Turf Magazine - May, 2013

SOUTH FEATURES

Everything but the Sunshine

North Carolina firm's professional, full-service approach sets it apart
By Carol Brzozowski


When Steve Hill bought Turftenders Landscape Services it had three employees. Today the company employs more than 50 during peak season.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF TURFTENDERS.

Communication and a proactive approach is what sets Raleigh, based Turftenders Landscape Services apart from the competition and drives its success, says Steve Hill, who has owned the company since 1995. He bought the company to spend more time with his family, including a 2-year-old son, at home. Hill had been a software salesman with a 14-state territory, and the company had been maintaining his rental properties when he acquired it.

Turftenders Landscape Services

Owner: Steve Hill
Founded: 1981; Hill purchased it in 1995
Headquarters: Raleigh, N.C.
Markets: 40-mile radius from Raleigh, encompassing the Research Triangle Area of Raleigh-Durham and Chapel Hill, as well as some jobs near the Virginia line Services: Landscape maintenance for HOAs, townhomes, condos, apartment complexes, office/flex space; landscape enhancements; irrigation services; design/build and maintenance for residential
Employees: 55
Website: www.turftenders.com

Turftender's clients are 80 percent commercial and 20 percent high-end residential, mostly homes of commercial clients. The company provides landscape maintenance for HOAs, townhomes, condos, apartment complexes, office/flex space and single-family residences. The company also provides commercial irrigation services and residential design/build. "Everything But The Sunshine" is the company's motto.

When Hill bought the business, there were three employees. Today, there are 55. The primary qualities Hill seeks in a potential employee are integrity and character. "You can teach skills, but you can't teach integrity and character," he points out. He assesses those traits by doing background checks and reviews social media, such as their Facebook pages, assuming they have them. "They'll tell you their own stuff there," says Hill.

"We'll check the references, especially for management positions. We look for signs, like do they show up on time for the interview and do they follow up with it?" In the end, Hill is looking for employees who want to grow with the company.

Turftenders follows an agronomic program modeled by North Carolina State University for the state's transition zone conditions. We're particularly proud that we have a number of North Carolina State graduates on our staff. The university is the number one turf program in the county," says Hill, his home-state bias showing. "They have a number of really good publications and we follow those guidelines fairly closely."

The company uses products, including fertilizers, sparingly and only to achieve the desired results.

"We want to use the right amount of nutrients so that the turf looks healthy and grows. We don't want a lot of additional work due to a growth spurt and then we have to do a lot of clippings or bagging," he says. "We use some slow-release products and we manage the timing of when we put things on there because we are paid to manage the property overall. Our approach is not necessarily to have the earliest and fastest green property, but to have the most sustainable turf over the length of the growing season."

Hill says his company functions as a NASCAR race team during the company's idle time. "We work on all of our equipment, trucks and trailers: we repair it, refurbish it, repaint it and fix any broken parts," he says. "A lot of our guys become quasi-mechanics and do some of that work over the winter, so when we start off in the spring, we're going to have a lot of equipment in the best shape we can."



Turftenders Landscape Services follows the turfgrass management regimen developed by the North Carolina State University turfgrass team. Some lawns in the Raleigh market have cool-season grass and others have warm-season turf.

The company approaches the season trained and ready to go, says Hill, with managers preparing training and safety topics to be shared as the season unfolds. Its monthly safety and technical meetings focus on both good and no-so-good practices, and sometimes draws on some of the unacceptable practices Hill sees other companies performing. One such photo showed a landscape worker riding on the back of a trailer with mulch instead of in a truck with a seatbelt. Another shows a competitor throwing fertilizer on the street with a tractor.

"We try to talk about that when we go to the property managers and the customers and point out the value of Turftenders is not based on price - there's not an apples-to-apples comparison," Hill says. "We can't change what's out there externally, but we can certainly train, emphasize and do it from a management standpoint to make it part of our culture."

Quality counts

When Turftenders evaluates a potential client, the company uses a Quality Counts program to evaluate and assign a numerical rank to the property, as well as establish 180-day and 360-day goals. At the end of that time period, the goals are reviewed for renewal to determine what the staff did and did not accomplish. The program was developed by The Harvest Group, a popular national business consulting firm that helps landscape and lawn service firms.

"The fact that we show up on time, we're courteous and we look professional doesn't hurt, but that extra is what we get a lot of high marks for," Hill says. "The Quality Counts program has eight categories that measure turf, plants and pruning and adds a numerical value to that."

Hill says clients tell him what separates Turftenders from other companies is its communication and proactive approach. Communication is critical when working for homeowners associations, Hill points out.

"The property managers and boards of directors look for someone who can spot problems - diseases or insects - and opportunities as the landscape changes and matures. Are the plants getting too big? Do they need to be pulled out and replaced? Do we need to trim limbs because we don't have enough light for the turf? Do we need to transform turf areas into mulch? Do we need to renovate turf? They look for someone who can communicate on a regular basis as to what's happening on a property."

One of the company's primary communication methods is a horticultural calendar that provides clients with horticultural information month by month. The calendar is posted on the website and also sent to property managers and other clients, giving them an idea of what services will be provided on the property.

"They can share it with the board, put it in their newsletter and or email it to the residents," says Hill. "That way, if there's a question about why we aren't pruning, they can see it's not a month where it's horticulturally correct to prune. We might not prune in September because it's six weeks away from frost and can cause damage to the plant. It will let them know what we anticipate doing."

Hill says another factor that sets apart his company from others is that the staff has is well trained and technically proficient, this in addition to being in company uniforms and showing up for services in clean trucks.



Turftenders Landscape Services welcomes prospects and visitors to its headquarters with this colorful entrance. Image is important for Steve Hill, the owner.

He sources equipment from a variety of vendors: Exmark, Wright and Honda mowers; Echo handhelds, backpacks, trimmers, edgers, etc.; several John Deere units and Lesco spreaders.

Turftenders gives back to the community in its participation in and support of local, regional and national projects. Local efforts are focused on children's advocacy, mental illness and leadership. Additionally, the company maintains annual participation in PLANET's Renewal and Remembrance at Arlington Cemetery and Project Evergreen's GreenCare for troops, providing lawn care to deployed soldiers.

Dealing with challenges

Government regulations pose his biggest challenge, Hill says. As of July 1, he must e-verify all of his employees to meet a state mandate. Complying with federal health care mandates given the number of employees on his staff also is a concern. Instead of laying off people, Hill tries to retain them by giving them fewer working hours. It may mean increasing prices for services, Hill points out.

"We've held our prices for two or three years with the economy not being good and we're at a point now between fuel and chemicals that we've got to raise our prices," he says. "We've tried to work to drive the costs down internally."

Hill would like to see more professionalism come through legislation and regulation in the industry going forward. "My hope is that it continues to get more professional," he says. "My fear is that here in North Carolina, there is not a barrier to entry and we still see a lot of low prices being thrown out because a lot of guys think bigger is better and the way to grow is to take more properties."

Hill says if there's anything he would have done differently over the years, it would be to have retained a strong focus on maintenance, which can take a landscape maintenance company through the ups and downs of the economy. "It's at least sustainable and has recurring revenues," says Hill. "It doesn't know there's a recession."

This season, Hill looks to shaking up his company's client list. "We're not about volume; we're about quality clients," he says. "Each year, we have some people drop off that we try to replace with better quality."

A client must meet the company's criteria. Hill does not want to accept what he calls the "low and slow" client that brings in a low profit margin and are slow to pay, dragging down the other profitable groups.

Hill is looking to add more profitable work, instead of adding more employees.

"We do hope to grow," he says. "If we don't, then I can't provide opportunities for the young guys who want to learn more and expand their careers. We've got a career path we're trying to build for guys to move into a management or supervisory role."

Hill also is implementing a fleet management program. "We already have GPS, but this would emphasize equipment in fleet management so we can have a track on some of our better equipment," he says.

In the next several years, the company's growth is geared toward commercial, HOAs and industrial maintenance.

Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at brzozowski.carol@gmail.com.