Successful long term 10+ years largely Solo based lawncare operators chime in here...

Discussion in 'General Industry Discussions' started by Exact Rototilling, Oct 22, 2011.

  1. Exact Rototilling

    Exact Rototilling LawnSite Fanatic
    Messages: 5,378

    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.
  2. 32vld

    32vld LawnSite Gold Member
    Messages: 3,983

    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.
  3. Mowingman

    Mowingman LawnSite Platinum Member
    from Texas
    Messages: 4,697

    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.
  4. 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!
  5. TLS

    TLS LawnSite Fanatic
    Messages: 7,943

    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....
  6. BPS##

    BPS## LawnSite Senior Member
    from WY
    Messages: 828

    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.
  7. ralph02813

    ralph02813 LawnSite Bronze Member
    Male, from Charlestown, RI
    Messages: 1,041

    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.
  8. zturncutter

    zturncutter LawnSite Bronze Member
    Messages: 1,308

    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.
  9. Exact Rototilling

    Exact Rototilling LawnSite Fanatic
    Messages: 5,378

    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 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 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.
    Last edited: Oct 23, 2011
  10. TLS

    TLS LawnSite Fanatic
    Messages: 7,943

    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!
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