It was time to get to business. After shooting sporting clays and eating a quail dinner at the nearby vineyard, company executives decided they no longer wanted to work at Al’s Complete Lawn Care.
That’s not to say they wanted to leave the company. Everyone, including President and CEO Allen Sweeney, realized it was time to rebrand. This process began in 2019 at the executive’s retreat, which blended a strenuous agenda with some fun.
Several months later, the team announced to the whole company they’d now be working at APHIX (pronounced Ay-Fix). Sweeney says there’s no regrets now at APHIX, which is titled after each of the company’s core values. He was once the company’s namesake, but as the team strategized at its retreat, they wanted to come up with a brand that seemed less like it was named by a kid in high school.
“While it had carried us to where we were, it just wasn’t a name that we felt carried weight in the market,” Sweeney says. “To be able to market the company to not just customers but future employees was important.”
The rebrand proved to be a critical first step in the new-look APHIX (Accountability, Professionalism, Honesty, Integrity, Excellence). From a revamped customer list to a restructuring of the corporate office, Sweeney says the last few years have almost felt like a relaunch. It worked: APHIX reported an 82% jump in its overall revenue after the change, earning nearly $18 million in revenue.
The plan is to keep growing as APHIX partnered with Caltius Equity Partners, a private equity firm focused on lower middle-market companies, at the end of 2022. Revenue should be around $21 million in 2022.
Though Sweeney first named the company back when he was mowing lawns as a high schooler in 2003, he says there’s little nostalgia attached to that name. That moniker had focused on just one person; this one highlighted all the people within the company.
“It became a question of, how do we represent the team that is achieving success?” Sweeney says.
New look, same old ‘A’
Ernie Heleski remembers throwing ideas up on a whiteboard to see what would stick. Heleski, the team’s chief financial officer, says Sweeney gathered about a dozen people for those initial branding conversations following the team’s retreat.
The branding process proved a little tricky. For one, Heleski says they struggled to find anything original. While academic Christopher Booker says stories only follow one of seven basic plots, the same was seemingly true about finding a company name — everyone had already snapped up the ideal titles.
“The good ones, the inspirational words of a growing company — a lot of those were taken,” Heleski says.
Additionally, there were concerns about what customers would think of the rebrand. Folks in the Louisville and Lexington areas had grown to associate the team’s classic “A” with the work of Al’s Complete Lawn Care. Plus, Al’s Complete Lawn Care was easy to say. Would they be able to pronounce and remember anything the team came up with next?
“We needed to keep that white truck with the green wrap and the ‘A’ across the hood,” Heleski says.
On a trip back home to Michigan with his wife one weekend, Heleski racked his brain for new brand ideas. Then, it came to him: an acronym representing the team’s core values that were already in place. Since accountability was one of those values, they could still start the brand name with an A. As for which combination of letters made the most sense, it ultimately came down to APHIX and the less-digestible AXIPH.
Once Sweeney and the team opted for APHIX, they announced it to the team. Heleski says at this point, it was an announcement, not a discussion, joking that “when someone names their newborn baby, that’s their name. That’s the way it is.”
But the feedback was all positive, especially from customers. Some even said “it’s about time,” Heleski says. It’s been huge in the way of aligning the employees toward the team’s mission, he adds.
“Allen Sweeney is a very driven owner; (the company) would’ve grown if the name hadn’t changed, but the name change definitely pushed it to a higher level,” Heleski says. “The account managers and the business developers really embraced the new name and I think there was a sense of pride just behind the company and the name, the core values.”
Finding a fit
The changes at APHIX go beyond the title. Sweeney says that in 2020, the team began cutting clients that were no longer the right fit. If the company was going to evolve from the high-school-kid-name, so would the clientele.
APHIX does fully commercial work, but they wanted to put a higher emphasis on renewals and enhancement sales. Also, if there were clients that represented a big risk like snow accounts, Sweeney says they reconsidered those contracts.
Heleski adds that they moved away from clients who were just bidding for the best price rather than the best quality. If the bidding process became a fight over every penny each year, APHIX moved on.
“It’s also having the right customer at the right price that expects the right quality,” Heleski says.
“We’re not the landscape company for everybody. We’re selling to customers that really expect a higher level of quality.”
Heleski says showing the team’s account managers reporting data helped prove what customers fit APHIX best. The core focus remained on commercial grounds maintenance, even during COVID-19, where they were always an essential service. “You can’t have everybody’s commercial buildings with grass 18 inches tall,” Heleski says. “It still needed maintained.”
And he’s found residential accounts required more handholding than those in commercial offices. Homeowners need more personal touches and are more apt to calling and saying things like, “You left the gate open, and my dogs got out.” But at the corporate level, people are just reporting to the building to do their work and make money.
“The focus is on overall image that they want to portray,” Heleski says.
They also refined their sales process, putting more emphasis on cross-selling with current clients. Sweeney also tweaked the sales incentives program, making commissions based on gross margins rather than gross revenues. This means pay is also tied to accounts receivable, so account managers are more inclined to tighten that up and ensure payments come in on time.
There’s no cap on those sales, Sweeney says, meaning the best employees can keep selling away so long as they’re landing the right accounts. And since it’s tied to the margins, it fixes an age-old problem of account managers selling unrealistic jobs that can’t actually be performed.
“There’s no ceiling, so a star performer can be a star performer,” Sweeney says.
Moving up and out
Giving his team the authority to make their own decisions went beyond the account managers.
Sweeney says one of the biggest moves they made that benefitted the team was moving the corporate office into its own building in Frankfort, Kentucky. There are now three Kentucky offices including Lexington and Louisville.
Before the move, Sweeney and other executives sat in the Lexington branch building, which he believes made it inherently more difficult for the branch manager there to not feel like he was being monitored constantly over his shoulder.
“Ultimately, you want that branch manager to own that P&L,” Sweeney says. “For us, it’s an entrepreneur mindset.”
Additionally, moving out benefitted the executives, too. It freed them up to build processes and systems that each branch could replicate moving forward to create consistency. Sweeney felt the executives were too hands on in the day-to-day operations but now they could focus on the bigger picture.
That became especially important when APHIX landed its second acquisition this summer, the first being a company in Louisville in 2016. The months-long negotiations process finally culminated with APHIX acquiring a Chattanooga-based company, bringing APHIX to four total offices. Sweeney hopes this won’t be the last acquisition: He’s focused on finding fully commercial companies with likeminded cultures.
“We want to come in and partner with companies,” Sweeney says. “We’re very much about the people and the team.”
Sweeney says the changes have made APHIX a preferred employer in the market, which he’s heard from people they’ve hired over the last year. Heleski adds that the company, which is faith-based, has built a strong team culture and that’s a great recruiting chip. APHIX still deals with the same labor pinch as anyone else, but it’s become easier to navigate.
“I think it’s become part of the culture that everybody understands who we’re doing this work for,” Heleski says. “We encourage our production managers and foremen to continue to share that culture with other crew members.”
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