Aggressive growth plans put emphasis on selection and maintenance

Not every contractor wants to be big. There's a reason. Being big means incurring more overhead in the form of employees, equipment and property. Large contractors invariably assume more risk and higher insurance premiums than small contractors and there's that feeling of loss of control. So why grow? Making more money probably isn't the answer, at first anyway. There's always a place to put the earnings, and it's usually not in the owners' pockets. But growth has its advantages. If done correctly, it ensures a degree of stability for owners and employees. It also increases a company's exposure in the marketplace, giving it more opportunity to find and win lucrative contracts.

Desert Care Landscaping, Inc., in Phoenix has been on the elevator up since owners Jeff Meyer, Vince Rector and Marc Rector started their company three and one-half years ago by purchasing the assets of another company. In that short length of time, the business has grown from 50 plus employees to close to 150. Today, it does more than $5 million in sales, half in maintenance, the rest in native tree salvage and landscape construction. An impressive equipment lineup includes a fleet of 47 trucks, a couple of wide area and outfront mowers, an arsenal of hand-held equipment, close to 20 walk-behind mowers and nine Walkers, not to mention a couple of backhoes, a crane, a watering truck and a myriad of other support vehicles.

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Going All Out

"We don't pull any punches with our equipment," tells Marc Rector, company fleet and property manager. "We run the best equipment we can buy and follow an aggressive maintenance routine." An understatement to be sure. For example, during the one and one-half-month long scalping season in Phoenix, when lawns are transformed from summer Bermuda grass to winter rye, Walker mowers receive daily oil and filter changes. The heat, dust and generally tough working conditions, combined with seven to nine hours of virtual nonstop operation, dictate machines receive top care, notes Marc. During the regular mowing season, the mowers receive weekly oil and filter changes.

Desert Care's Walker fleet includes a 16-hp '91 unit with more than 3,000 hours on it. Another 16- hp model, a 25-hp unit and six 20-hp models round out the lineup. Each Walker is projected to outlive two engines, each engine accumulating between 2,500 and 3,000 hours. "We have a fortune tied up in equipment," Marc emphasizes. "We can't afford not to have an aggressive preventive maintenance program." The program, which saves time and money, applies to every piece of equipment they own. And it even extends to parts, including blades. Sharp blades allow crews to mow fast and still deliver a quality cut, says Marc. Keeping blades sharp also prolongs blade life, he adds. Dull blades require removing more material from the blades to get them sharp. The process wastes material and the time of the person doing the sharpening.

One small efficiency. Added to others, big efficiencies result. That describes Desert Care's approach to fleet management. You won't find, for example, a mix of truck brands, mowers and hand-held equipment on the property. Having like brands keeps the parts inventory to a minimum, saving on money and space, and it allows the mechanic to become more familiar and efficient with repairs. It all adds up in a hurry, which is the reason Marc is there, to keep that part of the business running smoothly.

walker-talk-volume-07-5_11.jpgThe other side of the business is in good hands, too, with company president Jeff Meyer and Marc's brother Vince, vice president and maintenance division manager. Jeff has a background in business and worked his way through college in the landscape industry. Vince has been in the industry 14 years. Their combined experience has been a great catalyst for growth. Both were working for the same landscape maintenance company when they decided to start Desert Care. Marc put his money into the venture, too, but he kept his full-time job at the time installing Otis elevators in Chicago and Bermuda. "I wanted to give Desert Care a couple of years to get established before I quit my job," Marc relates. He joined the company one and one-half years ago.

Planned Growth

Everything counts in a growing business, Marc emphasizes, including finding and retaining employees. A profit sharing program helps with the latter. When you talk about reinvesting earnings, investing in employees is just as important as investing in your equipment. "Yes, we're in business to make money," tells Marc. ''But we're also in business to secure our future and that of our employees." One way to do that, he adds, is to give employees an incentive to work and to perform at their peak.

Growing companies must also invest in their property. Desert Care owns 4.3 acres of land in Phoenix. Since starting the business, the owners have replaced trees, refurbished and fenced in the parking area, expanded the maintenance shop and added office space. They've also added an outside wash station and installed an in-ground dumpster pit to accommodate landscape debris. The improvements, of course, are only a means to an end: to provide quality service to a wide mix of customers.

Both large and small residential and commercial accounts make up its customer rolls. Currently, it has a full plate of both installation and maintenance projects, including The Islands, one of several large master planned communities in the area. Property superintendent Amey Schweizer says one crew comprised of two Walkers and a trimming crew can maintain all of the turf in two days, not bad considering there is 20 acres of turf to mow. The company's wide area mowers can't be used at The Islands because of undulating terrain and tight turns.

In addition to The Islands, Desert Care has 150 other maintenance accounts, some larger and some smaller in scope. Because of the shear number and mix of customers, the company finds it more efficient to operate crews that are dedicated to mowing and maintenance. The mow crews maintain close to 175 acres of turf weekly, 130 of which are done by Walkers.

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Challenging Conditions

So you want to mow lawns in Phoenix? Think again, if you're not used to the climate. For one, there is no let up. Lawns are maintained all year long, which puts an additional strain on equipment.

"We can't run our equipment to the brink and then take the winter to repair it," relates Marc. "We have to keep equipment in good repair all year long."

The working conditions take their toll on employees, too. This notion that dry heat is more tolerable than areas where there is more humidity is a myth, relates Marc. He admits when he first came to Phoenix the heat was so unbearable, he could not stay outside for any length of time. It's not unusual to see (and feel) daytime temperatures of 120 degrees and that's hot for anyone, anywhere, especially for crews working outside. To combat the elements, employees arrive at 4:30 a.m. and return back to the yard between 1:00 and 2:00p.m. during the summer. In that time, they will have gone through 10 gallons of water per crew.

Pollution from automobiles and an overall concern for the environment puts an unusual twist on doing business in Phoenix, too. Ride-sharing is required by the county to help reduce traffic and emissions. This means that companies like Desert Care can't just establish satellite offices all over the valley and expect employees to travel back and forth. Larger properties allow the company to keep equipment right on site which reduces travel, notes Marc.

The flip side. The company's tree salvage division was literally born out of concern for the environment. Business for that division, just like the construction market in Phoenix, is booming.

Proper selection and maintenance of equipment has played a big role in the evolution of Desert Care Landscaping. With any growing company, keeping a lid on equipment overhead and keeping downtime to a minimum is critical to long-term success. The terms "maintenance" and "selection" apply to customers and employees, too. By fashioning the right customer mix and hiring the right employees, and maintaining both, Desert Care has helped ensure its path to future growth.

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