The next round

Amidst the pandemic, it’s still uncertain what the economy will look like beyond the fall. Here’s how contractors are preparing.

Heath Hurst knows better than anybody that some good can come from an economic downturn.

In 2009, he started to take his part-time work in the green industry full time, in large part because he had few other choices. As he puts it, he was “just trying to make enough money to eat.” Jobs were far and few between, and he had been mowing lawns since he was a kid.

But it was scary then, and the start of the pandemic in March was scary, too. Hurst, now the owner of Heath Outdoor in Indianapolis, says his company spent the first several weeks of COVID-19 fixing up their own property and making small improvements. As restrictions loosened and it became clear they could work out in the field, Hurst says business quickly turned around.

Predicting where the fallout from this virus goes next is too difficult, Hurst says, and his company will continue to roll with the punches like before.

“We’re just going to keep going forward. It is way too global for me to try and anticipate what to do,” Hurst says.

Little certainty.

To be clear, Hurst says there will “absolutely” be a recession, but predicting how that’ll hurt the green industry is anybody’s guess. Meanwhile, out west in Phoenix, Ryan Jantz and his company, Sonora Sprinkler, have operated among one of the country’s largest hotspots for the virus. With such an older, extensive retiree population, COVID-19 has affected them greatly.

But Jantz was surprised that the demand for his services are so high at the moment. He’s had to raise his prices because the pandemic accelerated his business in unexpected ways. For the first time in company history, they might crack $1 million in revenue.

“The calls came in so fast that my receptionist couldn’t keep up,” Jantz says. “In this area, everybody had to stay home and focus on their yards. I personally believe there must be more money in people’s pockets than we realized.”

Jantz never had to shut everything down like Ryan Stehouwer in Michigan though. Stehouwer says his company, Sustainable Landscapes, only has two part-time employees and himself, which only complicated things when Michigan shut down for the first two months of the pandemic. Now, he says they’ve fallen so far behind on work that there’s some things they just won’t get around to, not with the cold Michigan weather just around the bend.

“It was terrible. Worst spring we’ve ever had,” he says. “We were at capacity and then we literally got shut down for two months. We have lost revenue just for the fact that there were spring cleanups that we did not do.”

Of course, Stehouwer says his clients were entirely understanding and supportive. But as the economy worsens, his customers may need to cancel services simply because they’ll be out looking for jobs.

“Our worry is not a shutdown, but what we’re starting to see is so many people not working yet,” Stehouwer says. “We haven’t directly lost any accounts yet, but we know that we have a handful where if things don’t go different soon, we’re going to lose a handful of clients because they won’t be able to afford our services.”

Weathering the storm.

Stehouwer says his company has already started to closely monitor their purchases and is making do with the equipment they already have. He says it’s not all “doom and gloom,” but they’re buckling down in case things worsen from here.

“I know in talking with some other guys, things could get interesting here in the next couple months,” he says, adding that companies that focus on commercial accounts in particular are suffering big time in Michigan. Stehouwer’s company focuses 90% of their attention on residential accounts, but as buildings continue to vacate in favor of remote work opportunities, he’s noticed they’re spending less and less with landscaping companies in the state.

The good news is that Stehouwer believes in his company’s ability to rebound, and he says that optimism can be shared industry wide.

“A lot of these companies aren’t going to let things get them down,” he says. “They’re going to find solutions to problems. It seems our industry’s extremely creative.”

Jantz says though his company has excelled in the pandemic, he’s worried about the labor shortage only getting worse. He’s spent hundreds on websites to help him find qualified applicants and has struggled to get people to show up to his yard, even when they’re hired and they say they’ll be there for the first day of work. He’s noticed some client cancellations not because they’re out of money, but because they simply went elsewhere to get their irrigation systems repaired or because Sonora Sprinkler couldn’t get out there in time.

He speculates that with unemployment checks coming in and a natural unwillingness to wanting to work outside in the hot Phoenix environment, he could be in this for the long haul.

“I’m not really worried about the economy. My only challenge is trying to secure quality labor,” Jantz says. “Of all the complaints I’ve had, almost zero had anything to do with price. There’s not enough warm bodies to fill demand.”

Jantz never had to stop work, but he says he’s asked himself what he’d do if the pandemic affects them like it did the restaurant industry. He says his company would offer remote support and cut pricing in half, only to help clients figure out what product to buy to fix their own systems. He could even have them send in pictures so he could tell them accurately what to do.

Back in Indiana, Hurst says the secret to navigating the uncertainty of an economic recession is to simply adapt to the clients no matter what.

“I know there’s a lot of speculation, and I think that’s good because it prepares people for all sorts of possibilities, but the most important thing is that people try to be fluid,” he says. “Everything will work out fine.”

October 2020
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