2022 Lawn Care Report

Features - Cover Story

Lawn care operators see a growing market, but the companies are not free of major hurdles.

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March 29, 2022

While each service in the green industry come with its own set of challenges, lawn care presents some unique ones like fertilizer costs, government regulations, training employees to apply product safely, along with others. So we polled our audience to get a feel for how lawn care operators feel about the current state of their businesses. This research is from almost 100 respondents who said 50% or more of their revenue comes from lawn care services.

Wade Grove

owner of Green Mountain Lawn & Tree Care, Commerce City, Colorado

Wade Grove

With people at home more, it seemed as if most green industry companies saw a boom in business over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this wasn’t the case for Green Mountain.

“Originally, I was kind of disappointed because when the pandemic started and people were staying home more, landscapers were crazy busy and we were not,” Grove recalls. “It’s like people skipped right over wanting to maintain their lawns and now want something new with a ton of renovations.

“We picked up a bunch of work from a property management company in town and that’s helped quite a bit,” he adds. “Otherwise, things have been fairly quiet.”

But, despite not receiving an onslaught of new customers, Grove says the Colorado-based business has a fairly loyal following.

“People might feel like this is a luxury and they’ve just put it off,” he says of lawn care.

Survey respondents say a significant majority of their lawn care clientele is residential.
Photo © Thyegn | Adobe Stock

“We’ve maintained business pretty well, but we haven’t been able to find a niche or marketing strategy to sell a bunch of new work.”

One thing Green Mountain has done differently as of late is create a more sustainable service offering.

“We changed the business model and have really moved away from spraying and, for about 97% of our customers, we’re doing systemic soil treatments,” he says.

With material prices continuing to fluctuate, many LCOs are planning to raise prices to offset unexpected price hikes.
Photo ©fredrocko | Adobe Stock

Like most in the lawn care industry, Grove says he’s struggled to find products at times.

“It’s affected us a tiny bit,” he says of supply chain issues. “But my supply house was able to find another supplier and now they’re stocked up really well.”

But who knows how long that will last? Grove says it can get frustrating not knowing what the future availability will be for certain materials.

“They aren’t able to give good answers,” he says of his suppliers.

Due to this, Grove says he’s ready to increase prices for the season ahead.

“We did raise prices in 2021,” he says. “We’ve been doing a 1-2% increase all along and I think we’ll go with a 3% increase for 2022 to cover the anticipated increases and uncertainty.”

But according to Grove one of the primary challenges his company faces isn’t related to COVID or supply chain shortages — it’s Mother Nature.

“The weather has been a challenge,” he says. “The weather has changed to where we’re more cold, rainy and snowy in the springtime. For so many years, it was so warm in the spring that we were panicking and trying to get people to turn sprinklers on at the end of March. Now, it’s completely flipped and we had four snow events in April last year that shut us down. And it didn’t warm up until late May and then it just got crazy hot right away.”

Josh Wise

CEO of Grassroots Tree & Turf Care, Acworth, Georgia

Josh Wise

It’s been a banner last few years for the company, which is now franchising and is up to 17 locations across the Southeast.

“The last couple of years have been really good for growth,” Wise says. “Our corporate office saw 27% growth in 2021.”

Additionally, the company is making an impact on customers and they’re sticking around.

“Last year we had the lowest cancellation rate we ever had in the history of the company,” Wise says. “We’re at 13% and usually we hover around 16%. We’ve seen great retention”

And this high retention rate held up as the company continued to raise its prices for the season ahead.

“We did an across-the-board 15% price increase,” Wise says. “And then we went back and where people who were still underpriced, we bumped them up to where they should be.

“Some of our accounts are up to a 35-40% increase,” he adds. “But at this point with estimating what prices will be on products and all the uncertainty that’s out there, we’re really aggressive with price increases.”

Wise says Grassroots took the time to review each individual client and ensure that the pricing was up to where it should be.

“I had one customer whose bill was $120 a month and now it’s $247 a month,” he says. “That customer was a little upset, but there are always a few like that. His property was way underpriced. He’s been a customer since 2004 and he’s always just flown under the radar. Now you get to a year like this, where you really have to fix stuff and those accounts show up on the radar. But, they are few and far between.”

Wise says he anticipates customers will remain sympathetic to price increases, as it’s not just happening in the lawn care industry.

“Most customers are receptive to it and understand,” he says. “I think if there’s ever been a year to raise prices — now is the year to do so. People don’t even really question it; they just expect it.”

While Wise is taking price increases seriously, he says he wants other companies in his market to follow suit.

“I’m hoping everybody is jumping on board with price increases,” he says. “Sometimes the South has too competitive of pricing.”

Still, Wise doesn’t lower his price, even while facing lowballers.

“We don’t get into the price matching, and we’re on the higher side of prices,” he says. “I’m not looking for that value shopper customer that’s cutting the coupons and is going to switch to the next company in three months when there’s a new special. We provide a higher level of service.”

Palmer Higgins

CEO of Mainely Grass, New England

Palmer Higgins
Photo Courtesy of Palmer Higgins

Toward the end of last season, Mainely Grass was beginning to be impacted by supply chain shortages and a limited supply of materials. Higgins predicts this problem will continue to get worse before it gets better.

“We’ve definitely seen supply chain and logistics issues hit our industry, especially in the back half of 2021, in a fairly pointed way,” he says. “It’s gearing up to hit the industry pretty hard next season.”

One big concern is the rising cost for materials like fertilizer.

“Costs are double or triple what they’ve been historically,” Higgins says. “That’s pretty major.”

To combat this, Mainely Grass relied heavily on early order programs for the upcoming season.

“I think we’re in a really good spot,” Higgins says. “We got really aggressive very early because we were seeing this coming.

“We were realizing it could seriously impact 2022, so we worked with our vendor and distributor partners and got really aggressive with buying early or securing (product) through distributors so they are already warehoused and set aside for us.

“Over 90% of our product needs for next year have already been secured,” he adds.

Higgins recognizes what a hefty financial commitment that was to make.

“It was a monumental investment to do that,” he says. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars are going into making that a reality. But the flip side would be going into next season and you’re not sure what the price of the product is going to be, and you don’t even know if you’re going to be able to get product.”

Even with so much of their materials already accounted for, Higgins says he’d like to see Mainely Grass need even more as the upcoming season progresses.

“I hope it’s not enough,” he jokes. “That’ll mean demand is strong and I certainly hope that’s the case. I was aggressive in securing conservative product needs, but we weren’t aggressive in securing anticipated huge growth.”

Higgins says he hopes demand for lawn care continues to increase as it has over the past few years but making any kind of prediction is extremely difficult in these times.

“If you asked me what’s more likely to happen — that we’ll see continued strong demand for our services or a weakening of demand, I’d say continued strong demand,” he says.

“But, if you’re asking me to bet thousands of dollars on that, I’d say let’s wait and see and deal with it then. I guess time will tell.”

In addition to the supply chain uncertainty, Higgins adds that another obstacle facing most lawn care companies are new, stricter rules and regulations.

“There’s definitely been a groundswell of desire to continue to regulate and control products more and more,” he says.

“Sometimes this is at the state level, but more at the municipal level, you can drive seven minutes in one direction and it’s a whole new environment. That’s challenging from a training, educational and customer communication perspective.”

John Dorsey

owner, Dorsey Lawn & Landscape, Raleigh, North Carolina

John Dorsey believes carving out a name for yourself in the lawn care industry is tough. When you first start out, he says most clients pay roughly $600 on the low end per year, so obtaining enough clients to justify staying in business can be difficult.

Conversely, companies that start out in design/build don’t need as many clients to keep the lights on at the office. That’s one of the reasons why Dorsey started with landscape installation and slowly began transitioning those projects as an add-on for lawn care clients.

He doesn’t envy businesses just starting out in lawn care though, especially as clients remain skeptical of that lawn care products hurt the environment.

“(The education) gives them more certainty,” Dorsey says. “That’s been our biggest hurdle…having to overcome their predisposition. It comes with the territory.”

To educate the clients, Dorsey’s team takes careful note of the questions clients ask and try to turn them into blogs or newsletters. Each time a client signs up with Dorsey Lawn & Landscape, they receive a PDF that details the type of grass on their property, plus an outline of good maintenance habits and how they can water and mow it throughout the year to get the most of Dorsey’s program.

“If you’re not doing other things that are necessary by taking care of the lawn on your own, too, then you’re not going to maximize your results out of that,” Dorsey tells clients.

Education also means total transparency. Dorsey has no issue sharing that the company is more focused on using granulars, which Dorsey says “feed better and slowly release, so you get better results that way.” Their sprayables are largely post-emergents, and while they do offer some organic materials, the products they use are a blend so they’re simply organic-based. They don’t use sodium nitrate, but Dorsey doesn’t believe in a fully organic approach.

“When it comes down to it, when you want to go completely organic, you just can’t,” he says. “You’re not going to get the results you want.”

Dorsey says companies can earn pretty high profit margins if they’re doing things correctly on lawn care. He says they had to raise prices a bit more than usual this year (somewhere around 5%), but all in all, it’s been lucrative, even despite an uncomfortable supply chain market.

That said, Dorsey has seen a fair amount of companies offer pricing models for their lawn care services that essentially come in at a “good, better, best” model. Dorsey doesn’t believe offering the cheap alternatives (good, better) should even be options – it’s all or nothing for him.

“Don’t offer good, better, best in lawn care,” he says. “It’s either done the right way or it’s not.”

Fred Westerfeldt

FRW Landscape, Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin

To Fred Westerfeldt, the COVID-19 pandemic opened up a huge silver lining — one that was practically overwhelming.

“I didn’t realize it at the time until basically the whole year, but while the pandemic was raging, there were so many contractors who pulled out,” Westerfeldt says. “It seemed like the phone would never stop ringing. I had to turn people down more last year compared to any other year. Usually, it took later in the year before I started turning people away.”

The number of calls tested Westerfeldt’s golden rule of returning phone calls within 24 hours. Even still, so many people he spoke with said that they had called several other companies, too – and that his was the first who ever bothered to call back.

His hold on the market in Wisconsin Dells — a city that boasts a number of theme parks and Mirror Lake State Park — is strong, Westerfeldt says.

There are about 2,500 people in town but 30,000 people who come through the area weekly, so he does find himself often servicing commercial accounts and some neighboring communities. Westerfeldt says he has this trouble with saying no, especially when people felt like they needed service so badly that price was no object.

“It’s like, ‘Can you come and do some work?’” Westerfeldt says. “They don’t even talk about price because they’re desperate to have someone to do work.”

For him, there’s no fancy formula for raising prices. Westerfeldt is a single entity operator at this stage, and many of the clients he has are long-term clients (roughly 70 of them). He offers a wide range of services like shrubbery pruning or tree health inspections, but he also maintains a focus on fertilizing and liming lawns. Last year, he raised $2 per service he offered, and this year, he did it again.

“I (use) more of an intuitive method. I raise them a few bucks per service,” he says. “I had no issues at all. It seemed like one of those weird times in your life where it doesn’t matter what you charge — people don’t even think about the price.”

Josh Flynn

CEO of Seabreeze Property Services, Portland, Maine

Josh Flynn

For Flynn, labor struggles have continued to hinder his business as much as any supply chain disruptions.

“At any point over the summer, we could’ve used five or six more people, but it wasn’t dire straits,” he says. “We didn’t have to cancel any contracts or anything.”

Flynn foresees these problems continuing, so the company is taking on new tactics in 2022 to try and find more workers.

“We’ve applied for and are working through the H-2B process for the first time in the history of the company. We’re trying to make sure there are no barriers so we can continue to grow and be successful,” he says.

Being low on labor has also caused the company to increase rates recently.

“Our labor rates have gone up about 11-12%,” he says. “That alone will drive an increase in pricing I’d say anywhere from 5-10% across most services for next season.

“Early conversations with customers have gone pretty well,” Flynn adds.

Adding to those reasons to increase rates are concerns over the rising price of materials.

“We didn’t have too many supply chain issues on the fertilizer and grass seed side, but I fully anticipate seeing some of those this year,” Flynn says. “From all indications from vendors, and other folks in the industry, it feels like that’s going to be a challenge this next season.”

And the full effect of those price hikes is still unknown.

“We hadn’t been able to raise prices throughout the year and were honoring our original contract regardless of the scenario, but for next season, we’re anticipating $5-$10 more per bag of fertilizer and who knows how much more grass seed will cost,” Flynn says.

Regardless of raising rates, Flynn says he hopes to attract even more customers this season as he’s noticing some changes in his market.

“We’re trying to go against the grain as far as where everyone else is headed at the moment,” he says. “There are a lot of contractors in our area getting out of maintenance and lawn care. I’m sprinting as fast as I can in the opposite direction of all those folks to try and soak up all the good customers they are leaving behind simply because they don’t want to deal with it anymore.”

Seabreeze is setting out to do this by focusing on its reputation within the communities it serves.

“We’re trying to position ourselves as the most professional and the most reliable company in the area,” Flynn says. “It’s all about reliability and who can actually get to the work.”

Flynn says he feels demand for lawn care will continue to be high this year, but beyond that, he’s unsure.

“I think there’s still going to be a tremendous amount of demand and still a limited amount of supply,” he says. “Something I can’t predict is how long it’s going to last.”

Bruce Love

president, Lawn RX, Latrobe, Pa.

Bruce Love

Bruce Love remains encouraged that the issues that’ve caused his company’s biggest price increase in years — 5% instead of an annual 1% price hike — will subside soon.

“I don’t think we’ll ever go back to 2018 or 2019 prices,” he says, “but I think it’ll be manageable from here on out.”

Love’s been in business since 2004 and has accumulated roughly 3,000 customers, all serviced by his 13 employees. They’re a predominantly residential lawn care company, and one of the toughest things to manage this offseason to prep for the spring was a limited selection on grass seed and fertilizers.

Photo ©singjai | Adobe Stock / Headshot Courtesy Of Wade Grove

He didn’t hold it against his suppliers that the materials he ordered arrived weeks after they were supposed to — he understood there was a lot to manage on their end, between manufacturing delays caused by labor shortages or having no truckers available to ship the materials.

And, just like he found himself pretty understanding of the current climate, Love found his customers were empathetic to price increases they received. He didn’t have any unusually frustrated customers cancelling due to price increases, nor did they push back on price increases he applied to his clients. For the most part, they didn’t even ask for an explanation — they just know the world’s in a weird state, Love says.

“Most of our clients value lawn care. They know the value we provide for them,” he says. “It’s kind of like a thing they can’t live without, so they’ll make room in the budget for it.”

The 5% increase doesn’t recoup the full extent of Love’s cost on materials, but he says his pricing structure allowed the company to absorb the suppliers’ price increases. Ordering stuff in the preseason helped Love in the long run, especially on grass seed, and he didn’t have an issue storing the materials he ordered early.

Ultimately, Love recommends figuring out the materials you’ll use in advance, especially in this current landscape. But as COVID-19 restrictions fizzle out nationwide, he also anticipates more drivers and more workers in manufacturing plants to provide more materials than there were available in 2021.

“I think things will improve,” Love says. “I’m optimistic.”