Quality work and excellent customer service help this company get ahead
Jerry Merrill says what he’s done to set his company apart from others is to create a “wow” factor. “From the start, we’ve tried to focus hard on customer service and doing an excellent job while we’re at their site,” says Merrill, owner of Merrill Quality Landscapes in Rexburg, Idaho. “I’ve always tried to emphasize to everyone in our company that we want the ‘wow’ factor. We want the customer to say ‘Wow, that was awesome. Those guys came here and did this. Look how good it looks. Look how good they treated us.”
Merrill started in the industry after taking over a landscaping company in 1981 from a friend who he worked for as a teenager. The company’s office was based in his house, and he had a toolshed that served as a shop.
From there, Merrill did landscape construction for 30 years, operated a garden center for eight years, and then sold that to concentrate on the service end of landscaping. In 1998, he bought a Christmas Décor franchise in order to generate income during the slow winter period.
“One thing I’ve noticed over the years is we were the first ones in this area to do Christmas lighting, and a lot of people in the area have jumped in and out of it,” says Merrill. “It looks easy to people, and it’s really not that hard, but it does take a good system to stay organized and be profitable,” he says. People don’t know the true cost of operating the business and end up pricing services so low that they price themselves out of business because they are not turning a profit, he adds.
In 2002, Merrill bought a Weed Man franchise, and he says it’s been a good fit for his business.
“It’s been an eye-opener for us as far as the systems that are available,” he says. “We’re trying to learn those and apply them to other parts of our business to help maximize our business.”
Merrill favors ongoing training that helps him focus on areas where he and his employees can improve the business, and also set goals to accomplish more in their personal lives. “Our mission statement is ‘Let us amaze you.’ Our goal is to permeate our company with that. We often ask people in our training meetings, ‘What did you do to amaze someone yesterday?’ We get everyone thinking, ‘What can I do to provide amazing customer service and help people have that ‘wow’ factor.’”
The company’s motto is “Quality is Our Middle Name.” Merrill says, “We’ve tried to use that as our mantra right from the start, all the way from when we answer the phone and how we treat people to workmanship and guaranteeing our work. If there’s a problem, we work with them until we get it right and make sure they’re happy,” he says.
The landscape construction division is evenly split between the residential and commercial sectors. For the Christmas Décor division, the work is about 70 percent residential and 30 percent commercial. For the Weed Man franchise, the company’s clients are 85 percent residential and 15 percent commercial. Most of the residential work lately has been upgrades, such as putting greens and hardscaping. “People want to upgrade their yards and make them look nicer, because in most parts of the country the new construction is very limited,” Merrill says.
The Weed Man franchise work is up about 15 percent over last year, and the landscape construction work is holding its own, Merrill says. “We haven’t had to lay people off, so we feel lucky,” he says. “We’re looking hard to find the work to be able to keep providing people with employment. Our biggest challenge within the past 18 months or so is to make sure we have quality work to do and not succumb to the temptation to lowball prices to get work. When you do that, you start having financial trouble and it just doesn’t work out very well.”
Geography is a challenge for the company, as some jobs can be as far as 120 miles away. The company serves an area that includes Rexburg, Rigby, Idaho Falls, St. Anthony, Ashton, Island Park, Shelley, Blackfoot, Pocatello and the Teton Valley. “We’ll add travel costs into our pricing for jobs that are further away. We try to be efficient,” says Merrill. “It’s a huge geographical area, so we just have to try to reuse the systems we have to be as efficient as possible, get the most out of our fuel mileage, and try to get as much done in those areas as we can.”
Merrill looks for equipment and technologies that will add efficiency to the operation. For example, the company owns skid steers that accommodate attachments such as trenchers, pipe pullers and augers, enabling one worker to do what it previously took two or more to do. Smaller pickups are used for sales calls and estimates, and training meetings include discussions about ‘no idle’ policies for the vehicles.
Another way Merrill has sought to achieve efficiency is by investing in equipment such as the Barber Turf Rake. “That has saved us a lot of labor and hand-raking, especially on the larger commercial projects where you’ve got several acres of turf area to prepare,” says Merrill. The purchase was inspired by a 13-acre job where a crew spent several days raking rocks by hand. “We were to a point where we needed to get it done,” Merrill says. “We were getting three to four loads of rock hauled off a day with about seven people working, raking and loading with the tractor. The day the Barber rake came, we hooked it up and had one guy running the rake and dumping it in the truck. He hauled off seven loads that day.”
Equipment also can help workers with access issues. In the Weed Man division, a Z-Sprayer helps out on larger properties, and a Z-Plugger ride-on aerator is used by the landscape division. Merrill says, “It took us less time to get all of our aerations done, even though we had 100 more, so we attributed that to the fact that we’re able to do our bigger properties a lot quicker.”
While Merrill Quality Landscapes has not encountered any problems with regulatory issues, the company endeavors to educate clients on beneficial and safe environmental practices. “We all know that green space is valuable. Lawns, trees, shrubs and plants are a valuable asset to protecting our environment. We’re helping people understand from an environmental standpoint that as long as things are done correctly and in moderation, the things we do are good things to help keep the environment healthy.”
Looking forward, Merrill says he sees a bright future. “We’ve been careful about new purchases and watching our expenses during this downturn in the economy,” he says. “While I wouldn’t call the recession a good thing, it had a silver lining in that it’s forced us to look at our expenses and make sure that we’re not wasting resources.
“Hopefully, the economy will turn around before too long and things will pick up and become better,” Merrill says. “We’re starting to see a few signs of that. We’re hoping construction will pick up and we’ll be well conditioned in the future to take advantage of that. We have some great employees. We’ve added some new folks over the years who we think will be great assets to us as we go forward. We’re excited about that. It’s always good to be able to pick up people that have great attitudes and get excited about what we’re trying to accomplish,” he says.
Carol Brzozowski is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for numerous trade journals for more than a decade. She resides in Coral Springs, Fla.