Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Home Magazine Broken trust

Broken trust

Features - Profile

LCOs have lost faith in suppliers and customers have lost faith in contractors. Two years later, Imprelis is still wreaking havoc on the lawn care industry.

Chuck Bowen | October 4, 2013

Above, photos of damaged trees in Vermillion, Ohio, illustrate the damage most common from Imprelis: browning and curling of conifers. Photos courtesy of Weed Pro

In the winter of 2011, 100 top LCOs and researchers all flew down to the Ritz-Carlton in sunny Sarasota. They were there to learn about a brand-new herbicide that promised to do amazing things for lawn care.

It was called Imprelis and it had a super-low use rate, an innovative mode of action and had been shown to control weeds like nothing else could. It was an expensive herbicide – it cost about $700 a gallon – but it was effective. DuPont, the manufacturer, was giving it a full-court press.

“It received a lot more play than I have seen a product get in a many years. They thought they had a silver bullet,” says Bob Andrews, who owns Greenskeeper in Carmel, Ind. He’s also the president of the Indiana Lawn Care Association and a past president of PLCCA. He’s been in business for three decades. “The product worked wonders. It absolutely did everything it was supposed to. I’ve had customers with wild violet for years and years. Imprelis wiped it out. It didn’t knock it down or reduce it,” he says. “It wiped it out.”

But then trees started dying. That spring, spruces and honey locusts and white pines throughout the Midwest started showing strange signs of stress and damage. The tips of their fronds curled up into club-like shapes, or the crowns turned brown. LCOs and researchers and technical reps were stumped. Many thought it was an isolated incident.

It wasn’t. Imprelis was killing the trees. The active ingredient – aptexor – and a novel mode of action made the herbicide very effective on difficult-to-control weeds like ground ivy. But Imprelis was too effective. It was readily taken up by trees – mostly conifers – and killed or damaged thousands of them across the country. Imprelis was approved everywhere except California and New York, but states in the Upper Midwest saw the heaviest damage.

Thousands of lawn care operators, golf course superintendents and municipal arborists used Imprelis before DuPont pulled it from shelves. EPA would eventually ban its sale and DuPont would sell off its professional turf and pest control products division – including any intellectual property related to Imprelis – to Syngenta for $125 million. A class action lawsuit is still working its way through the courts.

And while DuPont is still paying for damages – sometimes cutting seven-figure checks – homeowners and contractors alike complained about its lack of information during the crisis. Many trees have been replaced, but the revenue can’t. The summer-long fiasco damaged countless businesses’ reputations and tainted the image of lawn care for many customers.

So, two years later, Lawn & Landscape set out to determine what the long-term impact of Imprelis will be on the lawn care industry. Here’s what we found out.


Back home in Indiana.
During the summer, Tom Creswell, director of the Plant & Pest Diagnostic Laboratory at Purdue University, typically gets a couple plant samples a week to test for suspected herbicide damage. In 2011, when the Imprelis cases started to roll in, his office was getting 30 a day. He and his team put in 80-hour weeks to handle the influx of samples. With researchers at the Indiana State Chemist’s Office, Creswell’s team led the way in identifying Imprelis as the cause of such widespread damage.

“We had more than 400 samples of suspected injury from Imprelis,” Creswell says. “It was a very busy summer. We didn’t know immediately what the problem was. We knew we’d never seen these types of symptoms before.”

The two years prior to that summer had been punishing. Record droughts throughout the Midwest had put trees under tremendous stress, which made accurate identification of the damage difficult.

And with the DuPont marketing machine at full tilt, Imprelis was in a lot of markets.

“The marketing was effective. People certainly were paying attention to what they were saying,” says Bert Clegg, associate professor of horticulture and forestry, Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich. “There aren’t that many new chemistries coming out to begin with. The term perfect storm is overused, but in some ways it really is.”
 

Copies of a damage report filed for a Weed Pro property. Settlement value was calculated by the height and cost to remove or replace damaged trees.

 


Business impact.
About an hour south of the MSU campus, Mark Underwood co-owns Underwood Nursery in Adrian. The business – a full service landscape company and 150-acre nursery – services 10,000 properties and has been in business for more than 60 years. The company sprayed the product for 45 days during the summer of 2011 and somewhere between 1,400 and 1,500 accounts reported damage, though a few are still trickling in.

“We bought the idea of it being a product that controlled more weeds and worked in the rain,” Underwood says. “Said it would cut down on our service calls. That didn’t prove to be a factor. It did kill weeds though.”

That summer, Underwood had to stop day-to-day business to handle the onslaught of complaints. His team couldn’t sell any new work because they were busy dealing with the fallout, and then couldn’t sell any work because customers didn’t trust the company. And it wasn’t just lawn care, but on construction, installation and maintenance.

One customer had two bushes damaged by Imprelis and cancelled a $38,000 patio installation. “That’s in a day because of the frustration over two little bushes,” Underwood says.
 


 

After the first month, he had incurred $250,000 in expenses handling the problems and from lost business due to stopping sales and production. He still has 11 people on his Imprelis response team answering phones and tagging damaged trees.

The total impact to Underwood’s business? “Millions. It’s in the millions. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever had to go through,” Underwood says. “It’s been game on, day and night, since June. It was painful, painful. I’m sure we’re the largest. I haven’t heard of anybody bigger. I’m not proud of it. We don’t know when this is going to end. I don’t see daylight.”

And Underwood not only lost longtime customers – some of whom he considered friends – but he lost employees, too. Two of his employees filed their own damage claims, collected six-figure settlements and quit. One customer got a claim check for $540,000. But that money hasn’t always found its way back into Underwood’s coffers.

“It wouldn’t be so bad if they spent the money back on their landscape,” he says. “They’re just hanging onto it.”

If the customer calls another tree company to remove or replace the damaged tree, that’s an in for Underwood’s competition. And other LCOs can easily spot Underwood’s at-risk accounts. “Our jobs are pretty easy to find. They’re marked by dead evergreens.”

Ultimately, Underwood lost about 275 customers from all the accounts sprayed with Imprelis, but those are just the ones who said they were cancelling because of the damage. It doesn’t count people who didn’t sign up because of the news, or who cancelled and didn’t say anything.

“It’s going to harm (business long-term) because we’re the company that killed all the trees,” he says. “When somebody was thinking about maybe hiring us, do you think they were excited about calling us, when we’re the one who killed their neighbor’s trees? I wouldn’t want to call. Would you?”

But beyond the customers who were turned off from lawn care or lost faith in Underwood as a company, the trees the company used to care for aren’t there anymore.

“The jobs we’ve had for years … they’re no longer available to fertilize and spray,” he says. “All this work that went into getting these customers …. There’s nothing to treat.”

Underwood made up some of the lost ground in the winter of 2011, but most of his work since that summer has been focused on saving business – and his company’s reputation.

“Try to raise prices during Imprelis. Try to raise prices on customers when you’ve killed all their shit. You can, but expect the wrath of God,” he says.

Underwood’s story – if not the scale – is a common one for lawn care operators and landscapers throughout the Midwest.

Rob Palmer, who runs WeedPro in Cleveland, used Imprelis for two weeks that spring. In late April he started getting calls about tree damage and patches of dead grass. He isolated those jobs and checked what his technicians had applied. In all, Palmer counted 1,200 trees that Imprelis killed or damaged. He hired someone full time for six months at $30,000 salary to manage the company’s 400 claims.

Back in Indiana, Bob Andrews had about 75 out of 3,400 customers with confirmed Imprelis damage. He’s not sure how many of them cancelled service, but said the damage wasn’t enough to hurt his business long-term. What was damaged was the market’s faith in the lawn care industry.

“You never know how many you lost because you don’t know how many you never got,” he says. “But how many people saw this and said, ‘That answers my questions about lawn care. I’m not going to hire those bastards.’”


Claims Process. DuPont hired a third-party company and independent arborists to evaluate damaged trees. Contractors who went through the process said it was slow and sometimes byzantine, but often paid more than a fair price. Payments were most often based strictly on the cost of a replacement, or, for taller trees, the height. No value was assigned based on aesthetics or the time it took a contractor to evaluate the problem.

“If you had a bunch of tall, scroungy-looking trees on the edge of your property, you got a pretty good deal,” Clegg says.

Andrews had a client who signed a release and got a $3,000 check for two damaged birch trees. “The settlements for customers were very generous – probably more generous than clients expected,” he says.

“DuPont gave us the choice of passing the entire responsibility to their people to coordinate the pictures and fact-finding to be submitted for a potential claim,” Palmer says. “And as inviting as that was, to wash my hands of it … I just couldn’t do it. The customers were just going to call my office number. And rightly so.”

So Weed Pro went to every site, took the appropriate pictures and compile the reports for DuPont. Palmer had to get signatures from every property owner before the investigation and after. Often, he says, he had to resubmit the reports because photos weren’t formatted or filed correctly. He figures it took about 800 hours in all.

“How many people saw this and said, ‘I’m not going to hire those bastards.’” – Bob Andrews, Greenskeeper

“It really heightened our sense of ... trusting what the manufacturers say. In hindsight, I should have known better.” – Rob Palmer, Weed Pro

“There’s going to be more testing related to ornamental industry and turf products. Will that delay a product? I don’t think so. They could have done another five years’ worth of testing … should they have or were they required to? I didn’t see that at all.” – Roch Gaussoin, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

“If you had a bunch of scroungy-looking trees on the edge of your property, you got a pretty good deal.” – Bert Clegg, Michigan State Uniersity

“Try to raise prices on customers when you’ve killed all their shit. You can, but expect the wrath of God.” – Mark Underwood, Underwood Nursery

Ultimately, his customers received payments from $3,000 up to $200,000. But, like Underwood in Michigan, that cash for a replacement tree didn’t always get spent with Weed Pro. “At the end of the day, they removed a lot of (the trees). They didn’t necessarily replace them,” Palmer says. “The homeowner got a check and they got to decide what they did.”

Palmer’s biggest complaint during the process was that he couldn’t get any answers from DuPont, its field reps or his trade associations.

“The most frustrating thing was getting little or no information from DuPont – us having to answer the same questions to customers and looking like idiots because we had no answers,” he says.

Palmer says he lost 60 customers, mostly because he couldn’t get them any information about what was happening. “I had one customer called my office 44 times. I talked to him 44 times and I had the same conversation with him 44 times,” he says.

Andrews, though, credits DuPont for its eventual claims response, even if it was slow and at times inscrutable. At least the company paid. “We’re lucky it was a firm like DuPont. Had it been a smaller or regional manufacturer, it would have killed our industry. I don’t know how we would have stayed in business. They were writing check after check after check, sometimes for thousands of dollars.”


Buying habits.
Regardless of how many or how large the checks DuPont wrote, the Imprelis incident has had a chilling effect on the relationships between contractors and their chemical suppliers.

“We’re not going to take anybody’s word for anything,” Andrews says. “The distributor who sold Imprelis to me is one of my personal best friends. And he’s so ashamed of what happened. I don’t think we’re ever going to go – DuPont, Bayer or Dow – back to the point where we buy something because it’s recommended. We’re going to take it in little doses … and make our own assessments. If DuPont would have stayed in the business, they would never have sold us another dime of product. It has changed us. We’ve got our eyes wide open.”

For his part, Palmer says his experience didn’t turn him off branded products – he still buys 90 percent from the majors – but he is more cautious and less trusting of manufacturers.

“It was enough for us to hold off on trying new products and letting other people test it for us,” says Palmer, who attended the launch and marketing blitz in Florida. “It really heightened our sense of being nervous in trusting what the manufacturers say. In hindsight, I should have known better.”

MSU’s Clegg – who did not do any research on Imprelis prior to its launch – says the fallout will slow down development of new products.

“This is going to make things that much tougher. It’s given chemical companies other things to think about. They really need to look harder at these non-target plants and organisms,” he says. “I suspect it’s certainly going to make it slower and more difficult. The companies themselves are going to want to do more testing. I think EPA is certainly going to look at things more closely.”

But any new testing won’t stop development of novel chemistries, Clegg says. Weed and pest resistance to existing chemistries – and many products coming off patent or under increasing regulatory attention – all point to a strong need for new products.

“I still think there will be products developed,” Clegg says. “There still is a need out there for some better chemistries than what we have.”

Roch Gaussoin, head of the department of agronomy and horticulture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, doesn’t see Imprelis having a long-term impact on the development of new lawn care products.

“In terms of new chemistries, if there were products in the mill for a company, including DuPont or Syngenta or Monsanto … I would believe there’s going to be more testing related to ornamental industry and turf products. Will that delay a product? I don’t think so,” Gaussoin says. “They could have done another five years’ worth of testing … should they have or were they required to? I didn’t see that at all.”


How did it happen?
The question on the minds of many LCOs after the shock wore off and the complaints died down was: How did this happen?

“I’m just not buying the idea that nobody knew this. The damage was so intense, so pervasive at such a low rate,” Andrews says. “Where was the testing process that didn’t catch this? How do you make a mistake like that? How does a product get that heavily marketed … and you throw up your hands and say you’re surprised?”

Gaussoin was one of the researchers who tested Imprelis prior to its 2011 launch. And in traditional turf plot tests, it worked very well, he says.

“It was a spectacular chemistry within the limits of the way we test,” he says. “There’s ground ivy here that other companies won’t let us test anymore because it’s so tolerant of herbicides on the market. We got 95 percent control. It was extremely significant to us.”

But in traditional plot testing, the herbicide is applied to a patch of weedy turf in the middle of a field. There aren’t any trees around, and Gaussoin and his team weren’t asked to test the product on ornamentals.


Lessons learned.
Whatever the impact on product development, Imprelis has left lasting impressions on the lawn care companies that used it, the largest of which is the best ways to communicate with customers in a crisis.

“It taught us a very important business lesson and gave us the training to own a problem and get out in front of a problem as soon as possible,” Palmer says. Weed Pro has become more proactive in communicating about weather or disease outbreaks. “That was the lesson we learned: Try to call the customer to identify issues that occurred before they call us.”

Andrews sent regular emails or letters to all of his customers with Imprelis damage every two weeks, if not sooner.

“If they had a claim, the moment we found out anything new from state chemist, Purdue or DuPont, we sent it,” he says. “They knew about it instantly. We were being very transparent and very up front. The more you hide in the bushes … that’s not going to help you. We do make mistakes, things do happen. We didn’t make this mistake, but we did make the application. You need to be very honest with these people.”

 


The author is editor and associate publisher of Lawn & Landscape. Email him at cbowen@gie.net.

x