Challenge accepted

Challenge accepted

Peter Bugden turned a pesticide ban into a positive for his lawn care business.

May 26, 2012
Lee Chilcote

When Peter Bugden looks back on when he first started his Nutri-Lawn franchise in Nova Scotia, Canada, 20 years ago, he feels as if he had access to a powerful magic wand. With a wave of his spray gun nozzle, he could make the weeds simply disappear.

That “magic wand” was chemical lawn care, of course. Bugden never advocated blanket spraying and chose Nutri-Lawn in part based upon the company’s earth-friendly approach, yet he used pesticides daily to spot treat weeds on jobs.

That was before the city of Halifax implemented a pesticide ban in late 2000. The organic products that were recommended by local environmental and health organizations didn’t kill bugs, so his customers began dropping like flies.

The near term result was a steep plunge in Nutri-Lawn’s business and customer base – Bugden lost one third of his customers within the lean, trying years following the ban.

Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. After several years of retooling, Bugden has flipped this dire situation around and all but doubled his customer base in a few years.

“I thought, ‘Maybe we’re attacking the new world of lawn care in Halifax as if we still have the magic wand,’” said Bugden. “We began to finally accept that there was no such thing as the $250 lawn care program anymore, not that’s going to make the homeowner happy. They’ll be happy with the price maybe, but not the results.”

Bugden began to refocus on employee training, customer education and developing his knowledge of a new slate of chemical-free products to achieve the best possible results.

“I had no choice but to evolve myself,” Bugden explained. “We’ve turned around our knowledge of lawn care services and put more emphasis on customer service. Our customers now understand that they can have an attractive property that’s not 100 percent weed free. Our lawns are probably healthier than they were 10 years ago.”

Business obstacles.
Although he does not support the pesticide ban and believes that it is based on poor science, Bugden said that Nutri-Lawn’s growth shows how firms can accommodate increased concern about chemicals and adapt and thrive without using them.

In a lawn care environment in which pesticide use remains a hot topic, that’s critical for companies seeking to remain on the leading edge of chemical lawn care management.

Back in late 2000, it wasn’t just the pesticide ban that made Bugden’s work tougher, but the fact that Halifax had the authority to ban use of pesticides but couldn’t prohibit sales.

“Halifax didn’t have the authority to implement a sales ban, so customers could walk into the hardware store and purchase (a banned product) – but theoretically they couldn’t apply it,” said Bugden, hinting that many customers still used pesticides, knowingly or unknowingly. “If we got caught using pesticides, we’d lose our business.”

Products advocated by health and environmental groups simply weren’t as effective – Bugden started using a product made out of sugar beets – and Bugden lost many loyal customers who were unhappy with the ban’s effect.

“The inspectors would ask if you had tried to spray soap on your lawn, or they’d say that you didn’t really have an insect problem, so they weren’t going to issue you a permit,” said Bugden. “We lost credibility with our customers, and it was very frustrating.”

Beyond chemicals. After struggling with poor sales and customer defection for several years, Bugden said that the light bulb finally went on in his head in 2007. By then, many of his longtime staff members had left the company and even the industry out of frustration with the impact of the ban. It dawned on Bugden that it was time to hit the restart button his business.

Gradually, he began to focus on honing his techniques in a new, pesticide-free world. “We started looking at proper lawn care – things like aeration, PH control, using the alternative products we had more frequently, overseeing top dressing,” he said. “Customer satisfaction increased as we began spending time with them.”

Bugden attributes part of his success to the fact that many of the longtime staffers had left the business, and his newer staff members “couldn’t remember the good old days.” He began spending a lot of time on employee education and training, carefully tying these efforts to an increased emphasis on customer service and overall education.

“If you can’t give a customer the same type of lawn they’d expected many years ago, then it was important that you provide them with the very best service possible,” he said. “As a result of this, our referral business really started building up again.”

Nutri-Lawn’s corporate programs amplified Bugden’s targeted efforts at increasing customer retention. “The company started putting emphasis on the Net Promoter Score system, and we got a little fanatical about it,” he said. “If one of our clients gave us a good rating or comment, then we’d celebrate it and make a big deal out of it.”

Bugden said his growth can also be attributed to the fact that customers have evolved, too. Whereas once homeowners might not have tolerated the presence of one yellow dandelion, they are now getting more relaxed about seeing the occasional weed.

“People are more aware of how to get the lawn that they want without pesticides. Are they 100 percent weed free? No, but they’re better than a do-it-yourselfer lawn.”

Keeping it fair. Nova Scotia implemented a province-wide pesticide ban in 2009, and with that new law came the sales ban that was missing in 2000. That helped the lawn care operators who were competing against do-it-yourself homeowners applying pesticides illegally. “That ban made more sense, because at least we have a level playing field now.”

Bugden admitted that he and many other lawn care operators in Canada were a bit taken aback when the initial pesticide ban was first implemented in late 2000. He remembers attending public hearings in which the room was packed with supporters of the ban. Because lawn care operators were disorganized, he said, they had little input.

Nonetheless, he’s happy to report that he’s not simply in compliance with the law today, but actually growing within the confines of a ban that had once sent his business into a death spiral. For the past 4-5 years, Nutri-Lawn has seen 20 percent annual growth, and he’s now considering the possibility of opening a franchise in the U.S. market.

“The states are seldom behind Canada in anything, but I’d say they are 10 years behind Canada on pesticide regulation,” said Bugden, who warns U.S. operators to remain involved so that any pesticide regulations put in place are based on science.

“My advice would be to pay attention to what’s happening,” he said. “Try to be a good source of information to the municipality or state government. Try to be organized.”

In the end, Bugden said, lawn care operators are better off moving proactively towards chemical-free lawn care than simply waiting for pesticide regulations to go into effect. Environmentally friendly lawn care is an opportunity for those the right mindset.

“The average citizen is more aware of environmental and health issues than they were years ago,” he said. “As much as people want a nice lawn, they also want to feel good about the environment.”