Lawn care companies perfected the model that’s now being adapted for landscape companies

Spring is in the air and so is franchising in the green industry. Maintaining steady but unremarkable growth through the credit-fueled go-go decade that came to a screeching halt with the 2008-2009 Recession, franchising activity within the industry has picked up considerably since then.

U.S. Lawns, founded in 1986 in Orlando, Fla.,offers training, systems and support to allowindependent owners/operators to compete incommercial landscape management in theirrespective, defined markets.

U.S. Lawns, founded in 1986 in Orlando, Fla., offers training, systems and support to allow independent owners/operators to compete in commercial landscape management in their respective, defined markets.

This is understandable given the state of the post-recessionary economy and the stubbornly high unemployment rates the country is experiencing. The landscape business has relatively low barriers to entry and continues to grow, albeit much slower since 2007. There’s no lack of ambitious and mostly inexperienced newcomers to the industry. Another large pool of prospects that franchisers are targeting include landscape company owners seeking to add a new service, such as chemical lawn care, or owners that have been battered and bruised by the economy and are seeking training, guidance and systems so that they can compete within their respective markets.

In recent years, the most noticeable franchising trend has focused on the landscape segment of the industry, even though lawn care franchisers, which pioneered the model in the modern green industry, continue to actively recruit and build their networks of service providers. But, let’s look first at landscape franchisers.

U.S. Lawns, founded in 1986 in Orlando, Fla., describes 2012 as a “record year,” and is expecting an equally strong 2013 with three new franchise owners joining this past January. All three newcomers, conversions of existing landscape companies, have completed six days of classroom and field training and are now a part of the 250-location franchise group that specializes in providing commercial landscaping services. U.S. Lawns was one of the first franchisers in the landscape segment of the green industry to follow the model established decades earlier by successful lawn application franchisers. More on that later in this article.

The Grounds Guys landscape management franchise reports that it experienced a strong 2012, as well. It grew from 37 franchise locations at the end of 2011 to 94 by the end of 2012. In early March, The Grounds Guys announced it had awarded its 100th franchise to Jason Borawski of Monmouth, N.J.

Founded under the name Sunshine Brands in Canada in 1987, The Grounds Guys expanded into the United States in 2010 as a subsidiary of The Dwyer Group, Waco, Texas. Approximately 70 percent of the new franchises in 2012 are “conversions,” rolling business in from existing landscape or lawn service businesses. The Grounds Guys says it received more than 1,300 franchise applications during 2012, and it’s expecting to open more than a dozen new franchises this spring.

Clear Air Lawn Care, arguably the industry’s most “progressive” land care franchiser (at least in terms of environmental issues), started in 2006 in Fort Collins, Colo., and, as of late winter, numbered 40 locations in 12 states. The company and its franchise owners market and provide sustainable landscape services using electric-powered equipment and organic plant health care products. The company says that it’s now also strategically establishing satellite corporate locations in high-growth markets to support its local owners.

As evident in the above descriptions, franchisors are targeting three primary groups of prospects:

  • Newcomers seeking entry in the green industry as service providers;
  • Owners desiring to broaden their companies’ service offerings by adding a franchise that provides them a specific new service, such as chemical lawn care, tree care or commercial maintenance; and
  • Owners of established companies seeking access to new technology and improve their systems, and training to boost operating efficiency and profits.

Green Industry Franchises

Kearney, Neb.

Clean Air Lawn Care
Fort Collins, Colo.

Clean Cut Lawn and Garden Services
Maple Ridge, B.C., Canada

Enviroking Lawn Care
Innisfil, Ont., Canada

Enviro Masters Lawn Care
Caledon East, Ont., Canada

Freedom Lawns
Hampstead, N.C.

Grand Oak Lawn and Landscape
Caledon, Ont., Canada

Pittsburgh, Pa.

Lawn Army Franchise
Seattle, Wash.

Lawn Doctor Franchise
Holmdel, N.J.

Lush Lawn
Grand Blanc, Mich.

Monster Tree Service
Ft Washington, Pa.

NaturaLawn of America
Frederick, Md.

Mississauga, Ont., Canada

Pacific Lawn Sprinklers
College Point, N.Y.

Scotts Lawn Service Franchise
Marysville, Ohio

Spring-Green Lawn Care
Plainfield, Ill.

Southwest Greens
Marietta, Ga.

SYNLawn Franchise
Dalton, Ga.

The Grounds Guys
Waco, Texas
Memphis, Tenn.

Truly Nolen
Tuscon, Ariz.

U.S. Lawns
Orlando, Fla.

Weed Man
Oshawa, Ont., Canada

It started in lawn care

Franchising is not new to the contractor segment of the green industry. It surfaced, never to stop, during the late 1950s and early 1960s. That’s when millions of Americans – youngsters during the Great Depression, the men suffering the horrors of war in Europe and the South Pacific during WWII and the women scarcity and hardships at home – were now raising young families and were well into building their American Dreams. Those dreams often started in new three-bedroom ranch homes on quarter-acre and half-acre lots. These new homeowners wanted normalcy, even if it was in a hastily constructed development of similar houses on the outskirts of the city where they worked. They wanted and treasured their jobs, security – and their lawns.

Not surprisingly, entrepreneurial individuals saw opportunity where they saw lawns. While they weren’t the first individuals or companies that were providing services to improve homeowners’ lawns, they were among the first to understand it could be systemized and duplicated from location to location.

It’s likely that few people in the green industry recall the name Daniel Dorfman. He’s generally credited as one of the people (perhaps the first one) that developed the model upon which most other successful modern green industry franchises have since followed.

Dorfman, living in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the 1950s, developed a machine that could aerate, seed, fertilize and apply pesticides to a lawn in a single pass. The machine was pulled behind a tractor and could be operated by a relatively unskilled employee. It greatly reduced the time and effort required to improve lawns. The company that he founded, Lawn-A-Mat, took off as developers populated Long Island and New Jersey with housing developments. In 1962, Dorfman began franchsing Lawn-A-Mat, and by 1967 the company reportedly numbered about 300 franchise locations.

One of the Lawn-A-Mat franchise owners, Tony Giordano, helped take lawn care franchising to the next level. In the mid-1960s, Giordano owned a small hardware store in Matawan, N.J. He saw that the time was ripe for lawn care services based on the standing-room-only crowds he was attracting to the weekend lawn care workshops he conducted in his hardware store. In mid-decade, he teamed with friend Bob Magda to start a new lawn care operation. Magda, who had been apprenticing with the Singer Sewing Machine Manufacturing, developed an “automated” lawn care machine, which he continued to refine, building several more in the basement of his home.

The “Doctors” are in

Initially the pair called their company Auto Lawn, but that name didn’t last long. The story goes that a newspaperman, and perhaps others, began referring to the partners as “The Lawn Doctors.” They liked the name and adopted it. Soon thereafter they also came up with the company’s distinctive logo featuring the now familiar green thumb. The Lawn Doctor continues to thrive and grow, and continues to provide services on proprietary lawn treatment equipment. The Lawn Doctor now numbers about 500 franchises in 40 states and Puerto Rico, according to the company website.

The 1970s saw rapid growth for the green industry and for lawn application businesses in particular, including the establishment of several other very successful franchise operations. Sales of these businesses expanded 20 percent (often considerably more) annually year over year. In hindsight, it’s easy to look back and see why this was a propitious time for the industry.

Many factors came together in the 1970s to fuel the explosive growth of professional lawn care and the founding and spread of franchise operations to enlist and train professionals to meet the demand. Professional lawn care was a service for the times thanks to the continued suburbanization of America, the cookie-cutter nature of the service, the recognition by suppliers of the growing market for lawn-grade fertilizers and specialty chemicals, and homeowners’ inability to keep their lawns green and weed-free (something that homeowners to this day have yet to master).

Not surprisingly, other entrepreneurial individuals saw similar opportunities and started companies to meet the growing demand for lawn care, several of them going the franchise route.

Franchising takes off

Perhaps the most charismatic of these individuals was Richard “Dick” Duke, one of the founders of ChemLawn, who is still remembered fondly by the people that his life touched.

Duke, his father Paul and a partner, starting from the family’s two Duke Garden Center locations in southwest Ohio, founded ChemLawn with one used truck and 500 customers. Tragically, the son died suddenly during the company’s most explosive growth in the 1970s. Nevertheless, ChemLawn continued to expand into second- and third-tier markets. By the early 1980s, it had become the dominant lawn care company in the world. Indeed ChemLawn’s green trucks became so ubiquitous in many suburban communities characterized by homes planted in the middle of sizable lawns that the company’s name became synonymous with lawn care.

Becoming the king and staying the king is not always that easy, though, as ChemLawn eventually learned. Though the dominant lawn application company in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, ChemLawn hardly had the market to itself. There was, of course, The Lawn Doctor with its expanding network of franchises (mostly in the eastern United States), other lawn care companies with national aspirations, and a number of regional and local lawn care providers.

As the 1980s progressed, many of the company’s early leaders and managers departed to start their own local and regional companies. By the time the company was acquired by Ecolab in 1987 much of the energy that had characterized the company’s growth had dissipated. In 1992, ServiceMaster, parent company of TruGreen, acquired ChemLawn, its longtime competitor.

Spring-Green Lawn Care, founded in Maperville, Ill., in 1977, began franchising in 1980.The neighborhood-based lawn and tree care company now services more than 7,500communities.

Spring-Green Lawn Care, founded in Maperville, Ill., in 1977, began franchising in 1980. The neighborhood-based lawn and tree care company now services more than 7,500 communities.

More players join the game

The 1970s and 1980s saw birth and rapid expansion of many of the lawn care companies that remain so industry leaders to this day. They include, in order of founding: The Weed Man in Canada (founded 1970, franchising 1976); TruGreen (started as ChemGreen 1974, name changed to TruGreen 1979); Spring-Green Lawn Care (founded 1977, franchising 1980); Nutri-Lawn Ecologically Friendly Lawn Care (founded 1985 in Canada, franchising 1989); and NaturaLawn of America (founded 1987, franchising 1989).

Clean Air Lawn Care, based in Fort Collins, Colo., now has franchisees in 12 U.S.states. They offer services using renewable energy sources and organic fertilizers andpest controls. The company says the public's awareness of environmental issues isdriving its growth.

Clean Air Lawn Care, based in Fort Collins, Colo., now has franchisees in 12 U.S. states. They offer services using renewable energy sources and organic fertilizers and pest controls. The company says the public’s awareness of environmental issues is driving its growth.

In 1995, Weed Man entered the U.S. market through a licensing agreement with Turf Holdings, Inc. To build the Weed Man franchise network in the United States, officers of Turf Holdings actively enlisted knowledgeable lawn care professionals who had been active in the Professional Lawn Care Association of America (PLCAA, which later merged into PLANET) as sub-franchisors to sell franchises within their territories. This they did with great passion, and today Weed Man numbers more than 200 territories in the United States.

The Grounds Guys, a division of the Waco, Texas-based DwyerGroup, has been growing like gang-busters in recent years. Itwelcomed its 100th franchisee in March.

The Grounds Guys, a division of the Waco, Texas-based Dwyer Group, has been growing like gang-busters in recent years. It welcomed its 100th franchisee in March.

Meanwhile, in the late 1990s, The Scotts Miracle Gro Company, the multinational supplier of lawn and garden products based in Marysville, Ohio, re-entered the do-it-for-me professional lawn care market and began to ramp up with acquisitions and offering franchises. In 2002, Scotts LawnService, a division of Scotts Miracle Gro, acquired Cape Cod-based The Lawn Company and also the lawn care operations of Centex HomeTeam Services.

Revenue earned from franchising in the industry’s lawn application segment far exceeds revenue earned in the industry’s landscaping segment, most of that from mowing/maintenance operations. How much is difficult to determine because the great majority of green industry companies are privately owned and some have both corporate stores while also offering and supporting franchises.

Ron Hall is editor in chief of Turf magazine and has been an editor, researcher and writer in the green industry for more than 28 years. Contact him at