John Carson started his landscaping business by himself, from the ground up, with his two hands and a couple of advanced degrees.
“My parents actually thought I was crazy,” said the founder and owner of the Carson Group when he tells the story of his previous life and how he left a professional job with a large company to take up moving dirt — and how much he loves it.
A native of the Ithaca, N.Y., area, Carson went to school at SUNY Binghamton, graduating as a mechanical engineer, and was hired by Shell to do environmental engineering work, such as cleanups after spills. While in Florida working for Shell, he attended South Florida University and got his second advanced degree, an MBA with concentration on entrepreneurship.
“Since I was a kid, I had always worked hard making my own money; I actually paid for college myself,” explaining how he ran a variety of businesses, from lawn mowing to yard cleaning, bought, repaired and sold motorcycles, and got several scholarships along the way.
His position with Shell took him to Houston, where he worked as a gas-trading analyst, and then to Louisville, Ky., where he was a lubricant salesperson. While he was in Kentucky, he started a second job, installing lawn irrigation systems. And then it was time to come back home.
He kept the Kentucky operation going and started another lawn irrigation business in Ithaca, with a truck and a DitchWitch, “And it took off.” But as he explained, lawn irrigation installation is a three-month business, and he wanted to keep his crew busy the rest of the year.
The answer was Carson Groundworks, doing driveways, drainage, snowplowing and landscaping.
Never Say “No”
Carson credits that piece of advice he got early on with pushing him along the road of success.
“If anybody asked me to do something, even something we had never done, I'd say 'yes', and I'd learn how to do it or I'd find somebody else who could help me who had the necessary expertise.”
As Carson explained, people for whom you're doing work will very often mention something else they also need to get done, and since they already know and trust you, they'd rather have you than somebody they don't know. It makes sense. The key is to...never say no. But of course the other side of it is, you need to hustle to either learn quickly how to do it well or find the right person to help you.
And speaking of learning, Carson admitted that he bought his first machine, a Cat 277B which he still owns and uses, and did not know how to operate it.” But he knew he could count on his salesperson at the Binghamton Milton CAT location, and never worried. Of course, said Carson, after you have a loader you'll need a trailer, a truck and before long an excavator, too. Very soon he was building a fleet, and quite a business. It was time to find another way to expand.
Becoming a Rental
A good look at his area, Tompkins County, the businesses going on there, the growth potential and the competition helped Carson make the next strategic decision, starting Carson Rental and Supply in Ithaca. He would join the Milton CAT Rental Alliance Network, offering contractors as well as homeowners convenient, short-term rental of top-notch equipment.
“It allows me to live the lifestyle I love,” said Carson.
Further conversation clarifies that to Carson, “the lifestyle I love” means working all the time if he wants to, so 14 hour-days are normal for him. And it also gives Carson a good feeling “knowing that I will get out what I put in,” which is probably the classic definition of a born entrepreneur.
Why does he think he's being successful at the rental business? Carson named several reasons. One is that he did his research, visiting other New York State Rental Alliance locations, and learning from them.
He also feels that whether someone renting equipment is a professional contractor, or homeowner doing a weekend project, people are very comfortable renting Cat; his equipment is always very clean and well-maintained; he's very willing to give advice and ideas, gladly helping along a homeowner stuck with a job.
“We offer supplies, too, and we're very accommodating in terms of dropping off and picking up the equipment.”
He sees the two groups that rent from his company, contractors and homeowners, as having some things in common — cost is crucial, for example — but looking for a different level of support. And he's ready to give them exactly what they need.
Carson credits the support he receives from Milton CAT, not only from his machine salesman Chris Norman and his product support salesperson Nick Battaglini, but the finance department, as well.
“CAT finance has been great, very easy to work with; they always give me a good, fair deal.” And he said that when it comes to parts, “Milton CAT is unbeatable; nearly always on the shelf, but if not, it is there next day.”
Plans for the future? Carson is looking to expand his Rental Alliance operation; he just secured a second location, and is in the process of training his first full-time salesperson. All's well in Tompkins County.