but we turned down quite a bit of business because we were kids and wanted to have fun,” he says. While word-of-mouth helped attract customers so did the family’s local ties. And it is a big family. Brandon is a triplet, he and two sisters. They have three younger siblings.
“Triplets were a big deal in our small town,” he says. “And I played sports and was involved in a lot of other activities in high school, so a lot of people knew who I was.”
It took a senior year job fair to bring the future into focus for Buch.
He explains: “My buddy headed for Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, and their landscape architecture program. I liked what I was doing, taking something and seeing how good I could make it look. So I decided on landscape management, attending Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa. It’s about 30 minutes away, so I stayed at home to save money, worked on the farm and kept the business going.”
His buddy helped out on his trips home, and the two friends worked during the summer after their freshman year. “At that point, he decided he’d rather concentrate on the LA side and I bought him out,” Buch says.
Then a glitch in his plans: Indian Hills dropped its landscape management program. So Buch transferred to Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a little over an hour from Fairfield. He moved to an apartment near campus, found a roommate to cut expenses, and made the trip back on weekends to keep up the business.
“It was tough but doable, and it kept me connected with my customers,” says Buch. “It also helped me focus on the full range of potential services I could offer.”
He expanded his studies, adding more business classes, plus classes on nursery and garden center management, irrigation, landscape design and hardscaping. After three semesters at Kirkwood, he’d earned his AAS degree and gained a solid foundation to take his business to the next level.
He launched Blue Ribbon Lawn and Landscape in the spring of 2012, retaining the customers of his ongoing maintenance operations and offering additional services: fertilization and weed, insect and disease control; landscaping and custom design/installation including water features, hardscaping and outdoor kitchens; outdoor lighting; irrigation design, installation and maintenance; holiday lighting and snow removal.
While Buch prided himself on only taking on jobs he could do extremely well, it wasn’t long before he overstepped himself.
“I need to price right and make a profit, but do that while putting the customer first,” he says. “If there is a problem, I will make it right, no matter what it takes.”
Fairfield is a good base for that plan. The economy is “pretty solid” according to Buch. While there will always be those looking for the cheapest price, there are many who want a great looking yard and are willing to pay what it takes to get that.
Outdoor living has moved beyond the front porch here. “People want upscale patios and outdoor kitchens with great views including water features and landscaping,” says Buch. “I do the design with 3-D imaging to walk them through the look of the finished project. As they spend more time outdoors, they develop higher expectations for the surrounding landscape, which leads to more business on the maintenance side.”
A manageable loss
Not everything that Buch did worked out well. For example, soon after getting his business off and running he added a garden center to it. With steady growth on all fronts, especially on the design/build side of hardscaping, something had to go.
“I had to look at the game plan compared to the realities. Running the nursery, with the buying, irrigation and plant care, was the biggest challenge,” he says. “I didn’t have the set-up it needed or anyone to run it with the dedication it takes. I didn’t want it operating at anything less than my standards. That would reflect poorly on me. I also saw the money I was putting into it would be better invested in other segments of the business.”
Thus as the 2013 spring season wound down, so did the garden center. “I was able to sell most of my plant inventory,” says Buch. “Though I did lose a bit in the process, it was a manageable hit. It’s an area I’d consider again, with the right circumstances and the right person to run it.”
Organized, yet flexible
Staffing reflects the flexibility and multi-tasking of the rural lifestyle. “It’s me, a couple buddies, an intern from Kirkwood, and lots of younger guys, not exactly full time.” Staffing hits 15 during peak season, and the skill sets vary, allowing Buch to put personnel where they fit, when they’re needed.
Buch wants the intern to see all sides of the business. His priority is matching him to areas where his help is needed and where he needs to learn. For some jobs, that requires Buch on site to teach and guide him. Some of the younger staffers need that same level of oversight.
Buch runs four crews. Though he loves the outside work, much of his time centers on management issues. “I keep track of what’s needed and get the jobs ready for the crews, make the contacts and do the design work, handle the ordering and communication.”
The mowing crew is comprised of three people. They start each day with a sheet of stops they’re to make in the order listed. Their truck, a GMC 2500 regular cab, pulls a 28-foot enclosed trailer fully equipped for mowing with three 34-hp, 62-inch Scag Turf Tiger mowers, one 42-inch Scag stand-up mower, a 21-inch Toro push mower, STIHL trimmers and an Echo they’re trying out, along with blowers and assorted hand tools.
“They mow all day; every day. The trailer stays hooked to that truck unless we need the truck for other jobs. We also use it for snow removal set up with a plow and sander,” Buch says. The hardscaping crew usually works with the one GMC 3500HD dump truck, the GMC Duramax, a skid loader, mini excavator and assorted shovels, levels, hammers and chisels. Staffing varies from two to four, with Buch guiding the work on the more complex jobs.
The maintenance crew trims bushes and handles everything on the plant materials side. That team ranges from two to three or four, depending on the day’s schedule. The landscape crew does the planting and most of the standard landscape maintenance, generally with a staff of two. Buch says, “I’ll often switch them to other jobs as needed, so this is more of a part – time crew. Both of these crews use a regular cab pickup and load their tools and equipment based on the jobs each day.”
I’ve got a buddy
Blue Ribbon doesn’t tackle the big tree work, though they do provide it for their customers. “I’ve got a buddy who owns a tree company,” says Buch. “So we contract that out through him.”
Another friend from school has switched from irrigation to other endeavors, but is on-call to assist Buch with complex irrigation projects on his days off.
“I have a brother with an AAS degree in carpentry,” says Buch. “That’s his side business. So if I have big projects that involve building decks or other wood features, we’ll work on them together.”
Buch puts five trucks in action for snow removal, along with a skid loader, a tractor and a sidewalk crew. It takes a staff of 10. “I tap my networking sources when it snows: teachers or buddies, my part-timers from warm-weather crews, retired folks, whoever wants to drive a truck or shovel a walk.”
He’s growing that network, and his customer base, through community involvement as an active member of the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce and the volunteer fire department.
In the office
Buch hired a part-time bookkeeper in 2012 to keep the accounting and taxes up to date. Analysis of the financial data led to officially making the company an LLC in 2014.
He’s hired his sister, a recent college graduate, for part-time assistance on the organizational side, and his girlfriend helps out, too. When they handle some of the tracking, follow-up for customer feedback and basic data management, it frees more time for Buch to focus on communication.
And, communication is key to Blue Ribbon’s continued growth. “We may have five or six major design/build projects going, but to each person, theirs is the only one. And they want to know how it’s going. It just takes minutes to give them a call and keep them in the loop, letting them know when a product is ordered, when it’s shipped, when it arrives, when we’ll start the installation. If they’re spending $50,000 with me on a job, it’s the least I can do. And it’s huge for them,” Buch says.
Maintaining that level of communication requires managed growth. While Buch is doing some business in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, it’s mainly for people he knows just to lay the groundwork for possible expansion into those markets. He also sends a crew to New Windsor, Illinois, to mow the Trans-Standard pipeline property. Each step forward is analyzed for feasibility, profitability and how well it fits his current and long-range business plan.
With growth comes greater reliance on others to deliver the level of service that meets his standards. “And that’s what keeps me up at night,” says Buch. His biggest challenge is finding the employees who can do, and want to do, what it takes to keep his customers happy. “My focus is keeping organized to insure that happens. I want each of my customers to see me as the person they rely on; to reach the point where they don’t ask for a bid, they ask for me.”