Snow is the core of this Michigan business
Michigan’s high foreclosure and unemployment rates have thrown quite a few curveballs at the landscape maintenance industry in the past few years. Just ask Terry and Gayle Younglove, a married couple that owns and operates Outdoor Experts in Romulus, Mich.
Clients have cut down on watering and fertilizing; others have skipped out on paying their bills. On the other hand, municipalities are cracking down in communities where foreclosure decay has become rampant. “People are getting fines and will call us up to cut the grass to get it under control,” says Younglove.
In Michigan, winter always brings snow or ice, meaning that much of the company’s heavy equipment is kept running year-round, with the attachments changing with the seasons.
Outdoor Experts provides a variety of lawn maintenance and snowplowing services to the commercial and residential sectors, including fertilization, weed control, aeration, dethatching, shrub and tree trimming, and spring and fall cleanups. Winter services focus on commercial snowplowing and salting, and commercial parking lot sweeping. Other services include rentals of a loader and dump trucks with an operator and holiday lighting installation. The company serves a 35-mile radius encompassing the Downriver area. Service routes are tightened up in the winter due to drive times, storm challenges and fuel costs.
Younglove has plowed snow for 30 years, starting with one truck and his father’s help. The work grew, so eventually he picked up a partner and started a company until they went their separate ways in 1998.
“Snow has been the core of our business,” Younglove says. “We did the fertilizing, lawn maintenance and landscaping to fill in through the summertime. That is very unique in the industry. Most people start with lawn maintenance and do snow because it’s a necessary evil.”
Many landscape contractors find that while summertime work is basically predictable in terms of income generation, winter snow removal work is not. For the Youngloves, that hasn’t been a concern. “Here in the Detroit area, even if you don’t get the snow, you still get cold weather and icing events,” says Younglove. “Salting generates more revenue. We get to count on it pretty much because we usually see the precipitation one way or another.” While companies dedicated to snowplowing may get one to five weather events each year, “When you do the salting, it’s going to be between 25 to 35 events a winter,” says Younglove. “You can structure off of that because it’s historically always been that way.”
He structures business expectations around low numbers, so when a winter season brings a higher amount of weather events, it’s like frosting on the cake. Fluctuations throughout the years have taught him to average out his numbers for consistency.
The company runs four-wheel drive trucks set up to accommodate various attachments, such as plows and salt spreaders. The company’s fleet includes dump trucks, flatbed trucks and enclosed box trucks. For winter work, the company uses all-terrain vehicles on sidewalks and subcontracts additional trucks, as needed, for large snow events. Caterpillar, John Deere and Exmark are the company’s preferred equipment manufacturers.
Outdoor Experts has an employee base of eight that can increase to 18 people during the winter, depending on the size of the storms. They have found some of the most competent and reliable winter employees to be those whose regular jobs are sidelined during the winter, as well as those recommended through word-of-mouth.
Although the winter weather will always dictate service demands, the Youngloves try to keep their core staff steadily employed year-round. Therefore, services such as holiday lighting not only generate continued income for the company, but also keep essential workers employed.
Weather reports offer the Youngloves a glimpse of how the workday will go in the winter. Younglove has been in the business long enough to know the patterns. “A lot of the storms come across on I-94 from the west to the east, and it will go north or south, and sometimes it will take I-94 as a direct route. We monitor numerous weather sites: the National Weather Service, The Weather Channel and local news. Sometimes you realize it’s going in a different pattern than what they are saying. You become your own weatherman and have to be able to predict that yourself.”
Come spring and summer, in a climate such as Michigan’s, people have a relatively short period of time to appreciate their lawns and gardens, so summer work can be equally as demanding. “We try to be a full-service company for our clients,” says Younglove. “We’re cutting and fertilizing the lawns and do the small landscape projects for them if they want flowers or shrubs planted or taken out.”
The Youngloves prefer to do fertilizing in-house with their own registered technicians. “If we have a large account, we may consider subcontracting the work,” he says. “By doing it in-house, it helps keep things under control a little bit better. There is no wasting of the product. When someone else does the fertilizing, we don’t know when it’s been done for us to cut the grass. You do need to know what’s going on. When the customer works with us that way, we have a much nicer mesh between us and the customers to make it flow a bit nicer for them.”
Another benefit of fertilizing in-house is controlling the environmental impact. “We have a lot of water in the area from the Great Lakes, small streams and ponds,” says Younglove. “You have to watch the fertilizer for the water runoff. A lot of people here are talking about the watershed issues and using some organics in some areas.”
The Youngloves are big on marketing and presenting their company in a professional manner. The employees wear uniforms, and all company trucks have logos and act as rolling billboards. The lettering on the truck is large, and messages can be changed to reflect the company’s fertilizing, lawn maintenance or snow removal services as needed. “Our trucks have phone numbers on them and have all of the DOT numbers that they’re supposed to have,” notes Younglove. “They’ve all been federally certified to be on the road.”
Outdoor Experts has a full-time mechanic on staff to keep the equipment running and the mowers at the proper height adjustment. “We keep our equipment maintained so we can always be cutting grass when we need to be cutting grass,” Younglove says. “We don’t fall behind because we have two very large 60-inch backup mowers. We bought three new mowers this season. When we have an issue, they are under warranty, so we can get loaner machines or use one of our older machines that are still very well-maintained.”
The Youngloves have changed their approach to how they do business during the recession after having some customers paying their bills late, or not at all. Some customers have also cut the number of fertilizer applications they’re doing, in many cases by half. Customers have reduced the amount of water they’re using on their lawns, and in some cases they’ve shut the sprinkler system off altogether. “They’re not using the water like they used to for watering their lawns and their lawns start browning out sooner, which cuts back on the number of times we need to be cutting it in the summer,” Younglove notes. “That is a huge hit on us. If they are not going to be watering, there’s no sense in fertilizing it much either.”
One tactic Outdoor Experts has employed to ensure revenue is to request that new clients prepay for services. “We just can’t do the credit, because we were not getting paid by so many people. They’re here one day and gone tomorrow because they know they are in foreclosure, but they don’t tell you. The next thing you know, they’re gone. You don’t have a leg to stand on,” he says.
Younglove points out that the company is equipment-heavy because of the nature of its work. “We have the potential to do a lot more work than where we’re at,” he says. “We’re trying to get to that point, but when the economy took a nosedive two years ago, that put a screeching halt on our company to where we’ve downsized a little trying to manage it. There’s no sense in me trying to burn all of my equipment up and turning it into junk just to lower my price and try to keep business.
“I’m not getting anywhere because I won’t have the money to replace the trucks and the equipment by doing that. I’m better off to use it less, but to use it to keep it well-maintained and hope for the economy to turn around to get back to where we can get the extra crews out there and the equipment working more.”
The Youngloves’ strategy in this economy centers on tightening up the routes, watching fuel costs and watching employee costs. “You keep your guys working, but at the point of just breaking even to keep cash flow, but you’re not making any profit on that money,” Gayle says. “You cut where you can, and if you have poor performers, you cut them and then spread the work out amongst the good ones. We’ve thinned out our staff over the past couple of years because of those issues.”
The Youngloves backed off from landscaping jobs after the housing market crashed, preferring instead to subcontract that work. “We can still make a couple of dollars on the job and give good service because I recommend the companies to do it for them, and it still keeps our name in front of our customers,” says Younglove. “The maintenance is still out there.”
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.