Bonin’s Lawn Service doesn’t have time to hibernate during this time of year, especially after the holidays when it’s time to undress properties of holiday lights and decorations. The work calendar gets a nice lift in business in late fall when clients shift their thinking from mowing and leaf removal to mistletoe and holly.
This is Bonin’s seventh season offering Christmas enhancements through its Christmas Décor franchise. “It’s an up-and-coming service for us,” says Kevin Bonin, who began cutting lawns at age 13 – the young entrepreneur built his client list by cross-selling to his newspaper route customers with index card fliers he stuffed into their papers.
Bonin’s lawn business helped pay for college, and after working as a sales manager in a lawn equipment dealership for two years following graduation, he returned “to the others side of the counter” to start a landscaping business. That was 20 years ago, and since then, Bonin’s Lawn Service has flourished by “doing what other services aren’t doing.” That means no mow-blow-and-go. Bonin’s digs into details: weed pulling, shrub trimming, lawn fertilizing and even pressure washing. Meanwhile, adding Christmas Décor and a hydromulching business to the operation has carved a niche for Bonin’s Lawn Service in the Lafayette, La., market and given employees (including Bonin’s sons) an opportunity to have greater responsibility in the business.
“We have grown over the last 20 years through diversification,” Bonin says of his service mix. Plus, working with a green industry consultant has helped him focus on strategic planning so he could run a lean business with healthy cash flow during tough times.
“We plan, we strategize…we’re blocking and tackling,” Bonin says. “I create a budget and I live within that budget.” That’s why 2013 looks like another growth year for Bonin’s Lawn Service.
Survival by diversification. Mother Nature hasn’t been friendly to Bonin’s neck of the woods. Between 2004 and 2010, Louisiana was hit with two major hurricanes and a devastating oil spill. “We had issues here in south Louisiana,” Bonin says bluntly. “People weren’t spending money like the rest of the nation, not that the rest of the nation was spending that much money, but we had a real struggle.”
The lack of discretionary income mostly affected Bonin’s Christmas Décor business, which was brand-new at the time. The last two holiday seasons have been good to Bonin’s, evidence of a creeping recovery. In fact, the company took home a national award for Best Increase in Sales for 2011 from Christmas Décor and their client retention rate was second in the nation at 84 percent. “I’m very proud of our company and our employees for these achievements,” Bonin says, adding that Christmas Décor is a “bolt-on business.” He went through a structured online and classroom training program, and he and other employees attend annual conferences and seminars throughout the year to learn the latest in the trade. “These conferences serve as great networking opportunities as well,” he adds.
Bonin admits that the franchise took time, capital and resources to start up – and trained, dedicated staff members to keep it going and successful. “Overall, it has been a positive add-on to our service business,” he says.
Most importantly, it allows Bonin to keep all of his employees on the books year-round. “It’s a balancing act,” Bonin says of staffing the Christmas service and keeping crews on for periodic mowing and other maintenance tasks, such as shrub pruning.
Before adding Christmas Décor, the company laid off a portion of its staff during the slower winter season. Now, crews transition from fall cleanup and detail work to Christmas decorating. The landscape division manager oversees the Christmas business, which attracts commercial and residential clients.
“The service is essential to the business because it allows me to keep key people year-round,” Bonin sums up.
Seeding Success. Steady growth over the years has helped elevate Bonin’s Lawn Service from a one-crew operation staged out of his home with 20 customers to a five-crew company that operates out of a 7,000 square-foot facility and has 150-plus clients.
Internally, he has developed a staff of about 10 in the high season, including a landscape division manager with a degree in plant science. “We have trained and knowledgeable staff, and we let our clients and our prospective clients know this–it’s a good selling point,” Bonin says.
Additionally, Bonin works to carve opportunities for key employees. When he was looking for a way to give a one worker more stake in the business several years ago in 2000, he settled on adding a hydromulching business to his operation. He saw the machine in action at the Green Industry Expo and talked to a landscape contractor there who had great success with the service. This was during the building boom when new construction projects demanded this service. So Bonin saw lots of potential.
The start-up for hydroseeding is pretty steep–about $100,000 for the truck, the hydroseeder and other incidentals, Bonin says. “I made [that employee] a partner in the hydromulching business–that was when the housing boom was going on,” he says of the construction-based service.
Sales volume for hydromulching really depends on housing starts, and so Bonin says it’s not a stand-alone business, at least in his region. But when it’s good, it’s good. And lately, that business has been picking up. “It’s kind of like a landscape installation or hardscape installer–you do the work and you’re done,” he says. “The reoccurring revenue is not always there like it is in maintenance.”
That’s why hydromulching makes up a small portion of Bonin’s overall business. But it’s one he thoroughly enjoys. “It’s a change of pace,” he says. “It gets me out of the office and into the field.”
This service will also provide a way for his two sons to get more involved in the business from a management standpoint. Currently, they work as laborers in the business alongside other employees. “They are working with the crews during the summer months, learning the different aspects of the business,” Bonin says.
Bonin is instilling the same type of work ethic in his sons that he came into the business with as a young landscape entrepreneur. “It helps them see what I go through every day, and they are learning,” Bonin says, relating that it’s far too early to begin succession planning. He’s exposing them to the business, “I’m not pushing it on them,” he says. “I encourage them to consider it.”
Meanwhile, Bonin is planning for a productive year. “I see the economy in a better light than it has been in the last couple of years, and I think we are going to have some room for expansion,” he says, adding that the oil and gas industry drive the market in his area. “In my opinion, we have not suffered like the rest of the nation.” (Of course, that’s barring the natural disasters.)
“We have subdivisions in planning stages and businesses are building, adding on, expanding, “he continues. “I just see growth coming our way in 2013 and 2014.”
Kevin Bonin learned the hard way to not buy too much equipment.
Kevin Bonin admits he’s an equipment junkie. “I’m like a kid in a candy store at the GIE+EXPO show,” says the owner of Bonin’s Lawn Service in Lafayette, La. Before starting his business 20 years ago, he worked as a sales manager at an equipment dealership.
After starting a landscaping company, Bonin learned the hard way to be cautious about buying equipment that would not be used on a regular basis. “I was buying equipment that I didn’t really need just to have it,” he says.
Now’s he’s more strategic about purchases. Before making purchases, he does an analysis of how and when the equipment will be used.
For example, when Bonin launched the hydromulching business in 2000, he invested in the costly equipment after researching its profit potential. Then he trained with another landscaper who was running a successful operation. He started with a bumper-pull unit and upgraded to a gooseneck hydromulching unit and a one-ton flatbed truck after five years of running the business.
Watching expenses, including equipment purchases, is what has helped Bonin’s Lawn Service maintain healthy growth during many tough years. “We practice lean management and eliminate waste every chance we get,” he says.