Bryan Smith was working as a tugboat driver up and down the East Coast when his father told him about some information he had seen online about U.S. Lawns franchises. “I had never had anything to do with lawn and landscape,” says Smith, who saw it as a career move that would allow him to spend more time at home. He started by doing his homework. “I went online and investigated a little bit. U.S. Lawns gave me a list of existing franchise owners in my area to call. I called my closest neighbor and spoke with him for a while, and then went and actually met with him,” he explains. “From that point, I was all in.” Smith’s local area of Myrtle Beach was available, and he ended up purchasing a U.S. Lawns franchise there in 2004.
For many in the lawn and landscape business, success has come by starting a small, independent company and building it up. But for Smith, and many others, going the franchise route has proven to be the best fit. Jamie Carruth was also new to the green industry when she opened a U.S. Lawns franchise in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, last year. A former elementary school principal, Carruth partnered with her son, Alex Carruth, who had worked for a landscape company previously. “We found out that a territory with U.S. Lawns was becoming available in our area. My son was friends with the owners of a U.S. Lawns franchise in Mississippi who had been very successful with the model,” she recounts. “So we reached out to the U.S. Lawns home office and went through probably a six-month vetting process to see if it was going to be a good fit for them and for us.”
Of course, not all franchise owners are new to the industry. Stephen Hillenmeyer Landscape Services in Lexington, Kentucky, is a six-generation family business, including a nursery, which has been around for more than 175 years. Much more recently, the company has added to its full range of outdoor services by becoming a franchisee of both Weed Man and Mosquito Authority. “About 15 years ago, my dad made the decision to get involved with the first franchise, which was Weed Man,” explains Seth Hillenmeyer, who with his father Stephen and brother Chase now own the company.
And C and D Landscape Co. is a four-decade-old company in Oregon that became a franchisee of Christmas Décor, a holiday lighting installation company, about 12 years ago, says Isaac Kearns, whose family owns and operates C and D. “We wanted to find some sort of stop-gap in the wintertime. No negative months is a beautiful thing,” says Kearns of the business philosophy behind adding holiday lighting services. “I had heard about Christmas Décor through a friend who has a franchise on the east side of town. I called him up, then did the research,” he recalls. Kearns and his father traveled to a Christmas Décor conference in 2006 in Las Vegas and met some other franchise owners. “We wanted to hear how it worked for them and find out if it would be a good fit for us.” The experience sold them on the idea and they signed on in 2006.
Process and procedure
Every franchise system is different, but the process for those looking to purchase usually begins with a vetting process. Jamie Carruth says that U.S. Lawns was looking not so much for previous experience in the industry. “That helps, but I think what they were looking for even more was for someone who was self-motivated … and personality – you have to be a sales person. And financially they want to make sure that you’re capable of sustaining the business. You’re not going to make money right away, so you need to be able to sustain the business in the beginning.” Really, these are the same factors that are important to any new business, whether it’s independent or a franchise.
For the mother-and-son Carruth team, the process gave them a chance to see if U.S. Lawns would be able to meet their needs. “We were looking for a franchise that was reasonably priced to purchase and also had a great deal of support, especially since I was new to the business, and my son had the on-the-ground experience but didn’t have the business experience,” she states. The process ‘includes’ weekly conference calls online. “Every week we were introduced to a different aspect of the business,” says Carruth. There was also a weekend visit to the U.S. Lawns headquarters with “pretty intensive” presentations on the company’s business model.
Smith in Myrtle Beach says he found the process to be practical. “The corporate offices are completely involved; they’re totally upfront with you about what you’re going to have to have out of pocket and what they’re willing to finance. They give you a list of recommended vendors to use for purchasing,” he says. (Smith later expanded to include a second U.S. Lawns location, and in 2012, along with his father Hank, was inducted into the company’s Hall of Fame.)
“You’re on your own to make your own decisions. And you get constant help and support from the home office staff,” says Smith of his experience with U.S. Lawns. “When you’re new, your RFA (regional franchise advisor) comes up to see you on a quite regular basis. Then, as you grow and mature, they’re on call. We still get two visits a year, but if I pick up the phone and say I need someone here for assistance, I could have eight visits a year if I needed.” And Smith says that assistance is available with “whatever you’re struggling with; whether it’s office/administrative or operational.”
Jamie Carruth began with week-long training at the U.S. Lawns facility, and the support continues. “I have an accounting consultant that I work with; I have a regional advisor who comes in every few months and goes on sales calls with us,” she says. There’s also an online pricing tool that franchisees can use when measuring and bidding on jobs, which the home office can help provide guidance with. “There’s also great marketing help; they have a direct dial bullpen, and they set up appointments for us,” says Carruth. “I have been extremely pleased by the support that we’ve gotten from them; they have such solid systems in place, that if you follow their model there’s literally no way you can’t do it.”
“I know that franchises are much, much more likely to succeed than independent businesses. So there’s no question that the support we receive is helpful,” says Seth Hillenmeyer. In addition to a comprehensive business plan, he says the most helpful benefit is the ongoing support provided by Weed Man’s sub-franchisor, essentially a regional consultant who is available to help answer questions and provide guidance. “It’s basically equivalent to having a high-powered consultant on speed dial 24-7. It could be to talk about anything from new markets that you want to go into to help with solving employee issues on a day-to-day basis,” says Hillenmeyer. It’s that latter part – the people part of the business – that often is the most challenging for business owners, and that’s where the sub-franchisor really helps, he states. “That support I could not put a dollar figure on.”
Follow the plan
Those who have been successful in operating a franchise emphasize the importance of following the plan that is laid out for them. Hillenmeyer says the business plan that is provided to Weed Man franchise owners is one of the most important factors to success. “They have an extremely detailed business plan that you work through, starting with how you’re going to acquire customers – everything to how many doors you’re going to knock on in a given season to how many sales people you’re going to need to how many door hangers …every little thing is laid out and thought of, including exactly how many dollars you’re going to need throughout the entire season.” Even things from the number of uniforms to order to the type of equipment needed is covered, he adds. “There’s no way I could ever come up with this detailed and intricate of a plan.”
Hillenmeyer admits that it took his family’s company a number of years “to really listen to the guidance from the franchise.” At frist, we really didn’t grow. “Then … we really started to focus in on it, and have an owner manage the day-to-day operations, and listened to the processes that we had paid for through Weed Man, and we’ve seen our business more than triple in size over the last seven or eight years.” The bottom line, he says, when it comes to the franchise model: “You’re investing in a blueprint on how to run your business, so don’t think you’re smarter than the people who’ve already figured this stuff out. You just need to keep it simple and follow the plan you’ve been given. That’s what we’ve done over the last seven or eight years, and we think that’s why we’ve seen a lot of growth.”
Similarly, Isaac Kearns credits Christmas Décor’s marketing plan with helping C and D Landscape’s franchise succeed. “Especially the first year, they really put your whole marketing plan together for you and say, ‘Go execute this with these materials.’ They kind of get you up to speed and out the door on training wheels,” says Kearns. The wise thing, when working as a franchisee, is to “follow the system. Don’t get creative!” he emphasizes.
Words of wisdom
There are many different reasons why some choose to purchase a franchise. In addition to helping those new to the industry get quickly established (like Smith and Carruth), it’s also an avenue to help expand service offerings. “Even though people knew us for landscaping and garden centers, and we had done some commercial maintenance, people didn’t really associate the Hillenmeyer brand with lawn care,” says Seth Hillenmeyer of his company’s decision to purchase a Weed Man franchise. “We weren’t a real ‘lawn care company’ at that time, and this gave us the blueprint to build that up.” Over the past decade and a half, the company’s Weed Man franchise has continued to grow.
“Weed Man is extremely supportive of their owner-operators, and they do give us freedom to make decisions on how we run our business on a day-to-day basis,” says Hillenmeyer. “I would say the downside [of a franchise] is not necessarily being able to expand when you want and where you want, based on the availability of territories.” But over the years, the Hillenmeyers have started another Weed Man franchise in Nashville, and purchased another existing (and adjoining) franchise in Hendersonville, for a total of three franchises. One benefit of a franchise owner purchasing another franchise is that the processes and procedures are uniform and consistent, he notes.
The Mosquito Authority franchise came about four years ago. “We had built up a pretty good book of business with lawn care customers … and we wanted to provide our clientele with another service and further diversify our business. We saw an opportunity in mosquito control,” says Hillenmeyer. “While Weed Man was phenomenal with processes and systems for lawn care, it wasn’t a pest control company. So we decided, ‘why not introduce a third brand?’” Once again, he said, it took some time to introduce the company’s Weed Man customers to a new sister company offering mosquito control, “but we’ve been able to do a lot of cross-marketing that we’ve found to be very effective.”
For C & D Landscape, a Christmas Décor franchise was a way to generate revenue in typically slow landscape months. Isaac Kearns says the company never really considered trying to offer holiday lighting on its own and was convinced that the franchise model was the way to go. “Why reinvent the wheel? We can learn one of two ways in life: either by trial and error, or to listen to the wisdom of the people who’ve gone before us,” he explains. And he says that decision quickly paid off. “We did a little over $55,000 our first year in sales,” he notes, which would have been very difficult to pull off independently. The initial investment, he recalls, was about $25,000 to $30,000, and product costs were about the same, given that they were starting from scratch. “So, all of our expenses were about $60,000. So to darn near break even the first year is pretty phenomenal,” he says.
The Christmas Décor franchise remains an important part of their overall business. When the landscape installation market was down for several years following the 2008 recession, it proved to be a perfect way to keep the company’s irrigation technicians and landscape installers employed, says Kearns. And even during those tough years, the company’s Christmas Décor business grew. “We’ve never had a down year,” he reports.
“We’ve had such positive success with the franchise model of Christmas Décor that we’re going to be launching a Weed Man franchise very soon,” says Kearns. While C and D Landscape has long been known for its installation work, it’s been harder to expand its footprint in lawn maintenance, and he feels that the franchise will help dramatically in that regard.
Jamie Carruth says that purchasing a U.S. Lawns franchise “has allowed us to really learn the business from, no pun intended, the ground up.” All of the business support that’s available was spelled out before the Carruth’s purchased the franchise, but she says there has been an added bonus that she wasn’t expecting: a sense of camaraderie. “I’m used to being around people, and this is now kind of solitary – it’s just me and my son, and we can get tired of each other,” she jokes. “But I’ve become very good friends with all of my neighboring franchise owners. We talk all of the time and support each other and get leads for each other … you really feel like you’re part of a larger group.”
For those thinking about purchasing a franchise, Seth Hillenmeyer advises reaching out to existing franchisees and finding out what their experiences have been, what positives and negatives they’ve found, what they like about it or what they would change. “Rather than hearing it from a person who’s trying to sell you a franchise,” he says, “hear it from a person who has actually purchased a franchise and gone through it and lived it.”