Class is in session

A landscape company founded by teachers has become increasingly focused on water management.

October 11, 2012
Lindsey Getz

As a special education teacher by trade, Matt Cline was doing landscaping and irrigation work in the summers to supplement his income. Working with his brother, Les, who was a former elementary school teacher, the company became known as Teacher’s Landscaping and Irrigation, LLC because of their background. The name stuck for the Kansas City, KS-based business and it wasn’t long before they realized there was a full-time opportunity in the summer gig they’d created.

Picking up the shovel. Cline decided to leave the classroom and pick up the shovel full-time 12 years ago. Spending his summers working in the field, he had really come to embrace the green industry and wanted to make it his primary career. He says that the name “Teacher’s Landscaping” resonated with customers and helped build their success so they kept the name as the business grew. “It’s a unique name and a good conversation starter,” Cline says.

“People often inquire what it means and that gets us talking. Once they know what it means, it also ensures trust. We have found people like doing business with noble professionals and teachers seem to fall into that rank. Right out of the boat, it gives us a little leg up on the competition.”

When the company started out, the housing industry was booming and that was good for business. People were building homes and wanted complete landscapes to accompany those homes. But in 2007, when the economy had gone south, Cline says he and his brother knew they had to find a niche that would make up for lost landscape work. That’s when they decided to get into water conservation. It was something that nobody else was doing in their region. But that also posed a challenge. There wasn’t a lot of focus on water conservation because there wasn’t a shortage of water in the Midwest. Despite that, Cline has become passionate on the topic and he’s found a way to approach it that works with his customers, which are primarily in the residential market.

“It’s definitely a challenge that the cost of water is so cheap here,” Cline admits. “While regions like Texas and California are crying for water, we have never had any shortages and that makes water conservation a hard sell because water is cheap. It’s like selling a hybrid car when the price of gas is 10 cents a gallon. Why would you change anything?”

But rates have crept up a bit in the Midwest, not because of availability, but because of infrastructure. Cline says this is the first year he’s ever seen any water restrictions. Waterlines have to be replaced and other maintenance has to be done so the price of water has risen slightly in the region. That’s helped a little as cost will always drive the market. But Cline has found that there are other ways to help the customer see value in improving their water management plan.

“If we’re just focusing on the dollar amount alone, it’s a tough sell,” Cline admits. “I could save the homeowner 20,000 gallons of water in a year and that may sound like it equates to a lot of money – but in reality, it does not. It may only be $80. Once the homeowner realizes that, the idea of saving money isn’t so significant. Therefore we don’t really focus on the dollar value. What we do focus on is overall value and peace of mind. We focus on the feel-good value of saving water – and how that helps our planet and our future. We also focus on how it can improve the aesthetics of the property once we ensure the system is running well.”

In their approach to sales, Cline has also found it differs when it’s a male homeowner versus a female owner.
“Women want to save the planet and they care about the long-term benefits of saving water,” Cline says. “Men typically just want to save money. So depending who we’re talking to, we might take a different approach. If it’s a woman, we will talk more about peace of mind and saving water and what that means for our planet. If it’s a man, we may focus more on saving a little bit of money and also improving the quality of the system and ultimately the aesthetics of the property, which increases home value.

"But if you’re just going on return on investment alone, without getting into some of these other beneficial aspects, it’s not going to work for either group. The truth is, the ROI isn’t that great in the Midwest right now when water is cheap.”

Setting a price point. The company has also become more strategic in their pricing. For one, they’ve almost completely gotten out of the installation business. While they’ll still do a handful of custom jobs where homeowners are willing to install high-end, super-efficient systems, Cline has found that most homeowners aren’t willing to make that investment so that’s no longer a focus. Instead, they’ve turned their attention to retrofitting systems and doing basic service work for their approximately 300 to 350 accounts. They also focus on doing smaller jobs that homeowners are willing to invest in.

“We’re just not getting those calls for $1,500 or $2,000 jobs for complete retrofits because homeowners aren’t willing to invest that kind of money when water is inexpensive here,” Cline says. “So our focus is on the $200 to $500 price point because we find people are comfortable paying that kind of money if they get a good service for it.”
Educating homeowners on pricing and what options they have is a big part of business, Cline adds. He enjoys working with people and educating them on the possibilities. “I think a lot of homeowners assume that implementing a water management plan is expensive but that doesn’t have to be the case,” Cline says.

“There are a lot of things that can be done such as raising sprinkler heads, identifying soil types, or implementing a base scheduling system that are pretty basic, fundamental changes. They don’t cost a lot of money and yet they can make a big difference. Those are the types of changes we’re finding people are willing to invest in.”

Cline also likes that focusing on these types of jobs has put him more in a consultant type of role. “I like the idea that we’re water managers – not just irrigation guys. That has helped separate us from the pack,” Cline says. “Now we’re selling our knowledge.”

The company has had a lot of success in building clients’ trust through smaller projects that had a big impact. “We make basic changes on their property to make their system run more efficiently,” Cline explains. “Once they trust us, they often buy patios and bigger landscape projects from us because we’ve shown proven results. So we find that it drives the landscape portion of our business as well.”

Cline has also found that doing smaller jobs limits the company’s liability. “If we install a brand new system and the client doesn’t ultimately get their return on investment that may give us a bad name,” he says. “Instead I can charge $300 to straighten some heads and implement a few basic changes, and the client is comfortable with the price point and happy that it made a big difference on his or her property.”

Becoming teachers, again. Being in more of a consultant role is also comfortable for Cline and his brother as it brings them back to their teaching roots. In fact, being consultants is part of the vision they have for the company’s future. They even like to educate other contractors as they feel it benefits the industry. “One of my passions is to help the industry – even if it includes my competition,” Cline says.

“We give presentations for local green movements in the community and have even given presentations to other contractors to help them better understand water conservation. That may sound like it would take work off the plate but it’s actually lead to other opportunities. Plus it helps strengthen the industry and that ultimately helps us. If the industry is operating at a higher standard, and charging the appropriate amount of money for the services offered, that only helps everyone.”

As the company grows, Cline says he’d love to grow his consultant role as well. As a teacher at heart, he has a passion for helping others. He’d like to help show other businesses how they can integrate smart water management practices into their company. “If I can go help them identify opportunities and show them things that have worked for us, I’d find that really rewarding,” he says. “Traditionally there hasn’t been a lot of training in irrigation and a lot of people that get into it have just learned in the field.”

While more training opportunities and education have become available over the years, many contractors who got into irrigation on their own are still relying on things they learned on the fly while in the field. And Cline says it’s not uncommon to find out that they learned it wrong. In fact, he says that even happened to them. “There is a right and wrong way to do things – even something as basic as gluing a pipe,” Cline says.

“You’d be surprised how many people do it wrong, probably because they learned wrong. We were one of those people. But we researched it and also called the glue companies and found out exactly how they advise we do it. That’s just how we operate. We are serious about finding the right way to do something and are passionate about teaching others what we’ve learned.”

Combining their love of the Green Industry with their passion for teaching has been the perfect combination for both Cline brothers. They are now getting the best of both worlds. “We love teaching and training and really hope to be able to do more of it,” Cline adds.

“It just comes natural for us. We’d love to take a training model on the road and help other companies. In fact, we have some plans in the works that are launching this winter that we believe will help make contractors more successful. While we thought we’d left teaching behind, I guess it’s still in us.”