Two years ago, Bill Hoke jumped from a 30-year career in lawn care, which had seen him rise to a regional manager position at TruGreen, to his heart’s desire: running his own lawn care company.
A year ago, he founded NexGreen, a Columbus, Ohio-based firm based on Hoke’s own precepts about the best way to achieve success in the industry. It centers on the idea of a balanced eco-friendly approach to lawn care.
Principals: Founder Bill Hoke, Kevin Jardine and Impiaz Tootla
Headquarters: Columbus, Ohio
Markets: Greater Columbus, Ohio, with a location planned for Maryland in 2014
Services: Lawn care
This year, he reports remarkable results at NexGreen. He has built the business up within a year from zero to 2,000 customers and, even more astonishingly, with a 93 percent customer renewal rate.
When Hoke left TruGreen, he was determined to start a company that would offer a wide variety of customers a balanced approach between traditional care and organic care. He considered a completely organic approach too narrow a niche.
“I wanted to be naturally based and use both traditional inputs and modern technology to provide fertility and weed control, a hybrid of organic and traditional,” he says.
His year-long investigation into natural-based programs on the Internet led him to deeply explore the subject of bionutrients, which is how he became aware of Holganix, Inc. The company, based in Glen Mills, Pa., manufactures proprietary bionutritional products for agriculture and turfgrass. It claims that the use of its products deliver “thick, healthy turf and trees while reducing the use of fertilizers by as much as 90 percent.” It claims to do this by using natural microorganisms to turn a small amount of fertilizer into the most effective turf and tree treatment available.
“I didn’t see many alternatives that included both traditional and natural,” says Hoke. He also saw good research on the topic of bionutrients being done at universities, including Purdue, North Carolina State and Penn State.
This investigation was augmented by explorations into the field, as he talked to about other lawn care service providers in the East and Southeast about their experiences with bionutrient products.
“It’s good to see the scientific research, but you also have to see how it works in an uncontrolled environment,” he says. “People take many different approaches in the field.”
NexGreen says that by incorporating biorationals into its lawn care program it has been able to significantly reduce the use of nitrogen fertilizers while still delivering green healthy lawns to its clients.
A balanced start-up
With that behind him, Hoke founded NexGreen using the Holganix program. “It just fit with what we are trying to do,” he says. “Holganix is unique. It uses a compost tea as a foundation with living beneficial organisms.” The product comes refrigerated, and NexGreen keeps it ready for use in refrigerated units provided by the supplier, he says. “It replaces the natural organisms in the soil and strengthens the grass plant, just as probiotics are said to do for people who eat probiotic yogurt.” adds Hoke. “It improves the plant health and gives natural immunity by replacing what has been taken away.”
The hybrid approach used by NexGreen takes advantage of bionutrients, according to Hoke, and uses nitrogen and potassium. “But no phosphorus or phosphates,” he says, “except in a few instances of selective seeding.” Absorption, he explains, is through the cell wall, leading to a more efficient use of inputs. “We still need nitrogen, but at a reduced rate,” says Hoke. “Application rates are reduced by 50 percent, but you don’t reduce results. It is amazing how well it works.”
Hoke goes on to say that, under traditional methods, the grass becomes dependent on high levels of fertility, and uses from 4.5 to 5 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square foot over the course of a year. However, he adds, the bionutrients work on the root mass and density, so nitrogen use is reduced to 2.5 to 2.7 pounds, as uptake is improved. “It is the biocatalyst that works in tandem with traditional inputs,” Hoke maintains.
In addition, herbicide rates are also reduced, by the same amount with as good results. “We use a dual-line injection system,” Hoke says, “an Eco 505 from Gregson-Clark. You don’t just blanket the lawn, as in the traditional application. You can be more selective. It’s more responsible, and you reduce the amount of pesticides.”
These white NexGreen vehicles will begin to appear in other markets in the next couple of years, say company founders.
Using organics alone can be cost-prohibitive, Hoke figures, from one-and-a-half to two times as much, and the results are not as consistent, with an inability to sustain color throughout the season. Plus, he says, true organic practice takes spot control for weeds.
“With organics, you pay more, and you have to compromise on the condition of the lawn. Bionutrients are a great alternative to traditional and organic if your goal is a weed-free green lot,” he explains.
Hoke goes on to say that the bionutrient inputs are a little more expensive than traditional, some 2 to 3 percent more, and that reducing the inputs does not totally offset the additional costs. In his case, having tenured staff on the service side adds to the labor costs, as well. What does help him stay competitive, he says, is that this labor investment and good results lead to an overall lower cancellation rate, the 93 percent retention rate mentioned above. His expenses are “an investment in quality,” he says, adding that he expects next year to recoup some of his start-up costs and also to increase his high referral rate, as his customer base expands.
Reasons for success
Hoke thus credits much of his success to his crews. He hired experienced applicators with an average tenure in the green industry of 16 years. While this added to his labor budget, at the same time it gave him a technically knowledgeable staff that knew how to give personalized care, with lots of customer service and interaction.
The company counts on experienced knowledgeable technicians to make good on its promise of deliverying eco-friendly lawn care at an affordable price.
“Customers love our techs,” he says. NexGreen has no production goals; its mission is to stay on schedule and keep customers happy. According to Hoke, “We don’t incentivize more work, we incentivize better work. So our crews believe in our brand and deliver service like they do.”
He goes on, “I believe in the program, and our employees believe in it and communicate that to others. That builds word-of-mouth. In our first year, and year-to-date sales show 12 percent of the business was in referrals. Our customers believe in it as well.”
Among his greatest challenges for the next year: providing strong benefits packages for his employees and maintaining consistency of performance as he scales up.
His rapid growth, he says, came about via marketing efforts that included attendance at home and garden shows, where Hoke would ask potential customers if they were interested in being able to reduce the amount of fertilizer and pesticides used on their lawns at an affordable price. “We got fantastic results,” he says.
“Home shows are like a focus group,” he adds. “You watch the positive body language, the head nods.” Hoke relates that one customer came up to him at a home show and basically thanked him for existing. “This is a service that’s really been needed, and I appreciate you,” she said. “It is so cool you are doing this.”
NexGreen management has ambitious growth plans. One co-partner, Kevin Jardine, will open a branch in Frederick, Md., this spring, and the other co-partner, Impiaz Tootla, is working on another in Detroit. Hoke hopes to expand the brand to another two or three new cities in the South and Midwest within five years.
Meanwhile, the Columbus location continues to grow with marketing strategies that include Valpak, direct mail, website SEO, telemarketing and door-to-door sales.
Hoke’s TruGreen background has also given him a good understanding of how the commercial division can grow as well. Here, Hoke looks for clients who are not as price-sensitive but rather value-based, with an environmental and health industry tie, such as doctors, veterinarians and day care centers.