The Vice President of Operations for Green Lawn Fertilizing in West Chester, PA shares his path to success in the industry.
A Timeline Of Accomplishments
John Guth, VP of Operations,
Green Lawn Fertilizing
1. When, why, and how did you start your career in the Green Industry?
The year was 2000, I had just turned 25, and was newly married with two daughters under the age of three. I was working a very dirty, dead-end, 3rd shift production job welding steel tanks—not very conducive for a family just starting out. I knew I had to find something more suitable for my family.
That Winter, my brother- in-law told me his company was going to be hiring in the Spring and he could get me an interview. So I asked him to tell me more about what he did. He explained, “It’s lawn care. We work outdoors in the cold, wind, heat, and rain. You get to be your own boss by taking care of your route of customers. Pay is pretty good. You get laid off in the Winters, and benefits are good.” It sounded like a gig I could do well at. I told him, “Sign me up!”
I went to the interview in February of 2001 and was hired that April. I got my pesticide licenses for core, lawn, and tree & shrub two months later, and the rest is history. Who would have ever thought 21 years later I would be a Vice President of Operations at one of the top 10 largest lawn care companies in the U.S? What a rewarding journey it has been.
The most rewarding part of my journey has been the number of leaders who have helped me along the way: Mike Gooch (CEO of LawnWise, Inc.), Josh Willey (COO of Green Lawn Fertilizing), Matt Jesson (President & CEO of Green Lawn Fertilizing), and Tom Knopsnyder (Vice President of Facilities, Equipment, and Procurement at Green Lawn Fertilizing) just to name a few. The Green Industry has provided my family and I so many opportunities. It has changed the trajectory of my entire life. That is why it has been—and will continue to be— so important for me to give back to others within the Lawn Care Industry.
2. Please describe your company and position.
“The Green Industry has provided my family and I so many opportunities. It has changed the trajectory of my entire life.”
Green Lawn Fertilizing & Green Pest Solutions is the largest locally owned and operated lawn and pest control services company servicing the PA, NJ, and DE tristate region. Green Lawn Fertilizing’s annual revenue is $27 million and was recently ranked 118th in the Top 150 largest revenue generating firms and ranked 10th largest in the country for turf & ornamental companies. Green Lawn Fertilizing provides services to over 28,000 customers. Our customer blend consists of 95% residential and 5% commercial. Green Lawn Fertilizing is currently experiencing rapid organic growth (+20%) over the last three years.
As Vice President of Operations for Green Lawn Fertilizing, I have full P&L responsibilities for the lawn division. I oversee both the operations and customer service departments. It’s my responsibility to create a culture where it is safe to take calculated risks, challenge the norms, ensure data is available to drive our business, and to provide my team the ability to be life-long learners.
Outside of Green Lawn Fertilizing, I currently serve as a director for NALP (National Association of Landscape Professionals) Board, the industry’s largest national association. I also serve on the Finance committee, Lawn Care Communications committee, and Marketing Council for the NALP. Locally, I serve on the Occupational Advisory committee for Lebanon County’s Career & Technology Center’s Landscape Department.
3. What is your educational background or skill set? Is there a degree/continuing education class/skill you recommend for success?
My educational background did not take the most direct route. There were some bumps along the way. Right out of high school I went to West Chester University to become an elementary education school teacher. I made it two years before I decided to drop out because my girlfriend (now my wife) was pregnant, and I needed to prioritize my family over schooling.
Seven years later (2003), I found myself with the opportunity to go back to school and jumped all over it. Scotts Lawn Service was willing to pay for me to go back and finish my undergraduate and graduate degrees. Two and a half years later (2006), I graduated from Albright College with a degree in Business Administration. From there, I jumped right into my MBA program and graduated from American Intercontinental University in 2008. I have also taken classes from Ohio State University – The Essentials of Critical Thinking (2010), and have gone through Cornell University’s Leadership Academy for Emerging Leaders (2019).
The great part about working in the Lawn Care Industry is that I have seen people who have gone to the University of Hard Knocks do just as well as people who have Ivy League degrees. What I recommend for people who are just getting into the Industry is to out-work everyone around you, ask a lot of questions, don’t be afraid to learn from your mistakes, and put the time in to be great at your craft! If you find yourself lucky enough to fit college in, I recommend one of the following: a digital marketing degree, an agronomics degree, or even a business degree.
4. What other jobs did you have along the way?
Prior to starting my career in lawn care, I had my fair share of jobs that just were not right for me. I spent some time on the grounds crew at the Lancaster Country Club. I worked on the maintenance crew at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire. I was a laborer for a traffic light installation company. I was a welder for an oil-tank manufacturer. And I delivered newspapers through college for the Harrisburg Patriot News. I probably took away the most business lessons from the paper route job, and by the way, the Christmas tips were amazing!
5. What was your best business or career decision?
The best career decision I have ever made was joining Green Lawn Fertilizing in the spring of 2018. I had just gone through a merger of two national companies. The controlling company was operated by private equity and ended up not being a good fit for me. I was looking for an opportunity in which I could expand my entrepreneurial spirit and be a part of a culture that was people-centric. I found that in Green Lawn Fertilizing and have never looked back since! Matt Jesson (President & CEO of Green Lawn Fertilizing) has built a culture around giving back to his people and his community.
6. What was your worst business or career decision?
It was 2015, the season was just about to start. We had just brought on our new hires and were fully staffed and then a major snowstorm hit the Northeast. I decided to lay off both returning and new hire technicians because it was now going to be weeks before we would be able to get out the door and treat properties. I lost several new hires due to this decision. Looking back, I should have found a way to keep the new hires on-board so we would not have lost them.
7. What was your funniest business experience?
To work in the lawn care or landscape industry for a long time you must have a sense of humor for sure. It’s what gets you through at times! There have been many fun times along the way, and some stories are better off never told. A couple stories that do come to mind, though, are:
Scott’s Lawn Service’s Mid-Atlantic region was having a strategic planning meeting in Snowshoe, WV and we had just taken a 15-minute coffee break. Once the break was over, we started back up and noticed that one of the sales managers was missing. About 20 minutes later, we hear a swoosh, swoosh, swoosh coming from the hallway and then the door to our conference room opens. It’s the missing sales manager—in full ski attire and ready to hit the slopes! He was obviously not paying attention to the agenda and boy, did it get quiet while he was standing there in the doorway! I am sure it was not funny for him, but the silence was broken by laughter from everyone else.
Q&A With Bailey Peer,
One year, on April Fool’s Day, I came into my office and everything—and I mean everything!—was covered in aluminum foil. It took days to get everything back to normal. Another time, I came back from a family vacation to see that my office had been painted pink. To this day, no one has admitted who did that one… There have been a lot of great people along the way that I have made some great memories with. Our Industry tends to naturally have opportunities for leaders to create comradery because we work so hard and spend so many hours together.
8. What’s your favorite piece of equipment/landscaper tool?
My favorite piece of equipment is the Stinger ride-on aerator with a seeder box. I wish this would have been available 20 years ago when I was a technician doing aeration and seedings—I would have been a lot more productive. The Stinger has allowed our company to provide a better service, while also being more efficient. Our production has increased almost 50%, while service calls to redo seedings have dropped 25%.
9. What is your advice to others? What do you wish you had known?
My advice would be to get involved in the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP). I wish I had known the value of being a part of NALP earlier in my career. I believe as a young leader I could have flourished more if I had been part of the networking and learning opportunities available. I have come to realize that professionals within our Industry love to share their best practices with each other and really do enjoy helping others in the business do better. Where else do you have an opportunity as a new lawn care or landscape operator to walk up to a CEO of a $300 Million company and ask them a question about how they operate their business?
10. What are the most formidable challenges facing your business?
Currently, the biggest challenge is people. We are only able to grow our business as fast as we can develop our future leaders. We must have the right people in the right roles to be able to scale our business at the pace we are currently growing. If we are not able to develop future leaders, we run the risk of outgrowing our operations and not being able to support the business. To overcome this, we have implemented a Leadership Development Program which invests in team members who are excelling in their current roles and are interested in becoming future people-leaders.
The second greatest challenge we are facing is our culture. As we continue to expand and work in remote environments, we run the risk of losing our culture—which is a big part of what has made us successful. If we lose our culture, it will become a bigger issue than the development of our people. This year we made substantial investments in quarterly team building events which have helped to foster our people-first culture. These events (Top Golf, bowling, ax throwing, laser tag, painting) were hosted by each department and have been a big success.
11. What is your personal or business goal for the future?
My personal goal is to attend Harvard’s General Management Program (GMP) in Spring 2024. The goal is to challenge myself to transform the way I think and feel. I want to broaden my views through learning how other professionals relate to strategy, organizational leadership, and the global economy. I also want to continue to invest in being the best version of myself I can be. I want to better understand how my business and Industry are affected by macro-economics, and further develop my people-leadership skills so I can make a greater impact on growth and development of future leaders.
From a business perspective, my goal is to develop leaders that will help us become the Industry leader in delivering a superior customer experience. We strive to be the largest privately owned lawn care company in the U.S.
For more information on Green Lawn Fertilizing, visit greenlawnfertilizing.com.