New York’s Arnie Arsenault Jr. says holiday lighting is a win, but only if you do it right

Landscape and lawn company owners are intimately aware of the challenges of maintaining cash flow and retaining good employees. The green industry is defined and limited by its seasonal nature. In most regions of the United States and Canada, many owners have just eight or nine months of billable work to cover 12 months of expenses.

A. Arsenault & Sons budgets two employees to start putting up lights the first week of October and adds more manpower as the holidays approach.

If maintaining cash flow isn’t tough enough, especially in today’s tight credit environment, as the busy season ends you’re also forced to lay off employees – sometimes experienced, valuable workers. You hope they’ll be available two or three months later when you’ll need them again; hope is not a business strategy.

Arnold “Arnie” Arsenault Jr. was no different than you in this regard, perhaps even more so since his family-run business is located in central Massachusetts, with its four dramatically different seasons.

“I’ve been there and I didn’t like it,” says Arsenault of A. Arsenault & Sons, Inc., Spencer, Mass. “It hurt me at the end of the season to tell our guys that we’re shutting down for the winter and we’ll see you in the spring.” Faced with the dilemma of keeping good employees and maintaining cash flow during the off-season, the Arsenault family management team studied its options.

Equipment repair and replacement? Yes. That’s a given for all landscape companies, and it can keep a trusted employee or perhaps several working during the winter months. This is a necessary expense, but an expense nonetheless. It doesn’t produce revenue.

A. Arsenault & Sons Landscaping

Headquarters: Spencer, Mass.
Partners: Arnold “Arnie” Arsenault Jr., and M. Scott Letendre
Founded: 1979
Market Area: Central Massachusetts
Services: Landscape maintenance, design & installation, Christmas Decor, NiteTime Décor (landscape & architectural lighting)
Employees: 17 (peak season)

Snow and ice management? Yes. That’s something Arsenault was capable of providing in its market, so it does. But, as any snow contractor knows, some winters have snow and some don’t. Some off-seasons can be a bust.

Looking for something else to fill that revenue void in the off-season, in 1998 Arsenault stopped at the Christmas Décor booth at the New England Grows Exhibition & Trade Fair in Boston. That’s where he met and chatted with Blake Smith, its founder and president.

“I had read an article about that service several months earlier and since I’ve always loved the holiday season, I wanted to learn more about it,” says Arsenault. Impressed with the program and with the time and attention Smith gave him there, he signed on.

Lighting learning curve

It would be nice to report that everything, even from the start, worked wonderfully for A. Arsenault & Sons Landscape and its Christmas Décor franchise. That wouldn’t be true, of course.

Arsenault learned that introducing a new service into an established company is a lot easier than working it into the company’s systems and making it a profitable service. This is may be more true for holiday lighting and decorating than other more traditional landscape and lawn care services.

“Obviously, we didn’t know how it was going to work out when we started. People were asking me, ‘How are you going to sell holiday lighting? How are you going to grow it?'” recalls Arsenault.

Partners M. Scott Letendre, left, and Arnie Arsenault Jr., rarely slow down summer or winter because their Massachusetts landscape is truely full service.

These were legitimate questions. Nobody in his central Massachusetts market (at least to that point) had yet offered a contracted holiday lighting service.

And, of course, Arsenault himself wasn’t sure what kind of reception it would receive from his residential and commercial clients, not to mention the market, in general.

“At first, we were just trying to fill a void in the season,” he says, adding that he was optimistic, but still uncertain how enthusiastically the market would embrace the concept.

“We had to start doing a lot of educating. Nobody had ever heard about hiring a professional to do holiday decorations before,” says Arsenault.

That task was facilitated somewhat by the enviable reputation that the company had established in the years since 1979 when Arnold “Arnie” Arsenault Sr., founded the company and ran it out of his home. Tragically, Arnie Sr. died suddenly in February 1990. He was just 43, and his unexpected passing left the company to be run by the rest of the family.

Arnie Jr., then 23, a brother and brother-in-law were among the family members picking up the reins of the company. Arnie Jr., who had been mowing lawns since the age of 13, was obviously familiar with the company’s operations. But, running it now minus the founder, its driving force – that was a much bigger monkey to swing.

Christmas Light Suppliers

Bright Ideas, Inc.

Christmas D_cor

Christmas Light University

Five Star Holiday Decor

Holiday Bright Lights

We Hang Christmas Lights

Becoming businesspeople

Nevertheless, he and several other family members worked together, became active in industry associations and began networking with other owners and managers. Over the years, they learned “the business” of landscaping.

Long gone are the days when the family business was operated out of the family home. A. Arsenault & Sons is now sited on its own 3.75-acre parcel of commercial property, and the younger Arnie and his brother-in-law, M. Scott Letendre, run the company as partners. Arsenault has been directing it maintenance operations since 1987, and Letendre focuses on building the construction business.

Like most other landscape companies, these past few years have been somewhat of a roller coaster, Arsenault admits. A strong 2009 was followed by a disappointing 2010, but 2011, while not gangbusters, has shown improvement over 2010.

“We like to say that we’re a one-stop shop when it comes to services. Sometimes I think we’re a little bit too diversified, but it helped us during the Recession,” says Arsenault.

That said, at least one of the services that the company offers has shown consistent growth regardless of market conditions. That service is Christmas Décor. The reason why it works is because the company literally runs it as a separate business within the business.

“While we at first looked at it just to fill a void, but as it grew we realized we had to give it a lot more attention. We realized that we had to look at it almost as a stand-alone business,” says Arsenault.

To that end, the company dedicates a full-time salesperson to Christmas Décor and its related summertime business, Nite Time Décor. It also dedicates six employees to providing the service. Training starts the last week of September with two employees putting up holiday lights the first week of October, two more employees joining the action mid-month, and by Halloween two more.

As Thanksgiving approaches and the demand for decorating and holiday greenery peaks, the company will add more trained employees to the schedule, even if it has to pull them off of a cleanup crew. It’s easier to find another person to help with cleanup than to provide Christmas Décor services.

Time management

“You won’t be able to grow this division, or any new service, until you figure out how to manage your time,” says Arsenault.

The service requires a lot of climbing and the company mandates that its employees use climbing harnesses. A testament to its stance on worker safety is its participation in the Professional Landcare Network STARS (Safety Training Achieves Remarkable Success) program and its weekly safety meetings.

Arsenault says holiday decorating, like other company services, is contractual. This is true even if his company decorates a property for a big family get-together or holiday party just days before Christmas. And yes, his company does, on occasion, get requests right up to Christmas Eve.

The work doesn’t stop when the holidays are over either. There’s the job of removing the lights, greenery and other decorations at that time.

“The biggest challenge in this service is takedown. The weather can be miserable and we have to be very careful not to damage the lights or decorations or our customers’ properties,” says Arsenault.

In spite of the challenges of providing the service – the timing occurring as it does during fall cleanups or when crews are finishing construction jobs, the special training, the weather – it provides landscape companies an opportunity to retain valuable employees and, what’s especially appreciated by landscape companies, a fairly predictable source of off-season revenue.

A. Arsenault & Sons renews more than 80 percent of its Christmas Décor contracts from year to year.

Ron Hall is editor-in-chief of Turf magazine.