From snow management to green roofs to community service, Steele Blades does it all

Steele Blades Lawn & Landscaping Services, headquartered in Louisville, Ky., knows what its doing when it comes to landscape services. For sure, Steele Blades does a lot of the usual things lawn and landscaping companies do, like mowing and fertilizing, but a whole lot more, too. For example, green roofs. Steele Blades has become the go-to company in northern Kentucky and southwest Ohio for green roofs.

Steele Blades volunteers, foreground and in red, served as “champions” during the PLANET Gives Back event in Louisville

“I’m a turf nut. I grew up working on the golf side,” says Alex Fransen, the company’s landscape development manager. “Steele Blades does high-definition mowing, laying good stripe patterns, not rutting up properties.” It also provides lawn care services, and uses top-quality, granular, slow-release fertilizers.

Steele Blades Lawn Care & Landscaping Services

Founded: 1996
Headquarters: Louisville, Ky.
Principals: Owner John Steele, Landscape Development Manager Alex Fransen, Manager Jayson Hunsucker
Markets: Louisville and north-central Kentucky, southern Indiana, southwest Ohio
Services: Lawn maintenance, lawn care, mulching, design/build, construction, irrigation, snow management and green roofs
Employees: 22

Steele Blades has employees with the expertise to handle practically the entire spectrum of landscape services. Owner John Steele, a 39-year-old civil engineer, launched the company when “he was knee high to a cricket,” says Fransen. He started with a push mower on his block, and later added mulching and began trimming bushes. From there, he started doing snow removal. One thing led to another, including green roofs and water features, but landscape maintenance remains the company’s core business. “That’s the way we started out, and that’s our backbone,” says Fransen.

The company now offers a full range of services. Take snowplowing, for example. If you live and work in Minneapolis, Minn., or Detroit, Mich., you might say that snowplowing is no big deal, but we’re talking about Louisville, Ky., not exactly snow city. Some winters you get snow, and some winters you don’t. In recent years, this Ohio River city has been getting its share, but only for a few weeks.

“We do a lot of snowplowing; there aren’t a lot of people here doing that work. Companies aren’t willing to invest in snowplowing equipment because you only get to use it for a short time each year,” says Fransen. “But when we do get snow, you can make very good money. You can take care of your properties and your managers, and they remember you for that type of stuff. Snowplowing is a gamble, but it has paid off for us. Snow removal also leads to other types of business.”

Steele Blades also handles green roofs, irrigation projects, water features, and tree removal and planting. With three tree spade trucks, the company can move sizable trees.

Green roof installs require special knowledge, skills and an increased emphasis on safety. Here, Steele Blades workers pour planting mix on a roof’s membrane.

Green roofs are hot

“The prospects for green roof work look promising. This is a big market that is growing each year. If you do good work [on green roofs], the word gets out and the architects pass your name along,” says Fransen, citing several reasons why green roofs work. “Studies have shown that you can increase the life of a roof two or three times,” he says, adding that the proof is evident when you pull the overburden (the plants and/or growing medium) off and the roof still looks fine and almost brand new. A green roof also increases the R-factor of the original roof. But, getting into green roof work isn’t for beginners. There are plenty of challenges – big challenges – and a company better know what it’s doing.

“There’s a lot of red tape you have to go through just to handle that type of work. The guys have to be safety conscious. This work is a little bit more advanced than the average lawn maintenance work,” says Fransen. Also, you have to spend a lot of money up front just to do it, not to mention the liability involved in having employees working on roofs plus the required bonding. Steele Blades handles green roof work in Kentucky, southern Indiana and southern Ohio.

“We maintain a lot of green roofs in Cincinnati for the public school system. We can send the guys up there, they can stay for a day or two, maintain what they have to do, and then come back. We pretty much have a three-man green roof maintenance crew; that’s what they do all season long,” says Fransen.

Steele Blades has taken the lead on green roof installations in Louisville and now offers similar services in and around Cincinnati, Ohio.

“For the last three years, we have been doing a lot of green infrastructure work. That’s an up-and-coming market. There’s a lot of that work out there and not a lot of people doing it. We have hit a niche on that. We will go if the money is right. We have a lot of contractors we work with, and if they want us to come and do something like a custom pool, a green roof or some other custom work, we will go if they accept our price.”

Skilled team

Steele Blades brings a lot of technical expertise to its projects. In addition to Steele’s credentials, Fransen has a degree in turf and horticulture from Western Kentucky University, and Manager Jayson Hunsucker earned a degree in architecture at Auburn University. Fransen has been with Steele Blades for four years and has 15 years of experience in the landscape industry.

Fransen says the Louisville market is all over the board in terms of customer retention and customer loyalty. “We have customers who have been with us for a long time and we have good relations with them. But we also have some customers who take the lowest bid each year,” he says, adding that the phones aren’t ringing like they used to. Nevertheless, Steele Blades isn’t lacking for work. “You have to be willing to get out and beat the streets. That’s how it is. You have to find those niche markets, like green roofs. I guess we are very diverse,” says Fransen.

“Our customers are asking us for cost savings, so we have been proactively reviewing all of our contracts and services provided to see areas where we can help them save money,” says owner Steele. “Property managers are seeing an increase in potential customers therefore the competition is out there for commercial tenants. Property managers are concerned with lower CAM [common area maintenance] fees.”

Steele says the company is responding by reducing the number of mowing services and maintaining a certain mowing height for the season. He adds that it’s reconditioning cedar and cypress mulch on site and topdressing only in certain areas.

“We are constantly reviewing our processes and continually driving out inefficiencies to increase productivity and profits,” Steele says.

Steele Blades recognizes the value and importance of networking and staying in touch. Its management is active and attends events with organizations such as Business Networking International and the U.S. Green Building Council.

Fransen says he’s appreciative to be working in such a progressive company, and for an owner that’s so dedicated to service, including community service. “He’s a go-getter. He works sun up to sun down, 24/7. We are very blessed and we have jobs.” The employees at Steele Blades show their appreciation and typically tackle two to four volunteer jobs a year. “The guys like it, everyone gets a good feeling out of this type of work,” Fransen says.

Jerry Mix is a freelance writer from Cleveland, Ohio. He can be reached at [email protected].