Staying ahead of the lawn care crowd

Chris Spellacy, left, discusses mowing routes with Dan Rees, maintenance supervisor.

The lawn care industry has become more competitive in recent years as more people have entered the industry. Lawn care equipment has also become increasingly mechanized, and work can be completed much more quickly. Large crews aren’t always required, and often an individual works alone or with one employee in maintaining a number of lawns. With unemployment high in many areas, lawn care appears an easy way to earn money with minimal investment.

A higher number of lawn care businesses are making the industry even more competitive than in the past, and those businesses offering lawn maintenance must not only provide quality services, but also pay attention to other areas of their business to help keep them ahead of the curve.

Chris Spellacy, owner of Spellacy’s Turf-Lawn, Inc. ( in Galena, Ohio, has been in the lawn care business since 1978. He has expanded from lawn mowing as a teenager to the full-service company it is today. Spellacy’s Turf-Lawn includes two divisions, providing lawn maintenance and landscape services for residential and commercial customers. Landscape services include design and construction, and snow removal services are also provided.

Commercial accounts include apartment complexes and business sites.

Spellacy is president of the Ohio Lawn Care Association, recently succeeding Mike Sloma. The Ohio Lawn Care Association serves its members by providing seminars and ongoing training. Spellacy noted that the group rating available to members when purchasing business workers’ compensation insurance is a significant membership advantage. The organization also funds research to benefit the lawn care industry, and currently is funding a research project at Ohio State University on the long-term effects of phosphorous.

While delivering quality services is essential, Spellacy cited providing customer education as another key element in assuring success. “People need to be educated on what they’re getting in a lawn care service,” Spellacy said. Other priority areas to help businesses stay competitive include setting up an efficient management structure, increasing name recognition and maintaining a reputation for quality work.

Communicating for success

A number of issues play roles in the success of lawn care businesses, with communication being one of the leading issues.

While pricing may vary among lawn care companies, the services the company provides should be spelled out in brochures and in all contracts. Edging, for example, provides a professional finish to lawns. “We build in the cost of edging in our estimates,” Spellacy said. All optional services should be specifically included in contracts so that customers will be aware of those services when comparing the prices of different companies.

Spellacy’s Turf-Lawn has about 600 lawn maintenance accounts.

Helping customers understand the differences in the type of products used is an important issue, particularly with the increasing interest in organic products. “We are getting more inquiries on organic product use,” Spellacy said.

Spellacy recommended that lawn care businesses offer both synthetic and organic fertilizers, and noted that although organic products are somewhat more expensive, some customers are willing to pay a higher cost for environmental benefits. Lawn care businesses should educate customers on the differences in results. It’s important for clients to have realistic expectations, and to understand that weed management is different with organic products since the amount and type of weeds that can be managed with organic products are different from those that can be managed with chemicals.

Spellacy said, “Organic product use must be ongoing, differing from chemical control, which has some carryover on the lawns even if customers skip a year of weed control applications. Organic products don’t have that carryover; lawn color with organic products may not match that of synthetic fertilizers.”

Maintenance Technician Dick Ott prepares a PermaGreen spreader for the upcoming season.

Developing effective management structure

Spellacy’s business expansion has been gradual, and he cited the importance of an efficient management structure in his business. He has about 35 employees and about 600 lawn maintenance accounts. Managers are in place on both the landscape and maintenance sides of the business, as well as overall crew managers and crew foremen.

“It’s important to have someone overlooking the work,” Spellacy said. “If there are complaints, they identify the problem and follow up. Many of those don’t come to me, though when they do, I address any problems.”

While most of Spellacy’s lawn care work is done on seasonal contracts, he noted that flexibility is important. Some customers may want only weed control or fertilizer applications, while others want full lawn maintenance.

Carefully considered estimates are important, Spellacy said. He cited a lack of understanding in estimates as one of the significant problems among companies providing both lawn maintenance and landscape services. “People sometimes jump in and they don’t know the actual cost of providing those services,” he said. Distances traveled, particularly in light of rapidly increasing fuel costs, must be considered when doing estimates.

Increasing name recognition

While longevity is important in name recognition, targeted marketing can help increase recognition of your company name. “It’s important to have a professional image,” Spellacy said. “Having uniformed employees is important; vehicles should be labeled and clean. The company name should be on the doors, and it should be a permanent label, not magnetic signs. People should get used to seeing the company vehicles in their neighborhoods,” Spellacy said. Day-to-day observance of a company name throughout a neighborhood will persuade people to call that particularly lawn service. Direct-mail advertising also increases awareness of a company.

The appearance of equipment is also important to company image. Clean, well-maintained equipment is essential, along with having the proper equipment to complete the jobs accepted. Spellacy uses Scag mowers, which include riding mowers with 61-inch decks and 52-inch walk-behind mowers. Jacobsen and Lawn Boy 36-inch walk-behind mowers are also part of the equipment arsenal, along with Echo trimmers and Stihl blowers. Mowers, trimmers and blowers are from Buckeye Power Sales ( in Black Lick, Ohio.

Staying competitive

A good reputation is important, and that begins when people see a particular lawn service caring for the best appearing lawns in town. Being sure that all work is always high-quality and completed in a timely manner is essential for maintaining a company’s reputation.

The demand for lawn services continues to increase with more two-income families with busier schedules who have less time for lawn care than in the past. As demand continues to rise, an increasing number of lawn care providers contribute to an increasingly competitive environment. “It’s easy to get into,” Spellacy said. “It’s important for people to know that a company is licensed and insured, and will be around next year.”

Whether companies are small or large, remaining competitive in the lawn care industry is essential for success. “Find a niche market and expand that niche,” Spellacy advised.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and has been covering the green industry for Turf for almost 20 years. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.