David Teper, owner of DiRT Designs in Medina, Ohio, is 43 years old and has been mowing lawns since he was in high school. His early mowing experience, though, was just the beginning. He eventually launched a full-service landscape company and later started a couple of other enterprises, including Grab N Go Firewood and Grab N Go Beverage & Market.
To be sure, his plate is full today. Throughout the week, he mows and maintains 65 mostly high-end residential accounts. From 3 to 9 p.m., you can find him behind the counter at his convenience store or scheduling the delivery of packaged firewood to more than 300 other convenience stores throughout the state.
“Despite my other interests, my heart has always been in landscaping,” says Teper. “When I was a sophomore in high school, I worked at a grocery store after school. When a friend asked me to help him mow, I took him up on the offer. I loved it, enjoyed being outside and living large on $200 a week.”
GOING IT ALONE
The friend soon tired of mowing, but Teper didn’t. He stayed with it, mowing 14 accounts the first year and 28 the next.
“I had an ‘86 Buick Skyhawk with a trailer hitch, a small trailer and a push mower,” he recalls. “After graduation, however, I thought I wanted a different career and enrolled in Cleveland State University’s electrical engineering program. The program wasn’t for me, and suddenly a career mowing lawns and working on landscapes looked a lot more attractive.”
Teper went back to school again, but this time at a small community college where he graduated with an associate’s degree in plant science technology. “I took courses like plant identification, propagation, tree climbing and small engine repair,” he adds. “A professor put me under his wing and helped me set up a legitimate business.” Teper graduated in 1996.
In 2000, taking advice from a classmate, he purchased a used Walker Mower from Emmett Equipment Company in nearby Richfield, Ohio. That was the first of several Walker Mowers he purchased from the dealer. All were refurbished to run almost like new. For the next eight years, he grew his business, at one point employing a couple of crews to maintain 150 accounts. Then the downturn hit in ‘08 and DiRT Designs was forced to scale back. Since then, Teper runs the company on a smaller scale, concentrating more on quality over quantity.
Teper puts his one Walker Mower to work on every property, the goal of which is to make them look as close to perfect as possible, he says. Most are full-service maintenance accounts. In addition to a Walker Mower, DiRT Designs has a Bobcat skid steer and a dump truck. As Teper words it, everything is well-used, including his refurbished Walker Mower, originally a 20-HP model that Emmett Equipment fitted with a 25-HP engine. When he purchased it, he was surprised to find it also had a power dump box.
“The dump box saves so much time and works great with the system I have set up on my trailer,” he explains. “I took the hydraulic dump bed from an old pickup, turned it around and installed it on my trailer. I simply back up onto the trailer, go up a wood ramp I made, and dump the clippings or debris. When the trailer’s bed is full, I hit a switch and dump it hydraulically.”
He continues, “I understand how important it is to look good and have equipment that looks the part, but the end result is what’s truly important. Business owners need to be pragmatic, save money and build their business.”
In Teper’s case, it’s businesses—plural. He started his firewood company in 2012 after helping a friend in the treecare business. The packaged firewood caught fire so to speak and, within a short time, the landscape contractor purchased the business and was delivering to locations throughout the state. Two years ago, one location happened to be a drive-through, a convenience store that lends new meaning to the word convenient. Customers literally drive through, order something (maybea hot dog, candy, soda, beer, gum, coffee, lottery tickets, you name it) and get it delivered right to them in their car.
Within a year, Teper partnered with Chris Handy to build their own Grab N Go Beverage & Market in Medina. “The drive-through has been open a year now and is very well-received by customers,” declares Teper, who hired someone to help with the mowing while he and Handy physically built the store. It is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and closed on Sunday.
The store’s success hasn’t put a damper on the mowing and maintenance business. This Walker Mower user plans to continue to work all three jobs. “My heart is in landscaping,” he reemphasizes. “I’ve had a few customers since I was 16 and I want to keep them as long as I can.”
His career choices keep him busy, as does raising two daughters, Alyssa, 18, and Isabella, 16, with wife Debbie, a professional photographer. He doesn’t have much time to enjoy hobbies like playing the drums, drawing and cooking. Yet Teper still has time to enjoy playing golf with his father, Bob, and vacationing for a few weeks in the Southwest to escape at least part of the harsh Midwest winter.
This Walker Mower user’s story is a bit unusual. Instead of growing his maintenance business, he used his mower and his business relationships to launch a couple of other ventures. Maybe the moves help satisfy a retail gene that likely has been part of his makeup since his high school grocery days while, at the same time, they work to secure his family’s future.