PDA

View Full Version : Successful long term 10+ years largely Solo based lawncare operators chime in here...


Exact Rototilling
10-22-2011, 01:34 PM
There seems to be trend in lawncare that bigger is better, more trucks out there with your Co. name driving around is better and this is where so many want to be down the road.

There have been several threads about how members here have shipwrecked them selves chasing this dream went back to solo or bust.

Many others admit yes they have employees but if they had to do it all over again they'd stay solo or keep their regular job and just mow a few lawns on the side.

....So my question is what list of services and operational practices is MOST conducive to the solo based lawn care model and manageable right up till retirement or semi-retirement?

An emphasis on services that result in fewer life long debilitating injuries is also extremely important.

Retiring at 65 from lawncare with multiple back surgeries, bad knees and living in constant pain is hardly successful IMO.

32vld
10-22-2011, 09:13 PM
I don't think there is any new trend. There have always been people that wanted to stay small and those be the next General Motors sized corporation in every field.

Neither way is the best way. Each way has advantages and disadvantages.

It is easier to become sucessfull when small. I have heard and seen many business' go down after becoming larger. Usually a combination of quality declining and costs getting to high.

As to those that regret going large and would rather of stayed small. There's nothing holing them back. Easy to down size.

At the end of the season, say you have 4 trucks & crews, X customers. You drop the 25% of the lowest profit customers. Reduce work force by one crew. Park the 4th truck and equipment as backup when things break on the other crews.

Repeat every year till you are back to where you want to be.

Mowingman
10-23-2011, 12:06 AM
I am 61 years old. I retired from mowing at the age of 57. By then, I had owned and operated a mowing business for 40 of those 57 years.
I did pretty well as far as wear and tear on my body goes. I have a rebuilt left rotator cuff that still hurts, a weak lower back, bad joints in both feet, and some arthritis in my hands. All in all, not too bad.
For the first 33 years, I was solo, or had one helper. The last 8 years, I ran
2, three man crews. I stayed solo until I got up to about 50 properties, all residential or small commercial. Took on a part time helper when I got some big City contracts, and finally ended up with the two crews. I think I liked the business the best, when it was just me and two full time helpers. A lot less stress and paperwork at that size.
I limited my operation to only mowing/trimming/edging/cleanups/shrub trimming, etc. Always subbed out tree work, landscaping, plantings, Drainage work, hardscaping, and so forth.
I think I was able to physically go so many years, due to limiting the scope of work I did myself. I did lots of landscaping, but all through subs. I did lots of tree work, but all through subs.
As I got older, I rode a lot more. Got ZTR's to fit about any size lawn and parked all the walkbehinds and push mowers.
Big might be good for some, but I liked staying rather small. I think my last year, we did 160 properties with just the 2 crews, working 5 day weeks. Four of the properties exceeded 22 acres each. The right machines made all the difference saving time and making a good profit.

David Haggerty
10-23-2011, 07:46 AM
I always thought Lawnsite should have some way to distinguish the solo operator from the crew based business. They're so different.
I've always been out mowing grass even when I had crews. Hands on kind of person.

I figured for the small or solo guy the best way to maximize profits was to maximize productivity. Quick as I could I moved up to big mowers. The formula the crew operators figuring labor & equipment costs against profit just won't work because with the solo guy the labor is constant. Yeah you can work 14 hour days but that's about it.

As far as staying healthy, that was part of why I got into mowing full time. I was in my late 30's working a desk job when the phone company under pressure from cell phones closed the office and left town. My kids were calling me the "Pillsbury Doughboy" and they weren't wrong.

For the next 30 years I mowed grass. Didn't help much. I was still overweight, blood pressure & cholestrol off the charts. My back always hurt from pulling a muscle while putting sheathing on my Dad's roof in a gusty wind.

Work is NOT exercise! It's work! Using the same muscles and joints to do the same action wears out your joints & stiffens your muscles. And working cold muscles is probably the #1 cause of damage.

Finally I got serious about my health and well being. Bought a camper that I still can't afford and pulled it to Florida with my mowing truck. There I ride bicycles & paddle a kayak all day every day. I stretch every morining using the yoga stretches I've seen on PBS. It's a whole lot tougher than riding a mower all day. It's a lot of fun though.

Now when my doctor at the VA clinnic reads my blood test results, she grins & giggles and says "You're good to go!" "If all my patients were in your condition my job would be easy!"

I'm more Post retirement, having signed up for social security on my 65th birthday.

Successful? Depends on how you measure it. I ain't rich! But living the life I want and enjoying it.
A solo operator can only get so big and I think I've maxed it out. You've got to branch out. I've put a little of the profits into 3 rentals. Make annual withdrawals from my 401K and of course there's the SS. So if mowing slows down a little it'll be OK. But it seem to be going the other way. My second biggest client just bought the facility next door. They're on 6 streets now. They used to have 2.25 miles of curbing to edge. I'll have to measure to see what they have now. My biggest client wanted a contract. I wrote it to suit myself. It kind of looks like I'll be there a while longer. And I've been mowing that property over 30 years now.

So the key to my "success" as a solo operator has been;

The very best equipment
Give my customers what they want & need
Take care of myself physically and mentally. I really indulge ole' Dave. But he's doing a heck of a job!

TLS
10-23-2011, 11:12 AM
I think you need to step back and look at our industry from several perspectives to answer your question.

I've seen hard working masons and roofers live comfortably and pain free into their 90's.

I've also seen office workers and teachers in walkers and wheelchairs pass in their 60's.

To say that our industry is hard on the body would be nothing more than a stereotype. Your life is what YOU make of it. Make it hard, make it easy. Make it stressful, make it stress-free.

Ok, lets set those things aside for a while.

I've been in this business since 1980. I've seen companies come and go. But the ONE thing that is ALWAYS predictable is the guy who comes out of nowhere, and in one or two years has 2-3 brand new trucks and trailers (these days enclosed, back in the 80's-90's open), a dozen employees, and a slew of brand new equipment. This usually lasts no more than a year. Possibly longer, depending on his source of funds.

The other "given" is that these guys always name their companies XXX Landscaping. They pretty much ONLY mow grass, might do a few mulch jobs, but ALWAYS use the "Landscaping" word. This is a pet-peeve of mine, and has been since the beginning. Landscaping is NOT in my business name, and never will be.

This isn't a get rich quick business. Simply, it's a line of work that just about anyone can do without any schooling or training.

The other aspect is that it's a magnet for the out of work or laid off factory worker. These people made $15-$20/hr at the factory, and instantly thought that if they simply make that $15-$20/hr mowing, that they'll be good. Well, you know what "thought" did!

Since I was 14 I've worked "another" job in addition to mowing. While this isn't necessary, it DOES have it's good points. I have worked 24 years with what is now the 3rd largest grocery retailer in the country. It's a Union position that pays my benefits and offers a pension. This company is in financial trouble, so I don't know how long this will last. I went from only having to work 8-10hrs/week (in season) to now having to work 20+ to maintain these benefits. I haven't had a raise in 5 years, and now have to pay a co-pay for benefits. Over just the past 5 years, it's become more and more intrusive into my lawn service business, and more stressful as I attempt to juggle 20+ hrs at a location that is no longer a 3 minute commute, but close to an hour! My lawn service has gone from having over 50 customers a decade ago to right around 25 this season.

5 years ago I dove into getting my applicators license. I now treat a good portion of my mowing accounts. I'd like to slowly swing my business into lawn treatments. The profits are higher, and it separates me from the competition.

I would have to say that the treatment side is easier on the joints and body, but there is nothing like mowing a large property and seeing the instant results of a job well done.

Now that I'm in my 40's, my Wife and I are pushing harder into retirement planning. This alone is probably the most overlooked aspect of this industry. You need not only a business plan, but a retirement plan. We are living longer, and constantly worry about living as well as we do well into retirement.

Sorry if this story ran so long, and drifted into a biography....

BPS##
10-23-2011, 11:37 AM
David H and TLS those are some great pointers.


I too won't use the word "landscaping" in my name or advertising.
I am not a landscaper, I am a landscape maintenance technician but I'm pretty sure that most folks are able to figure that out with out me having to directly mention it.

ralph02813
10-23-2011, 03:48 PM
Just an aside I wonder how many guys with back problems use exclusively riders rather than walk behinds. I'm almost 65, my first 5 years I walked behind 21 and 22 mowers this year I moved up to a 36, I have 20 accounts, and I do the whole yard, if it grows I touch it, I don't built anything, and if you buy it and tell me where to put it I will plant it. I also have two long term woods clearing projects. I have one or two accounts I will get rid of if someone better comes up, soI am not really interested in growing. I have a couple of friend my age that have been riding around for one 10 years, the other about 20 they both ride jds' and both have the same weird walk, another friend of my much younger spends a lot of time running after his 48' walk behind my back feels fine, he has said to me that the decesion to stay with a walk behind was one of wanting to stay solo and he has met too many younger guys with bad backers from riding. . . . . . any truth to what the ride will to do you. Ps, if I had worn gloves back in my meating cutting days in the 60's my arthritis wouldn't be so bad when it drops below 65.

Any thoughts on riding versus walking - health wise.

zturncutter
10-23-2011, 05:09 PM
I think you could make a good argument for running a stander with a spring loaded standing platform and a leg cushion. I have a 52 toro hydro walk behind with a tru trak and love running it, just a bit more tired at the end of the day than running my Scag ztr or Dixie chopper.

Exact Rototilling
10-23-2011, 05:24 PM
It is true that WB or standers are easier on the back. I more than wear out a Vibram lug sole every season on my Danner boots. I ride on my sulky as much.as I can. Yes ...the dynamics on the lower.back when.sitting are frankly destructive. I.have considered Walker mowers since the grass handling ability is the best if you collect clippings like many do.here. So yes a stander or Wb will be better for your back because the load on your lower back disc is far less when standing or walking than sitting on your can. Add in some up and down pounding you are tearing up your lower back discs.

What f'ed up my back is the steel "PRO FIT" catcher that BOP sells. The lighter weight and VASTLY superior ergonomics of the ACCELERATOR aluminum catcher is night and day. I just purchased the latest generation version that rides higher than the old style accelerator which is/was prone to drag at the lower deck heights.

The back stress of running a Walker while sitting vs. running my mowers with a side catcher can be debated. I hate collecting clippings but at times it cannot be avoided.

TLS
10-23-2011, 05:25 PM
I feel that a suspension seat must make a big difference.

I've had good suspension seats on all my past equipment with exception of my 1968 Cub Cadet 125 (ran for 7 years) and my 1997 DC Flatlander (ran for 4 years). The DC was probably the smoothest riding though with the balloon tires.

Most comfortable by far is my SuperZ with suspension seat with the flex seat! That flex seat is the best thing since sliced bread!
Posted via Mobile Device

PlantscapeSolutions
10-24-2011, 01:44 AM
If you do good work it's usually inevitable your going to grow some and need some help. I just run one crew and use GPS to keep close tabs on whats going on. In 2009 I went back to being the foreman for six months and then did it again for a few months last winter. With our Texas drought there may not be crap for work by summer 2012. Here in a few weeks I'm going back to being foremen again so I can save a much money as possible.

In this business the smart guys offer their customers every service they can to make as much money as possible. You do not want your customers looking to others to provide mulching, landscaping, lighting, or even arborist services if you can help it. Making your customers use your competitors for services you don't offer is like letting the fox in the hen house. I've gotten many grass only guys fired.

It's really hard to be a one man show and do everything without working 80 hours a week and killing yourself. When I was solo my income potential was just too limited. With just a few guys I can usually make about $80K a year but solo I'd probably make half as much and have to work twice as much. I do high end residential and there is just way too much back braking work I do not want to do myself.

I think the biggest obstacle in this business is having the drive grow and actually being able to find the competent help to support the growth. I think a lot of guys have been burned by bad help so many times they just finally say F it and stay small. The fact that this line of work is seasonal makes keeping competent help even more of a challenge.

TLS
10-24-2011, 11:28 AM
Plantscape,

I understand your statement about subbing out. I only sub out to specialists. For instance, my landscape guy doesn't mow. All he does is hardscaping/landscaping/mulch. My tree guy only does trees. I only mow and treat. It works out well. I can't afford to own a Bobcat and mini excavator, or a chipper, pole truck, stump grinder. They cant afford $12K ZTR's and such. It works well.

mtmower
10-24-2011, 12:10 PM
It is true that WB or standers are easier on the back. I more than wear out a Vibram lug sole every season on my Danner boots. I ride on my sulky as much.as I can. Yes ...the dynamics on the lower.back when.sitting are frankly destructive. I.have considered Walker mowers since the grass handling ability is the best if you collect clippings like many do.here. So yes a stander or Wb will be better for your back because the load on your lower back disc is far less when standing or walking than sitting on your can. Add in some up and down pounding you are tearing up your lower back discs.


The back stress of running a Walker while sitting vs. running my mowers with a side catcher can be debated. I hate collecting clippings but at times it cannot be avoided.

I'm sure every back is different. And knees. I have a stand on Classen aerator that I even added some rubber bushings to the spring loaded platform. I kick off the work boots for some soft tennis shoes. Same on my intermediate Z spray and I'm happy the day is over and the pain killers are near at hand afterward. My ZTRs aren't perfect but much better with flex forks and suspension seat. The walk behinds, even though not near as efficient, seem to be the best for me without a sulky. Of course I only have about two properties out of 30 something that she comes off the truck for.

X2 on the word "Landscape" in company names.

PlantscapeSolutions
10-24-2011, 12:51 PM
I wasn't referring to you in my "grass guy" generalization. You are making sure your customers are taken care of and your getting paid for work your not even doing. There are a lot of guys that just want to cut grass and nothing else. When customers ask them if they can do other landscape related tasks they just say no and leave they're customer hanging. They are very short sighted and unwilling or not smart enough to learn new things. One of my foremen in the past was this way.

I couldn't even teach the guy to use an irrigation controller. He was the true definition of you can't teach an old dog new tricks. He had his own little biz in FL before he moved to TX. All he had done is cut grass for twenty years. If a customer had asked him to spread a few bags of mulch he would have acted all proud and said he only cuts grass. I fired the guy back in 2009 because he was more trouble then he was worth.

For any of you FL guys he was Guadalupe Blanco and he worked for Perusso in West Palm Beach after he folded up his little solo FL biz. I suspect he was probably a thorn in their side at Perusso and they didn't shed a tear when he left.

Now the guy is 51 years old, badly out of shape, and barely getting by from check to check. If he gets sick or hurt one time he'll have no income and his customers will likely start leaving him very quickly. It's hard to replace a knowledgeable do-it-all company that has great service but very easy to replace a one trick pony grass guy.

My thought process is why work harder when you can work smarter. Let others do some of the work and vastly increase your income stream. Be able to take off work when you want to do things like be with your kids. You don't need to evolve into a huge company but at least be self sustaining where the company doesn't crater is your unable to work for a few weeks. Some people think they are Superman but shick happens and you rarely see it coming down the pike when it happens. Having a foremen to run the show is like having your own AFLAC insurance.

Also, I agree in full with the comment by some who said their should be info in people signature that shows the type of company they are. I think it's interesting to know the annual sales, head count (solo or not), years in biz, and services offered by other lawnsite guys. I'm just a few employee size biz but I definitely add more weight to what others are saying when they have the credentials to back it up. I think listing your mowers, string trimmers, and little things on your signature is pretty silly kids stuff. Lets put some meaningful info on our signatures.

ReddensLawnCare
10-24-2011, 01:06 PM
I wasn't referring to you in my "grass guy" generalization. You are making sure your customers are taken care of and your getting paid for work your not even doing. There are a lot of guys that just want to cut grass and nothing else. When customers ask them if they can do other landscape related tasks they just say no and leave they're customer hanging. They are very short sighted and unwilling or not smart enough to learn new things. One of my foremen in the past was this way.

I couldn't even teach the guy to use an irrigation controller. He was the true definition of you can't teach an old dog new tricks. He had his own little biz in FL before he moved to TX. All he had done is cut grass for twenty years. If a customer had asked him to spread a few bags of mulch he would have acted all proud and said he only cuts grass. I fired the guy back in 2009 because he was more trouble then he was worth.

For any of you FL guys he was Guadalupe Blanco and he worked for Perusso in West Palm Beach after he folded up his little solo FL biz. I suspect he was probably a thorn in their side at Perusso and they didn't shed a tear when he left.

Now the guy is 51 years old, badly out of shape, and barely getting by from check to check. If he gets sick or hurt one time he'll have no income and his customers will likely start leaving him very quickly. It's hard to replace a knowledgeable do-it-all company that has great service but very easy to replace a one trick pony grass guy.
My thought process is why work harder when you can work smarter. Let others do some of the work and vastly increase your income stream. Be able to take off work when you want to do things like be with your kids. You don't need to evolve into a huge company but at least be self sustaining where the company doesn't crater is your unable to work for a few weeks. Some people think they are Superman but shick happens and you rarely see it coming down the pike when it happens. Having a foremen to run the show is like having your own AFLAC insurance.

Also, I agree in full with the comment by some who said their should be info in people signature that shows the type of company they are. I think it's interesting to know the annual sales, head count (solo or not), years in biz, and services offered by other lawnsite guys. I'm just a few employee size biz but I definitely add more weight to what others are saying when they have the credentials to back it up. I think listing your mowers, string trimmers, and little things on your signature is pretty silly kids stuff. Lets put some meaningful info on our signatures.

Was that part neccesary? I understand your point from the rest of it, no need to disrespect someone who's not doing to good