Slow and steady growth is the secret to this company’s success

One of the company’s hardscaping projects. This client wanted to have a large outdoor entertaining area in their backyard, so JT’s designed and installed this four-level patio structure with a gas fire pit, outdoor kitchen and over 2,500 square feet of pavers.

While other landscape company owners have been having a hard time the past few years over the impact of the recession, Jimmy Tompkins is experiencing such healthy growth that he knows he’s taking the right steps.

In the past two years, JT’s Landscaping and Lawn Care in the Raleigh/ Durham/Cary region of North Carolina has posted revenue increases of 30 and 34 percent. This past year, the company pulled in nearly $2 million gross, with Tompkins aiming for $5 million five years from now. “We don’t want rapid growth,” he says. “We want sustainable growth. I like the rapport I have with the customers on a personal level.”

Tompkins did not attain this success by undercutting other companies on price. “Our goal is not to provide an economical solution,” he says. “Our goal is to provide the highest-quality maintenance service – not only maintaining, but enhance while maintaining. We don’t try to win an account on price – that’s never been our mission – and there’s nothing more gratifying to hear than someone is going to go with us even though we were the highest price. They are more confident with us coming in and taking care of them.”

Tompkins does turn down customers who only want someone to mow on a one-time basis. “We want people who are excited about their yards – they know their plants’ names; they know what they’re supposed to look like,” he says. However, customers do have many choices when it comes to the company’s services. “They can go with the lawn care program and only do fertilizations or go full-service,” Tompkins says. “Some people want to get on a regular trimming schedule. The plant health care guys handle that.”

For the maintenance program, the company visits customers every seven days from March 15 through December 15; the rest of the year, the company services customers on a 10-day rotation.

The property before construction begins.

Tompkins took an interest in turf when he was 14 years old, mowing and mulching lawns to earn money to pay for his first vehicle. By the time he was 17, he had two people working for him. “I still didn’t think at that time it was going to be my passion,” says Tompkins. “It wasn’t something I was going to do for the rest of my life. It was something to do while going to high school to make some money.”

Tompkins went to North Carolina State University to study industrial engineering. “I had a brutal semester and decided I had maintained the company all the way through and had five employees; at that point, I decided that this engineering stuff was not for me, and I walked over to the horticulture department and have been doing it ever since,” he says.

Although he never earned a degree, the classes in landscape design, turf management and horticulture helped to propel his fledgling business, which now has 22 employees.

Employees are trained in everything, including patio and paver installation, laying sod, installing irrigation systems, landscape lighting, plant installation, retaining walls and water features.

Tompkins’ company designs a landscape with long-term maintenance in mind. Employees consider the soil and irrigation conditions, the landscape architecture and visual elements, how the property owner intends to use the property, and what upkeep will be required.

Like others in the industry, Tompkins is finding that outdoor living spaces are becoming more popular as people are spending more time at home, and also wanting to add value to their properties.

Once a landscape or outdoor living space is created, JT’s offers customers scheduled landscape maintenance through annual contracts. The maintenance program incorporates weekly mowing, weeding, tree and shrub pruning; aeration and overseeding; string trimming; edging; clean-up; specialized fertilization, including preemergent and postemergent weed control; deep-root injection fertilizer; insect control; and irrigation and landscape lighting maintenance and holiday lighting. Other services include annual bed maintenance and mulch and pine straw replenishment.

A property that JT’s Landscaping and Lawn Care provides maintenance services for. In the forefront is a dwarf Banana tree and a bed of petunias used in a hot area of the yard to deliver seasonal color.

Tompkins attributes his company’s success to the quality of its work, customer service and the employees. “We pay them well,” he says. “We’re only as good as they are.” His company endeavors to always stay in touch with customers by answering phone calls and being prompt. “We’re very proactive rather than reactive,” Tompkins says. “It’s simply not so much as going out to get the next customer, but taking care of who we have, because without them, they’re not going to refer us. A lot of companies worry about the next one, rather than the last one. We make a concerted effort.”

Even with one-time installation customers, JT’s Landscaping and Lawn Care will check back with the customer three to six months later to ensure there are no problems that need to be addressed.

The company sends maintenance customers ongoing newsletters. “The people who read them love them,” he says. “We get great feedback. We try to educate the customer as to what to expect and what weather conditions will do to their lawn.”

The company will consider traveling outside of its regular service area if a customer requests it. “We have situations where we work for customers here, and they want us to go where they have property elsewhere. If we can make money and be profitable, we’ll do it,” Tompkins says.

Seventy-five percent of the work done by JT’s Landscaping and Lawn Care is in the residential sector. Tompkins recently brought on a new employee whose job is to go after more work in the commercial sector in order to bring the ratio more toward 50-50.

An employee, in uniform, mows the lawn and provides other landscape maintenance services at this client’s property.

Like many parts of the country, North Carolina faces water shortages. “We’re in the transition zone as far as horticulture is concerned,” Tompkins says. “We have major water shortages here. Our supply has not been able to keep up with the demand, so we do have permanent water restrictions in place on all residential properties. In the summer months, there are stages one through three, with three being you can’t water any of your landscape at all, period, and two being you can only water certain hours of the day on two days a week. We have residential properties that are 1.5 to 2 acres of nothing but lawn; they’re big, sprawling properties. You can’t water a property like that in that time constraint.”

The other challenge is turfgrass. “Fescue will do well. Bermuda lives here, and zoysia will hang in there,” says Tompkins. “But, fescue can’t stand our summer stresses; zoysia and bermuda are going dormant so early you’re only getting six and a half, seven months of green and nearly six months of dormancy.”

The first question he asks customers is if they mind their grass being dormant. “If they say it doesn’t bother them, then I’ll guide them to the warm-season turfs, which require much less water and do look fantastic for six and a half months,” Tompkins says. “But then you’ve got the dormancy pretty much from December 1 through the end of May.

“If they say they can’t stand it, then we need to talk to them about an irrigation system. If they don’t want to go that route, then fescue will live. They are going to have a lot of annual expense in maintaining it. Weed infestation in the summer is going to be a problem because you can’t keep the density up, and you are going to have to do annual aeration and overseeding.” Some customers want the biggest lawn area possible. In that case, Tompkins will promote the use of warm-season turf that can handle the foot traffic.

Tompkins says he rejects the idea of selling people a landscape renovation project just to get it away from the watering responsibility. “If they want a patio, we’re going to start there first,” he says. “We start with hardscaping and work from there. Then we’re going to try to maximize it with aesthetically pleasing areas, such as the beds. But, at the same time, we want to give them enough yard space for the kids or animals or what they have to meet their needs.”

For fuel economy savings and liability concerns, JT’s uses box trucks rather than trucks and trailers to haul equipment. Tompkins and his company endeavors to keep its equipment well-maintained. “If our equipment doesn’t go down, our crews won’t go out of service,” he says. “We stay with the latest technology available to us; ride-on spreaders maximize our efficiency. We make sure we’re using the proper sized mower for the properties. We don’t want to come out there with a huge Z mower and have it sitting on a truck on a route that’s got a bunch of properties where it’s not going to be utilized.

“We try to efficiently use the equipment. We have to maximize our production time, but at the same time, not do overkill and cause damage to the landscape for not being able to line it up properly.”

In addition to water and turf challenges, Tompkins says another challenge is getting his company’s name out in an area where there are several large landscaping companies among the competition. “The companies running 100 to 150 employees have the market share,” he says. “Our biggest challenge is to gain that market share. It’s coming slowly, but surely.”

The company is utilizing all box trucks within the maintenance division in attempt to limit liability and also use it as mobile advertising.

That’s the way he likes it. “Otherwise, you grow overnight and you don’t have the right people in the right positions to handle the growth,” he points out. “We spend a lot to get our name out there. But, people are starting to recognize that our trucks all look the same; they’re always clean. Our employees are always in uniforms.”

Tompkins prides himself on running a company where “we do what we say, and we say what we do. Business these days is more about relationships rather than anything else. Relationships with people is what makes companies successful versus not successful.”

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.