When Chris Shipp won a contract with the city of Sylvester, Ga., where he was born and raised – a self-described “community kid” – his homegrown landscape maintenance firm needed to ramp up significantly to take on the new work. “I had to double my workforce – and my equipment,” says Shipp, owner of Shipp Shape Lawn Service.
This was in fall 2001, and Shipp employed two crewmembers and ran two mowers. “I realized the level of work I was looking at, so then we began to ramp up and get more prepared for the job at hand with the city,” he says.
Shipp weighed the options. He could trim back his residential account base and focus on this new commercial work, or ramp up to satisfy the increase in business. It wasn’t a choice really. “I couldn’t just dump my residential accounts in order to maintain commercial properties,” Shipp says. “I’m still doing clients I’ve been doing for 30 years – that’s a long time. They really depend on me, and I know the people well.”
So Shipp consulted with his equipment manufacturer, which developed a program to help Shipp acquire the working capital he’d need to service the municipal account. Because of a solid relationship, the manufacturer arranged a financing deal for Shipp so he could purchase two more mowers. “They really looked at the situation and they help small lawn service companies grow – they allowed me to work with them,” Shipp says.
Shipp’s big municipal win came after years of servicing lawns in Sylvester. Shipp, 47, remembers when his grandfather would drive him to accounts so he could mow lawns. “He was really exposing me to the idea that if you take a man fishing, he eats for a day. But if you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime,” Shipp says. “He was showing me another way of being an independent person.”
Cemetery maintenance checkpoints
Cemeteries are public spaces that get a great deal of foot traffic, and those who visit the grounds are tuned into the environment. They expect to see a space that is well manicured. Chris Shipp, owner of Shipp Shape Lawn Service in Sylvester, Ga., maintains a large cemetery and gives some pointers on managing accounts like this.
Clean up. “I advise my guys to do a walk-through of the areas they will weed, trim and mow and pick up all the litter,” Shipp says.
Trim first. “We always weed and trim around all of the concrete slabs and headstones before we start mowing with the lawn mowers,” Shipp says. This reduces the risk of property damage.
Manage debris. Before leaving the site, Shipp’s team blows off all gravestones and cleans up any clippings left behind following the mowing. “We use all safety measures while on the property to ensure that no harm or injury occurs from flying debris,” he adds.
Shipp’s grandfather ran a lawn service part-time, so he was proud to show Shipp the ropes. By 1980, Shipp was running his own gig on the side while attending school. He went on to attend vocational technical college and earned a degree in industrial maintenance. “But my passion was always working outside,” he says. “Being confined in a building, I just wasn’t satisfied.”
Shipp transferred his technical knowledge to the landscape industry. He can perform most of the maintenance and repairs on his equipment, saving an estimated 40 percent of overall expenses, he figures. “All that money goes back to my bottom line,” he says.
By 1996, Shipp purchased his first commercial mower and began advertising Shipp Shape Lawn Service. He got the name when a high school teacher whose lawn Shipp serviced remarked that after the cut, the property looked “ship-shape.” The pun stuck, and today Shipp enjoys tossing out that one liner to folks.
Today, Shipp’s business can flex up to four three-man crews during high season. He has four full-time employees. And, since servicing the city of Sylvester, the company has gained more visibility and access to commercial customers, too. “That definitely has given us a lot of exposure because we are working on the right ways,” he says. “The city of Sylvester has really allowed me to expand my business.”
Aside from municipal work that includes miles of turf, Shipp Shape also maintains a 65-acre cemetery on a weekly basis. The business is about 60 percent commercial, 40 percent residential these days, Shipp says.
All that visibility keeps Shipp on his toes. When you maintain the properties that people see all the time, they’re sure to let you know if they spot a weed, he jokes. Shipp looks at this as a good thing: He’s constantly reviewing quality, and obtaining proper licenses and attending continuing education to sharpen his skills.
Diversifying the mix.
Shipp is a hands-on owner – he’s in the field working every day, and that’s the way he likes it. “I tell people I have to be the judge, jury and prosecutor, being a small business,” he says. “I’m involved every day with every decision.”
However, one aspect of the business that Shipp has learned to delegate over the years is bookkeeping. He brought on a part-time employee to handle invoicing and accounts receivables tasks, which has freed him up to manage operations and to continue doing the hands-on stuff he loves – maintaining his own equipment, visiting his clients in person and working on the job.
“I have learned that I can’t do everything as the owner,” he says, happy to pass on those duties once he was financially prepared to hire a bookkeeper.
Meanwhile, Shipp has diversified his offerings so he can offer more to his existing client base. He doesn’t want to give them any reason to let another provider in the door that might compete against his core offering.
That has meant adding services including lawn care and pesticide applications. He and his employees hold proper licensure so they can perform these services. In the last few years, mosquito fogging has been a real seller. “People come home and they want to enjoy their landscapes, so mosquito fogging allows them to be outdoors (without the pests),” he says. Also, with news of mosquito-borne disease, more clients were tuned into the benefits of this service, he adds.
Looking ahead, Shipp says he’s focused less on acquiring new customers and more on taking care of the ones he has. If he gains a few (or more) in the process, then he’ll be satisfied. He doesn’t want to set a sales goal, per se. But retention is another story. “I want to keep those customers from one year to the next,” he says.