Playing the field

Features - Maintenance

Moving beyond maintenance into playground equipment installation gave Womer Landscaping a year-round add-on service that prospered for years.

December 4, 2013
Kristen Hampshire

James Womer remembers the first playground he installed for a general contractor 15 years ago. Then, Womer Landscaping in Pottsville, Pa., was a mostly maintenance business, also doing landscape installation work. But not jungle gyms. And especially not a park full of equipment. And Womer’s firm wasn’t supposed to put in the playground equipment, but the installer for that project never showed up.

“So we made every conceivable mistake possible putting it in because we had never done this type of work before,” says Womer.

In the next few years, playground installation became Womer Landscaping’s specialty, and the company has driven across state lines to install equipment for schools, parks and other public venues. Then when low-baller entered the lawn maintenance market during the early recession, Womer decided rather than bidding down to compete, he’d build up the playground side of the business, which was highly profitable – especially then, when there were fewer players and still plenty of funding dollars to finance playground enhancements.

Climbing into playground.

Four full-time crewmembers work for Womer Landscaping, with seasonal members joining the team to manage busy times. And those who are on board have been with Womer for the long haul. His lead guy is a 25-year veteran of the company, and the other employees have 10-plus years of seniority.

“We have a mix of everything going on here,” Womer says of the diversity of his firm today and how that has helped him sustain a solid business for nearly 30 years. The firm takes on hardscaping projects and concrete work. Design/build has become an important part of the revenue stream over the years.

Womer has stayed true to his maintenance roots by keeping longtime clients satisfied – but when margins eroded in maintenance, he backed off of bidding on new work in this sector. That’s when Womer began to transition more heavily into playground installation. “It was more lucrative at that point and competition (in the maintenance arena) was coming out of the woodwork,” he says. “The pricing got to the point where we couldn’t be competitive anymore in our geographic region.”

That’s due in large part to the influx of pickup-truck startups when the unemployment rate crept up. “We had a lot of guys in this area who were moonlighting in the maintenance business and driving down prices,” Womer says.

Womer continued to service his core customers, so maintenance has always been at least 15 percent of his overall service mix – some years much more. But rather than playing the price game, Womer focused on expanding playground. This happened largely through word of mouth. Contractors passed on his company’s name, schools and municipalities heard that Womer’s team had the equipment to do the job (and by this time, the expertise, too).

“A lot of companies aren’t willing to make the initial investment in specialty equipment that playground installation requires but we were doing this work so frequently that we needed to buy the equipment,” Womer says.

Womer’s fleet includes a mini excavator and a teleboom that goes on a skid-steer loader and can help raise and put playground equipment in place. The company has a track loader that can ride on wet areas, and an auger designed to drill through rocky terrain. A small dump truck can haul materials while maneuvering in tight spaces. Then there are the electrical tools, and specialty tools including drills, hammers, wrenches, sockets and other supplies. “We have such a vast array of equipment that we use on a daily basis vs. what you would need for landscape installation,” Womer says.

Should you play?

Considering branching out beyond maintenance? James Womer, president, Womer Landscaping in Pottsville, Pa., offers some insight on how he transitioned into the playground installation field.

Survey the market. With funding dollars “drying up” for extra projects at schools such as playground enhancements, Womer says gaining public-sector work is more of a challenge. Find out where the opportunity lies before diving into the business. Will you focus on smaller installations at private residences, or larger municipal jobs?

Partner with suppliers. Reach out to playground equipment companies and distributors. Womer says much of his work came from referrals.

Invest in the tools. Playground equipment installation requires specialty equipment that most landscapers do not have in their arsenals. Determine whether you can buy or lease necessary equipment.

Be willing to travel. “The more populated the area, the more competition there is,” Womer says of why his company has traveled hours to perform a playground installation. “Some contractors aren’t willing to travel to outlaying communities, but we are.”

The tools are critical, and the expertise is a must. Usually, a four-man crew will install a large playground, though a three-man crew works fine for smaller projects. Meanwhile, the playground work lasts all winter long – in fact, a good number of jobs are initiated in January when schools and municipalities seem to have funding dollars for playground projects.

“We plowed snow for 15 years, but you can only plow as much snow as you get, and the winters have been getting milder,” Womer says. The profit from playground was surpassing snow, so Womer continued the focus on this arena. It seemed with playground, it was always “snowing.” But that has changed in recent years with major funding cuts that affect spending on playground equipment installation, he says. The business that dominated maintenance and snow is slowing down, and now he’s planning to build up maintenance again.

Maintenance and more.

This year, Womer launched a mulch and stone retail business that he will continue to ramp up by extending hours of operation. The retail operation is a separate business with the same Womer Landscaping name to keep branding consistent. And for now, it is open from 4 p.m. until dusk, though Womer will hire personnel so he can keep the doors open seven days a week during regular business hours. He also plans to expand the product line. In the meantime, it’s back to old reliable: maintenance. This season and looking ahead, Womer plans to market and go after maintenance work more than in the past, when he really laid off to grow playground installation. He’ll continue to drive the thriving landscape installation division, as well.

There are still low-ballers competing for jobs, but Womer says he thinks more clients recognize quality because they’ve gone cheap and realize they don’t get the same results.

“I have noticed that clients are willing to pay a couple more bucks for more attention to detail,” he says. “The old saying is, ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder,’ – we got away from maintenance and we missed it, and I’m glad that we are getting back into doing more the way we once were.”

Photos courtesy of Womer Landscaping