Industry mourns death of Weed Man founder

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Desmond ‘Des’ Rice leaves behind a legacy of leadership.

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June 24, 2011

Desmond “Des” Rice, co-founder of one of the green industry’s largest companies, passed away April 14 of a sudden heart attack.

The 62-year-old Toronto native leaves behind a legacy of leadership and hard work. Starting in Canada in 1970 with just a $500 loan from his father and a pick-up truck, Rice grew Weed Man from a door-to-door lawn service company into one of the largest firms in the green industry. He started franchising the business in 1977, and later expanded into the United States after selling out all territories in Canada.

He is survived by his wife, Brenda, who co-founded Weed Man with him, and their daughters.

“He came from the ground up,” says Mike Kernaghan, CEO of Turf Management Systems, Weed Man’s holding company. “He was the weed man.”

Kernaghan joined Rice’s team of young professionals right out of college 25 years ago and served as his right-hand man as the business grew to define lawn care and franchising in Canada, and its eventual expansion into the United States.

“He was very intuitive. His communication skills were extremely well adapted. He had an uncanny ability to mirror people,” Kernaghan says of Rice’s skill as a businessman. “Des would feel as comfortable talking with someone who delivered the fertilizer to the back door as he would be talking with the prime minister of Canada. That’s a very rare skill.”

Roger Mongeon met Rice in 1986. He bought his own franchise shortly after, and in 1996 bought the rights to franchise the Weed Man business in the U.S.

“He was always talking with respect to the customer,” Mongeon says of Rice’s outlook on business. “That theme continued through when we went into the U.S. and our franchise in Canada. It always came back to that concept. That was the thing that got me enthusiastic about Weed Man, and that’s why I keep doing it.”

Chris Lemcke, technical coordinator for Mongeon’s Weed Man franchise in Canada, called Rice a pioneer who focused not just on growing the business, but providing the best customer service possible.

“Des, being that kind of guy, he did things differently. He didn’t go to big trucks. He was always concerned about the customer,” Lemcke says. “He didn’t want to be the cheapest guy. He wanted to be the company that provided the best service.”

Rice, a founding board member of the Professional Lawn Care Association of America, also ran That Franchise Group, a collection of other service sector franchises in Canada that includes pest control, cleaning and holiday lighting businesses.

“He had an unbelievable determination,” Kernaghan says. “The thing that would charge Des up the most was if you said, ‘You can’t do that.’ You that say to Des, you better stand back. He’d prove you wrong a thousand times over. Failure was never an option for Des.”

In 2010, Weed Man was ranked at No. 8 on Lawn & Landscape’s Top 100 list with revenue of $105 million and 3,000 employees. Up until his death, Rice was still working day to day on the business, sending Kernaghan emails late into the night.

“He was 100 percent business. Every ounce of energy and every hour he was awake, he was thinking about business and about Weed Man,” Kernaghan says. “He inspired so many of us. He really shaped who I am today. The leadership he’s left behind will carry on. He would expect and want us to.”

The author is editor and associate publisher of Lawn & Landscape. He can be reached at cbowen@gie.net.