Success is No Fairy Tale
Brothers Grimm Landscape & Design Services pins growth to constant improvement
Company founder and owner Jacob Grimm reminds his team that success working smarter and harder.
Photos courtesy of Brothers Grimm Landscape & Design Services.
Jacob Grimm waves off the notion that in order to succeed in business these days, one must "work harder". He reminds his crew weekly that success entails working smarter and harder.
"That's what it takes. You've got to be efficient. You've got to be on top of it. You've got to do the job," he says. Since 1995, Grimm has been at the helm of a company that kept growing - even through the Great Recession - because he and his team have been focused on finding ways to work smarter, and also because it brings a unique perspective to the market.
"We're a full-service landscape construction firm. As such, we are able to advise clients what's truly best for their project and not what the suppliers are offering on special that month," says Grimm. "Also, we do the right thing. I'm a homeowner, too. I know what it's like to hire someone to work at my home and I have certain expectations for that. Many times, that costs me money out of my pocket, but right is right no matter what the cost."
Services offered by The Brothers Grimm Landscape & Design Company, based in Akron, Ohio, include maintenance (50 percent of the revenues), hardscapes (30 percent) and softscapes (20 percent). The company does the majority of its work within a half-hour drive of its Akron headquarters. The clientele is weighted toward high-end residential, although it also does commercial work. Maintenance services include mowing, fall clean-up, aeration, pruning and turf renovation. Hardscape services include design/build, retaining walls, patios and sidewalks, decks and driveways. Softscape services include lawn installation, planting, mulching, outdoor lighting, ponds and waterfalls.
Brothers Grimm Landscape & Design Services
Owner: Jacob Grimm
Headquarters: Akron, Ohio
Markets: Half-hour radius around Akron
Services: Maintenance (mowing, fall clean-up, aeration, pruning and turf renovation); hardscape services (design/build, retaining walls, patios and sidewalks, decks and driveways); and softscape services (lawn installation, planting, mulching, outdoor lighting, ponds and waterfalls)
Employees: 17 in peak season
Striving for quality
"Integrity to us is more important than what we can sell," he says, adding that he feels the landscape industry, as a whole, has way too many operators offering sub-par service. But, of course, it has some really good companies, too. He can easily list a dozen or so contractors in his market, including competitors, that he feels offer truly professional services.
"Landscapers are a prideful bunch and most believe they're the best thing since double-shredded mulch. The reality is that we all need to be learning and advancing. We all need to demand better out of our industry." This includes reliability and a willingness to correct mistakes," says Grimm.
"I'll be the first one to raise my hand and say, 'Yeah, we goofed up on that'," Grimm says, who doesn't take himself out of the need for continual self-improvement. "For me, I have to learn how to be a better boss. My crews need information to be able to do their jobs well. I expect to teach employees, but I also expect them to learn." To that end, Grimm is working on improving his company's systems to reduce stress and improve efficiency.
The Brothers Grimm Landscape & Design Company employs up to 17 employees in peak season and 12 during the winter.
"I'm particular and very demanding about how the company is to be represented when they're in uniform," Grimm says of his employees. That includes the topics they talk about while on the job and the language they use. Timeliness is also vital. He relates that several of his firm's clients have good-naturedly remarked that they can almost set their clocks by the arrival of his crews.
"We thin the herd quite a bit with folks who don't seem to want to put in any effort either in being on time or it takes four times to show them how to plant a tree because we have to do it a certain way," he adds. "The willingness to learn and ambition is huge for an employee. We're looking for someone who has a solid work ethic and cares not only for themself, but the people they work with and the company they're working for."
In his blood
Grimm says the green industry is "in his blood". At age 10, he figured out how to stripe a lawn with his father's 1973 Allis Chambers tractor. At 12, he mowed his first lawn.
"I just love it," he notes. "I get excited when I go to the growers and pick up plants. I smile when I walk into a backyard and folks are laughing and having a good time on a patio I have built. I love seeing a retaining wall 10 years later as strong as the day I built it. With the amount of work I put in, I probably could be making more money somewhere else, but I am not an office guy and I can't punch a clock. I love what I do and I am good at it," he says.
Not surprisingly, Grimm takes a hands-on approach to operations, as he wants to be known for being a leader as well as being the owner.
"Our employees are good at what they do, but someone has to steer the ship," says Grimm. "Monitoring quality and setting expectations is key to delivering a quality product. Second to that is being the direct contact for our clients, especially the construction side. I'm involved from the design phase all the way through warranty items after the job is done. I want the relationship to be solid."
Grimm recognizes there's a balance. He tells of a time where he had "a little bit too tight a grip" on the reins of one of his foremen. "Once I got out of the way, he did even better," Grimm says. "I'm a big believer in letting a man work. Having a boss standing over your shoulder the whole time you're trying to get something done makes for an unproductive situation. With my field supervisors and foremen, I do have an expectation that they're following procedures and I let them go do it."
Even so, the company does onsite inspections and seeks feedback from clients.
"My field supervisor will call twice each season during the year just to talk to the client and see how things are," Grimm says. "It's not an upsell opportunity, although it sometimes happens where folks ask for something while we are on the phone with them."
The Brothers Grimm Landscape & Design Service is planning for more growth to provide employees with more opportunity.
Avoiding equipment issues
Grimm wants value in terms of reliability and serviceability when purchasing equipment.
"Not only does a good truck haul materials, but it hauls your crews, too. It affects your productivity. If it breaks down on the road you're losing money three different ways. You're not working, you've got the expense of repairing the truck, and you've got guys on payroll standing there," he says, adding that not every vehicle or piece of equipment needs to be new.
"We have some trucks that are six to nine years old, but they just keep on ticking," he says. "We have some that were just as old, but we sold them because every time we turn around, we were throwing money at them."
As for grounds maintenance equipment, Grimm is partial to Wright Stander mowers and Echo trimmers and backpack blowers.
Grimm tries to keep much of that equipment and employees busy through the winter season by doing snow removal. He also tries to control overtime and payroll costs so that there is a little bit of a cushion in the budget through the winter for repairing equipment and doing basic maintenance service, which also keeps employees busy. He also uses the winter months to display the company's services as three major home shows.
"Between that and the snow, there really isn't an off-season anymore," Grimm says. "We do like to take a couple of weeks off in the summer to let everybody recharge and spend some time with family around Christmas."
Steady, strong growth
Grimm says his company is larger than he had envisioned when he started it. But he learned that "if you're not growing, you're dying." Not that growth equates only to size. It also means growing in knowledge, growing in service delivery and growing in value to each and every client. This, he feels, is one of the distinguishing features of Brothers Grimm Landscape & Design Services. His customers' annual client turnover rate is an exceptional 5 percent.
"We turned inward to our clients and focused on their needs while still seeking new opportunities," he comments. To that end, he focuses on finding customers that want the job done right, and not just cheap. He also credits his company's ability to design and deliver landscapes that compliment the unique architecture of many of the homes in his market.
"Our average project is now $40,000 to $70,000 and we see a handful in the $80,000 and more range," he says. "At this stage, we have seen $150,000 once or twice a season. My first year sales were $45,000. All I can say is 'Praise the Lord and pass the mulch'."
Grimm says after his company refined its estimating process to include charging a $500 design fee, it has helped weed out price-shopping prospects from those that appreciate his company's hard-earned craftsmanship.
"It also opened the door to more complicated and higher end projects," he says. "Of course, a little hard work and a whole lot of prayer helps, too. But we still do it all from the $50 lawn mowing on up."
Four years ago, Grimm made a conscious decision to push hard and add marketing when times were starting to look scary. "We were able to show overall growth in the last four years each year," he notes. He credits his firm's ability to get client referrals that result in jobs in about 80 percent of the time.
"You're building trust with someone and they're passing that on," he points out. "That's a real big deal. The home shows also have been a tremendous asset, because it's a mobile, onsite display people can come see to get work done. It's almost like a reference. People get to see the creativity and at the same time, talk to us and get a vision of what's happening and see our abilities."
What's in a name?
About that name: Grimm's younger brother was involved in the business for a short time.
"We started as The Brothers Grimm Grass Company," he says. "We found we were limited in the calls we were getting, so we started working as The Brothers Grimm Landscape & Design and that really opened the doors to a lot of things."
When his brother left the business, Grimm felt it would be better to keep the name rather than going with something like "Jake's Lawn Care."
Looking back on the years he's been in business, Grimm points out he's learned from past mistakes in his ongoing efforts to continually improve. He says he would have organized himself for "planned, purposeful growth earlier". He admits that managing growth has been one of his biggest challenges.
"I joke with the guys that when I started out, it was just me and a ratty old truck," he says. "We keep growing and putting more trucks on a road, so every day, I'm learning to run a bigger and bigger company. One of my biggest challenges is making sure things are running as efficiently as they can and learning to properly manage my time and train my people well."
Grimm calls his employees his "most valuable resource and sometimes the source of the biggest issues". Yet the work always seems to take care of itself, he points out. "I worry a lot about it sometimes and will turn around at the end of the day and realize we were up 10 to 15 percent for the end of the year and I look at myself and say, 'What was I even worried about?'"
Commonsense Lawn Care
"Organics is a great idea, but we just can't get the clients to pay for it or get the results we need effectively," he says. "I'm not a big fan of chemicals per se. I certainly am not one to spray for the sake of spraying. When it comes to turf care, we approach it from more of a commonsense standpoint."
That includes standard four-step and six-step fertilizer programs. The company encourages overseeding and aeration as a balanced approach to turf care.
"We aren't pushing every chance we get to pull that sprayer out and use it," Grimm says. "Our philosophy is we can establish healthy turf with healthy roots. Then, a lot of the problems that require chemicals become less of a problem or are eliminated altogether, things like weeds and fungus."
Grimm is not a big fan of the quick-fix approach to lawn care. "Everyone knows that doesn't exist when you're dealing with live material," he points out. "I think customers realize the value of a good fertilizer program and also a good maintenance program and how everything works together. This includes a proper cutting height, proper cutting routine, proper fertilization and aeration."
He recently laid out a plan for aggressive growth, something he's never done before. The plan includes hiring an account manager to head up the company's grounds management division to take it to the next level. The company also is adding a swimming pool division on the design/build side for clients seeking outdoor living projects that center around a swimming pool. His five-year plan encompasses doubling the company's size and moving to a new location.
"We aren't on a mission to be the biggest guys out there," Grimm says. "But we're on a mission to provide more, not only for our clients, but for our employees and my own family and their families."
Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.