Jonathan Rigsbee of GrowinGreen in Kernersville, N.C., prides himself on having cutting-edge knowledge of the latest products and treatments in his industry. Since launching his turf care business in 1999 with a sole employee out of a 10 x 10 office, he has grown the small start-up into a $1.75 million powerhouse that services Greensboro, Winston-Salem and points beyond out of a large, sophisticated headquarters.
Given such growth, it seems a bit ironic that one of Rigsbee’s most heated arguments with a former business partner occurred over whether to buy a computer. “I was actually against it and my partner was for it,” he recounts with a laugh. “We were running systems on hard cards and ledgers back then. I had more of a technical background and thought that we needed other stuff; he worked in the office.”
Needless to say, times have changed a bit since then. Today, Rigsbee has outfitted all of his trucks with computers. He’s also rolling out a program to give salespeople tablets and printers so they can write estimates in the field without ever coming into the office.
“Technology is probably one of the biggest things we now look at to be more efficient,” he says. “It’s a way to get more out of the trucks, people and assets we already have.”
These two anecdotes illustrate well what Rigsbee has learned over the course of more than two decades in the industry. His passion for turf care is evident in his constant quest to service his customers with the latest treatments. He’s also a savvy, analytic business owner who knows when to step back to gain a more complete, aerial view.
“The key, really, is to develop systems to run the business,” says Rigsbee, who also balances his intense work life with being an active family man. The North Carolina native has four children and is actively involved with coaching their sports teams. “You’ve got to work on systems and not always in the business, and that’s hard.”
In the past 12 years, balancing day-to-day growth with effective systems has propelled GrowinGreen to new heights. Three years ago, the company moved to a new, larger headquarters building midway between Winston-Salem and Greensboro, and that has allowed it to expand its market share while making forays into fresh, new territories. It has also developed a strong specialty in athletic field management, introduced a new green biological program and developed a successful employee training program.
Not too shabby for a guy from Kernersville who worked his way through college at North Carolina State (N.C. State) while working as a sales person for a lawn care company.
While enrolled at N.C. State, Rigsbee earned dual degrees in turfgrass management and horticulture. Along the way, he also got exposed to the latest, cutting-edge industry research at N.C. State’s turfgrass field lab, an experience that he values to this day.
“That was one of the two best jobs I’ve ever had,” Rigsbee says almost wistfully. “It was an awesome opportunity to be exposed to the research side of the industry. We tested new products, took care of the plots and helped professors with their research. The experience really exposed me to people in the industry, and that was key.”
Rigsbee says that his second best job was working for Ciba (now Syngenta). While there, he gained in-depth knowledge of the manufacturing process, learned about the latest products before everyone else and even got introduced to his biggest customer.
“We were really on the forefront of technology,” he says. “That experience really helped me to gain a competitive advantage in the business, a way to stand out from the market. It also led me to someone that later turned out to be my biggest customer for 13 years.”
Today, Rigsbee continues to stay on top of the latest products and trends through his involvement with the Turf Grass Council of North Carolina and N.C. Green Industry Council. With a history of involvement in the Turf Grass Council going back 20 years, he was asked to serve on the board of directors in 2003 and as board president in 2009.
“It allowed me to meet people from different segments of the industry and compare what they were doing,” Rigsbee says. “Sometimes, I can take something the golf world is doing and adapt it to what we’re doing. Some of my competitors can’t do that.”
A critical aspect of GrowinGreen’s success has been Rigsbee’s decision three years ago to move the company to a larger, headquarters building in Kernersville. Previously, the company was located in Greensboro in a dilapidated, older building that they had long since outgrown. Over time, Rigsbee discovered that the Greensboro location impinged upon his ability to attract customers from across the entire region.
“We searched and searched and couldn’t find a building that met our needs and fit our budget. I’d almost given up when I came across it riding my bike one day,” Rigsbee says of his search. “The woman who owned it was 63 years old and really didn’t have a vision for selling it, but she knew that she’d have to eventually. So we offered her a stable rental income, a great price, and we’d agreed to buy it after three years.”
The building that GrowinGreen moved into is not only a large, modern, brick building, it also provides a better image and environment for the firm’s customers and employees. “I honestly believe that to attract good employees its key where they come to work every day,” Rigsbee says. “I want them to be able to see themselves working in the building 20 years from now, and to want to come to work. It’s definitely paid off.”
Because GrowinGreen had an agreement to purchase the building, it also gave Rigsbee the confidence and security to invest in new equipment. In the past few years, he’s built a $26,000 state-of-the-art fuel system that also allows efficient mixing of applications.
“There are two 3,000 gallon tanks and a 1,500 gallon tank all plumbed together and controlled by computer controllers,” Rigsbee says. “That allows us to punch in the number of ounces we need for our mix, draw them out electronically and carry our products in larger quantities. It also reduces the amount that our employees touch products and allows us to be more efficient with our trucks and fuel system.”
Rigsbee can’t help but grimace when he thinks of GrowinGreen’s old system, which was not only inefficient but also grossly prone to human error. “In the old days, we’d have to crawl up on the back of the pick-up, break open bags of fertilizer, dump them in, measure out weed control and iron, then climb up there and measure,” he says. “You’d risk spilling buckets, falling off and exposure from handling the product too much.”
Not surprisingly, measuring correct product mixes also proved to be a tough task for many of GrowinGreen’s employees. “I found out that math is not most people’s strongest subject,” Rigsbee says. “We’d break it down and make it as dummy proof as possible, but people would still screw up the calculations in a heartbeat.”
Now that GrowinGreen is growing strong in the Greensboro and Winston-Salem markets, Rigsbee is also considering a second location in Raleigh-Durham. Currently, GrowinGreen crews perform athletic field management in the area, traveling from their current location and sleeping in hotels. With athletic field management becoming a larger specialty, opening an office in Raleigh might make sense, Rigsbee says.
Rigsbee has also introduced a biological “green” program that provides his customers with a premium, environmentally-friendly alternative to the standard turf care practices.
“Our Better Practice Program is a premium lawn care serve for homeowners,” he says. “We’re bringing tools routinely used in the golf course side – like humic acids and regular aeration – to the lawn care side. We’re able to micromanage our customers’ lawns to give them the best turf as well as the best environmental savings.”
Employee training has also become a strong focus of GrowinGreen. The company has employed a lean management program, which has allowed it to examine systems, break them apart and rebuild them more efficiently.
Finally, GrowinGreen is now also in the process of finalizing the purchase of their Kernersville headquarters. For Rigsbee, that decision will bring to fruition a long-held dream while cementing the future of his business. He also views it as a worthwhile, long-term investment for himself and his family that will pay dividends over time. “It’s a major part of my retirement and building wealth for my family,” he says.
Somehow, Rigsbee manages to balance his day-to-day involvement in the business with managing systems and staying on top of the latest industry trends. His strong base of product knowledge combined with the business savvy that he’s developed over two decades – and, no doubt, having a computer – have all contributed to his success.
This is one of three stories that ran in Lawn & Landscape’s Growing Green e-newsletter. For more on GrowinGreen: