CENTRAL FEATURES


The Family of Outdoor Service Providers

If The Groundskeeper can't provide the service, you probably don't need it
By Suz Trusty


Each of the three owners (l. to r.), Todd
Lewis, David Sipherd and Christian Sipherd
brings unique talents to their company.

Each of the three owners (l. to r.), Todd Lewis, David Sipherd and Christian Sipherd brings unique talents to their company.
PHOTO BY (C)DP MULLER PHOTO CO.

Joining forces as "A Family of Outdoor Service Providers" enables this Omaha company to cover multiple facets of the green industry with specialized professionals dedicated to client satisfaction. Each segment - The Groundskeeper, Pond Doctors and The Outdoor Room - retains its recognized branding while functioning as an integrated partnership.

It took some time for the individual companies to come together. The Groundskeeper entered the Omaha, Neb., market in 1980 as a lawn care and landscape maintenance company, and branched into landscape design and installation. Christian Sipherd began working for that company in 1998.

His cousin, David Sipherd, and David's wife Barbara, started their pet shop, Pets R Us, in 1991 in Omaha's Rockbrook Village shopping center.

"We'd been doing some pond maintenance through the pet store for clients with fish issues and knew there was little accurate information out there on water quality and fish health," says David. "We also were seeing many water features coming into a state of decline after only three to five years due to improper installation. A well-built water feature should last up to 30 years."

The Groundskeeper in Omaha

Owners/Partners: David Sipherd, Todd Lewis and Christian Sipherd
Founded: The Groundskeeper in 1980; purchased by current owners in 2011; Pond Doctors in 2006; The Outdoor Room in 2009
Headquarters: Omaha, Neb.
Markets: Pond Doctors and The Outdoor Room throughout the Omaha area; The Groundskeeper primarily in targeted neighborhoods of Dundee, Fairacres, Regency and Linden Estates
Services: Design, installation and renovation of landscapes, ponds, hardscapes and outdoor kitchens/living areas; mowing, lawn care programs, landscape and garden maintenance; pond maintenance; Christmas and outdoor lighting; snow removal; and exterior and interior special request services
Employees: 18 peak season
Website: www.thegroundskeeperomaha.com

David connected with Todd Lewis through a shared passion of working with water features and each respected the skills of the other. Todd entered the green industry in 1994, over time gaining expertise in landscape maintenance, design and installation. "I most enjoyed working with water features and began focusing on that area," he says. In 2006, they teamed up to launch Pond Doctors to focus on pond structural repair and restoration as well as maintenance. Design and installation developed from that.

David and Todd formed The Outdoor Room as a division of Pond Doctors in 2009, with Todd serving as managing partner for both.

"We explored the market potential and flew to North Carolina for specialized training in outdoor kitchens before the launch," says Todd. "Designed and built well using quality products, they'll have a life of 20 years or longer. We're already doing some repair and restoration. With so many improper installations in the area, we're anticipating the same kind of failure level at the three- to five-year point that we saw with the water features."

With both those divisions growing well, they expanded their services into the lawn care and landscape arena. David says, "I contacted my cousin Christian to head that division. Knowing The Groundskeeper's owner was ready to sell, Christian suggested we form a partnership to purchase it instead. We weighed the pros and cons of adding a well-established company, its facilities, equipment, reputation and client base as compared to starting fresh. In 2011, Pond Doctors purchased The Groundskeeper with Christian joining us as the third owner and managing partner of the acquisition."

The marriage of companies only works if their operational strategies match, and this was a great fit. Both are known as knowledgeable, reliable and service-oriented, with a whatever-it-takes mindset. Both also target the upscale residential market and focus on long-term client relationships.

Once the merger was completed, the client list expanded. The synergies continue as loyal clients of one division begin using the services of the others and spread the word to their families and friends.

Freeing up clients' time

"The most important commodity of people is time," says David. "They pay for our services for the privilege of having more of it. We feel their trust in our competence requires specialization so we can provide skilled professionals for each element."

As managing partners, Todd and Christian allocate 25 to 30 percent of their time to their division projects, working with their foremen and assisting in training crewmembers. The remainder of their time in-season is focused on selling, designing and scheduling.

David and Barbara tackle the paperwork and accounting. With a shared facility and so much client crossover, the operation is treated as one company, with the profitability of each division, service segment and project analyzed separately.

"We use the new online version of the Intuit QuickBooks system for that as well as generating invoicing and payments. It also allows us to track our customers based on individual and overall services used. Some clients are on 12-month payment programs; most prefer billings as services are rendered. It's a big issue for all of them that our invoicing be accurate and timely," says David.

Any or all staff members may be called on for snow removal, Christmas lighting and decoration installation and removal, and storm damage cleanup or special projects during any season. Otherwise, they're allocated to their specific areas of specialization. Todd oversees the pond and outdoor living hardscape installation crews, as well as pond maintenance. Christian oversees the landscape installation crews along with the broad area of maintenance and special project services the partners refer to as "estate management."

The pond program

The pond maintenance specialists work in two-person crews. The pond maintenance foreman is Chris Lewis (Todd's brother), who has been with Pond Doctors since its inception. For complex problems, Todd is the primary troubleshooter on leak detection, and David steps in for water quality and fish health issues.

The season start-up program is just one example of the company's professionalism.

Pond Doctors customizes maintenance programs to meet every client's needs,
covering everything that holds water except swimming pools.

Pond Doctors customizes maintenance programs to meet every client's needs, covering everything that holds water except swimming pools.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE GROUNDSKEEPER, UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED.

"We remove overwintering fish from the pond and place them in tubs for acclimation. We drain out all of the water; clear away trash; check fittings, tubing, cords, pumps, liners and rock placement; and use shop vacs and power washers to remove fish waste and decomposing materials," says Todd.

"We add fresh water, treating it as needed, and follow the additional steps David has developed for algae prevention. We make sure everything is adjusted correctly and operating properly. We work with the water and bog plants, thinning and trimming as needed, and place any additional plants. We return the fish to the pond once they are properly acclimated."

Pond Doctors offers three maintenance programs for ponds and other types of decorative water features: weekly, every two weeks and monthly. Each services grouping is custom-designed for that client. Todd says, "Our winterization service includes pump removal and storage. That helps ensure we'll be back to that pond in the spring."

Pond Doctors also maintains indoor water features, farm ponds and rainwater retention ponds. "We basically cover everything that holds water, except swimming pools," says Todd.

The Groundskeeper maintenance programs reflect that same level of professionalism.

Mowing, maintenance program

"Patrick Branigan is our foreman for mowing and lawn maintenance. We'll typically run one three-person crew, though we can add a second crew if needed. They're equipped with Scag mowers - a 62-inch rider, a 52-inch stand up and a 36-inch walk-behind - and a 21-inch Toro commercial, along with RedMax blowers and trimmers and an assortment of hand tools. They're our eyes on that property. They're trained to make assessments and certified and equipped to handle the fertilization, control product applications and spot-treatments. They use a truck with a dump body and a hoist, with the capacity to hold clippings and trimming debris, and pull a 16-foot trailer."

Garden maintenance crews work as two-person teams. "We provide all the fine gardening services for plant beds and container plantings, including seasonal color changeouts," says Christian. "They're equipped like a traveling garden center with all the tools, equipment, plants and products they might need. We also make sure the property is 'party presentable' before we leave. That includes checking gutters, removing cobwebs, wiping down furniture, washing off the patio and more. Most of those clients are on a weekly program."

The Outdoor Room creates and maintains outdoor living areas like this one,
adding another dimension to The Groundskeeper's services.

The Outdoor Room creates and maintains outdoor living areas like this one, adding another dimension to The Groundskeeper's services.

The Groundskeeper provides lawn, garden and landscape spring and fall cleanup. Its winterization program includes removal and storage of patio furniture.

"Our clients frequently request services that aren't related to grounds care and we're always pleased to provide them. That has ranged from moving fragile antique furniture for their carpet cleaners to valet parking for special events. Whatever they need, outdoors or indoors, we're quick to respond to their call. If a problem occurs, our targeted response time is one hour, or less," says David, adding, "The biggest thing we've learned is the three of us as owners need to use the off-season to analyze our processes and procedures to make sure all the benchmarks are in place and refine what we do."

Robust growth

With the margin of growth ranging from 20 to 40 percent a year within the various areas of service, the major focus going into the second year as a family of services was preparation for the potential growth.

"We're service oriented and our goal in growth is to make sure our service level remains consistent," says Todd. "We've developed checklists for each segment of our operation our crews use every time they are at a property to ensure that. We also analyze profitability to determine if our goals are realistic and if we are meeting them. Our pricing needs to be fair in our estimation - not only right for us, but right for our customers."

Refining purchasing was another part of the planning process. The partners analyzed every line item for cost-effectiveness. If a client has purchased plants from a local garden center, the crews will plant them. But more frequently, the company provides the plant materials. For 2013, larger sizes and quantities of nursery stock are direct sourced from Monrovia. Annuals and smaller quantities of other plants are custom grown locally. They also streamlined purchasing of rock and other hardscape materials.

They bring in the foremen and other key staff members during part of the off-season to handle equipment maintenance issues and do a thorough spring cleaning and shop reorganization, always striving for improved efficiency.

David says, "In working toward a paperless system, we're integrating some iPads and iPhones into our program. We allocated some time for that training. We also pulled in staff as needed to perform those 'other service aspects' that came up during the winter."

The Groundskeeper's maintenance crews make sure the property is "party presentable" before they leave.

The Groundskeeper's maintenance crews make sure the property is "party presentable" before they leave.

Marketing outreach

A well-designed website and professional printed marketing materials, along with targeted advertising, are alerting the Omaha market to this family of outdoor service providers. They created an eye-popping integrated display at the Omaha Home Show in February that generated pre-spring inquiries.

The organization also volunteers for Lauritzen Gardens' annual antique show, its largest fundraiser of the year. "We move every antique in and out for that event," says Christian. "When a purchase is made, we handle the deliveries and place the items in the buyer's home. It's one way we give back to the community. And it gives us another opportunity to connect with our target market."

Suz Trusty is a partner with her husband, Steve, in Trusty & Associates, Council Bluffs, Iowa. She has been involved in the green industry for over 40 years. Contact her at suz@trusty.bz.