Bobcat Helps IA Landscaper Grow From Ground Up

Wed January 19, 2005 - Midwest Edition
April Goodwin

Chris Sprong and Ryan Kinart know firsthand that growing a business is a learning process. It takes hard work, determination and enough humility to admit mistakes and find ways of doing it better.

When Sprong and Kinart, two best friends from childhood, started their lawn care business, they were just high school freshmen who wanted to make a few bucks.

They mowed lawns, edged and did general spring and fall cleanup work. Most of their business came from neighbors and their parents friends. They recruited the rest of their business by pounding the pavement and knocking on doors.

Neither had any idea that 13 years later, before the age of 30, they would be the owners of a $1.2-million landscaping and lawn care business.

“It started out as a great way for Ryan and me to make money and be our own bosses,” Sprong said. “The two of us would make twice as much money as our friends, who were working at restaurants or wherever, and we were enjoying the work we were doing –– in addition to calling the shots.”

It wasn’t until their third year of college that Sprong and Kinart realized their business could be more than a way to make spending money and pay for college. They had grown their business so much that they could make a career out of it.

“We had started doing some smaller landscaping jobs, and were servicing rental properties for a couple of real estate companies,” Sprong said, “and we started to think, ’Hey, we could make a living at this.’”

Adding Clients,

Capabilities and Equipment

Today, R&C Landscape and Lawn Care Inc. designs and installs a variety of landscape projects, from retaining walls, paver driveways, patios and decks to walkways, ponds, decorative edgings and plantings. The company’s lawn care services have also expanded to include mowing, fertilizing, pruning and removal of trees and bushes, spring and fall cleanup, aerating and edging.

In the winter, the company handles commercial and residential snow removal, sanding and salting and pre-treating pavement.

As the company has diversified, so has its equipment fleet. And buying versatile equipment, such as skid steer loaders, has become more important than ever, said Sprong, because they need their equipment to perform a huge variety of tasks.

R&C owns two Bobcat S300 skid-steer loaders equipped with enclosed cabs and heaters for the winter months. The loaders can easily be equipped with bucket, pallet fork and snow bucket attachments that transform them into specialized equipment.

Kinart said he recently demonstrated a Bobcat compact excavator, and decided to purchase one as a result. The company also owns trucks, trailers, trenchers, trimmers, blowers, saws, compactors and edgers, along with a pruner, vacuum and mower.

Sprong said he and Kinart rent equipment they can’t justify owning year-round. For example, last winter they needed additional equipment to help out with snow removal, so they rented three Bobcat S175 skid steer loaders for those months.

Hiring and Employee Retention

The R&C workforce has also grown over the years. What was once just a two-man operation has turned into a company that employs 23 during its busiest season.

Sprong and Kinart hire temporary workers during the peak months, which is easy since Ames, IA –– where the company is located –– is the home of Iowa State University (ISU) and college students who are looking for summer jobs.

“We hired our very first employee during our freshman year of college when the work was building up to the point the two of us couldn’t handle it ourselves but we wanted to continue to grow,” Sprong said. “And now that we’ve both graduated, we still tap into our old ISU stomping grounds to look for applicants who might be studying horticulture and looking for a summer job.”

R&C has a good employee retention rate, and Sprong and Kinart work hard to ensure their company is a fun and rewarding place to work.

“We treat employees fairly and with respect, and try to create a fun atmosphere,” Sprong said. “We offer paid time off, health benefits and investment opportunities in the form of mutual funds. And every year we have a golf outing and barbeque where we rent a nine-hole golf course for half a day and play an 18-hole ’best shot’ tournament. It’s a great time and all the employees look forward to it each year.”

Sprong said full-time, seasonal employees typically stay on with the company for at least three years and part-time employees an average of three to four years. The reason isn’t hard to see: It’s because most of their seasonal and part-time employees graduate from college and move on.

Some, however, are hired full-time upon graduation. “Our full-time, year-round employees have been with us for six years and counting,” Sprong said.

Early on, approximately 80 percent of the company’s employees were friends of Sprong or Kinart. Only one of the original friends they hired remains on staff. In retrospect, Sprong doesn’t recommend hiring friends.

“It can be hard to draw the line between business and work, but you have to do it,” he said. “Any friends we let go or who left our business did so on good business terms under professional circumstances. In most cases, there weren’t any hard feelings about the decision, and many of them are still friends today. But now our policy is to hire employees for what they have to offer besides being ’just a friend,’ and then we can develop a business/friend relationship.”

Turning a Profit

When they began working in high school, the Kinart-Sprong duo was making approximately $10,000 in revenues. Two years ago they had revenues of $900,000 and, last year, $1.2 million.

“We’re hoping to increase sales another 15 to 20 percent this year,” Sprong said.

Sprong also said now that R&C Landscape and Lawn Care has established itself as a quality provider, customers seek them out. At the same time, they are constantly working to improve their methods and processes, Sprong said. For example, in the past two years they’ve found ways of doing more work with a 17 percent smaller workforce.

“Two years ago we had 28 employees. Now we have 23,” he said. “We are doing more work with fewer people due to better equipment and employees –– and our day-to-day routing and planning processes have improved dramatically.”

Sprong said it’s important for young contractors to remember: You don’t lose money on the jobs you don’t get.

“Make sure you are bidding jobs that you can make money on –– not what jobs you get just because you had to be lower in price than the competition,” he said. “You may have all of the places you wanted to service and got them because of price, but if it’s going to end up costing you $95 for the $100 you’re going to bill, it will catch up with you.”

Hiring Subcontractors

It’s also important to consider hiring subcontractors when you become overloaded, Sprong said.

“We do a lot of snow removal and mowing. With that said, not all of it is done in-house. We also subcontract out the work at times,” he said. “We have built great relationships with our subs, and they perform the same quality of work and exhibit the same professionalism as we do in our company.”

Sprong added that there are several advantages to hiring subcontractors. First, you don’t have to pass up new accounts when your company is “maxed out” on equipment and manpower.

Second, you don’t have to invest in additional equipment, trucks or manpower. Third, you can keep your net profit percentage the same or higher than if you handled the work in-house.

Using Advertising and Name Recognition

R&C Landscape and Lawn Care relies heavily on word-of-mouth referrals to advertise its business. It also does the obligatory painting of its trucks with the company name and phone number, using business cards and advertising in the Yellow Pages.

Sprong said they have tried out-of-the-box advertising and weren’t thrilled with the results. For example, the company has purchased advertising at local movie theaters for the past year, buying screen time before movie previews begin. But they didn’t see much return on theirinvestment.

They also publish an insert in the local newspaper each spring and fall, advertising the company’s yard cleanups –– including specials on leaf removal, edging and aerating, in addition to specials on removing leaf piles of any size from curbs.

“We do get a good response from running these inserts,” said Sprong. “We actually cut our advertising spending back because I think name recognition goes a long ways. We have that recognition now, but it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time … years … and that’s the only downfall of relying on it when you’re just starting out.”

Some of R&C’s clients include big-name area Realtors, including Hunziker and Associates, First Property Management and Triplett Real Estate. In addition, the company handles mowing for the city of Ankeny, including city parks, buildings and sports complexes. It also has handled mowing for Iowa State University and the City of Ames.

Hanson Homes is another major client. The builder contracted with Sprong and Kinart to handle landscaping for all of the homes the company constructs. Last year, because of the landscape work R&C Landscape and Lawn Care did for the company, Hanson Homes won an award for best “outside appeal.”

Controlling Business Growth

Sprong said he and Kinart have no plans to expand their business in the near future, and are actually concentrating on controlling growth right now since company revenues have increased more than 33 percent in the last two years.

“We have made tremendous growth over the last couple years, and we want to slow it down a bit. We grew really big really fast, and that can be dangerous,” he said. “We still want to increase sales, but by using our current equipment and manpower. Bigger is not always better, and explosive growth can put you out of business really fast if you don’t control it.”

What other advice does Sprong have for green-thumbed landscape and lawn care professionals?

“Keep an open ear to what people say. You can learn a lot from other businesses that may not even be in the landscape or lawn care field. Go to tradeshows and seminars, and learn how other companies handle estimating, equipment acquisition, employee retention, etc.,” he said. “Don’t think you know it all. You are just kidding yourself if you do. I am still learning each and every day, and that’s what makes it fun.”

(April Goodwin is with Two Rivers Marketing Group, representing Bobcat Company.)