Mike Sisti’s resume reads like a veteran’s tour of duty through the lawn and landscape industry. The Pennsylvania native has done it all – sales, management, starting a business, marketing work for a national vendor, consulting and teaching entrepreneurship at local colleges. Somehow he’s also found time to serve on the board of Project EverGreen, raise a family and play the drums. And he’s not even 40.
If a single strand runs throughout his rich, varied career, however, it’s his passion for people.
“Successful salespeople develop long-term relationships with customers – they’re not looking for a quick sale,” Sisti says. “I don’t wake up and say, ‘I love the smell of weed killer in the morning.’ I’m here because I love going the extra mile for the customer.”
These days, Sisti manages a Weed Man franchise in the Philadelphia metro area, consults with various companies, and teaches at Montgomery County Community College. Although passionate about what he does, he says he’s not a workaholic.
“I work to live, I don’t live to work,” Sisti says. “Throughout my career, I’ve found ways to do more than one thing, enjoy what I do and do it well. That’s a life lesson.”
Although Sisti may not have known in middle school that he’d end up in the lawn and landscape industry, early work experiences showed an aptitude for relationships.
“My first job was selling newspapers door to door when I was 13,” he says. “I saw a display ad in the newspaper, it said they were looking for teenagers for part time positions. I wasn’t looking for a sales job – I just didn’t want to work at Domino’s.”
It is indicative of Mike Sisti’s passion for building relationships that the story doesn’t end there. Sisti is still friends with the crew manager, nearly 30 years later. And he still has the savings bonds he earned while working that job in the mid-80s.
Although selling newspapers was hard, Sisti liked being his own boss and the unlimited earning potential. “Whether it was 2 degrees or 92 degrees, we were out there,” he says. “We earned our work and went the extra mile, and I liked that.”
A foothold in the industry
After graduating from high school, Sisti went to college at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa. He’d played the drums in bands and had always liked to write, so he majored in communications, thinking that he’d like to go into marketing. It wasn’t long before he found his way into the lawn and landscape industry.
“I got my first job in lawn care at Country Club Lawns in Edison, N.J.,” Sisti says. “It was a start-up business, so our ‘offices’ were in the basement of the owner’s duplex, and my ‘desk’ was a folding table and chair. On laundry day, we’d make sales calls with the sheets hung up to dry all around us. The people that worked there made it fun.”
Sisti stayed with Country Club Lawns for five years. During that time, he worked his way up to the position of sales manager. By the time he got a real desk and office, however, he’d begun scouting new opportunities. This is a constant refrain of his life story – every time he’d reached his professional peak at a job, he’d seek fresh challenges.
Doing the little stuff well
Sisti was hired next by JC Ehrlich, a regional lawn care and pest management company. As the company’s sales and marketing representative for accounts in Princeton and other parts of western New Jersey, Sisti learned to cultivate new business and honed his sales skills.
“The company distributed welcome baskets to new homeowners with a little tchotchke – a letter opener or something like that – but none of the salespeople followed up on it,” Sisti says. “I began to contact these people, asking if I could stop by and introduce myself, and three out of four said yes. I closed a lot of accounts that way.”
Sisti offers the story as an allegory about the value of leads. “I had to get creative, so I used an icebreaker,” Sisti says. “Successful salespeople do little stuff really well.”
Before leaving JC Ehrlich, Sisti trained other salespeople how to use the lead generation system that he’d developed, and by the late '90s, he’d risen to become one of the company’s top salespeople. He’d also furthered his education in the green industry, becoming a certified tree expert and arborist in New Jersey.
Finding a mentor
Sisti’s next move was to Champion Turf, a start-up lawn care company located in Howell, N.J., near the Jersey shore. At Champion, Sisti managed sales and accounts and began to work in the customer service arena, as well. “I really hadn’t done hands-on lawn care work before, so that aspect was new and I learned a lot from it,” he says. “It gave me an opportunity to learn another side of the business.”
Sisti was also inspired by the owner of Champion Turf, Graham Frost, who became a mentor of sorts. “I still tell my students stories about him, because he treated everyone with respect and took me under his wing,” Sisti says. “He was like a bartender, someone that you could tell your troubles to. Customers would call in with a complaint, he’d listen and they’d end up talking about pee wee football practice.”
After mastering every role at Champion Turf except being the boss, Sisti decided to start his own company. “I’ve never been satisfied with the status quo,” he says. “I’m always looking above me and thinking – what haven’t I done yet?”
Striking out on his own
Sisti started Alpine Lawn and Turf in Freehold, N.J. in 2000. He had developed his own agronomic plan while working for Ehrlich and Champion, and saw an opportunity to use what he’d learned to differentiate his company from his competitors. The Small Business Administration provided him with a start-up loan.
“We completed soil tests for all of our customers, and then customized their lawn and tree care program,” Sisti says. “We also wrote our own fact sheets to help our customers to understand the soil tests. Instead of spraying the entire yard, we’d develop individual plant health care programs. Other companies weren’t doing that.”
Sisti also began to offer sales and marketing internships to students at Rutgers University as a way of getting additional help and giving back to the community.
“Rutgers has a strong agronomy program, but ironically, I got business majors,” he says. “I had students passing up Merrill Lynch to do an internship at Alpine Lawn and Turf, because they knew that they’d learn a transferable, hands-on set of skills.”
In 2005, Sisti sold Alpine Lawn and Turf because he wanted to focus full-time on marketing. He went back to school and earned a MBA from Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., while continuing to do consulting work. After graduating, he had three offers in the green industry.
Another side of the Industry
In 2007, Sisti joined Lebanon Turf, a national fertilizer company, as product manager. He didn’t stay in the role long, however. When the marketing manager left the company, Sisti applied for the job and was soon hired. In this role, he represented Lebanon on a national level, attending trade shows and working with dealers and distributors.
“Lebanon Turf had a rich history in golf, and they wanted to expand to the lawn care industry, so I was able to help them with that,” Sisti says. “The job gave me a chance to get involved in another side of the industry, this time with a vendor.”
During this period, Sisti also joined the board of directors at Project EverGreen, a national nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and enhance green space in the U.S.
Then in 2009, Sisti got the five-year itch again. He left Lebanon Turf and began to consult with DuPont and other companies, parlaying his background in the lawn and landscape industry into work for some of the industry’s biggest players.
Coming full circle
In the fall of 2010, Sisti went back to his entrepreneurial roots: he bought a Weed Man franchise. Getting the lawn care company started was hard work, but support from the company has allowed him to continue to pursue teaching and consulting, as well.
“Becoming a part of Weed Man’s franchise system has allowed me to have the satisfaction of growing my own business, yet it’s also allowed me to move beyond what I did on my own,” says Sisti. “I have a lot of support, and that helps.”
Despite being busy at work and with his family, Sisti occasionally threatens to join a band. “In the mid-90s, I had a small songwriting contract, but I didn’t get rich,” he says, jokingly. “I keep telling myself that 2011 is the year that I’m going to play drums more.”
Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of Sisti’s career has been the people he’s met and the connections he’s made over the years – particularly with his students. The entrepreneurial seeds that he’s planted have made a difference, he says.
“One of my student interns now works at a bank, and he recently contacted me completely out the blue,” says Sisti. “He told me, ‘You know, Mike, all that sales stuff you taught me – I just wanted to tell you, it still works.’ That was nice to hear.”
This is one of three stories that ran in Lawn & Landscape's Growing Green e-newsletter. To continue reading about Mike Sisti:
Budding entrepreneurs: Mike Sisti teaches students the skills needed to run their own business.
Chain of demand: What suppliers and LCOs can learn from each other.