Guest Blog by Tom Kelly: Lawn Care Companies Better Switch Rather Than Fight in 2011
NOTE: Tom Kelly of New Hampshire was co-founder of one of the largest chemical lawn care companies in New England. Recently he launched an all-organic lawn care supply company, Fire Belly Organics, in response to his belief that lawn chemicals were harming people, pets and the planet. This is his second guest blog for SafeLawns.org.
BY TOM KELLY
This is the week after the long Thanksgiving weekend and historically it is the first extended period in the lawn care business where the majority of field personnel find themselves sitting at home watching television instead of sitting behind the wheel of their service vehicle. Although we are not snow-covered here in New Hampshire, much of the northern tier of nation got its first snow fall this past week and official “shut down” has begun at most lawn care companies.
Because most lawn and landscape companies were able to add a few more weeks to their overall treatment and service season, I think it’s safe to say that, as long as they managed their expenses properly, they had a very successful year in terms of the amount of work they were able to accomplish.
The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is when most business owners and branch managers have turned their attention from finishing up strongly to planning accordingly for next year. There is no doubt that 2011 will be a little bit different than 2010, at least in terms of the products that they apply. The winds of change are blowing in the lawn care industry and it’s fairly certain that the evolution of lawn care service companies will give birth to a few successful brands and lawn care Darwinism will claim a few as well. In 2011 lawn care companies will be set into several different categories: the fast adapters, the transitionals, the green washers and the dinosaurs. This can really be further divided into the companies that “get it,” the companies that “don’t get it,” and the companies that just “can’t get it.”
The anti-pesticide and anti-chemical fertilizer movement made more progress in 2010 than ever before. Activism is at its height and publicity has reached epic status. Groups like Paul Tukey’s SafeLawns Foundation, companies like Clean Air Lawn Care and hundreds, if not thousands, of grassroots efforts are bringing the topic of lawn environmentalism to the front and center of many families’ dinner table and companies’ water cooler conversations. From feature articles in major publications like Readers Digest, Men’s Health, The New York Times and others to literal revolutions occurring inside homeowner associations, never before has an industry been under so much attack. By revolutions, I’m talking about condo owners literally posting signs in their front lawns on the day a chemical lawn care treatment has been scheduled reading, “no 2,4-D” and literally threatening the unfortunate lawn care technician to stay off their property.
If a revolution weren’t enough to cause lawn care services to take a hard look at their product programs, then the legislation being passed or introduced by several states should! In 2010 New York State passed “The Child Safe Playing Field Act” and New Hampshire spent the year studying the impact of pesticides because of the bill HB 1456. The result is the introduction of a new bill that will mandate that pesticides not be used for cosmetic purposes on school grounds. If the actual legislation itself isn’t a wake up call to the aforementioned lawn care services then the reaction of the parents of the school children will have to be.
What is Mommy going to do when she finds out the government has decided that chemical weed control and chemical insect control is too dangerous to be used around her children at school? She is going to ask Daddy what they use in the back yard around the swing set and she isn’t going to like the answer. The chemical lawn care services will have to add another cancel code to their software and call it the “angry mommy cancel.” Why are parents angry? Why should they be angry enough to cancel their lawn care service? Well, aside from the fact that they want to keep their kids safe, they should also be angry that they have been mislead by their lawn care providers. When a customer finds out they have been lied to and that the lie in question involves the health of their children they do more than just cancel. They get their friends, neighbors and families to cancel too. For the companies in denial of this, times are about to get very difficult.
The dinosaurs and green washers will continue the fight until their new sales no longer replace their cancels. There is nothing worse for a company that is struggling with an image problem to be wrapped up in denial and narcissism — and the similarities to the tobacco company executives are almost scary. The giant corporate companies that treat, literally millions of lawns, are apt to try to make some sort of a change but it’s impossible to turn around an ocean liner on a dime. I’m afraid there is a little bit of ignorance, if not a literal generational gap at the decision making levels of these companies that aren’t going to help profits as cancels continue to mount. (A Scotts Miracle Gro representative at a home show told me this year that they only offer a ‘synthetic organic’ program. I said, “Synthetic organic?” He said, “Yup, synthetic organic.”)
Now what about the fast adapters and the transitional companies? Just google “organic lawn care” followed by any city and you will find at least one or two companies that are presenting themselves as a truly organic option for homeowners interested in reducing their dependence on lawn chemicals. There are a few out there who are legitimately changing the face of the industry; many are slowly introducing a more sensitive way to treat lawns, but slow is better than denial.
These companies literally did not exist even a couple of years ago. Even though the demand is growing exponentially for chemical free lawn care services, it isn’t as easy as you would think to simply plug in a chemical free program where the chemical intense program used to be. It isn’t an apples-for-apples switch and the philosophy is completely different. This is exactly why the narcissists and dinosaurs are failing and the ground-breakers are succeeding.
If you are a lawn care business owner, no matter what side of the fence in the lawn you find yourself, you better be prepared for some big time changes (opportunities?) in 2011. Make it your goal to help, not hurt, the cause. Take a good look at your cancels and sales numbers and think about how the image you portray is directly related to them. Are you being honest with your customers? Are you charging them appropriately for the service you are providing? Do they know what you are applying? If the answer to any of these questions is even a maybe/maybe not, you will have to take a hard look in the mirror this off season and ask yourself if you are even being honest with yourself.
Change is coming and if you aren’t ready for it, well, unfortunately your numbers won’t hide the truth as well as you do.