Growing through a commitment to service in the office and in the field
David Fairburn operated Blue Eagle Irrigation before joining in 2009 with Andrew Pelkey's AOK Lawn Care to form Northpoint Holdings, a year-round outdoor services provider.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF NORTHPOINT HOLDINGS.
The next time a career politician tells you that a single four-year term just isn't enough time to get much done, consider what Northpoint Holdings has accomplished in the last three years. Formed in 2009, when Andrew Pelkey and David Fairburn decided to join forces and merge their two small service companies (AOK Lawn Care and Blue Eagle Irrigation, respectively), the now full-service, four-season landscape firm hit the $1 million mark in revenues last year.
A perfect plan
"That was a goal we had set. And we hit the $1 million milestone profitably. Sometimes people get there unprofitably. And now we're looking forward to getting to the next level," says Pelkey. The real story, though, isn't about a magical dollar figure, but rather how the pair of New Hampshire entrepreneurs planned, prioritized and persevered to get there. Pelkey and Fairburn are both currently only 26 years old, but their approach has been mature beyond their years.
Pelkey started AOK Lawn Care in 2006. "It was just a residential mowing and plowing service, with seasonal clean-ups," says Pelkey, who ran the business while he attended college, earning a degree in business management. Around that same time Fairburn, who was getting a degree in aviation, had started Blue Eagle Irrigation, which handled residential and commercial irrigation install and service work.
In 2009, Pelkey and Fairburn decided to merge AOK Lawn Care and Blue Eagle Irrigation to form Northpoint Holdings, Inc. Their first big decision was to keep the individual company names to maintain the connection they had formed with existing customers. "We wanted to keep the brands going for a while. Both were still relatively new businesses, and we were nervous to completely change everything at once after we had taken the time to build up those brands," Pelkey explains.
Even more important, though, was their decision about what kind of company they wanted to build. "We've taken an approach that's heavy on customer service," says Pelkey. "I'm only 26 years old, so I haven't been around long enough to say I've seen it all, but from my perspective that's what this industry is often really lacking." He credits a few other top-notch lawn care and landscape companies in the area for inspiring Northpoint Holdings to do everything professionally. "Being young, we've tried to learn as much as we possibly can from them," he states.
Pelkey says that "strengthening the office side of our business" has been one critical piece of ensuring the company operates professionally. Northpoint Holdings recently moved to a larger office space in Windham, N.H. "We lease space at a nursery in Windham, so we went from 1,200 square feet in Derry, N.H., that was half-garage and half-office space, to a 2,000-square-foot office with an additional large garage and outdoor space," says Pelkey. "I think that if you don't have an office framework, it's very hard to offer the customer service. I've been at the place where I'm answering the cell phone in the truck and writing notes on a sticky pad. Dave and I decided we were going to make a push to be a different kind of company. Our approach has been to offer customers more than just a guy showing up to mow their lawn."
Northpoint Holdings, Inc.
: Andrew Pelkey and David Fairburn
: Windham, N.H.
: 30-mile radius of Windham, N.H., for lawn and landscape maintenance services; up to 60 miles for design/build and commercial installation work
: Lawn care and landscape maintenance, snow and ice management, lawn Irrigation service and installation, landscape design, hardscape installation, planting
installation, lawn installation, and organic mosquito and tick preventative applications
: 12 to 15 in the winter; 15 to 20 in the summer
Technology is key
Technology has also played a major role in helping Northpoint Holdings service its customers and grow the business, says Pelkey. "We offer an online client portal, so both our residential and commercial customers can log in, see their account, view their balance, pay a bill, request a service or leave a note," he explains. This is the sort of electronic access people expect today from other service providers, such as banks, but it's rare in this type of business, Pelkey notes. "It's really catching on with our customers. We get a lot of compliments on in."
Crew leaders out in the field all have tablet computers in their trucks, allowing them access to the software system that the company operates on. That software has been so critical to Northpoint Holding's success that Pelkey prefers to keep its name a trade secret. "It truly has been probably the biggest part of our recent success in being able to offer what we offer," he explains. He does reveal that it is a cloud-based, green industry-specific software that handles all of the company's front-end accounting, marketing (mass emails), account management, vendors, subcontractors, scheduling, routing, credit card processing and even Web site hosting. "Over the last two years, we've basically built our business into the software," states Pelkey. "I think it allows us to offer a high level of customer service on a consistent basis."
That means not only showing up on time to mow, but using notes in the software to indicate whether, for example, a certain gate needs to be locked to contain a dog or the names of family members who may be home so the mowing crew can say hello. "It gives us key talking points, which I think is a step above what we had prior. The software really lets us keep everything in line," says Pelkey.
Of course, technology isn't the only tool when it comes to creating a professional image. "All of our employees work in full uniforms: pants, boots, collared polo shirts and collared sweatshirts instead of hooded sweatshirts," he explains. "When you dress someone up nice, I think they start acting differently. When you take pride in the equipment you're using and the truck you're riding in, I think you become more a part of the team, and part of something bigger than going out to simply plant a shrub or fix an irrigation head. We really try to keep that clean image as much as possible."
All of these things - from a large, professional office space to uniforms to cutting-edge technology - sound great in theory. But it takes a true commitment, and a fair amount of financial risk, to implement them in real life in a new company. "The last few years have been stressful financially, especially with the rapid growth we've experienced," acknowledges Pelkey. Being young and with limited credit histories, the two owners have self-financed the business thus far, with the exception of auto loans. "We wanted to push ourselves so that we could operate this way, because we knew that we would eventually start to see the dividends pay off. And we're getting to that point where we're getting over that hump and seeing things getting easier," he says.
Currently, Northpoint Holdings services about 200 residential maintenance customers and about the same number of irrigation customers (spring start-ups and winterizations, etc.). "We also take care of about 15 HOAs and apartment complexes, and then about 20 light industrial properties, such as banks and business parks," adds Pelkey, who oversees that commercial maintenance division, which includes snow removal in the winter.
There are about 12 to 15 employees in the winter, and the company also utilizes five or six subcontractors to help get its plowing jobs handled. In the summer, Northpoint Holdings utilizes 15 to 20 employees. Three mowing crews use all Exmark mowers, including eight zero-turns. One mowing crew handles commercial/HOA accounts, while the other two tackle residential properties.
There is also now a commercial landscape installation division, which Fairburn oversees. John Pelkey directs the residential maintenance end of things. "He works with all of our residential customers and sets up their services. He's also the guy they can talk to if they want to, say, change their mowings from a Friday to a Tuesday because they're having a party. I think being able to cater to customers like that is huge," says Pelkey. Will Smith is the firm's landscape designer for residential and commercial projects, and his role includes everything from the sale through supervising the crew that installs it. Kristen Baker is the company's office manager, who takes care of daily business operations, including bookkeeping and HR duties.
These employees work year-round, and Pelkey says this division of labor has been an important part of the company's success. "I think getting to the point where you can have specific people focusing on specific areas of the business really lets you cater to the customer," he explains. "Whether it's residential or commercial, the customer needs to have someone who can always handle their needs."
Focus on the customer
Northpoint Holdings has made a concerted effort to provide customers with full-service outdoor services. "We've started working with contractors who offer services that we don't offer in-house," Pelkey explains. Those customers have an existing relationship with the company and appreciate that with one phone call to someone they already trust they can order services such as driveway sealing or pressure washing or tree removals or pool maintenance. "The billing is done through us and it's easy. And we work only with other contractors who share our philosophies and processes," he adds.
Whether it's summer mowing or winter snow removal, customer service is at the core of Northpoint Holdings. Employees dress in full uniforms, equipment is clearly marked, and each truck has a tablet computer to communicate with the office staff at all times in order to ensure timely response to customers' needs.
In an effort to continue getting their name before the public, AOK Lawn Care sold Christmas trees for the first time this year, which proved successful. "It's a short season and it helps with marketing. I think we're planning to have three or four stands in different areas next year," says Pelkey.
While their landscape design/install and commercial maintenance operations continue to expand, "We're trying to also keep focused on the residential maintenance customer. There are many businesses that get to our size and the commercial side of things opens up and they largely forget about residential," Pelkey observes. "The tough thing is that, with the way the economy is now, the pricing that's out there is difficult."
Operating as a professional company with a commitment to customer service often makes Northpoint Holdings more expensive than some of its competitors in the residential market, he notes. The key is to find the right residential customer. "Our ideal residential customer is someone who takes pride in their property, and who wants the crew who's there working on it to look as nice as their house does," says Pelkey. "And someone who wants us to cater to special requests they might have and more or less handle everything for them. And someone who wants the ease of paperless invoicing and paying by credit cards and wants their emails answered in just a couple of minutes." Those types of customers are willing to pay for that level of customer service, in addition to a quality mowing service, he concludes.
Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.