Turf Magazine - September, 2012

SOUTH FEATURES

Just Keeps Growing

C&K Lawn Service's mowprint grows in The Villages, central Florida's huge, expanding retirement community
By Gary Burchfield

C&K Lawn Service


Owners: Chet Abbott and Kevin Soltis
Founded: 2010
Headquarters: Lady Lake, Fla.
Markets: The Villages retirement community, located mainly in Sumter County, Fla., but also including portions of Lake and Marion counties
Services: Mowing; perennial and hedge trimming; mulch, bed, rock and plant installation; and weed control
Employees: 5 full time, 1 part time
Website: N/A
You know a company is doing something right when they grow 32 percent in one year. That was the achievement for C&K Lawn Service, Lady Lake, Fla. Chet Abbott (the "C") says C&K's lawn maintenance business grew 32 percent, plus they are doing more landscape design and installation work, and that business increased 13 percent last year, as well.

Abbott started the business more than five years ago. His father-in-law Kevin (the "K") Soltis, joined up shortly after and the company has built their lawn service to more than 200 accounts, and it continues to grow. "We have a few commercial accounts, but 95 percent of our customers are retirees living in The Villages," says Abbott. This master-planned retirement community covers some 25,000 acres in parts of three counties in central Florida, and includes more than 50,000 homes, with more being built every month.

"Ten years ago, they were building and selling 200 homes a week," says Abbott. Although the rate slowed some during the economic downturn, new homes are still being built and new sections are being developed. "Naturally, there is a certain level of turnover in a retirement community, so there are buyers who want to purchase an existing home, but many retirees want a new house, so there is constantly new construction going up."

Abbott says some retirees who buy existing home are OK with the landscaping already in place, while others want a complete renovation of their yard. "The nice thing about working with retirees is that, by the time they move into a place like The Villages, they pretty well know what they want in the way of lawn and landscape. They tell us what they want and usually let us take it from there.

"The active lifestyle in The Villages tends to keep them busy, so after setting up a customer account, we usually don't see them that often. They just want us to maintain their yards so they always look nice."


Kevin Soltis, left, and Chet Abbot maintain landscapes located in The Villages, a retirement community in Florida that covers three counties. The company grew its maintenance division 32 percent in just one year to more than 200 accounts.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF C&K LAWN SERVICE.

C&K crews visit customers' homes every week, year-round. "We may not mow every week, like in the winter, but we check their yards and driveways for trash and litter, blow out any plugged sprinkler heads, etc. About half our customers are part-year residents and they really appreciate someone looking after they property when they're not there."

Along with mowing, C&K Lawn Service does hedge and perennial trimming, including pulling dead branches and seed pods off palm trees. They also install mulch, rock, plants and beds, and take care of weed control. "We do about everything except fertilization," says Abbott. "There are several specialized fertilizer application firms around here, with bigger equipment and special formulas, so either the homeowner or C&K will contract with them to do the application work."


C&K Lawn Service was started with a Lawnboy push mower and a Gravely walk-behind mower. Abbot has since bought a used Walker MT mower and a new Walker MBK mower to keep up with the growing business.

Soltis maintains the books for C&K Lawn Service, along with setting up the daily work schedules. He prints up a weekly schedule every Sunday night for the following week. "We generally work five days a week and sometimes six days," Abbott says. "We try to mow the same lawn the same day every week and usually on the same time schedule. Residents tell us they can just about set their clocks by when we do their yard every week." Naturally, we have to make changes in the schedule for weather problems, new accounts, etc., he adds.

Abbott started C&K with a Lawnboy push mower and a Gravely walk-behind mower. He soon figured out that time efficiency and quality of cut weren't good enough to maintain a growing business, so he bought a used Walker MT mower. "It was 10 years old when we bought it, but we still use it about every day." Earlier this season, the company added a new Walker MBK 18 hp mower with a 42-inch deck.

"Customers like the way their lawn looks after mowing, and the configuration of the out-front deck enables the operator to work around trees and plantings, and cover uneven areas of the lawn without risk of scalping," Abbott says. "The low profile of the mower is really convenient when cutting around mature trees and shrubs, too." Although both Abbott and Soltis run the mowers, they are gradually turning mowing chores over to their crew members so the owners can devote more time to landscape design work. C&K now has three full-time and one part-time worker, along with the two owners.

About 60 percent of The Villages lawns are zoysiagrass and 40 percent St. Augustine, according to Abbott. They usually cut St. Augustine at about 4 inches height; zoysia is typically cut to 3 inches. "Some customers want it even shorter," he adds.

"Because of the quality of our lawn maintenance work, we constantly add new accounts," Abbott says. "Once we get a residential account on a new block, we'll have three or four more in the same area within six months, and 10 to 12 new customers within a year. One location, we started with one customer and now have 18 yards in that area."

Gary F. Burchfield is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Turf based in Lincoln, Neb. You can reach him at gfburch@aol.com.