In It for the Long Haul
How a hardworking North Carolina couple builds a partnership to go the distance
Lewey Landscaping & LawnCare
Owners: Mike and Kim Lewey
Headquarters: Raleigh, N.C.
Markets: Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill
Services: Lawn maintenance, mowing, fertilization, seeding, aeration, weed control, pruning, irrigation, ornamental maintenance, landscape design, planting, sod installation, stack stone walls, lighting and drainage.
More than a decade ago, Mike and Kim Lewey had undergone job changes that gave them pause to think about what would be their next step. Mike had experience maintaining golf courses and in grounds maintenance for a development company. Kim had worked in banking. They wanted to start and run a company that combined their individual strengths. They started Lewey Landscaping & LawnCare in Raleigh, N.C., in June 2001. Despite economic challenges that occurred post-9/11 and then with the recession, the company has managed steady growth.
After 32 years of marriage and 11 years as business partners, the Leweys have pretty much sorted out the details - well, just about all the details.
"Our strengths are different. Me coming from a banking background, I'm a Type-A personality and my husband is more laid back. I think that's probably the biggest challenge in running the business. We're on opposite ends of the spectrum. It's a blessing and a curse because we have different strengths, but we also get in each other's face a little bit," Lewey admits chuckling. "We make it work out. We're partners in this, thick and thin and when we have to we get our daughter to mediate for us. She's 22 and just graduated from college and is looking to go to grad school and works in the office part time to help take care of bookkeeping for us."
In the end the Leweys do whatever is necessary to keep their company going in a positive direction. And that includes climbing into the cab of a service vehicle and getting dirty hands.
Lewey Landscaping & LawnCare demonstrated its creative side at the annual Artsplosure arts festival in downtown Raleigh, N.C.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF LEWEY LANDSCAPING & LAWNCARE.
"That doesn't mean that he doesn't need to get involved in some of the things that I do and when we're short-handed, I go out and run a crew just like the guys," says Lewey. "We do whatever we need to do to keep clients happy. Providing excellent customer service has always been important to my husband and me.
"My husband and I are very proud of that. We've worked very hard to get where we are and feel pretty good about it," Lewey says, adding that most of the growth has come about "the old-fashioned way."
Lewey Landscaping & LawnCare started by offering lawn maintenance. It now provides many different landscaping services to a client base that's 65 percent residential and 35 percent commericial.
The company started off with lawn maintenance and added more services in response to client requests, but has since added fertilization, seeding, aeration, weed control, pruning, irrigation, ornamental maintenance, landscape design, planting, sod installation, stack stone walls, lighting and drainage.
"Residential clients are much easier to obtain because they'll call you every day and there are a lot more of them," says Lewey. "Once you gain a residential lawn maintenance client, you can usually depend on them to call you for additional services that they may want, like mulch and pruning, installing sod and irrigation repair. The company's diversified customer base and its broad range of services helped carry it through the recession.
"When construction went under, we didn't have a large percentage of our portfolio in it that a lot of other companies did, so that helped us," Lewey says.
Even so, things got pretty dicey as the effects of the recession took hold, causing the company to tighten its belt, which affected its 12 employees, including four who had been there from the beginning.
The Raleigh company counts on its loyal employees to enlist other good employees.
"We had to make a lot of cuts in expenses," Lewey recalls. "We had to make some cuts in staffing and we had to make some cuts in the pay. They (employees) understood it, and a year and a half after the economy went down, we were able to bring them back to where they were and start providing increases again because we stabilized. A lot of the people who work with us go with us because we do have the stability." Lewey says that speaks volumes about the employees.
The recession reinforced two strong lessons for the Leweys - always keep a close eye on expenses, and never stop marketing. "I want to make sure we always are keeping an eye on expenses and not scrimping on the marketing end of it. I think the marketing is what's necessary because if you step away from the marketing, then people forget who you are and you have to start all over again," she says.
The company's client base is 65 percent residential and 35 percent commercial, a number Lewey says she'd like to see flipped the other way.
"We are starting to get more calls from commercial clients, but we try to focus more on what I call those solo buildings and small strip centers. We're not interested in the large shopping centers. There are a lot much larger companies that we can't compete with, so why try?"
Next goal: commercial
The couple is trying to develop relationships with commercial management companies in the business-rich and incredibly competitive market area that includes Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham.
"It's difficult to get those introductions. They typically already have a group of contractors that they like to use," says Lewey. "You sometimes have to nurture that relationship for five years before you are even able to get on a job. It's almost like a glass ceiling that you have to somehow break through."
As the the Leweys built their company, they made some tough calls about which customers they could service and, because of travel time and fuel costs, how far away from their home base they could afford to send crews. "We needed to make sure we weren't throwing darts at a board," she says. "We wanted to make sure we were focused on who our customer really was. It was hard to do, but we had to say 'no' if someone didn't fit the services we had to offer or they were outside the area we wanted to service.
"Being a family-owned business, we concentrate more on the quality of services and we're not as interested in growing at breakneck speed. We're more interested in growing our client base and continuing with repeat and referral business," says Lewey. "We had our business for seven years before we ever put in a website. We built the business strictly on referrals. People had nowhere to go to find information on us. I had an email address, but that was it."
Once the couple decided to enter the digital world, they made sure they did it right. Lewey says they retained the services of an excellent website designer that ensured search engine optimization (SEO). "We wanted to make sure we had the right tools in place," she says, adding that the family business also hired a public relations firm to position it for the kind of growth that would, in the future, make it attractive for purchase.
Growth brings with it its own unique set of challenges. One of them is funding that growth, especially in a tight lending environment and especially when you have to expand and upgrade production equipment to meet a growing menu of client needs. "We have basically been self-funded for the last two years. We're not trying to grow, but we have been growing. We've grown at a slower pace than we would have had we been able to get some help," admits Lewey.
In the end, the success of a small landscape business, any small business, is dependent upon its management and upon the dedication and skills of its employees. Both are always a work in progress, the couple concepts, although it has nothing but praise for its employees.
"They have stayed with us through thick and thin and they work hard. We depend on our employees to find new employees because they want someone that has the same work ethic that they have," says Lewey, adding that the company is always looking to add other great employees, crew chiefs especially.
"That's someone who can drive our vehicles, be properly insured, have the right driver's license and also understands the industry as far as what needs to be done. We're running four crews and probably still need a couple of drivers. We have to maneuver a lot to keep our work flowing and that's when I come in and drive a truck and anybody else who needs to so we can get the work done," Lewey says.
All in all, this past season was a good one for Lewey Landscaping & Lawn Care. Spring started very early and the grass, because of timely rains, looked good and grew throughout the summer and late into the fall. The company experienced a sizable uptick in new sod installations and general property cleanups. They credit that to customers whose lawns were badly damaged during previous dry seasons or who neglected their landscapes because of the Recession and are now feeling more confident of the economy are willing to spend some money.
Lewey says that she's also seeing more homeowners installing zoysiagrass lawns, which are more expensive than tall fescue and bermudagrass, but also requires less care and fewer inputs to stay healthy.
Kim Lewey believes that once you gain a residential customer, they'll call you for additional services, like irrigation, sod installation, mulch and pruning.
"A lot more people are going back to hiring maintenance that had been doing themselves. They're back in the workforce and want someone to take care of it, or decided that this is something that they don't like to do, so they hired a contractor to take care of the lawn. When you sit on your back porch, you want to be able to see something that's peaceful. You don't want to see something that causes additional stress."
Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at email@example.com.