Efficient Rather Than Cheap

Source: www.TurfMagazine.com

Mississippi company owner learns that when you control costs you can offer competitive prices By Carol Brzozoski

One of the biggest challenges for anyone in business is knowing the cost of doing business. Cade Trisler, founder and president of Trisler Landscape Management in Jackson, Miss., focuses on labor and fuel costs.

“I like to invest in the proper equipment and less labor, because in the landscape industry 40 percent of our income is going into labor,” says Trisler. “If we can increase our productivity and decrease our labor, then we’re balancing everything out.”

Ten years ago, Trisler invested in all new equipment to meet client needs. He rotates out most of the company’s equipment every three to four years. Service trucks, assuming their frames, suspensions and brakes are still whole and safe, get new engines. Each weekend, a company crew services the company’s production equipment. Employees grease and clean it, check hoses and belts, and make sure the blades on every mower are sharp and ready for action.

Fuel surcharges

After Hurricane Katrina, Trisler learned “the hard way” about the cost of the fuel it takes to operate and transport the equipment.

“When the hurricane hit, gas went from $2 a gallon to more than $4 a gallon,” he says. “That hurt our bottom line. Since then, a fuel surcharge has become standard in all of our contracts. I bring it to our customers’ attention when we sign the service agreement. I let them know about the clause that says if gas reaches a certain amount, we’re going to add a 3 percent surcharge over the total monthly price.”

Competitive, not cheap

Trisler rejects the notion he’s heard from competitors that he charges cheap rates. He says there’s a big difference between being cheap and being efficient so you can perform services at competitive rates and still make an acceptable return on your investment and efforts.

“We wouldn’t be doing the work if we were cheap,” Trisler contends. “We’re not in business to give away work. We’re in business to make a profit. We’re very competitive and efficient and we watch our costs and our expenses. Good, slow, steady growth and giving a good product, good service and getting good results are what’s important.”

That philosophy has underscored Trisler’s business approach since he began cutting grass at age 13. He went on to earn an associate’s degree in landscape management technology and a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Belhaven College.

He’s also a licensed gardener, Mississippi-certified arborist and chemical applicator.

Trisler says his company focuses on acquiring and retaining great employees and upon productive equipment to keep his company competitive. He keeps up with current research, technology and products, prepares for weather changes that affect landscapes, and is active in the Mississippi Turfgrass Association.

Like other contractors, he says one of his biggest challenges is trying to find competent, trainable, loyal employees.

Attitude, character important employee traits

During peak season, Trisler Landscape Management employs 25 to 30 employees, half from the H-2B seasonal guest worker program. Some of his peak season workers are college students. He hires on attitude and character, followed by experience.

“We can train someone to do what we do in our industry, but you can’t train someone to have a good attitude, a good work ethic, a good character, and be on time and willing to learn,” he says.

His employees work four 10-hour days with Fridays reserved for catch-up work. “I don’t want to work on Saturdays and my guys don’t want to work on Saturdays unless we choose to. I try to sell extra work, enhancement work and landscape projects to reward my guys with overtime and let them make a little extra income if we have to work there on Fridays,” says Trisler.

Quality over quantity

Trisler Landscape Management uses all Exmark equipment on client properties, which include homeowners’ associations, and commercial, industrial and educational institutions, including his alma mater, Belhaven College. His goal is not quantity of clients, but the quality of work he can do for the clients he has. The equipment plays a significant role in providing that service, he says.

“In Jackson, there are a lot of slopes, hills and berms, so we use mostly walk-behinds. I only have three zero-turns, but 15 walk-behind units in various sizes,” Trisler says.

“Over the years, the big zero-turn mowers on the berms put big ruts in the homeowners’ yards because they’re on hills and they’re so heavy,” he says. “We like the lighter walk-behind units and find there is less compaction on the hills and berms and they don’t put ruts in homeowners’ yards.”

Wide range of services

Trisler Landscape Management offers a wide range of services, and Trisler notes that the diversification helps him retain business.

“A lot of the homeowner associations we’re picking up had somebody mowing the grass, somebody else doing their irrigation, another company doing the fertilization and the pruning. They would deal with different contractors to take care of the property. We can do everything they need on that property with one company.” This includes a crew devoted primarily to providing enhancements.

Trisler is an Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute certified installer, and there’s one landscape designer on staff, but he outsources most of that work. He also subcontracts irrigation system installations, but takes care of the systems’ ongoing maintenance.

“It’s more economically feasible to outsource that than to hire an architect on staff to do those jobs. We only do 10 to 20 a year,” he says.

Sports fields a growing revenue stream

A growing revenue stream for Trisler has been athletic field work, which he also enjoys because it takes him back to the days when he played college and semi-professional soccer for the now-defunct Jackson Chargers.

“I grew up playing soccer and there’s nothing better for a kid than going out to a soccer field that’s beautifully maintained, weed-free and grass cut short,” Trisler says.

Because Mississippi can get its share of seasonal rain, a weather event on a Friday can ruin a high school football game, Trisler points out.

“On a properly-maintained field, you can go out there and still have that game. You have to go out there and roll that field before it hardens up and dries up or you’re going to have cleat marks all over the field, so we offer that service to roll the field,” he says.

Sports field maintenance relies heavily on the use of equipment. His crew uses a Toro Workman with a 15-foot spray boom and 160-gallon tank to spray fields and give them a quick greenup the week of a big game. The company treats for pest infestations, and applies fertilizer and a plant growth regulator in summer to help thicken and slow turf growth as well as reduce mowing frequency. Fields under his company’s care get regularly aerated with a Toro unit, as well.

“We’ve been able to grow that end of the business with two operators. It’s more equipment-intensive and less labor-intensive,” says Trisler.

Offering the best

Trisler watches what other companies do wrong and endeavors to do it better. “A lot of other companies tell clients they’re only going to prune trees two times a year, four times a year. We just picked up two properties where the pruning was neglected because they only had two prunings on their property. We’ll do an initial clean-up and if that property needs to be pruned every week, we prune it every week.”

When spring arrives, Trisler admits he and his team have to be creative to keep up with the incredible plant growth so common in fertile Mississippi. “We rotate on some of the bigger properties. We might divide a big property into four quadrants. Our goal is to hit one quadrant every week so we’re back at that first quadrant and regularly pruning that whole property.”

Trisler says that 80-degree temperatures by the end of February demanded that his crews break out the mowers and get to it on clients’ properties. The unusually warm temperatures were a mixed blessing, he acknowledges, because many of his customers are on seasonal contracts. An early freeze this coming fall may even the score, but he’s not counting on that.

Helping clients budget

Trisler sets up landscape management contracts by adding up the cost of services provided on a property, then dividing by 12 to establish fixed monthly landscaping costs. Flowers and mulch are optional. “We have a lot of add-ons that are extra, such as flowers and enhancements, but everything that property needs is included in our standard practice,” Trisler says.

The company does not take on clients who don’t want certain standard services, Trisler says.

“We want to keep that property looking nice because our trucks are on that property and our name is on that property through our work and we don’t want people thinking we’re neglecting the property when it’s not in the budget,” he adds.

Trisler teaches technicians that every time they leave a property, they must leave it looking nice.

“People are going to see your work and if you miss that one weed that one week, that property manager might not be in a good mood that day and they might say they’re sending the property out to bid and they’re done with us,” says Trisler. “Every time you come to work, every day, you have to be on your toes because you never know what tomorrow will bring.”

Saying “no”

Trisler has modified his company’s services over time. For example, he stopped providing biweekly services to the residential sector.

“A lot of the residential people want you to come every two weeks or 10 days and it became a scheduling nightmare,” he says. “When a customer calls, especially residential, we only offer the weekly package during the growing season.”

One of the hardest things Trisler does in his business is to say no to customers.

“I can’t do everything for everybody,” he says. “I’m upfront and honest with customers. The landscape industry gets a bad name because people will not return a phone call and won’t show up. We tell them what we can do and when we can do it. We don’t make promises that we can’t keep.”

Trisler is trying to be proactive with clients with respect to water use. That can be difficult to do when they see a lot of rain showers and are not under water restrictions, he notes.

“People don’t realize that natural resources are not unlimited,” Trisler says. “Everybody wants low maintenance and is trying to use less water. We are trying to use native plants. We’re trying to be more effective and efficient with the irrigation system. We are trying to upgrade a lot of our old sprinkler systems and change out all of our controllers. We have installed rain sensors on several properties.”

In rain and shine

Trisler tries to organize his day by keeping an eye on weather changes. The phones are equipped with weather alerts so employees can be proactive.

“We can have storms brew up here in an hour,” he says. “We try to watch the weather and the rainfall regularly here.”

However, not all weather events necessitate cancelling a job, Trisler says.

“Most other companies just go home and pack it up for the day,” he says. “If the sun is shining and the rain starts coming down, we’re working. It might not be mowing the grass, but there are other things we can do on that property, such as bed work.”

Trisler prefers to see his company on a slow and steady growth path. The company has grown an average of 10 percent each year.

“I don’t care to be the biggest in town. I just want to do good quality work with good ethics,” he says. “Ninety-nine percent of the jobs we get are all people who saw our current work or heard about us through word-of-mouth. We still advertise in the local phone books just to keep our name out there where people can find our number.

“One thing I’ve learned in business is you’re either growing or you’re dying,” Trisler says. “You can’t lock in all of your customers and sales and numbers for this year because customers are always looking to cut costs; customers move; property managers change. You’ve always got to be on your toes and bring your A game to every property every time.”

Trisler has no problem sharing his knowledge with other contractors who will call to ask him questions.

“I don’t consider any other company here in Jackson a competitor,” he says. “I consider them a colleague. We’re all doing the same thing. There’s more work out there than any one company can do.”

Trisler Landscape Management

Owner: Cade Trisler
Founded: 1997
Headquarters: Jackson, Miss.
Market: Central Mississippi
Services: Turf management, landscape management, lawn care and tree care, landscape installation, design and installation, sprinkler systems, fertilization, disease management, insect and pest control, weed control, and aeration
Employees: 25 to 30
Website: www.trislerlandscape.com