Family Mows Together, Grows Together

It’s a picture perfect Colorado morning in Grand Junction. The blue sky and distant mountains provide the ideal backdrop for four Walker Mowers and a John Deere wide-area mower making their way across the green expanse.

The scene is a county park, one that Grand Mesa Landscape Maintenance has been mowing for two years. With 28 acres of turf that require mowing twice a week, the park is no “walk in the park.” Add this project to 73 other commercial and residential properties, and it’s easy to see why company owners Deb and Rick Wieker find little time to vacation during the long growing season.

The couple started mowing lawns in 1989 and today offers a maintenance regimen for customers that includes one or two aerations a year, five fertilizer applications, weekly mowing and trimming, pruning and irrigation maintenance.

“Because we receive only seven inches of rain here annually, every property we maintain is irrigated,” says Rick. “We start irrigation systems in late-March to mid-April and close them down in mid-October to early-November. In between, I’d guess we mow somewhere around 70 acres of turf a week—enough to keep us out of trouble. A few of the commercial accounts also have snow removal as part of their yearly contract.”

The Wiekers have a busy schedule, each spending upwards of 60 to 70 hours a week providing maintenance services. Rick does most of the pruning and trimming, and also maintains the equipment. Deb runs the mowing crews, does the billing and handles all the other financial chores. In addition to the lawn care business, Rick also works part-time for FedEx.

 

walker-talk-volume-30-3_1The Wiekers’ business is going strong, but it wasn’t always that way. In 1989 Rick had a full-time job and Deb was going to school to be a nurse, while also working full-time as the program director at a local television station. Since Grand Junction’s economy had gone through a boom-bust cycle, Rick wanted to do something that provided a degree of security. With two young daughters, 2-yearold Jessica and 6-year-old Dawn, Deb wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. The answer: Buy a mower.

So the Wiekers did. They started mowing lawns with a used 48-inch Exmark mid-size walk-behind and a used Craftsman 21-inch walk-behind inherited from Deb’s dad. They maintained 10 to 15 properties in their first year. Deb obtained the work by walking many miles with “little ones” in tow, passing out flyers to prospects and asking for their business. Later that year, they replaced their Craftsman with a Honda 22-inch walk-behind. A couple of years later they added a John Deere 38-inch mid-size walk-behind mower for good measure, along with the first of many county parks.

The business grew gradually, with both Deb and Rick doing double time taking care of their growing family and working other jobs to keep money coming in. “It was tough going,” remembers Deb. “Many times, we held our breath, hoping that a payment going to the bank cleared before outgoing checks were cashed. Yes, we work hard today, but it’s an earned luxury not to worry about how much money we have in our checking account. We never believed in borrowing money to buy equipment, which means we never had a lot of money in the bank.”

Turning Point

In 1996 Rick and Deb landed a 7- acre county park. They suddenly needed a mower that would handle a bigger job and still be useful as a detail mower on residential properties. “Rick had been talking for a long time about a Walker Mower,” Deb relates. “We purchased a 1994, 20-hp GHS from our local dealer, Delta Implement, along with a used 42-deck and new 54-inch deck. The total bill came to $8,400. That was a lot of money for us back then, but it was the right move.”

With two decks, the purchase allowed the Wiekers to maintain large and small properties. Furthermore, they were riding instead of walking for the first time in their business. The mower brought along other efficiencies, too.

“The GHS model was perfect for our residential properties,” Rick explains. “The mower was maneuverable and left a nice cut, and the hopper could hold a lot more grass than those on the small walk-behind mowers. We’ve even enlarged some of our customers’ gates to get the Walker Mowers into the back yards. Truthfully, we wouldn’t be mowing today without the Walkers.”

Since 1996 Grand Mesa Landscape Maintenance has purchased five new Walker Mowers and four pre-owned Walkers. They’ve added a Walker Mower to their equipment inventory approximately every two years, trading one off when it reaches or nears the 2,500-hour mark. Today, four Walkers, including three GHS models, are equipped with 42-, 48-, 54- and 62-inch decks. Deb says she prefers the 26-hp models because of their fuel economy.

Grand Mesa was first in the area to purchase factory headlights for their Walker, and the company also owns a snow blade with implement attachment and one of the first Perfaerators sold in the Valley. Last year, Delta Implement delivered a 70-inch John Deere rider to help with maintaining the large county park. “We’ve mowed the park with two Walkers,” Deb adds, “but the ground can be a bit rough in spots, and the Deere is faster.” Says Rick, “We swear by the Walkers, but every machine has its place.”

Growing As A Family

After 18 years in the business, Rick and Deb have discovered ways to make life easier and the business more profitable. “This is not easy work,” Deb emphasizes. “Six years ago, we had a custom trailer made to hold our four Walkers and a space to dump clippings. We simply pull up to the landfill and hydraulically dump the clippings. It’s very easy to operate. Then, in late 2005, I compressed two discs in my neck just lifting the trailer tailgate. We have since added a tailgate-assist device.”

The Walker Mowers have enhanced profitability—so has grouping property areas together. The Wiekers are also vigilant about maintaining equipment and leveraging the dynamics of running a family business.

walker-talk-volume-30-5_3Unlike many companies that have grown by adding employees, Grand Mesa has grown as a family. Jessica and Dawn were literally raised around the Walkers, first accompanying their parents to job sites in the early days, and then, after the purchase of the first Walker, jumping on the mowers to help them out after school, on the weekends and during the summers. Both have separate careers now, but they still help out when needed and have fond memories of working with their parents.

“It’s hard to explain,” says Dawn, who teaches Spanish at a charter school. “When you spend so much time working with your parents, you develop a special relationship with them. You really get to know them. I think that is something most children now lack.” Jessica adds, “They get to know us, too. We know what everyone else is thinking, almost to the point of reading each other’s minds.”

Both daughters have also developed a strong work ethic, and they have some skills that others could only imagine. Jessica handles a Walker like it’s second nature, and Dawn can back up a trailer almost blindfolded. “I worked for an outfitter for a couple of years,” she recalls. “The first time my boss asked me to back up a trailer, he was skeptical. When I easily maneuvered it, he couldn’t believe his eyes.”

Hearing the discussion, Deb just smiles, adding, “The main reason we started the business was to keep our children out of day care. We wanted to raise them as a family and spend as much time as we could around them. It wasn’t easy. As they were growing up and getting involved in school activities, we found ourselves taking time off from work during the day to attend an event. Then, later in the evening, we would mow the parks with headlights on to see where we were going. But I would never trade the experience for anything.”

The couple has reaped other side benefits. Both of their daughters’ boyfriends have been employed by Grand Mesa. Jessica’s fiancé, Joshua, mows with them in between working a split shift for FedEx. Dawn’s boyfriend, Ryan, was an employee until he recently took a job with Outward Bound.

Things are changing, Rick and Deb admit. “We’ve all enjoyed the business, but maybe it’s time to back off a bit and stop putting in those long hours,” says Deb. Rick notes that he wouldn’t mind a four-day week, either, but right now it’s full speed ahead. The children have grown up, but the business has grown, too. There are still plenty of lawns that need mowing.

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