Turf Magazine - February, 2012

SOUTH FEATURES

A Work in Progress

ABC Home & Commercial Services revamps its lawn care services
By Jerry Mix

ABC Home and Commercial Services


Headquarters: Austin, Texas
President: Bobby Jenkins
Manager, Lawn Care Division: Sean Bush
Locations: Austin, Houston, Bryan/College Station, San Antonio and Dallas, Texas; Orlando and Tampa, Fla.
Services: Pest and termite control, rodent and wildlife control, lawn and landscape, swimming pool service and repair, HVAC, holiday lighting, tree care, home inspection, electrical
Employees: 520 (10 in lawn care, all in Texas)
Community Service: Organizes the Bob Rasor Memorial Golf Tournament; Green Care Troops; participated in PLANET's Day of Service; and the 2011 Remembrance & Renewal and Legislative Day on the Hill
Website: www.abchomeandcommercial.com

At ABC Home and Commercial Services, based in Austin, Texas, its lawn care division hasn't played a major role in the company's overall growth. After making some major changes this past year, President Bobby Jenkins is convinced it will - finally.

The company has revenues in the range of $40 million a year with 520 employees in a host of different divisions, including pest control, pool maintenance, handyman services and lawn maintenance, which includes mowing and irrigation. The lawn care division, which was started piggybacking on the company's established pest control business, has 10 employees, with seven of those in Austin, two in San Antonio and one in College Station.

Jenkins has brought about some major changes in the lawn care division the last couple of years, including developing a new way of doing lawn care work, hiring a new division manager, and developing several more environmentally friendly practices.

In 2010, the company's old nitrogen-based fertilizer system of treating lawns was scrapped in favor of a four-step Medina program. Medina is a poultry-based manure product manufactured in San Antonio. This new program figures to play especially well in environmentally conscious Austin, the state's capital and the home of the University of Texas.


Sean Bush, left, and Thomas Barrett.
PHOTO COURTESY ABC HOME AND COMMERCIAL SERVICES.

New experienced leader

Jenkins didn't stop there with lawn care division improvements. This year he hired Sean Bush, a 25-year veteran of Service Master/TruGreen to head that division.

Bush is now looking at some additional environmentally friendly techniques, like removing gas motors from the division's delivery systems and going with electric motors for the two-tank, two-reel system mounted on trucks like the company's Ford 250 Econolines.

"Austin has a huge following for 'green' programs, including solar power, wind-generated power and biking," says Bush. "This [going with the Medina product] was not only a business decision, but it's also quite frankly a good marketing decision, because unlike some competitors in the marketplace we have taken a dynamic approach by offering an alternative to your everyday lawn care service.

"This new program means a retooling of our equipment and our thought process, setting different expectations with our customers and getting everyone on the same page with a different way of treating turf," says Bush.

Before starting to use Medina, ABC serviced its 5,000 lawn care customers by making eight applications a year of a nitrogen-based fertilizer. Each application could vary based on the addition of a preemergent broadleaf weed control, an insect control or a fungicide.

"The program started with just fertilization for fast green-up and growth, and you could add on other products like a fungicide or a herbicide," says Bush. That program, with an application every four to six weeks, pushed green lawns, but didn't focus on root growth and development.

"Our new program is focused very heavily on the substructure of the grass and building up disease and insect-resistant grass plants," says Bush. "This is a deeper approach to the grass plants as opposed to the easy way of using nitrogen to get results. This program gives the customers overall healthier plants."

Four-visit program

Customers get four applications of the Medina fertilizer a year. The first two applications are the liquid product. "Then on the third and fourth applications we go with a spread-and-spray technique," Bush says.

"That means we go over the entire lawn with the same liquid Medina product, then we treat the lawn again with a granular Medina to further enhance late summer and fall development of the grass," explains Bush. "The plants can then take advantage of that root growth as opposed to pushing up top-growth and greening."

The granular Medina is put down at a rate of 12 pounds per 1,000 square feet. "Every customer has the benefit of the last two applications of the season being a one-two punch," he says.

My It's Dry in Texas


You might ask yourself just how good is the new ABC Home & Commercial Services lawn care program working in view of the major drought that hit Texas this year?

"Texas set the record for the most consecutive days over 100 degrees," Sean Bush, the new general manager for ABC lawn care, recently said. The old record was 19 consecutive days, but in 2011 Texas blew by that mark with 103 days.

"Lake Travis, the largest lake in central Texas, is down 45 feet from its normal elevation," he said. "We are in one of the severest droughts in Texas history."

Bush went on to explain that the state is expected to experience significant tree loss, but that had yet to show its face when this interview was conducted.

"We are predicting anywhere from 5 to 10 percent total loss of landscape plant material in the next 12 months based on this year's drought, and this will be a major blow to landscape in general," Bush explained.

You would think that it would be all doom and gloom at ABC lawn care, but you would be wrong.

"This is going to be great for our business," Bush said. "We have a great tree and shrub program that can go in and do triage work. Also, while these lawns are under severe stress, our program will be a fresher approach to lawn recovery and restoration as opposed to just automatically replacing them.

"Most of Austin is currently under a stage two watering program [twice a week], but I welcome that as a lawn care professional because I recommend deep and infrequent watering."

Bush went on to explain that deep and infrequent watering is important to push the water to a depth of 4 to 6 inches below the surface of the lawn, which promotes a deeper root system. Bush also explained that letting the lawn dry out between waterings also helps to minimize the spread of disease.

"At my own home, I follow the watering restrictions and use our company's program, and my lawn has never looked better," Bush said.

"We are focusing on an integrated approach. We are coaching our sales people, our customers and our technicians to find alternatives to using pesticides."

Bush indicates that ABC is doing that through education and teaching good cultural practices. "However, if we evaluate the lawn and find that there is a need for something else [pesticides] we will make that recommendation to the customer. Or, if the customer has set up a program at the beginning of the season, which runs from January through November in central Texas, we will administer pesticide applications based on the time of the season."


When Turf magazine talked with Bush and Jenkins, ABC was doing brown patch control using Hertiage, a broad-spectrum fungicide from Syngenta. "This product is easy to handle, easy to mix and apply, and has a broad-spectrum approach," Bush says.

"In the future, we will be working on a chem-free turf program which means things like organic insect control, but we will not be going too far off the deep end with home remedies," he says. "I'm in the process of now developing these programs for the chem-free side of lawn care to take the overall program up another notch."

For now, ABC uses pesticides as part of its program. "It's not our first option, but we do have products available that when they are used smartly and by licensed and trained professionals, it's the right thing to do," says Bush. "However, we stop using the pesticides as soon as the issue [like brown patch] has been addressed."

The program is a work in progress and still needs a lot of development, he admits. One thing is for sure, what Bush is doing now is going to play well with environmentally conscious people in areas like Austin.

And, another thing is for sure. ABC won't be shy about telling its customers about these programs. The company advertises through TV ads, as well as radio and print ads. Email blasts are also part of the program while the lawn care division's vehicles also carry the company's message.

Jerry Mix is a freelance journalist from Cleveland, Ohio. You can contact him at JNMix@aol.com.