Buckeye EcoCare already owned $500,000 worth of business north of town before adding an office there. In just two years, that business doubled – but that was the easy part. Owner Mark Grunkemeyer faced the challenge of managing exponential growth internally.
Grunkemeyer has grown Buckeye EcoCare “from scratch” since 1984, when he founded it in Centerville, Ohio, south of Dayton. The lawn care company’s services include fertilization, weed and insect control, tree and shrub care, and lawnscaping – which involves aerating and re-seeding to convert bluegrass to tall fescue turf.
Nothing out-of-the-ordinary spurred the recent growth. Instead, consistent branding for 30 years solidified the company’s reputation of great service. For example, the company promises to run estimates within 48 hours and respond to service calls within 24.
But as more customers called, the company’s resources stretched to service lawns as far as 30 miles away. As Grunkemeyer added new routes and trucks, gas prices crept toward $4 a gallon, making long service trips less viable.
“The straw that broke the camel’s back was space,” he says. “We house all of our trucks inside, and the building was only so big. We had 20 trucks inside and no more parking spots outside for our people.”
“Who can run 3,000 leads in three months?” Grunkemeyer says. “No salesman I know, because there aren’t enough hours in the day. But if you have 22 people out there in lawn care trucks who already know the neighborhoods, who may know the neighbors, they’re your best salesmen.”
So, instead of hiring outside sales professionals to work a few months out of the year, Grunkemeyer turned to his existing employees.
“We’ve tried to make our route managers outside sales people also, instead of having a dedicated sales staff,” he says. “I can honestly say that’s what has fueled our growth.”
Once route managers are trained for their routes, the company offers additional sales training to expand their roles. If they’re comfortable interacting with customers, measuring lawns to run estimates, and explaining programs and options, they can start selling.
“We allow them the opportunity to sell, and pay them commission for that,” Grunkemeyer says. “We’ve got about 50 percent buy in. Of 22 route managers, we’ve turned 10 completely loose with all of the sales leads on their routes.”
A couple of dedicated outside sales managers still supplement the salesforce, doubling as service managers that train and supervise new employees while running leads on new routes. “Ideally,” Grunkemeyer says, “we’d like to have 22 salespeople that run their own routes.”
By then, the 10-year-old Centerville office had already undergone one addition. This time, when the building ran out of room for the growing fleet, Grunkemeyer looked for space elsewhere.
“If we’re driving 25 miles one way to service one lawn, they’re not going to get the level of service we promised,” Grunkemeyer said. “So why make those commitments if you can’t fulfill them? We knew we needed to get closer to our customers, so we said, ‘Let’s look at where we think most of the growth will be, and put another branch there.’ ”
Location, location, location. In 2011, Buckeye EcoCare opened its northern office in Huber Heights. A few small acquisitions helped escalate the business to $1 million within two years, but Grunkemeyer credits sustainable growth to consistent, targeted marketing.
“We’ve got a pretty strict marketing and advertising budget that, even during ’08 and ’09 when companies were trimming expenses, we did not sacrifice,” he says, citing radio, TV, direct mail, civic associations and donations to local churches and youth athletics. “Having a presence in the community really does help build a brand.”
Over time, Buckeye’s marketing mix shifts to stay relevant. Since Grunkemeyer’s ad rep introduced search engine optimization several years ago, 25 percent of his marketing budget has moved from traditional to digital channels – which rank second only to referrals in generating leads for the company.
Regardless of channel, Grunkemeyer’s goal is reaching the right prospects. By targeting single-family, owner-occupied households with certain income levels, he focuses on zip codes with the most business potential.
“Let’s say one zip code has 1,000 homes that fit our demographics, and our market share is 100 of those thousand,” he says. “I want to get to one-third. So we’ll push harder in that zip code than we will in one where we already have 30 or 40 percent market share. Instead of mailing once to that zip code, we’ll mail two or three times until we get to market saturation.”
That controlled growth spurs more growth, just by Buckeye EcoCare trucks frequenting new neighborhoods – “always parked in front of a green, weed-free lawn,” Grunkemeyer says. “Once you start building that type of reputation in a neighborhood, neighbors really do talk about where they spend their money maintaining the outside of their homes.”
With that approach, Buckeye EcoCare nets about 2,000 customers per year – accounting for a 10 percent attrition rate, which is less than half the industry average. The company’s 42 employees serve about 10,000 residential customers.
Every surge of several hundred customers justifies an additional route – and the truck is already waiting.
“We always have a spare truck around here, mostly because of breakdowns,” Grunkemeyer says. “If a truck breaks down, we can’t have a route manager not be able to work. Then, if we gain 500 or 600 customers to generate a new route, we can always slide another truck in there.”
The employee search.
That piece of growth planning is easy. But when it comes to adding staff, expansion becomes much more challenging.
“Marketing and advertising to acquire customers and gain market share was the easiest part,” Grunkemeyer says. “The mechanics of it – the trucks and the equipment and the inventory to put in the trucks – was the second easiest part. Finding the people was the most difficult.”
He learned that, in a sense, people can be primed and prepared much like equipment. Though he determined that he’d need five more employees this spring, he plans to hire extra.
“We’ve interviewed 15 people,” Grunkemeyer says, “hired three already, and we’ll probably hire three more – even though we only have five positions open – to keep, like we do trucks, one person waiting in the wings. We can’t afford to just hire warm bodies.”
Candidates must sync up with the vision, mission and family charter, which explains the founding philosophy of the family-owned company. When Grunkemeyer finds a fit, he finds a new employee – even if there’s not necessarily a position for them yet because there’s always some type of work to be done – shop work, mechanical work, maintenance to equipment or just clean-up work. If they continue to show-up for three months and show initiative, they are slotted for a full-time position.
“If you’re going to market and advertise for that kind of growth,” he says, “you’d better have pipelines built for trucks and bags of fertilizer and people and everything else.”
Buckeye EcoCare’s pipeline remains full, and Grunkemeyer predicts that he’ll run out of space again soon. With plans to expand on the south side in the next two to three years, he’s already preparing for the next stage of growth.
“If we hire the right people, train them well and instill good core values, they’ll then take care of the customers,” he says. “If that happens, then profits will follow – instead of the reverse, where companies put profits first. Growth for the sake of growth will keep you up at night, but managed growth will help you sleep better.”