After 35 years in the lawn care business, Joe Turchi Sr. is proud of the career path his son chose

The turf industry depends and thrives on legacies – men who join their blood brothers in business and fathers who pass successful operations onto sons who have learned the trade from the ground up.

Joseph Turchi Jr., purple shirt, credits his father, in the lawn care truck, with teaching him the value of networking, honesty and selling.

What Joe Turchi Sr. and Joseph i Jr. in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., have done is a great example of this. The son has taken his father’s industry, learned its bare roots by walking in his father’s shoes and studying his father’s business savvy, and then spinning the industry around and making it work for him. Working from home, he’s both a technical sales representative and agronomist for SynaTek, a turf solutions company in Souderton, Pa., and also a consulting agronomist and marketing specialist for his own TeraVita, a growing solutions company.

“It’s definitely in your blood with a lot of people in this industry,” says the younger Turchi, who goes by J. His father has long distinguished himself in the industry. Today, at 73, he works on his own with one part-time helper operating Turchi Lawn Care with a client base of 100 – though J says his father still “drags me out for a revival every once in a while.”

The older Turchi, a master of leveraging buying power in the industry as much as in turf maintenance, has sold successful turf businesses twice, only to return to the business again. He never sold off his name, and in wealthy Montgomery County, Pa., Turchi is an established name. Before he sold his business to Moyer & Son in Souderton, Pa., in the spring of 1993, he had 850 residential customers and was maintaining 15 million square feet of commercial property, and subcontracting out another 20 million square feet in residential and commercial work.

Joe Turchi Sr. got into the lawn care business in the mid 1970s with the purchase of a Lawn Doctor franchise. At 73, he’s running his third lawn care company.

“A lot of those guys became customers of mine,” J says. “He taught them to do what he taught me to do.”

At its pinnacle, Turchi had three trucks out each day, but after some heart trouble he didn’t want to risk it, and J, who graduated with a degree in agronomy and environmental science from Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pa., in 1991, wanted to explore other opportunities.

Turchi says it was easy to sell – both times – and seemed even easier to go back each time and start again. “Customers kept calling and saying that if I ever went back into business to let them know,” he says.

From steel to turf

A native Italian, Joe Turchi first worked in the steel industry in Conshohocken, Pa., in the mid-1970s. When his employer, Allenwood Steel, collapsed, Turchi started a new career. In 1976, he bought a Lawn Doctor franchise, founded by friends Tony Giordano and Bob Magda in the late ’60s. Lawn Doctor is an industry pioneer, its roots extending to Giordano’s hardware store that sold fertilizer and rented spreaders to homeowners in new housing developments in New Jersey. Magda invented and patented the industry’s first automated lawn care machine.

“It all went so good that customers began calling them the Lawn Doctors,” recalls Turchi, who had all of Montgomery County as his territory.

Early on, Turchi was one of about 30 Lawn Doctor franchises. Within a few years, there were hundreds of franchises. Turchi spent three years with Lawn Doctor, but after an aggressive TV marketing campaign, he felt the parent company’s royalties became too high, and he walked away. He sold his franchise to the Hess gas station owner where he filled up. “He asked if I’d sell it, and I told him everything is for sale if the price is right,” Turchi recalls.

Turchi Lawn Care

Founder and Owner: Joseph Turchi Sr.
Founded: 1995
Headquarters: Plymouth Meeting, Pa.
Market: Montgomery County, Pa.
Services: Fertilization, weed control, insect and disease management, aeration, overseeding and tree and ornamental plant health care
Employees: Solo operation

In the agreement of sale, Turchi had to adhere to a non-compete period, but after the agreed upon six months, he began contracting for landscaping, and in 1980 he began building up his independent turf contracts. “Early on it was easy to get customers because there weren’t that many lawn services,” he says.

The first incarnation of Turchi Lawn Care continued until 1993, when he sold the business to Moyer & Son, Inc., a consortium of home services ranging from fuel oil to feed and pest control.

“One of the things [Joe Sr.] always taught me was the value of an education, and through all of the opportunities he allowed me I learned the power of networking,” J says. “He taught me work ethic and integrity, and he taught me how to sell with all the times he sold the business.”

Turchi never really left the turf industry. After selling to Moyer, he managed the lush lawns at the corporate headquarters of information tech giant Unisys. He tended the 55-acre landscape in Blue Bell, Pa., for four years before leaving and, in 1995, founded Turchi Lawn Care, which he continues to operate.

Like father, like son

Joseph Turchi Jr., 42, began learning about the industry at the age of 12 by accompanying his father on his routes. Turchi wanted to make sure his son learned first-hand the rewards of being honest and doing the right things for customers. J gained valuable on-the-job experience as a teenager and young adult, working 36 weeks a year, even as he completed his college course work. “He’s loved the work as much as I have,” Turchi says. “I’ve enjoyed every bit of it, and that’s why I’m back in it.”

When Turchi sold to Moyer, J went to work for LESCO (later purchased by John Deere Landscapes), running its service center in Norristown, Pa., from 1993 to 1997. From there he worked in the plant nutrients group at Moyer & Son until 2003, when he became an independent sales representative for the company.

In 2001, one of the principals at Moyer, Ken Clemmer, divested the plant nutrients group and formed SynaTek, and J had a familiar source to represent. In recent years, he’s been responsible for 20 to 25 percent of total revenues for SynaTek.

His father is one of his customers. “I hope you’re buying only from me and not shopping me out,” J tells him. “He pays his bills, I can tell you that, but he’s not typical of the clients I call on, but I stick with him along with several other good buddies.”

J’s major clients include TruGreen and Brickman. The younger Turchi has gained a reputation as a pretty darn good sales rep, says his immediate manager, who describes him as being “like a wild tiger. Every couple months, you dart him, clean his ears, check his paws and put him back out there.”

But J says he couldn’t have become a tiger if he didn’t walk a mile in his father’s shoes. “His name still carries weight among the old-timers at trade shows,” he says. “No one has ever said a bad word about him.”

An industry’s evolution

Over the years, Turchi says there have been rough times, particularly in the ’80s when negative publicity campaigns about spraying chemicals affected public perception. He was just about ready to give up for good in the late ’90s, but he never could, and J isn’t sure his father ever will. Turchi says the last 10 years all the changes have been for the good. The father and son obviously enjoy bantering back and forth over their respective roles within the industry – one of the questions that often arises being when the senior Turchi will sell his third lawn care company.

“To (age) 75, and then that’s it,” Turchi says. “But I enjoy it.”

“I’m curious to his answer because every year, he keeps telling me it’s the last year,” J says.

If it is 75 or 85 or longer, he’ll have to sell one more time.

“Maybe to him,” Turchi says pointing at J.

“It would have to be at the bargain prices that I sell you fertilizer for,” J says. “No, my clients are always asking if my dad is selling [for that third and final time]. They would like to buy his business. The entire industry was once fragmented, but now it’s a profession.”

It’s an industry that’s always battled the economy, but in those bad years, it seems that those at the top of their games, like the Turchis, have thrived, in many cases picking up the slack of the marginal in the thinning of the herds. J’s best year was 2008, and despite dips since, he’s on track to surpass 2008 with his 2011 numbers.

“It’s a luxury business,” he says. “It’s not groceries or electric. I’ve compared it to cable: you might not need it, but once you have it, you treat it like a utility.”

The local touch

While the corporate lawn care companies – J’s main clients – certainly have a huge chunk of the marketplace, he says clients still prefer to work with a company that’s named after the guy who’s actually spraying the lawn. That’s because a local owner-operator is more likely to take a personal interest in the results of what they do.

For example, the elder Turchi says that if a treatment doesn’t work, he will make it right. He’s even gone as far as watering lawns for customers who prefer to wait for the rains to fall. For one customer, he tracked his browning lawn to a damaged lawn tractor blade that was chopping up the turf. “I’ll go back as many times as I have to in order to make it right,” he says.

His son takes a similar approach to selling. “The others try to sell the lime, aeration, but I tell the customer what he needs, and if he needs it, we’ll do it, which is why I have a lot of old customers. I don’t force them to do anything. We offer the basics, and then if there’s a problem, we’ll take care of it later,” says J.

The author is a gentleman farmer and experienced reporter and writer who lives in Quakertown, Pa. Contact him at [email protected].