College program helps take lawn care business to the next level

The backyard of one of the company’s residential customers.

Ryan Harrell was a 16-year-old high school sophomore in 2003 when he decided that he’d rather mow lawns than flip burgers. He had been mowing lawns since he was 12, but getting a driver’s license opened up more opportunities for him.

At 16, he had four lawns he was mowing in the summer. With a small truck, trailer and a lawn mower he was able to purchase with his father’s help, he increased his service. By the middle of his junior year in high school, his client list had ballooned to 20 lawns. “Ever since that point, my company has doubled in size every year, so it’s been fairly rapid, controlled growth,” notes Harrell. “I’ve never tried to bite off more than I can chew.”

Harrell kept at the business while going to college. He attended a landscape program at Columbus State Community College in Ohio, where he discovered how he could take his business beyond “mowing grass and throwing mulch,” and learned about a larger slate of services he could provide to his clients. “I didn’t really have any formal landscape education,” Harrell says. “I was just shooting off of the hip most of the time, so I thought getting an education was going to be a big help, and it has [been].” Harrell graduated last spring.

Matt Phillips (standing) helps Ryan Harrell install plants in a customer’s front yard.

“I’ve opened my mind to the fact that there are a lot of guys out there who really know what they’re doing or have formal education, and I wanted to be in that class of companies that were educated in the field,” says Harrell. “I don’t have a problem losing a bid to a company that is educated, but I do have a problem when there’s somebody out there just throwing lowball numbers around,” he adds. Harrell’s goal is to use the latest technology to provide sustainable landscapes that are environmentally friendly and cost-efficient.

Ryan’s Landscaping, based in Columbus, offers services in design; construction; low-voltage lighting; irrigation design, installation and maintenance; lawn and landscape maintenance; soil amendment; and leaf and snow removal. Harrell says mowing grass is his favorite and most predominant service. His company has two mowing crews that take care of up to 130 lawns a week. “Mowing is our bread and butter,” he says. “Once I’ve got that up and running, we can focus on the maintenance. I attribute most of the other services I offer to going to school and getting comfortable with them.”

Harrell has built his company to become a one-stop shop for clients. “It’s a headache for clients to have one company do the mowing and another doing the mulching and someone else doing the fertilizing,” he says. “They have to keep track of three companies versus if they just hired one landscaping company for it. They don’t have to call anybody else. We do it all for them.” Harrell’s approach is working in his favor. Maintenance contracts were up 75 percent last year after he put in a push to get more contracts, and this year fertilization accounts have doubled with minimal advertising.

Ninety percent of his company’s work is in the residential sector, with the remaining 10 percent in commercial. “With commercial, we are very select with what we do,” Harrell says. “We did turn down a lot of bid opportunities because on a lot of the commercial jobs, the profit margins are so low I don’t even want to waste my time with it.” Instead, he’s pursuing more high-end homeowners associations.

Harrell says what differentiates his company from others is that he’s out there doing the work with his crews and that all of his employees present a high level of professionalism. “My guys are always in uniforms,” he says. “We’re prompt and reliable with our services. In our industry, there’s a lot of guys out there that are typical ‘mow, blow and go’ guys. I don’t want to be that kind [of company]. If people see your trucks clean, and the lawns you do are the best in the neighborhood, you’re not going to have to do too much to advertise your business.”

Designer Crystal Morter joins the crew for a lesson on the plate compactor. In the background, Jason Shuster tamps the corner of a patio base.

Over the past five years, Harrell says he’s spent no more than $5,000 in advertising. “Most of our clients have come from a referral of another client,” he says. “We reward our clients for that. If they refer us to a full lawn service contract, for instance, we’ll give them a discount for referring us. If they refer us to larger jobs, like a patio installation, we give them a bigger discount. We appreciate the customer giving us referrals, because referrals are king.”

One of Harrell’s biggest challenges is finding people he can trust and who understand the level of work he expects. His company has an average of 10 employees. “I have a real good set of people who are working with us right now,” he says. “They’ve pushed the business to where I want it to go.” In turn, Harrell promotes from within. He recently promoted one of his five-year mowing employees to maintenance manager in part to reward his loyalty and dedication.

Harrell also hires college interns. “These are people who are in school for landscaping and I know they are going to be dedicated, and they understand the practices I’ve grown my company on,” he says. “It’s not like trying to train somebody from scratch.”

Harrell likes to utilize Caterpillar equipment and Exmark mowers. “I’ll probably never switch from Exmark,” he says. “I’ve had them from day one and my guys are familiar with them, so when things break down in the field, they can pretty much figure out what’s going on and get it resolved quickly.”

Harrell prefers to buy new equipment “because that way I know where it’s been. The only time I buy used is trucks,” he says. “If you buy a brand-new truck, you might as well take a hammer to it because it’s almost inevitable that it’s going to get damaged.”

Harrell is committed to recycling products used in his services. A nursery supplier in town recycles the plastic planting containers, and the wire baskets are also recycled. And, it’s possible that most of what Harrell removes as landscape waste from clients’ yards will return to their yards in another form, he points out, such as in the form of compost or mulch.

Harrell would like to turn his company into a $2 million operation within five years. “We’re at the point right now where next year we actually are going to be spending a lot of money on advertising to push the company and get it toward where it needs to be,” he says. “Last year, we closed the books at $320,000, so this year we ought to hit $640,000. Every year it gets a little bit harder, and I realize that I might have to be realistic with it, but if there’s a goal to be met, I’m going to try to meet it as much as I can. If we come close, I’ll accept it, but I won’t be happy about it.”

Carol Brzozowski is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for numerous trade journals for more than a decade. She resides in Coral Springs, Fla.