Banking on his Walker

For 21 years, Bob Vickery, owner of The Planter’s Touch in Easley, South Carolina, put on a suit and tie in the morning and went to work at a bank. That began to change the moment he handed in his notice on October 1998 and two months later walked out the door for the last time.

The former bank senior vice president had suddenly entered a new world. “This was a huge step of faith for me and my family,” relates Vickery. “The bank had been my first job out of college. I had some money saved up, but we didn’t have insurance (other than COBRA for a year), and I had nothing lined up for work. There were some mission opportunities available, but other than that, it was uncharted territory.”

walker-talk-volume-27-5_1Two months after quitting, he believed the Lord was leading him to turn his gardening hobby into a new career. He prayed about the idea with his wife, Cile, and by the spring of 1999, The Planter’s Touch was a reality. The former banker already owned a 1973 pickup. All he needed was a trailer and some equipment. He purchased a new trailer, and then followed up with a new 25-hp GHS Walker Mower with a 48-inch deck. A Honda push mower and string line trimmer rounded out his equipment lineup.

“My first customer was a friend of mine at the bank,” Vickery recalls. “Then, I picked up a couple of other accounts. We started out slow, and that was a good thing. I was wellversed on the business side of running a business, but I needed time to get more horticulture training. Yes, I had some skills, since I was an avid gardener, but I wanted and needed some formal training, as well.”

Mile-Long Smile

Vickery still remembers those first couple of months when he was riding his Walker or renovating a flower bed. “I must have had a smile on my face a mile long. I couldn’t believe people were actually paying me for something I truly enjoyed doing.” The best thing? After being in business six years, he still has that smile.

Today, The Planter’s Touch has 22 full-service maintenance customers and another 50 lawn care accounts. Revenue is divided equally between maintenance/lawn care and installation services, with most customers located in high-end residential areas in and around Greenville. During the growing season, Vickery will spend three days maintaining lawns and the other two doing installation projects.

"One customer recently remarked that it was a shame for me to waste my education and training on landscaping,” says Vickery. “I told him that when I look at an income statement now, it is my income on the statement. I cannot think of a better way to make my education pay off!”

The new venture, though, was not without its challenges. One of the biggest ones was determining what to charge customers, he relates. “I was fortunate to have a landscaper friend who took me around to a few of his properties. From him, I learned how to estimate jobs. I didn’t, and still don’t, price by the hour; I price by the job, but I know how much time I will spend on each property.”

walker-talk-volume-27-6_1He continues, “My Walker has been instrumental in our success, too. From the beginning, I wanted one because it was ideal for the small, heavily landscaped properties I would be maintaining. I knew it was more costly than other mowers on the market, but you get what you pay for. That is exactly what I tell my customers when I point to the Walker Mower on my trailer. I tell them that this is the best mower money can buy, and that is one reason why I am not the least expensive landscape contractor. I use good equipment and do a good job. My customers understand.”

The owner of The Planter’s Touch does not do much hard selling or self-promoting. His work does the talking and selling for him. In fact, he claims never to have spent a dollar on advertising, except for the sign on his trailer and a couple of property signs. Vickery adds that he doesn’t even have a company logo on his shirt. “I thought about a specially designed shirt, but then I realized it was just myself working, so why bother. Instead, I wear the same uniform every day – slacks, a shirt with a collar, and a hat. I wore blue oxfords (old bank shirts) for a couple of years because I had plenty of them on hand, but they finally wore out.”

A South Carolina certified nursery professional and a certified pesticide applicator, Vickery takes pride in being able to identify diseases and insects, and to fashion beautiful-looking landscapes. As he puts it, The Planter’s Touch is selling its knowledge and ability to get the job done, as much as it is selling an end product. “I think landscape contractors oftentimes sell themselves short by not factoring their education and experience into their prices,” he adds.

On A Limb

An owner/operator may not generate the same income as a bank vice president, yet Vickery is doing what he wants without the pressures that come with being a banker. His drawer is also filled with “Thank You” notes from customers, something he rarely received at the bank.

Staying small has its advantages and disadvantages. It has allowed The Planter’s Touch to avoid labor issues, although the company leans on employee, Josh Putnam, and neighbor Bob Dockham, to get through busy seasons and large installation projects. Still, Vickery spends most days working alone, which has two distinct downsides: Summer vacations are hard to come by and if you get hurt, you can be out of business.

Last year, while sawing a limb with a chain saw, he fell off a ladder. The fall drove the chainsaw he was operating into the dirt, splitting the ball of his arm into numerous pieces and separating his shoulder. His business flashed before his eyes, but he says his strong faith in the Lord and a real blessing saved the day. He underwent surgery the following week to repair the damage and the pieces miraculously went back together and held as the surgeon manipulated his shoulder. No incision was made. A friend and fellow Walker owner took over his business for six weeks while his arm was healing.

“At first, I thought the cast would allow me to operate the Walker,” Vickery remembers. “In fact, I told the doctor that all I needed was to be able to move the fingers on my left hand. But the cast never allowed the arm to get into position.” The arm healed and before long, The Planter’s Touch was back at it. Tree work, though, became a service in the past tense. 

Spiraling Costs

One of the biggest concerns for any size operator is the upward spiral of all business-related expenses. A 60 to 70 percent increase in the price of gas alone cost The Planter’s Touch $1,300 this past year, some of which was recouped with a $10 increase on maintenance contracts and 5 percent across the board increase on other accounts.

“There is no way to make up all the increases,” Vickery emphasizes. “All an operator can do is use his or her head and find savings where they can be found. As for myself, I am economically minded. I like saving money as much as I like making money.” To keep health insurance premiums in line, Vickery utilizes a high deductible Health Savings Account which offers him a tax deduction and the ability to accumulate funds for medical expenses. He either buys in bulk or out of season to get a price break, and mowing accounts are grouped close together to optimize travel. He says the new Walker Mower he purchased last year, powered by a 26-hp Kohler with electronic fuel injection, gets significantly better fuel economy than his old mower. For an owner/operator the savings don’t add up to a lot of money, but every little bit counts, especially for a former banker who understands the cost of doing business.

walker-talk-volume-27-4_1In a twist of fate, Cile now assumes the role of banker – the company’s chief financial officer. She pays the bills, does the invoicing, and tracks the costs. In the meantime, Vickery thoroughly documents all expenses on every property. The fact that the business operates on a cash basis means he can literally look at his check book anytime to see if it is making money. Documenting what he has done on a property and how much time and money he spent is critical from two perspectives: The record indicates if he’s making a profit on an account, and it allows him to easily convey to customers what work has been done on their properties.

After only six years in business, Vickery no longer accepts new lawn care customers and he has put a cap on maintenance. Growth in either area would cause him to cut back on his gardening hobby – installation projects. It is a nice problem to have, he admits, and one that doesn’t keep him up at night. Does he ever long to return to the banking arena? “Never,” he adds. “I have never once regretted doing what I am doing. The only complaint I have is that when I was a banker I had the bestlooking yard in the neighborhood. Now, I’m ashamed to admit how bad it looks. There are only so many hours in a day and my customers take top priority.”

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