PROFITABLE PRACTICES: All-Organic

Features - Weed/Disease/Insect Control

Since he’s dropped pesticides, Phil Sarros has watched his Atlanta business beat the odds.

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October 17, 2008

Phil Sarros wouldn’t call himself a trendsetter. What’s at the heart of his business isn’t just a bandwagon, he says – it’s the future of lawn care.

To an increasing percentage of the industry, he’s right. The National Gardening Association predicts organic lawn-care products will be used exclusively by 10 percent of homeowners in 2009, and that’s twice as many as 2004. But as the trend takes root outside Atlanta, Ga., where Sarros Landscaping operates 100 percent pesticide-free, it’s impossible to deny the bandwagon effect that’s swept residential areas of the county, right down to the Sarros lawn flag, beckoning, “Jump on!”

In the second year of business-threatening droughts and water shortages, Sarros is riding the crest of a profit wave. Customers are frustrated with opaque restrictions and regulations, he says, and they sense a coming change.

“During the past two years, I’ve heard more green talk than ever before,” Sarros says. “Water shortages weren’t quite as bad this year, but there seem to be a lot of politics involved with it. It makes it hard to grow and live, and harder to thrive. A lot of irrigation companies have been put out of business completely because of it.”

The shortages have made many homeowners hesitant to install new landscaping, and many local landscapers are equally nervous to put their businesses on the line. Sarros and his team brainstormed ways to make his customers feel comfortable and confident in their business.
“We found that the easiest way to make customers feel comfortable is to make a guarantee on the plant material. In order to do that, we had to be very comfortable that the amount of plant material we were going to replace would be extremely low.”

That’s where organic fertilizers came in, Sarros says. Working with products from Organic Growing Systems, Inc., headquartered in Alpharetta, Ga., Sarros made the switch to entirely organic products, including OGSI’s 4-2-2 organic fertilizer, manufactured from chicken manure in Monticello, Miss.

“We started using organic fertilizer to ensure our plants survived,” he says. “Under normal water conditions, with plenty of natural rain and watering, a synthetic fertilizer will do an above-average job of helping something grow. But under drought conditions where it’s very hot and very dry, it’s more likely that a typical synthetic fertilizer will burn the plant and kill it faster. An organic fertilizer is a huge benefit to us because it’s non-burning and, as a result, it’s a benefit to our customers.”

Third-quarter financial results for Advanced Growing Systems, the parents company of OGSI, showed overall revenue suffering from the water shortages and housing market lull that’s affecting the greater landscape and nursery industry in Atlanta. To bolster profits and meet demand, OGSI is adding two additional organic fertilizers to its current product offering later this year, increasing production to five to seven times the present rate.

Both landscapers and customers are clamoring for organics, it seems. Sarros finds that safety is the No. 1 concern among his customers.
“There’s a lot more awareness now in terms of toxicity and chemicals,” he says. “Homeowners realize that their families and pets are walking on lawns that have been treated. People want healthier options. Organic’s as healthy as it gets. It’s wonderful for the plants and the lawns, but it’s also good for your kids and your pets.”

A clear advantage to organic fertilizers is that prills absorb water and provide slow, gradual release of both nitrogen and water to the plant and the soil.

“We’ve been able to go to our customers in the middle of a drought and give them a warranty for their plant and guarantee that it’ll live,” he says. “And it’s working. It helps us to keep our revenues generating during a time when the media is focused on drought conditions.”

Appropriately, Sarros’ confidence in organics was cultivated as an organic lawn is grown: slowly, thoroughly and gradually. He tested the product on his own lawn two years ago and tested it on his friends and neighbors as well.

“Companies make claims, but I had to know for myself it was going to work,” he says. “After a year, it worked great. I don’t even carry a pesticide license.”

In his first year as an organic company, Sarros has marketed his new identity heavily, but he recognizes organics won’t appeal to everyone.

“There is still a market for chemical products,” he says. “An organic regimen is not for the customer looking for instant gratification. You have to allow for one full growing season and be willing to give the program enough time to be successful.”
Education, says Sarros, is essential to the process. Many customers don’t understand how and why organic products work, and why it takes longer.

“I explain to my customers that blasting the lawn with nitrogen is like steroids for a lawn,” he says. “It instantly turns green. An organic program is the equivalent of someone who works out regularly and eats healthy food. It takes longer to reach the result, but it’s better for your health and the results last longer.”

Interactive Web sites that include message boards and live discussions are becoming increasingly popular sources for research, and Sarros says he uses online forums to talk about what works and what doesn’t with organic products and practices. “There’s a general openness among peers in our industry to share information,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with good competition. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

While Sarros finds most of his information online, he’s also found tremendous value in consulting and partnering with supply companies. “Vendors are more than willing to spend time with you, too,” he says. “The key is to encourage them to come out to your operation. And vice versa – go out to an organic plant, see how it’s made. They’ve done the scientific research, and you don’t have to go back to school to understand it and explain it plain English to your customers.”

You might not have a Ph.D., but if you’ve done your research, you probably know more than your customers, and it’s important to help them understand the pros and cons of an organic program. Think about the next step, Sarros tells customers. What if your neighbor isn’t on an organic program? When it rains, where will pesticide runoff go? Right into your lawn.

As organics become more popular, particularly in Atlanta, this might become a less common problem. But Sarros competes with companies whose lawns are lush and green, and it can be tough to convince customers that there’s another way. Not one to pursue profit for profit’s sake, Sarros says that his best marketing tool is sharing his own philosophy on pesticides to his customers.

“We’ve made a commitment as a company to be 100 percent organic because it’s the right thing to do, and because we can,” he says. “We’re in a position of responsibility. We serve a large area of our county, but it’s also our own backyard. We want to be in a position to make a difference for our friends and our neighbors and the place where we live. It’s not just a trend. It’s the right thing to do.”

And if he’s so persuasive he convinces other landscape operations to go the same route?

“I’m not worried about the competition,” he says. “To me, there’s no conflict of interest when another company says it’s going to go all-organic. I don’t get scared or worried. We promote that. I’d be happy to bring a company in and have the crew spend the day with me. There’s enough business to go around for all of us.”

The demand for organic lawn care products continues to grow, though the long-term benefits of using exclusively organic products, compared to a combination of organic and synthetic chemical products, remain to be seen in Atlanta. Still, Sarros says, it’s important to remind customers that they have a choice.

“I don’t sell anyone,” Saross says. “I ultimately let them make the decision. It’s a choice, not a sale – but when you let the customer choose, the sale will come. If you present your information in an educational way, chances are your customer will make the choice that yes, this is what I want to do. You’ll generate more revenue. For me, that’s the ultimate benefit. My business has grown. And it’s just getting started.”