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Major Changes Coming at ChemLawn?

Lawn Chemical Giant Struggles With Negative Public Perception and May Sell Land Division

First came the name change. In the wake of all the negative publicity that originated with the ChemLawn v. Hudson Supreme Court Case in Canada in 2001 — which ChemLawn lost 9-0 — the parent company of ChemLawn, known as ServiceMaster, began calling its lawn care division TruGreen ChemLawn.

Then on March 19 of 2007, the investment firm of Clayton Dubilier & Rice Inc. purchased all the ServiceMaster brands for a reported $4.7 billion, gaining control of TruGreen ChemLawn and Terminix pest control, as well as Furniture Medic and Merry Maids. With two years, they instructed all their regional managers to paint the ChemLawn logos off their ubiquitous white trucks with the sad dalmatians on the back. They’ve been trying to get people to call the company TruGreen, but clicking on www.ChemLawn.com still takes you to the same place.

All indications are that the fund managers at Clayton Dubilier & Rice have not been happy with their purchase.

“They have ubiquitous service brands, but consumers don’t view them as superior,” said Wall Street analyst CL King & Associates.

It hasn’t helped the company that ChemLawn has been an open target of the burgeoning organic lawn movement. For years, the Toxics Action Center has been running a campaign known as RefuseToUseChemlawn.org. Last year, when ChemLawn offered millions of dollars to sponsor Earth Day, the massively swift reaction from SafeLawns followers and many others demonstrated just how much vitriol is directed at the nation’s largest do-it-for-me lawn chemical company. Earth Day quickly renounced the partnership.

ChemLawn has tried to overcome the perception with new slogans and, in some parts of the country, new programs. “Go Truly Green with TruGreen” was trotted out last year. This year most of the trucks are painted with “TruNatural,” which is reported to be a 100 percent organic option.

Clayton Dubilier & Rice seems to doubt consumers will buy into the greenwashing, however. Numerous sources have told us that ChemLawn intends to free up cash by selling off its land care division to either Brickman Associates or ValleyCrest, two of the largest landscape maintenance firms in the nation. One source told us that a deal will be announced in March, with ValleyCrest buying the Western half of the country and Brickman taking the East.

“Customers who do larger landscape construction jobs are more likely to do some due diligence on-line,” said a long-time consultant to ChemLawn. “The negative name association and customer reviews for the ChemLawn lawn care division reflect negatively on the land care division and, consequently, the land care division is bleeding money.”

The same sources say that Clayton Dubilier & Rice will keep the ChemLawn (TruGreen) lawn care division under the ServiceMaster umbrella for now — since the dump-and-run chemical business model is still highly profitable. Statistics from the National Gardening Association tell us that 90 percent of the nation is still willing to use toxic weed killers and fertilizers on its lawns.

Trends also show us, though, that awareness of lawn chemical toxicity is growing exponentially. Bruce Butterfield, who keeps track of these statistics for the NGA, still predicts that 50 percent of the country will use organic lawn products exclusively within five years. Nationwide legislation is also propelling this momentum, with fertilizer and pesticide ordinances and laws popping up from Maine to Florida and Minnesota to Wisconsin.

The ultimate prediction is that ChemLawn’s days are numbered. It’s a nightmare for a national conglomerate to continue its one-size-fits-all approach to lawn care in an environment where laws and public perceptions vary, literally, from town to town.

And if TruGreen ChemLawn were to truly try to be truly green, that would make its life even more difficult. Truly organic lawn care is best conducted on a yard-to-yard basis, with soil analyses and a custom approach. The training required by the company’s technicians would be a time and expense line that an investment fund will never want to bear.

As I’ve said time after time in my presentations across the country, it’s never been the goal of SafeLawns to put anyone out of business, but rather to talk about a different way of doing business. It appears, however, that too many years of poisoning and disappointing too many people may soon render TruGreen ChemLawn as a historical footnote of a toxic era. The end result will be a regional lawn and land care industry that thrives while being truly, honestly, greener.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

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