Tony Walley, front, co-founded Tojo's Lawn Care in 2007. Also pictured are employees: (l. to r.) Chris Achord, Scott Walley, Aaron Reeves, Zaine Thibodeaux and Shane Gallagher.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF TOJO'S LAWN CARE.
Using a Home Depot credit card with a $1,000 limit, friends Tony Walley and Joe Wunder bought as much lawn care supplies as they could and tossed them onto the back of Walley's pickup truck. They then paid $300 for a tractor mower advertised on Craigslist.
"We were given a rusted out trailer and then we were ready to go," recalls Walley, laughing at the memory of how he and Wunder, both students at Southeastern Louisiana University at the time, started their company, ToJo's Lawn Care in 2007. "I was tired of working for other people," remembers Walley.
Tojo's Lawn Care
: Tony Walley
: Slidell, La.
: St. Tammany Parish, La.
: Residential and commercial
lawns, irrigation services,
: 6 peak season
To promote their tiny new venture, Walley used the Microsoft Word Art program to create and print 1,000 black and white fliers. They passed out the fliers the next weekend to get their lawn service up and running. It was a modest start even for an industry where modest starts are the rule. Even so, they worked hard, and little by little, they acquired customers.
Moving ahead and growing
"In 2011 Joe decided to leave the company. I agreed to buy him out and I've been working to shape Tojo's identity ever since," says Walley. His efforts are meeting with success.
In 2012, the company earned Angie's List Super Service Award where winners must maintain an A+ customer service rating for the entire year. Also last season, the regional chamber of commerce selected his company as the "Emerging Young Professional Business of the Year".
Says Walley, "We now have six employees and work for over 250 clients. This year we aggressively went after apartment complexes and condo associations. From the new accounts that we have acquired so far this year, if we remain on track with this goal, we will grow our gross sales by 36 percent this year."
He says that New Orleans, devastated by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, is growing again. He feels his primary market, nearby St. Tammany Parish ("Northshore" as the locals call it), offers his company a lot more opportunity. St. Tammany Parish, described by French explorer Pierre le Moyne de Iberville in 1699 as one of the "prettiest" places he had ever seen, has a population of 233,000 and is generally regarded as the most affluent parish in the metro New Orleans area. It's also one of the fastest-growing parishes in the state.
Walley, who acquired an irrigation license and is working on several other landscape-related licenses, is adding additional services to the company in addition to traditional lawn care. Most recently he incorporated irrigation and power washing. "The goal for the next two years will be to add several other outdoor services to that list," he says.
He's also made "upselling" one of his top goals for the 2013 season. "It's something that we simply haven't done before, and we have just been leaving money on the table. In order to successfully do this, I needed to strengthen my communication with my client base, another major improvement in itself," he insists.
This season, because he has acquired the emails of 85 percent of his clients, he switched from paper billing to email billing. "It's much easier to keep them informed of new services and any specials that we're offering," he says of email. He also sends out monthly e-blasts, which he tries to keep informational.
One of Walley's bigger goals is to better identify and then solidify his company's brand within its market. "We have gone through a bit of an identity crisis," he admits. "It seems every time we have a new marketing piece, anything from a trailer wrap to our website, to fliers, we have slowly evolved our brand. Now, when you step back and look at our marketing as a whole, nothing seems to match. This is something we are trying to fix this year," Walley says.
"Having a solid brand for potential clients to identify is key to that marketing success," he insists. "Too many lawn companies count on word-of-mouth advertising and that's a scary marketing philosophy," he explains.
"You can offer excellent service and still not have a 100 percent customer satisfaction, 100 percent of the time. So, word-of-mouth marketing can be to your detriment, especially if that's your only method of advertising.
"When we started out, we didn't have any capital to spend on marketing. So, we got creative. I joined as many networking and referral organizations as I could in our area. Through those networks, I became friends with other business owners, and they, in turn, became my expanded sales force," he continues.
"We needed print and Internet advertising to constantly stay in front of people. That can get expensive. So, we struck up barter deals with the owners of the print and social media companies in our area. Tojo's Lawn Care handles their lawn care, and they make sure everyone in our area knows who we are and what we can do for them. It's a win-win."
As he's building his customer base organically, he's also been on the lookout for other small lawn care companies to buy and fold into Tojo's Lawn Care.
"Last year, I purchased dozens of accounts from other lawn services. It's a great way to expand your business because it's a two-fold win; you add new clients and you lose a competitor," Walley says. He works with former company owners, making sure they introduce him to their clients. He says it paves the way for an easy transition and helps ensure he keeps their accounts.
Lots to do yet
One of the challenges facing younger guys in the industry, including his own, he admits, is picking up bigger and, potentially, more profitable commercial sites.
"It's not always an easy sell to convince new clients that our young company is up to meeting their needs," he says. "Getting the message out there that our company can handle the workload is still a challenge."
Another struggle is in hiring and training dedicated, responsible employees that can handle Louisiana's summer heat and humidity, he says.
"We have done a great job to minimize turnover, but as an expanding business we often find that we can sell work faster than we can find employees, which has always been a challenge," says Walley.
Looking back over the six years since he and Wunder started Tojo's Lawn Care, Walley feels the biggest mistake they made was being too cautious in growing the business. "We were afraid to take risks," he says. "I now feel I could have grown the same amount in half the time by embracing risk, and not as much time working in my business, but rather on my business."
He continues: "I now realize how important it is to be out selling. Yes, as a quality control measure, I'm still working with my crews, especially on our larger contracts. But now, every second I'm sitting on a zero-turn, which I do enjoy, I'm wishing that I were out selling and expanding my business."
So, what does Walley foresee in the future?
"The lawn and landscape industry will always be an easy industry to enter, and will continue to see high levels of competition. The major change I believe we will see over the next 10 to 15 years will be by way of technology. Some companies will be able to adapt to the changing world and will succeed, while others will be unable to keep up with the new marketplace. Technology is everything, and also how we market ourselves to how we route our trucks."
If that's the case, how is Tojo's Lawn Care keeping pace?
The company is now tracking maintenance jobs by using an iPad app. "When a crew pulls up to a job, they pull up the job name. Each job has details that are stored in a spreadsheet in the Cloud," explains Walley. "The crew sees everything from mowing heights to a note warning them to watch out for the dog in the backyard. These types of technology will shape the landscape of our industry over the next 10 to 15 years," he adds.
Walley says he now operates his business with the following three core ideas: "As long as you make sure to learn from each failure, you should be improving yourself, as well as your business, each time. Make sure you set measureable goals so that you can track your progress. Knowing your strengths and shortcomings is important if you wish to grow," he says.
Pamela Walton is a freelance writer who lives and works in Gainesboro, Tenn. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.