When Laura Breeze and her family moved from New Zealand to Calgary in 1977, landscaping was the furthest thing from their minds. Laura was a nursery school teacher, and husband Rex worked as a building operator for a property management firm. When the firm's maintenance contractor failed to show up one week, Rex's boss asked if he knew someone who could mow the lawn. Laura volunteered, and she's been mowing ever since.
The year was 1984, Laura remembers, and she started mowing with one Lawn-Boy mower.
"We only had that job and it paid us around $300 a month," Laura says. "The next year, the same property management firm offered us two shopping centers, and it has been growing ever since."
Today, Breeze Landscaping maintains 65 commercial properties, primarily shopping centers, condominiums, and small office complexes in and around Calgary. The company doesn't advertise, not even on its vehicles, and Laura routinely turns down jobs. Mowing and other maintenance practices, including pest and weed control, provide the foundation for the Breeze operation, an operation that's provided work for the entire family including sons Fred and Dennis, daughter Dulcie and husband Rex.
No Secrets, Just Hard Work
The mowing season in Western Canada runs from mid-April through October. During the spring rush, crews are out mowing by 6:00 a.m. and seldom return home before 9:30 p.m.
"We're a tiny company by most standards and we do a lot of work," tells Laura. "Yet, we've never lost an account because the customer was dissatisfied." Keeping the family involved, she adds, helps maintain quality standards, and ensures that there's a direct line of communication between the customer and the workers.
Laura also credits her equipment lineup that includes two Walker Mowers. "About 10 years ago, Fred was mowing a property with a garden tractor and someone stopped by and said he could speed up our mowing operation considerably. We purchased the Walker, reportedly the first one ever sold in Western Canada, and have never regretted it for a moment. From the very first, I loved their versatility and maneuverability."
Fred likes their quality of cut, reliability, and ease of maintenance which allows him to do 95% of the work on the machines himself. They've also shaved 40% to 50% off his mowing time.
Their first Walker was powered by a 16-hp engine and featured a 36- inch deck. They've since upgraded to 20-hp models with 48-inch grasshandling decks. A 62-inch side-discharge deck waits in the wings for larger properties or when grass is just too wet to catch.
"Walkers are small enough for small areas and big enough for ' most big areas," tells Fred. "But operators have to be realistic. The Walkers can't do everything."
One of the keys to getting optimum performance out of his Walkers, he relates, is to know when to use them, and conversely, when to use other pieces of equipment. He is sold, however, on using a Walker where he can.
Each of the two mowers operates more than 800 hours a season. After two years they're sold for nearly half the original retail price. Laura says the key to their longevity and productivity is preventive maintenance.
"Mowing conditions up here are really difficult," she explains. "It's so dry and dusty we change the oil on the Walkers every 25 hours, sooner if needed. We also clean the machines thoroughly at the end of every day, blowing them off with a backpack blower and washing them down with a pressure washer."
Saving Time And Money
"Nothing beats quality when it comes to saving time and money," tells Fred. "Operators need to look for quality in everything they buy and operate, not just Walkers."
Breeze Landscaping buys quality trim mowers and handheld equipment, and doesn't skimp on pickups as evidenced by a new diesel-powered Dodge that pulls around a recently purchased enclosed trailer.
A 14-foot-long lowboy dump trailer with 4- foot-high sides will also be purchased. After the mowers fill the trailer by backing in and dumping the grass clippings, the double-acting ramp tilts up, allowing the clippings to fall out. That's quite a change from the company's current mode of operation where crew members toss plastic bags full of grass over the side of a pickup.
One reason Breeze doesn't cater to residential accounts is because they're too time consuming for the return on investment. Laura also makes it clear that the company has no interest in snow removal because employees need time to rejuvenate.
Bigger Isn't Always Better
The Breeze family has no intention of becoming the biggest lawn maintenance firm in Calgary. Yes, the company has grown nearly every year since its inception, but growth is controlled.
Controlling growth, however, is easier said than done. When opportunity knocks you either answer the call, or let another company come in.
Hence, Rex is looking to quit his full-time job to work even more hours in the landscaping business. There's also some discussion about adding a third Walker.
Whatever the company does in the future, rest assured there will always be a Breeze and a Walker on every property. "This is definitely going to remain a family operation," tells Laura.