The right number of customers, and the right equipment, make all the difference

“At this point, I don’t see myself ever retiring,” says 62-year-old Preston Hall, who’s been operating Sgt. Preston’s Lawn Service in Shelbyville, Ky., for more than 20 years. Part of the reason he remains devoted to the green industry is that he’s been successful in his job – a fact he attributes to hard work, good equipment and a lot of family help along the way.

In the winter, Preston Hall switches to snow removal mode, attaching plow blades to both his truck and mowers. He only plows for those customers whose lawns he mows.

After working in his father’s lumberyard business for more than two decades, Hall got into the lawn maintenance business full time in 1989. “For the next five years, I had almost 60 clients, and I was pretty much a one-man operation. It was a lot of work,” he explains. “For a while, I tried running the business with a couple of employees, but I got tired of going around and doing everything over again.”

Frustrated by the headaches of finding, training and managing employees, Hall decided he would rather shrink his customer base and do the work mostly on his own. “I got it down to where I could handle it OK,” he explains. Over time, he’s reduced his client list to 35, but that includes two cemeteries, so there’s still plenty of work to be done. To help keep up with the mowing, Hall relies on his family; both his wife, Martha, and daughter, Grace, help out, as well as a limited number of employees on the cemetery jobs. Just as important, he’s found that operating the right equipment makes a huge difference in terms of productivity.

Hall started in the business using Excel Hustler mowers. “At that time, they were zero-turn mowers with 6-foot decks out front,” he recalls. He’s always used Shindaiwa two-cycle equipment, but is also considering the purchase of RedMax trimmers this season. For smaller yards or steeper hillsides, he has a 52-inch Scag walk-behind mower.

Sgt. Preston’s Lawn Service in Shelbyville, Ky., is largely a family affair. As Preston Hall has downsized the business to make it more manageable, he’s relied on assistance from his wife, Martha, and daughter, Grace (seen here on left).

Primarily, though, he relies on a fleet of six Grasshopper mowers, a brand he first tried in 1994 and has stuck with ever since. “I started out with a 721 diesel with a leaf collection unit and a mulching kit. It did a really nice job, so I worked my way up to the Grasshopper 928 diesels.” He now has a fleet of six and praises the way they work. However, he has one mower that remains his favorite. “Right when Grasshopper came out with the G2 diesel, I got one of those,” says Hall. “I still have it. It has more than 8,500 hours on it, and I call it ‘The Old Man.’ I’m the only one who’s allowed to mow with that one. My goal is to put 10,000 hours on it before I retire it.”

Many of those hours have come from mowing the cemeteries. One is 100 acres, and the other is 30 acres. “The smaller cemetery I’ve maintained for more than 20 years, and this will be my fifth year at the larger one,” he explains. “It’s a lot of mowing, but I’ve found ways to get it done.” Realizing that local firefighters are on a one day on, two days off rotation, and that many are looking for extra income on the off days, Hall found two interested in working two days a week on the cemeteries. “I really lucked out,” he says. “It works out great.”

Preston Hall relies on a Chevy 4500 flatbed and a 22-foot-long, 8-foot-wide trailer to move his fleet of Grasshopper mowers and other lawn care equipment.

Hall also has strong support from his family. (In fact, Preston and Grace are pictured together on their mowers in the most recent Grasshopper calendar.) The only job where the entire group works together is the large cemetery account. “When five of us show up out at the 100-acre cemetery, we can mow the entire place in one day and walk out of there. The grass is really flying,” says Hall.

Recently, Hall found four employees of a local tobacco farm looking for extra work, and signed them on to do all of the trimming at the larger cemetery. “They’re really good workers,” he says. “They come in every two weeks, and they can weed-eat the entire cemetery in two days.” Starting this year, that same crew will also handle trimming at the smaller cemetery. That work had previously been done by a separate company, but when quality suffered, Hall took on that aspect of the job in addition to the mowing.

Moving six mowers and other equipment to the cemeteries and other job sites takes a fair amount of carrying capacity, so Hall purchased a Chevrolet 4500 with an 11-foot flatbed to pull a 22-foot gooseneck trailer. “The trailer is 8 feet wide, so I can put four Grasshoppers on it at a time,” he explains.

Doing quality work, he says, is the biggest key to keeping customers. In addition to residential work, Hall also mows several banks and funeral homes. He’s been servicing some of the banks for more than 20 years.

“I do not advertise. It’s basically word-of-mouth. If you’re fair with your prices, and do a good job and you’re consistent, you really don’t have to worry about competition,” he explains. “I’ve had a lot of people try to buck me out of a lot of jobs, but the clients say, ‘Nope, we’re going to stick with Preston. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’ Every year, there’s a lot of new competition, and I see a lot of new trucks and mowers come out of the woodwork. I used to get really upset about it, but I’ve gotten to the point that I don’t worry about it anymore.”

In the winter, Hall provides snow removal services, but only for existing lawn mowing customers. “I tell people, ‘If I don’t mow you, I don’t plow you.’ I’ve got to take care of my regular clientele first,” he explains. Again, he’s found that using high-quality equipment helps get the job done more quickly and effectively. “I’ve got a big Western plow on my Chevy that lets me scoop or use it as a V-blade. I’ve run it for six winters, and it’s really made a big difference; it works great,” he explains. He also attaches a plow to his Grasshopper mower for plowing smaller areas like sidewalks.

During the summer, Hall focuses exclusively on mowing, rather than dabbling in fertilization, aeration and other lawn maintenance services. He refers customers to friends who offer those services, and they in turn send mowing work his way. That helps him limit the need for employees, and offers him more control over the work he does. Working in lawn care has a lot of rewards, says Hall. “When I get finished with a job, I like to be able to stand back and see the lawn looking the way I want it to. There’s a lot of satisfaction in that.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.