Early tee time

Features - Lawn Care

While his dad ran a lawn care business out of a phone booth, Michael Kravitsky IV would hit golf balls as a youth.

May 1, 2013
Lee Chilcote
From left: Kravitsky III, Kravitsky IV and Shawn Kravitsky.

Michael Kravitsky IV was five years old when he first started tagging along on sales calls with his father, Michael Kravitsky III. It was 1964, and the elder Kravitsky had just purchased a franchise from Lawn-A-Mat, which was a big company in the lawn care industry then. His “office” was a phone booth in Allentown next to a driving range.

“He would give me a couple baskets of balls, and he’d stand in the phone booth making his appointments for the day,” recalls Kravitsky IV with a chuckle. “I started way early. When I was in high school, I used to skip school just so that I could go to work.”

The impressionable boy soaked up these early experiences. “In those days, you had a set appointment with someone. You’d see maybe eight to 10 people a day. It made for long days, but you sat down at their kitchen table and laid out plans for fixing their lawns.”

He can’t remember a time when his father wasn’t busy creating something new. From renovating apartments to starting a commercial awning company, Kravitsky III – who died in April, and you can read more about on page 11 – was “always out to make a buck,” his son says.

“He never had a desk job, he was terrible with book work,” he says. “He was a doer.”

Kravitsky IV and his brother Shawn now co-own the company that their father started, Grasshopper Lawns (they severed ties with Lawn-A-Mat long ago). Headquartered near Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where the family has roots running generations deep, Grasshopper now has more than 20 employees and offers lawn care services.

When asked to describe the philosophy that has propelled Grasshopper to success, Kravitsky says it all boils down to the Golden Rule. “Do unto others what you’d have them do unto you,” he says. “We always tell our employees, ‘Just do the right thing.’”

Working vacation

Holiday lighting gave Michael Kravitsky IV a reason to ride a snowmobile and earn some cash.

Michael Kravitsky IV added holiday lighting and décor to Grasshopper Lawn Care’s roster of services 14 years ago so that he could keep his employees working all winter long. Also, Kravitsky, who is an avid snowmobiler, was looking for a business that would allow him to go to Canada for a couple of weeks after the holiday season.

“Christmas Décor is great and it’s been a great teacher for us,” he says. “Everyone thinks that you just buy lights at a Walmart and hang them on your house, but there’s a lot you need to know. What’s really nice is that it doesn’t pick up till we’re almost done with lawn care. Just as one business is melting out, another one is starting to ramp up.”

Kravitsky bought into the Christmas Décor franchise and says that system has worked for him. His employees also enjoy it because it’s different and lets them work together.

“With lawn care, it’s one man one truck. But with Christmas Décor, it’s three guys on a crew,” he says. “They’re working with other guys, busting each other. They’re all friends anyway, but now they get to work together. It builds a lot of camaraderie. That’s pretty cool.”

Entering into the business has meant developing a new customer base. “A lot of our lawn customers are not Christmas Décor customers. We will solicit our lawn customers now, but I wouldn’t say we’ll get a ton of them. There’s just not a lot of crossover,” he says.

Grasshopper first delved into the business by lighting up a customer’s house for free. The display was so eye-catching that it ended up attracting media attention from TV and radio stations. Then the local newspaper picked it up and did a full page spread on it.

One of the most enjoyable moments of last season came when Grasshopper joined in the “Decorated Soldier” program. The firm volunteered to decorate a veteran family’s house. The husband and wife were both soldiers who had served in Afghanistan.

“When you saw the couple crying out in front of their house and talking about how beautiful it was, that’s something that touched us, touched our company,” he says.

That philosophy has allowed Grasshopper to remain a successful, profitable family business. In the past year, as the Wilkes-Barre area has emerged from the slumber of the recession, business has bounced back to 25 percent above last year’s levels.

Not that it’s always been easy. Until 10 years ago, the entire company was run out of the basement of Kravitsky’s grandfather’s house. Kravitsky IV laughs as he recalls the cramped working spaces and the arguments he used to get into with his grandfather, who worked for Grasshopper after he retired from the police force.

“He was old guard, I was young guard. We’d butt heads, sometimes to the point of screaming at one another,” Kravitsky says. “At the end of the argument he’d say, ‘Let’s go upstairs, your grandmother has dinner.’ I’m ready to kill this guy, fistfight this guy. I’m like, ‘Are you serious?’ That’s the biggest lesson I learned from him – business is business, family is family. You don’t mix the two. I hold that value to this day.”

That’s difficult to do in a family business, Kravitsky says, but a simple philosophy has carried him through. “You take your problems from work and hang them on the limb of a tree – you don’t carry them into your home,” he says.

“The next day, when you’re walking to your car, you grab them off the tree and put them in your pocket.”

Back to the future.
Over the past three decades, Kravitsky has moved the company forward by respecting the past, yet being open to change. Although he shares the same name as his father, he’s far from a carbon copy, and has always had his own ideas about how the firm should be operated. During that time, he has also had his share of differences with his father – and sometimes these disputes have boiled over into significant conflicts.

Usually, those conflicts came about when Kravitsky IV tried to introduce big changes. Before Grasshopper Lawns moved into its 20,000 square foot headquarters in Larksville Pa., he recalls working with his father and other employees out of the basement office and 1,800- square-foot warehouse at his grandfather’s house. It goes without saying that things could get pretty heated in those tight quarters sometimes.

“The trucks had to park outside, and when we’d get a load of fertilizer in, we’d have to unload it from their truck into our warehouse – we did it all by hand,” Kravitsky recalls.

“Sometimes we’d have pallets of fertilizer stacked to the ceiling in our storage trailers and we’d have to go sideways. It reminded me of ants carrying their food in a line.”

Although Kravitsky had suggested to his dad that he purchase a forklift so that they could speed up the process, Kravitsky III had always said that it was too expensive.

So one day, his son went out and rented a forklift for the day without even asking him. However, when the equipment showed up, his father was simply furious.

“My dad was like, ‘What the hell is that doing here?’” Kravitsky IV says. “I said, ‘Dad, I decided that we could use this.’ He was so mad at me – I will never forget that.”

Yet despite landing himself in hot water, Kravitsky’s decision worked. “We did it that first time, then every time after that. I felt it just took so long to unload the truck, we were losing productivity. My dad had a system set up and wanted to keep it that way.”

Since that time, Kravitsky IV has made lots of changes at Grasshopper, including introducing computers in 1982. Willingness to consider new ideas has helped the company grow, he says.

That approach of evaluating business decisions based on rational criteria rather than emotions has guided Grasshopper toward continued success as it approaches its 50th anniversary. When Kravitsky and his brother Shawn began searching for a company headquarters, they deliberately chose a big property that would facilitate expansion.

“The criteria were that we had to be out of the flood plain and within five miles of Route 81, and we had to have at least two acres of land so we could expand,” Kravitsky says.

“We went from an 1,800 square foot building to 20,000 square feet. Now, I hate to say it, but we’re starting to get a little crowded again. But at least we have room to expand.”


Photo courtesy of Grasshopper