On your own

Rudy Larsen separates his irrigation division from the rest of his company to stress that it’s a specialized service.

November 7, 2012
Lindsey Getz

After four years of running a landscape business, it became obvious to Rudy Larsen, president of Lawn Butler in Centerville, Utah that not having an irrigation division was a huge detriment. He decided it was a critical area of the green industry and he was missing out. In the last couple of years he’s grown his irrigation division to the point where it’s a primary revenue driver for the company. In fact, he’s shifted a lot of his focus to that field.

From the start, Larsen wanted his irrigation business to be a separate entity. He saw this as a more successful approach with his clients than merging all of his services together. “A lot of companies send out an employee who does everything – cutting the grass and repairing the irrigation system – but we took the approach that our irrigation technicians would be highly specialized and therefore part of a separate division,” Larsen says. “That’s worked well for us.”

Larsen says that the specialized feel of this separate division allows him to comfortably charge more without customers balking. They know they’re getting a premium service and are willing to pay a premium price. “We really look at irrigation as the icing on the cake for our business,” Larsen says. “You have to do all those basic services like mowing and trimming – those are a requirement with a landscape company. But it’s the irrigation work where I yield a much higher net margin and that’s where our focus has shifted. It’s such an important aspect of our business now that if a client doesn’t want irrigation, we will have a conversation at the office as to whether we really need that client. To us, irrigation is the cream of the crop work and what drives a large portion of the revenue.”

A differentiator. Since adding an irrigation division, Larsen also feels it has set his company apart from the competition. “Anyone can mow a lawn or trim the hedges but it’s our irrigation team that separates us from the pack,” he says. “In fact, a lot of times our irrigation division will be the reason we get a contract. It’s a differentiator.

Other companies in our area don’t seem to view irrigation as highly as we do. I think they see it as ‘just another service’ like mowing a lawn or doing other maintenance work. But we see it as a revenue driver.”
However, Larsen’s irrigation division is a little different than the norm. That’s because it’s part of an overall brand he’s created called the Green Team. The sole focus of the Green Team is making a yard as green as it can be. The idea came from a conversation with a prospective client, Larsen says. “I met with a client who admitted to me that she loved her current landscaper,” Larsen recalls. “She said he did a great job trimming the bushes, mowing the lawn, and handling other maintenance work – but he simply could not get the lawns green. ‘That’s the only reason I’m having this conversation with you,’ the prospect admitted to me.”

So that got Larsen thinking. How many other potential clients are unhappy with their current landscaper solely because they wanted a greener lawn? “I realized what I needed was a team of experts that did nothing else but went around and kept lawns green,” Larsen says. “They don’t handle any mowing–they just focus on irrigation and fertilization.”

Larsen’s first step was to hire a true irrigation expert. He already had the guy in mind but since he was working for another company, it took some persuading. “Marco (Zamora) had been doing irrigation repairs for 17 years and if there was anybody I wanted fixing sprinklers, diagnosing wiring, and troubleshooting other irrigation problems, it was this guy,” Larsen says. “It took me a while to convince him to join us but he’s now our division manager and oversees everything. It’s been a good fit.”

The Green Team services focus on irrigation repairs, sprinkler system installations, season start-up and shut-down, fertilizing, tree treatments, and water features. Larsen has put a lot of focus on marketing the Green Team as its own brand. “We’ve worked hard at distinguishing and branding that division as a totally separate, specialized group within our company,” Larsen says. “We have established ourselves as the experts in green lawns.”

Overcoming challenges. While the company has seen a lot of success, like any business it’s not without its challenges. Larsen says the biggest challenge he’s faced is giving employees an “open checkbook,” so to speak, when it comes to their time and services. With approximately 70 employees, Larsen isn’t always able to keep exact tabs on his employees and that has posed some problems in the past.

“We’ve had jobs where at the end of the day, the irrigation charge has gotten a bit out of control,” he says. “Then we’re left having to do a lot of justification with our clients and maybe even some price reduction. That’s jeopardized some client relationships. The client might say ‘There is no way this job should have taken 20 hours’ and I’ll recognize that the employees probably took their time since they get paid by the hour.”

So Larsen has made some key changes to help combat this challenge, putting some checks and balances into place. “When we fill out a purchase order, we now set a time constraint,” Larsen explains. “We may tell them they are allotted five hours to do a job. Once they reach five hours, if they still have work to be done, they are required to call in and have the additional hours approved. If they fail to do so, they only get paid for the five hours since they did not comply with company protocol.”

Larsen says that “clamping down” on communication with technicians and putting the responsibility in their court, has made a huge difference. Technicians know they have to check in and keep management updated on their progress. It’s also helped improve relationships with clients since it eliminates the element of surprise when it comes to cost. “If the crew says they need 15 more man hours, we first check with the client before approving the work,” Larsen says.

“We will tell them that the issue has been diagnosed but the crew needs 15 more hours to work. Then we can tell them exactly what that additional work will cost them in labor time and parts. And we ask the client if it’s OK to proceed.”