Lawn care powerhouse gives employees the incentive and the freedom go keep growing


Owner: Brad Johnson
Mission statement: To please our customers so much they’ll tell others about us.
Founded: 1999
Headquarters: Tulsa, Okla.
Markets: Tulsa metropolitan area, Bartlesville and northeast Oklahoma
Services: Weed control and fertilization. Optional services include lawn insect control, mole control, core aeration, PrimoMaxx turf growth regulation, soil testing, liquid SuperSoil aeration, turf disease control, fescue grass seeding, weed control in ornamental beds, fall tree and shrub fertilization, snow removal, Christmas lights, and azalea and photinia maintenance
Employees: 41

Brad Johnson reflects on the importance of planning, which he feels is essential to any endeavor’s success, especially one with an incredibly lofty goal, like the one he set for himself in 2010. “I had a detailed plan. It was too detailed and I had to improvise as the journey went on. But I knew where I was going. I knew why I was doing it. That was the key to success,” he says

Johnson, founder and president of LawnAmerica in Tulsa, Okla., is speaking of his 2,175-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail to raise money for five charities. Yet, Johnson also speaks in the broader sense of his business, which has grown steadily since he started it. This year, he expects LawnAmerica to bill $5.2 million.

Johnson has never let the grass grow under his feet throughout his adult life. He taught middle school science, but his desire to be outdoors – coupled with trying to raise a family on a teacher’s pay – led him to leave teaching and become the owner of a professional lawn application company. He bought a franchise operation, but later decided he preferred to be his own boss. In 1984, he started his own company out of his garage.

Brad Johnson attributes the success of Lawn- America to its company values and the employees who buy into them.

He learned more about the business, and after 10 years got involved with franchising again, this time selling his independent business to a national franchise. But he didn’t retire and he didn’t leave the industry. A month later, he set up shop again in two Oklahoma and one northwest Arkansas locations, neither of which competed in the market he previously served.

Lawn care gypsy

Three years of life on the road and being away from his family prompted him to sell those operations and return to teaching, where he took up a post at a Tulsa inner city school. When the non-compete agreement expired, Johnson returned to doing what he loved best: lawn care. He called that company (the one he now owns and operates) LawnAmerica and focused on weed control and fertilization. The company offers various levels of lawn application services, from basic to premium.

Johnson says this company is a better company than any previous company he’d operated. He attributes its success to the company values and to his employees who buy into them.

“I try to get our employees to operate as if they were owners,” Johnson says. “We give employees quite a bit of autonomy, freedom and responsibility, and trust that they will approach their clients with an owner’s mindset.

“We expect a lot from them, but we treat them well and they treat our customers well,” he adds. “They make 30 percent higher wages over the course of the season than the typical lawn care company employee. Because of that, they do a great job.” Half of the firm’s work force holds a college degree, and not necessarily related to horticulture or agronomy. LawnAmerica’s employee retention rate has been an incredible 92 percent over the past few years.

“That makes a difference in quality, profits and growth. This is the place where people want to work. There’s not a week that goes by where I don’t receive an application from a competitor’s employee. We’re very selective in who we choose.”

LawnAmerica’s staff getting ready to treat one of the many city parks it services for free in the Tulsa area as part of the annual PLANET Day of Service project.

Experienced, reliable employees are the backbone of any small business. They’re the biggest factor in determining any company’s success.

The aim of LawnAmerica is to grow at least 10 percent, and each year the company has never grown less than 15 percent. “We budgeted for 11 percent growth this year and it looks like we’re going to be at about 18 percent. We’ve had to buy another truck that wasn’t in our budget.”

By the numbers

LawnAmerica utilizes the Net Promoters Score, a customer service metric, to track and assess customer satisfactory with its services. The Net Promoters Score is a rating of 1 to 10 on how well a company has serviced its customers. “You plug the scores into a formula and you get a hard number,” says Johnson. “In my opinion, it’s the best gauge of customer satisfaction there is. We measure it constantly. We reward for it. It’s what drives employees’ behavior and their performance.”

Customers who respond to the survey receive $25 gift cards, and employees with exceptional customer service rating on the surveys receive a $1,500 to $2,500 year-end bonus. In Johnson’s world, good service merits financial rewards. He says that about 35 percent of employees’ take-home pay is incentive-based, determined by both their success and the company’s success.

“We post those numbers daily. Everybody knows where they stand as far as the Net Promoter Score. They can see if they’re doing well or if they need to shore up their customer service. That is tied into our mission statement: “Pleasing customers so much that they become active promoters of our company.”

Johnson says that word-of-mouth referrals remain the best way to attract new clients, but not a lot of companies promote it well. This year, the company has added more than 2,000 new sales, the majority of which came by word-of-mouth.

Another component of Lawn- America’s success is that the company sticks to its niche business, Johnson points out. “We’re just a good old-fashioned spray company: fertilization and weed control,” he says. “We do it really well. We do some auxiliary services, such as fescue seeding, core aeration, tree and shrub care, perimeter pest control. These are standard optional services that most lawn care companies do. We draw the line as far as maintenance, mowing, landscaping and sprinkler systems. We refer that to other companies.”

He admits that LawnAmerica has lost business to maintenance contractors that offer lawn care, too. The company also loses business to clients who want all of their property services done by a single company. Even so, Johnson insists his company is busy enough offering just lawn care and related services.

Johnson says he is open to and uses both traditional and organic fertilizers, but adds that the industry has lost some “good products” due to regulations. “I’ve always believed in the benefit of organic fertilizer. We’ve always incorporated some organic content into most of our fertilizers,” he says. “Last summer in the drought we switched to a product that was 60 percent organic because of its safety aspect.” While Johnson finds that organics are beneficial to lawns, he cites their costs as one of the main reasons that he doesn’t promote them more aggressively.

Alternatively, LawnAmerica promotes its EnviroCare option, which utilizes soil amendments and slow-release nitrogens as well as PrimoMaxx plant growth regulator. “With that, we’re able to cut back on the amount of granular fertilization that we’re providing turf over the course of the season, but still have a superior turf,” he says.

Propane spray rigs

In keeping with the company’s growing awareness of “environmental” options, LawnAmerica switched all of its spray units to propane power last fall. “It was quite a bit of investment on our part. We took the gas tanks off and put propane tanks on. We run these mainly in spring and fall when we’re doing our liquid treatments and they’ve held up well,” says Johnson, adding that he’s hopeful that a tax rebate for using alternative fuels is reinsated.

“The cost of propane is a little bit less than gasoline, but that varies. There’s no doubt it’s better for the air. It puts out far less harmful emissions than a gasoline-powered engine and it helps the longevity of engines because it’s a cleaner-burning fuel,” says Johnson. “During the spring and the fall, those engines are running five or six hours a day. We feel good that we’re doing a small part to help out as far as that’s concerned. I’ve got a son who’s a Marine fighting overseas and I’m all for decreasing our dependence upon foreign oil.”

This very early and unusually warm spring caused Johnson and his applicators to really move to get preemergent herbicides down before crabgrass germination. And that’s not all.

“We’re already seeing bugs and insect problems that shouldn’t be here until three weeks later,” he adds. “The bermudagrass is totally green. Normally, it’s struggling to come out of dormancy this time of year. It’s been green for two or three weeks, so it’s really caused us to move up our schedule and get things done quickly, just because of the weather.” (Editor’s note: this interview was conducted in early April.)

Weather is always an issue in lawn care. Sometimes there’s too much rain, making it difficult for applicators to do their routes; sometimes too little rain, which affects both lawns and the products to keep them green, weed and pest-free. Oklahoma, like neighboring Texas that got almost all of the publicity for last year’s historic drought, suffered from lack of rain in 2012.

“It was as bad as I’ve seen it in 28 years of doing this, but not as bad as in Texas. The turf was definitely affected. It affected our guys. It was very difficult to work in,” he says. “We’ve recovered. We’ve had pretty good rains this spring.”

Johnson, now 58, doesn’t have any plans to slow down – not yet anyway. Even so, he’s been giving some thought to the future of the company, especially since his children have indicated that they want other careers.

“We don’t know who the owner is going to be five to 20 years from now. We’ve talked about doing an ESOP,” he says. “Whatever happens, we feel we’re going to continue to grow and dominate Tulsa. We may even expand into other markets close by.”

Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at [email protected].

Brad Johnson in December 2010 at the completion of his Appalachian Trail journey, which resulted in the collecton of $106,000 for Tulsa-area charities.

A Compassionate Journey

Lawn care business owner Brad Johnson has written a book, “A Compassionate Journey,” which is being published by Tate Publishing. It will share the lessons Johnson learned about nature, business and life as he took a long, long walk – all 2,175 miles of The Appalachian Trail.

He started his journey in May 2010 on Springer Mountain in Georgia, heading north. Although he had to return home several times due to family emergencies, he conducted a flip-flop in late August of 2010 and hiked from Maine south to complete the remainder of the Trail, most of it solo.

Through his hike, he raised money in donations, with LawnAmerica matching the donations dollar for dollar. His efforts raised more than $100,000 for five charities that LawnAmerica supports, including Habitat for Humanity, Salvation Army, The Little Light House for children with disabilities, Young Life (a Christian mission focused on adolescents) and Folds of Honor Foundation, which provides scholarships for children and spouses of soldiers killed or disabled in service.

Giving back to the community is a big part of LawnAmerica. The company gives back 3 percent of its gross revenues to the community through donated goods, services or cash. This year Johnson estimates that will be $156,000.

“We’ve been able to do that, still pay the bills, keep ownership happy, keep employees happy and have money to fuel our growth. We’re successful because we give back and that comes back to us.”

What were some of the one of the biggest lessons Johnson learned as he hiked the mountains?

“Not being afraid to try something hard and adventuresome and out of the box, something that people don’t think you can do,” he replies. “Most of us start a business, especially in my case, with no experience and no money to speak of. The odds were against me when I started my first business as they are for most people when they start a business. Some make it, some don’t. That’s the way it is on a hike like this – most don’t make it the entire way, but some do.”

The importance of planning was another lesson Johnson learned. Or should we say relearned as he’s also relied upon plans to help him accomplish his goals.

“I was surprised most of those ‘thru-hikers’ [those who complete the entire trail in one season] didn’t have a plan. They winged it. It hurt them in a lot of cases, “Johnson says, admitting that while his plan to hike the trail was probably too detailed, it was certainly better than no plan. Beyond that, he says he had a reason for doing it – raising money for charity. And once he committed to doing it, he would have felt foolish not fulfilling his promise.

He says that making money for money’s sake, as important as it is to shareholders, isn’t the sole reason for owning and operating a business. “There are some other important things that drives us and all of our employees,” he says. “That’s the same thing with the hike. I was committed to the causes that I was doing this for and that’s a big reason why I finished it.”

The experience of the weeks going up and down the mountains, usually alone, affected him spiritually, he says unabashedly. “The Appalachian Trail is a unique experience – not just the nature, but the people and the atmosphere. As for the nature, God did a good job creating this world. It’s just awesome – the variety and the complexity and the beauty of nature. It’s made me even more dependent upon being outdoors than I was before. That’s why I’m in the business I’m in because I love being outdoors. I love making things green and pretty and that’s the way it is for most lawn care guys.”

On returning home, Johnson and his wife bought and moved to a 20-acre farm so he could watch the sunset. “I was feeling trapped in the city after doing that trail and I had to get out where I could roam and have peace and quiet and see the stars,” says Johnson, adding that he and his wife plan on opening up the farm, which has a guest cottage and meeting room, to the rest of the company employees and to outside groups, such as young people.