Relative changes

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It stays in the family at Lawn Cure, which has greatly reduced its employee turnover by making a few key changes.

September 30, 2021

From left, Patrick Hawkins, Michelle Hawkins and Missy Fromme took over the family business 12 years ago.
Photos courtesy of Lawn Cure

Lawn Cure, based in Sellersburg, Indiana, was started in 1978 by Larry Messina with just one truck. Twelve years ago, sisters Michelle Hawkins and Missy Fromme took over as co-owners of their father’s company.

While the women were aiming to keep the company running exactly how their father had, Michelle’s husband, Patrick Hawkins, who joined as president and general manager, was eager to make changes.

Today, the company employs 21 people, has 16 trucks in its fleet and its revenue is $3 million.

“Before I took over the business, I spent 20-plus years in the transportation business,” Patrick says. “So, when I took over here, one of the biggest issues they were having was rate of pay. What they were paying the drivers was very low, and that in turn caused massive turnover. The turnover rate was probably 40% and you can’t run a business with 40% turnover.”

Patrick increased the pay by up to 25% and says they budgeted for the increase by raising rates.

They also looked for ways to consolidate costs and changed the way they bought their chemicals.

“I changed all the payroll, how we pay and how we start, different types of progressions,” he adds. “And at first, I got a lot of pushback from the other two owners about doing it. Now, they look back on it and understand why we did it.”

“They give me the work that I need that’s quality service and I let them leave a couple hours early. They absolutely love it.” Patrick Hawkins, president and general manager

Patrick says it was especially difficult working with his wife and having these disagreements.

“It has not been easy being married and running a multi-million-dollar business and telling your wife, ‘No you’re not doing this,’” he says. “But they learned to trust me, and I learned to trust them.”

Michelle says what’s made things easier for her and her husband is leaving any argument at the office.

“There’ve been conflicts between Pat and me, but we try to not bring it home,” she says. “Overall, we try to move past things.”

Nowadays, Fromme says the three are better at having open, honest discussions but still agree to disagree on some things. They’ve learned to trust one another’s strengths.

Fromme is vice president of finance and handles the budgets, accounting and taxes. Michelle is vice president of operations and takes care of the customer service and marketing. And Patrick manages the trucks, crews and day-to-day operations.

Creating a caring culture.

One part of the payroll change was implementing a four-day workweek. Crews work four 10-hour days Monday through Thursday.

“It’s more time with their families. A lot of them travel, and it allows them to expand their vacation time,” he says. “If I gave my employees a survey and said, ‘Would you rather I pay you one or two dollars more an hour but you’ve got to go back to a five-day workweek or keep the four days,’ they will keep the four days 100%.”

While weather obviously plays a factor in all outdoor work, Patrick says he only remembers a handful of times when crews had more than one rain day in a week.

“If we have a complete rain out, they just work Friday as the makeup day,” he says, adding that crews never work on weekends. “If we were to have two rain outs in one week, we’ll either have a shop day and do maintenance or just make it up at a later day.”

Michelle says that when Patrick first decided to switch to the four-day workweek, she and her sister were worried customers wouldn’t get on board and go elsewhere.

Patrick says the transition was fairly seamless and the company only had a few dozen customers who had to switch dates.

Fromme adds the new schedule is just better for their employees’ health.

“It’s a very physical job,” she says. “It wears on your body. We appreciate that and are aware that they need some rest time and time to be with their families. You can work your people to death, but you’re not going to keep them long.”

And the shorter workweek isn’t the only thing the three are doing to give employees more time with their families.

“Each day every technician has their route board, and they work from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” Patrick says. “We’ve allowed them, through hard work, that once they clear their board for the day, they can go home. So, basically, most of them are getting their work done by 3 p.m. and are leaving for the day. I still pay them for a 10-hour day. They give me the work that I need that’s quality service and I let them leave a couple hours early. They absolutely love it. We’ve been doing it since June.”

But, if employees finish their routes early, they have the option to work ahead.

“We instituted a commission program, and we call it ‘Bank Hours’” Patrick says. “We went out and engineered every route, so every route knows on a daily 10-hour day what they’re supposed to spray. So, if they spray above and beyond that, I pay them more money because that’s extra work they did for me.”

Patrick explains that most technicians end the week with an additional eight to 10 hours, which they can do what they like with. “They can cash that out and instead of getting a 40-hour check, they’ll get a 50-hour check. Some will use it to take extra days off,” he says.

Show them you care. Lawn Cure makes sure to provide incentives, like bonuses and extra days off, to keep employees motivated.

Others choose to save the time for the yearly seven-week paid layoff period. That way, they have an additional two or three checks during the offseason.

Other incentives for the crews include catered lunches, extra days off around holidays like Memorial Day and bonuses.

“Recently, we gave all employees an extra $200 bonus just because they did a great job with the aeration and seeding season. It sounds small, but to them it means a lot,” Patrick says.

Fromme and Michelle add that the reasoning behind the bonuses is two-fold as they are a way to show crews their appreciation and they help with retention. They say the company has seen very little turnover in the last few years. Currently, the company’s turnover rate is lower than 10% and Patrick says an average tech’s tenure is about six years and growing.

“It’s all those small things that create that culture,” Patrick says. “You’ve got to find what works for your business and what your employees value.”

Plans to expand. All of the changes made at Lawn Cure have led to their continued growth, which means a larger office is on the horizon.

“We truly care about our people,” Fromme says. “We don’t really think of them as employees, but an extended part of our family. And we try to treat people the way we’d like to be treated as an employee.”

In fact, Lawn Cure’s first employee, hired by Larry Messina, is still with the company.

“Jeff Smith has been with us over 40 years and he’s like a big brother to us,” Michelle says. “I have memories of Jeff, who’s still our service manager and was our dad’s first employee, taking us to school in the truck and then he’d go start his route.”

Controlled growth.

Having a family-oriented culture has certainly allowed Lawn Cure to grow, but Patrick, Michelle and Fromme have no plans to expand services.

“When our dad started in lawn care in the mid-70s, it was a new thing and he really saw the potential in that kind of service,” Fromme says. “One of core things he always believed in was that you need to do something very well and if you keep branching out into all these different things, and you get spread so thin, then you lose sight of what you do well. If you have that core business you truly care about, and focus on being the best you can be, then that’s how you can be really successful.”

Currently, the company is running about 15 trucks per day, and Patrick says they’d never add a service their trucks weren’t equipped for. In addition to lawn care, the company provides chemical tree and shrub services, pest control and mosquito control.

“Young people do things a lot differently than we do. And I think it’s important to embrace some of that.” Missy Fromme, vice president of finance

“There’s been a lot of people who’ve asked us to do a lot of things over the years, but if it doesn’t fit how our trucks are set up, I usually will not do it,” he says. “We want our techs to concentrate on those three or four things we do best.”

And Patrick says their market in southern Indiana and Louisville has enough potential growth to sustain them.

“We have a wonderful business. Nobody is getting filthy rich here, but we have a very, very nice living,” he says. “So, we like to have our growth controlled. We know that if we would dump more money into marketing, or expand other services, we could grow another half or three quarters of a million every year. It’s just not what we want for our family business.”

From one trio to another.

Back when the sisters took over the business, they say it was the right move for their growing families.

“When Missy and I both came in we both had little kids,” Michelle says. “We were able to job share and share the babysitting... she would work in the morning and I would have all the kids. And then we’d transition. I could get up from the desk and she could sit down at the desk and take right over. We were just that in sync with one another.”

Michelle and Patrick have three children: Katy, Jack and Mady Hawkins. Fromme, and her husband, Bob, have two daughters – Savannah and Sydney Fromme.

“All those babies we used to watch are growing up now and in college,” Michelle says.

Three of those kids are now looking to make their mark in the family business.

“Jack is getting a business degree and wants to come into the business and take it over long-term, which is fantastic,” Patrick says. “Katy wants to take over as well, and Savannah is absolutely brilliant. Between Jack, Katy and Savannah, it’s almost the spitting image of me, Missy and Michelle.”

Since its inception, Lawn Cure has gone from one truck to a fleet of 16 vehicles and 21 employees.

Fromme says she’s eager to get their input and believes they can bring a new, fresh perspective to things.

“Young people do things a lot differently than we do,” Fromme says. “And I think it’s important to embrace some of that… you have to embrace the way the next generation thinks or you’re going to be left behind.”

Patrick says they have plenty to teach the young ones – especially a few lessons he learned early on.

“You’ve got to have patience in this business, and you’ve got to listen to your customers,” he says. “But, with a business our size, you’re going to lose customers. That’s just how it is. That was a struggle for me in my first few years…you’ve got to learn that it’s the nature of our business and to look at the overall picture.”

Michelle hopes the children will work as seamlessly as her, Fromme and Patrick have.

“I don’t know if there will be issues down the road – you hope everything will go smoothly,” she says. “Obviously, you’re never going to agree all the time. Family dynamics can be tough, but it’s important to leave any kind of ego at the door.”

Meanwhile, while they wait for the next generation to join them, Lawn Cure’s headquarters is bursting at the seams.

“We are about maxed out on space here,” Michelle says. “We have a 14,000 square-foot building and we cannot fit anymore trucks in here. We’re so cramped in, so we’ll expand.”

They’ve already secured a vacant lot next to their existing building, which they’ll use to grow. Down the road, Michelle says they’d like to consider a satellite office and adding a few technicians to expand the service area.

Patrick says their reputation and customer service will allow them to continue growing the business.

“We set out a plan on how we wanted to grow the business, and it’s tripled in size and volume within the last 10 years,” he says. “Our customer service is impeccable. If someone calls with a complaint, we’re on their lawn the next day, sometimes the same day. And the customers love that. I’ll probably do 50,000 applications this year, and our service calls with complaints and issues are nothing.”