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Fueling the tradition

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Stewcare has run an all diesel fleet for 20 years and stands by this alternative for its efficiency edge.

Kristen Hampshire | January 19, 2012

Stewcare was an early adopter of diesel engine technology. When a mower manufacturer approached the company in the mid-1980s with this fuel alternative, founder Mike Stewart agreed to give it a try.

“We recognized the power and efficiency and longevity of the (lawn) tractor itself was going to be amplified by going to diesel,” says Stewart’s son, also Mike Stewart and now president of the family business in Delaware, Ohio.

Efficiency is a big deal when crews mow hundreds of acres each week. Stewcare’s primarily commercial clientele includes 35 athletic fields in Central Ohio, three cemeteries, two of the area’s largest school districts and a college campus. Plus, the company’s 25-percent residential customer base is mostly estate properties 1-5 acres in size.

“Because we are running all diesel engines and all 72-inch cutting decks, the acreage we can mow in one day much less an entire workweek is almost mind-blowing,” Stewart says, unable to pinpoint an exact number. All he knows is that each mower holds 8 gallons of fuel and tanks are replenished every other day. And that’s really stretching fuel dollars for the volume of cuts Stewcare performs.

Sure, diesel fuel is more expensive. “But we are not using as much,” Stewart says, adding that the fuel also seems to put less stress on engines. For instance, the company recently said goodbye to a member of its fleet: a 2004 mower with more than 4,300 hours on it. That’s eight rigorous commercial mowing seasons. It sold for $3,800. “That is unheard of in the world of used lawn mowers,” Stewart says.    

Stewcare is dedicated to running on diesel for many reasons: engine life, fuel efficiency, crew productivity and the ability to better compete in a tough maintenance market. Actually, longevity, in general, is a sort of theme at the 35-year old company, which Stewart’s father propagated from a janitorial services firm he started in the 1970s. Large building clients asked him to manage snow and ice, then landscape maintenance, and the business evolved, specialized and flourished from there.

Now, Stewart “runs the show,” according to Mike Stewart Sr., who is involved in daily operations but working a succession plan toward retirement. “I wanted my dad to know that his company would be here, and I’m looking to do what he has done and carry that on,” says son Stewart. And that includes the decision to stick with diesel.

Die-hard diesel

Stewart compares the fuel efficiency of running diesel vs. gasoline fuel by sharing how often tanks are refilled. In that regard, fuel consumption dropped at least 40 percent. The old gas mowers Stewcare ran had 4-gallon tanks that were filled up each morning at the shop. “At lunch time – half of a day – you would have to refill that tank,” Stewart says.

The diesel engine mowers are equipped with 8-gallon tanks that are filled up each morning. “We will run on average 8-10 hours a day and we still have only consumed half a tank of fuel,” Stewart says. If that tank held 4 gallons, the company would be filling it up daily, but because the machine holds more fuel, that saves Stewart’s crews time at the shop pump.

“Diesel offers a lot of competitive advantage because we can be more productive and efficient – we don’t have to spend a lot of time stopping to refuel the engine,” Stewart sums up.

The company consumes less fuel. This keeps mowing costs down, which allows Stewcare to price its services in the ballgame while bringing home a nice profit, Stewart says.

Plus, engine life is significantly longer with diesel, Stewart says. “When we were running gasoline, you could set your watch to 1,000 hours and you were going to have to rebuild that engine,” Stewart says. “We run our diesel (mowers) now over 4,000 hours. And nothing internally in that engine has been touched at that point. The engine is in the same condition as when we first bought it.”

So, what’s the catch with diesel? Surely it’s not a magic elixir and answer to a landscape maintenance firm’s efficiency problems. Mainly, the fuel costs more – about 50 cents per gallon at time of press. Other than that, Stewart struggles to find any other down side to this alternative.

Instead, he shares what he has experienced using diesel engines during a spring cut, when the grass was dew heavy and thick. “The conditions were causing the engine to labor more, which usually causes it to consume more fuel,” Stewart says. He continued to mow the day’s work, then while loading the mower on to the trailer at the end of the day, he checked the fuel gauge to see how much diesel the mower had drank up during that 8-hour shift.

“I looked over my right shoulder at the fuel gauge and it was bouncing around at about a half tank,” Stewart says.

So he looked again.

“I stood still with the mower to let the gauge settle, and sure enough that gauge was still at half a tank,” he says. “I was so amazed at how much grass I had mowed and I knew the type of conditions I had worked in all day long. That proved to me that (mowers) with the diesel engine are the most productive, efficient machines out there. Because I know what I do in a day’s time.”

Stewart is a raving fan of diesel, that’s for sure. But the numbers are what sell him on the alternative, not the stories. And the time savings of only refueling mowers every other day helps the crews. There’s no worry about fuel spills on the job, because the mowers can last a couple days and be refueled at the shop rather than en route. “We don’t have those safety issues and concerns,” Stewart says simply.

A loyal history

Stewcare is dedicated to diesel and loyal to the same brand of mowers the company has been running for more than 30 years. Stewcare has invested in upgrades as they are available: Stewart recalls when the company switched from 61- to 72-inch decks. Then, of course, there was the introduction of diesels, and Stewcare was one of the first companies on board in Ohio to Stewart’s knowledge.

The advantage of sticking to one line is growing a long-term relationship with dealers, distributors and, ultimately, the manufacturer in Stewcare’s case. “We are on a first-name basis with them,” Stewart says.

Similarly, the company holds these type of rich, valued relationships with its long-time customers, some of whom have been using Stewcare’s services for two and three decades.

“We are known for our cutting – that is what we do, and we are very good at it,” Stewart says, adding that while sticking to its roots, the company indeed has evolved over the years.

“We do more than just cut grass now,” Stewart continues. “We will maintain, edge, mulch and do spring and fall cleanups, pretty much everything with the exception of actually installing hardscaping and landscaping.”

Part of this evolution is the succession plan that the Stewarts have implemented, putting Stewart Jr. at the helm as Stewart Sr. transitions into a more of a coach role. Stewart Jr. took over as president in the early 2000s after graduating from college and returning home to work in the family business.

“(My dad) is still active and an integral part in the company, and it’s rewarding to go to work each day side by side with your father and have the same goals and interests,” Stewart says. “We can bounce ideas off of each other – some good, others not so much, but that’s part of the process.”

Stewart Jr. has introduced more technology to the company, mainly by revamping the website. “We got 12-15 new clients this year from the Internet – people doing a lawn care search in Delaware, Ohio, and our name pops up,” he says.

YouTube has also entered the marketing mix (see Tune In). The company is working to expand its social media presence. “We want to get our name out there even more,” Stewart says, adding that even more important to the firm is community involvement, which will be a focus in 2012 and beyond. “It’s important to give back to the community in which you work,” he says.    

Stewcare already touches so much of the community in terms of acreage, that taking this “touch” to a new level just makes sense, he says. “It’s the right thing to do.”
 

This is one of three stories that appeared in Lawn & Landscape's A Cut Above e-newsletter. To continue reading about stewcare:

Tune in: Stewcare takes its lessons to YouTube.

Rain, rain …: What to do when weather conditions keep you out of the field. 

 

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