Tips from the top: Tom Tolkacz

Departments - Top 100

Tom Tolkacz, CEO, Swingle Lawn, Tree and Landscape Care

January 9, 2014
Chuck Bowen


I got a degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in forestry and turf management. I came out to Colorado on an internship to work golf courses.

That’s what brought me out west. I tell everybody I watched too much “Ponderosa” growing up.

Eventually I got fired from my first job at a golf course. I had a softball game that I needed to get to and the assistant superintendent wanted me to continue working. We were putting in 12-, 14-hour days completing a golf course, and I thought my softball game was more important.

So, that caused conflict.

I ended up working for Barefoot Grass Lawn Service in Denver. And they were fabulous. I love selling and they gave you your own territory and said, “Knock a home run off if you can.” I went after it as hard as I could.

I moved over to Swingle in 1987 to help Swingle expand their lawn care division. I had an opportunity in 1997 to buy into the organization and then in 1998, my partner passed away – Dave Dickson.

When I originally purchased the company, we were doing about $6 million worth of business and we’ll just cross $20 million in sales this year.

We’ve been very blessed. The team’s done a great job.

This year we had our worst spring weather that any of us can remember. We had eight snowstorms eight weeks in a row starting in March.

It was, without a doubt, the most difficult financial year for our organization. People were down to less than 20 hours a week over a three to four week period. It was just impossible to get out and do our normal services.

It was about May 17, we had temperatures that hovered around 20 degrees. And we started that recovery about June 1.

The biggest challenge facing us is recruiting, retention and development. We’re going to have to attract people to our company, attract people to the industry. But we have to provide solid training so people will understand that they’re learning a skill that can carry them on in their future.

We identified a year ago that we truly needed to have an on-staff recruiter whose primary duty and responsibility was to make sure that we were sharing our opportunities with as broad an audience as possible – both traditional and non-traditional.

As we were looking at professional recruiters coming from different industries, many of them looked at us and said, “We just don’t think you have enough opportunity to keep us busy full time.” And I sat down with the one we hired and said, “Trust me. The opportunity is there and you will be plenty busy.”

The best technician isn’t gonna be your best finance person. You have to go out and find a professional finance person. It’s not to say that those of us inside the industry can’t migrate and move to different positions, but that’s not gonna be the case all the time.

It’s not what they call you. It’s what they pay you. People will respect you for what you’re doing and you keep working hard and it’s gonna reward itself.

The irony that I share with people is we make more dollars per hour doing aeration than we do in irrigation. Isn’t that just terrible that we, as an industry, can’t convince our customers that our irrigation technician is worth more than our aeration technician?

Certifications are wonderful. I believe wholeheartedly in them and we’re a massive supporter of certifications because it demonstrates people’s commitment to the industry.

I don’t think that’s gonna change what a customer pays us.

Answer your phone, return your calls, show up on time, do what you say you’re gonna do, do it for a fair price. And, by the way, if you’re a certified technician, that’s great.

The fact is, we’re truly the environmental stewards – we just have to conduct ourselves in that fashion.

You have to know who you are. And if that’s where you want to be, know that that’s where you want to be.