There’s always more to learn in the lawn care industry, and Mark Utendorf wants to know it all.
“It’s odd, even now, after doing it all these years, I’m shocked that I’m not finished,” says the owner of Emerald Lawn Care in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. “I keeping thinking at some point I’ll get to a point where I’ve got it all figured out and I just never get there.”
Utendorf bought Emerald eight years ago and jumped headfirst into the business. Attending as many educational sessions and industry events as he could, he was shocked by how open and welcoming his new colleagues were. At his first conference, Utendorf met Harold Enger, director of education at Spring-Green, and even though the two are direct competitors, they talked shop.
“So many people don’t think that it’s necessary to go on and get education or attend these different meetings, but Mark was there right from the beginning to learn about the industry,” Enger says.
That attitude and his collaborative spirit made him stand out right away. When Enger, Bill Leuenberger of Chalet Landscape Nursery and Garden Center and Scott Roberts of TruGreen first formed the Illinois Professional Lawn Care Association, Utendorf was one of the founding members and one of the first presidents.
“I could tell right away that he was going to be great,” Enger says. “He did an excellent job (as president). He was very much involved. He was really interested in how things work, talking to other lawn care companies, getting us all together. That was his main focus.”
And Utendorf is willing to give as much as he gets. He currently serves as the group’s legislative/regulation chairman, advocating for the industry. While he says that he’s a relative newbie to the industry, he’s sharing what he learns.
“He makes himself available and you don’t have to push any buttons,” says Norm Kleber, IPLCA education chairman. “He’s automatically there. If you need something, if an issue comes up, he’s right on top of it and lets our membership know. And he’s very good at networking with other individuals in the industry and I think that’s what sets him apart.”
Beating the odds.
Utendorf’s career in lawn care has its roots in his childhood, when he would help his father in the yard. He was always outdoors planting and he loved to mow the lawn. He earned his gardening and forestry merit badges in Boy Scouts and when he turned 16, he started working for a nursery.
He stayed in the green industry throughout high school and college, opting then to work for Caterpillar, and then doing marketing for a couple of large public corporations. Eventually he decided he wanted to get back into the green industry and went to work selling design/build jobs for a Chicago-area landscaping and lawn care company. After a year of doing that, he decided it wasn’t a good fit and went into banking for four years.
Then, in 2007, he got a call from the landscaper he used to work for and everything changed. “He asked me if I wanted to buy his lawn care business and I said, ‘Absolutely’ because I like that business model much better,” Utendorf says. “I didn’t really want to do the project end of things. I really like the annuity piece of lawn care so I jumped at the opportunity.”
The deal was closed a month later and Utendorf started his first season as a lawn care operator. Then the Great Recession hit. The business had fewer accounts than he had thought, but it grew aggressively thanks to Utendorf’s marketing background.
Kleber says that background set him up well to jump into the green industry and learn all he could. “The best way to excel is to learn and he’s a very educated individual. When it comes time for more education, he doesn’t hinder himself or his employees to go get trained and learn more about the industry. In his company, he leads by example and I think that’s what makes him so successful.”
What started out as a two-man operation has grown every year, and now has six team members. Utendorf loves the business model and the process. “I feel like I’m trying to provide Nordstrom quality by implementing McDonald’s process and really trying to hone the efficiency and improve our service,” he says.
Utendorf says he’s “a bit of a perfectionist” but sees that as a benefit in the service industry. Losing a customer will even keep him up at night as he tries to figure out what happened. “We’re laser-focused on retention,” he says, and Emerald keeps it in the 90 percent range. “If you can keep your retention in that ballpark, you almost can’t fail.”
Mark Utendorf recognizes that every company is having the same problems, no matter which state it’s in, says Norm Kleber, education chairman for the IPLCA. Utendorf has been very involved in the neonicotinoid controversy, among other issues, going to bat for the green industry in D.C.
“I think I could see the fire in his eyes when (NALP Director of Government Affairs) Tom Delaney and a few others started pushing the issue a few years ago about the neo-nics and how our industry was getting attacked from all angles. And he just took passionately a call to arms,” Kleber says.
Utendorf says the collaborative spirit of the industry is one of the things he loves most about lawn care. “I’ve never been in an industry that was as open as this industry and it still blows me away. It just encourages me to be that much more engaged.”
When Utendorf built the website for Emerald Lawn Care, the first thing on it was information on cultural practices. Even his business card is educational, describing ideal mowing heights and tips for a beautiful lawn.
The goal is healthy turf and happy customers for all, not just Emerald Lawn Care, and that passion has really made Utendorf stand out.
“He has renewed my own faith in the industry in the sense that I see this younger guy, this upcoming person who really is excited about this industry and it’s not just because he can make money at it, but because he sees the benefits,” says Harold Enger, director of education at Spring-Green.