Thursday, July 31, 2014

Brooke N. Bates

The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland

Features

Time-tested

Lawn Care

DeVisser Landscape Services enhanced its reputation with the proven systems of a Weed Man franchise.

July 23, 2014

Though the mix of services at DeVisser Landscape Services has shifted over 75 years, the principles behind the offerings remain solid.

Originally known as DeVisser Brothers, the Kalamazoo, Mich.-based business began in 1939 as a general hauler of topsoil and gravel. By 1950, landscape construction became the main line of business and landscape maintenance was added around 2001.

Then in 2003, second-generation President Dave DeVisser ventured into lawn care by purchasing a Weed Man franchise.

“Before that, I never wanted to get into anything like that,” he says. “All I could picture was problems, and we have enough challenges in the regular business.”

But a conversation at a convention in Nashville changed his mind. At a networking breakfast, he sat next to a Weed Man franchisee, who explained how the business was set up to run smoothly.

“All of a sudden, I had an aha moment, like the light bulb went on,” DeVisser says. “I thought, ‘We can do this.’”

His son, Joel, already managed the Landscape Division, so DeVisser brought in his younger son, Nate, to manage Weed Man.

Pairing the franchise’s systems with DeVisser’s core philosophies, Weed Man became DeVisser’s largest division, driving growth throughout the entire company. The combined companies posted more than $3 million in revenue in 2013.

“The advantage of buying a franchise is that their systems are already in place, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” DeVisser says. “We found that we could take some of those systems and apply them to the rest of our business.”
 

Separation of services.

Weed Man’s lawn care services were natural complements to enhance the rest of DeVisser’s business – and vice versa.

“While we’re mowing the yard, we can offer fertilization or weed control from Weed Man,” DeVisser says. “We can also use Weed Man services as incentives to sign up for lawn maintenance.

Going the distance

Opening a Weed Man franchise in Kalamazoo, Mich., where DeVisser Landscape Services built a reputation for more than 70 years, brought a few business development challenges. But opening another one 70 miles away in South Bend, Ind., unleashed a new set of trials.

“Nobody knew us down there,” Dave DeVisser says . “Breaking into that market was extremely tough.”

DeVisser rented a facility, bought a truck and hired a manager to run operations in Indiana – but soon realized that an isolated approach presented problems.

“You don’t have quite the supervision,” DeVisser says, although he connected with the manager a couple times per week. “It was really hard to keep a person down there because they’re all by themselves. So we started running it out of Kalamazoo. Even though it’s more expensive to run trucks down there, there were a number of advantages because we had more control over things.”

With the Indiana Weed Man expanding to add another truck or two this year, DeVisser plans to restore the satellite office based on strength in numbers. With more than one person to propel operations there, he expects a culture to develop and drive business better than one man could alone.

“You’ve got to have key people,” DeVisser says. “But if you’re not big enough yet and you only have one person working out of a satellite (office), it’s tough. If you have key people that can work together, then it can be successful.”

For instance, ‘If you sign up for lawn maintenance, you get a free core aeration,’ which comes from Weed Man.”

Technically part of the same full-service company, all three divisions – Weed Man, maintenance and design/build – share one financial statement. DeVisser’s vehicles display the Weed Man logo, but franchise rules restrict advertising DeVisser Landscape Services on Weed Man trucks.

Although DeVisser’s maintenance webpage lists fertilization and aeration next to mowing and pruning, Weed Man actually handles all of the lawn care-related services.

While the divisions cross-promote each other where possible, Weed Man maintains its own operations with dedicated personnel in a separate building next to the office shared by maintenance and landscape.

Led by Nate, the full-time Weed Man team includes an operations supervisor, seven technicians, a sales manager and five salespeople.

But lead-generation through cold calls and door- knocks was a new practice for DeVisser Landscape, whose reputation draws business from word-of-mouth rather than active marketing.

“The biggest challenge is to go strictly by the franchise’s systems,” DeVisser says.

“It’s not like you have to, but if you want to be most successful, then you follow their proven systems.” The company hires extra help – about a dozen people – to canvass neighborhoods from February through May, drumming up business through cold calling and door knocking.

“It really is about finding the right people to fill gaps where we weren’t strong,” Nate DeVisser says. “Once we started finding passionate people that could take it over, then we really started seeing growth – specifically in sales.”
 

Foundation of values.

While proven franchise methods drive lawn care revenue growth, DeVisser’s long-standing core values lays the foundation for success.

About five years ago, the organization began to articulate the principles that DeVisser’s father and uncle built the company around.

The company identified an underlying goal of making “a positive impact beautifying properties,” propped up by core values of personal integrity, positive attitude, putting others first and doing it right the first time.

“Companies need to know who they are and why they exist, and then hire key people that fit those values,” DeVisser says, who hires based on character, chemistry and competency.

“You need to convey those to the people that work for you to develop a culture that people can buy into and find fulfillment in.”

DeVisser reiterates those values at weekly division meetings to keep the 40 employees focused as the company grows.

Each week, for example, he asks them, “How did you exceed the customer’s expectations?” to remind them to put customers first. “You can have the best systems in place, but if you don’t have good people, it’s not going to do anything,” he says. “The systems are important, but the people are the key.”

DeVisser’s goal this year is to align his divisions even more by reminding everyone that they’re on the same team.

“When you have three divisions with separate trucks in separate areas that punch in separately, you find that they compartmentalize,” he says.

“We all need a sports team mentality. Your defensive team and your offensive team might not practice together, but if you don’t have a culture of one team working toward the same goal, efficiency isn’t as great. It takes constant effort to develop that.”

Already, the combination of culture and proven systems has grown the lawn care part of the company into the largest division at DeVisser surpassing $1 million in sales in June 2013. It continues to experience at least 30 percent growth each year.

“Even if people can’t spend on big ticket items like patios and decks and landscaping, they’ll spend to get a nice-looking lawn,” DeVisser says. “We’ve found that Weed Man is pretty recession-proof.”

The lawn care division’s stability buffers the company’s other divisions, as well.

“Weed Man has a broader range of customers, therefore you’re in front of more households,” Nate DeVisser says.

“If you can let them know about your other services, it definitely helps feed the other divisions – and, likewise, them to us.”

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