Fran Meister and his wife, Bretnie, came up with a clever idea for a Christmas card this past December. Fran’s Mowing & Snow Removal in West Liberty, Ohio, had just grown its Walker Mower fleet to seven units. Fran and Bretnie have five children. In other words, there was a Walker for each Meister to sit on. The concept was born, a photo was taken, and the card went out to all their customers.
Fran has been operating Walker Mowers for over 20 years. While he currently owns seven, he has lost track of how many he has bought and traded over the years. Fran operates other brands of mowers, too, carefully matching the right style and size to the application at hand. These days, however, a Walker model is proving to be the right choice on more than one occasion.
“We do a lot of work for schools,” Fran says. “When we’re mowing big, open sports fields, we typically want a larger machine that discharges. But there are certain times of year, such as graduation season in May, where it is also nice to be able to bag.”
Fran’s Mowing doesn’t serve any residential clients anymore. Rather, the company focuses on larger clients like schools and homeowner associations where more labor hours can be billed to a single property. As Fran points out, lawn maintenance contractors make their money providing lawn maintenance services, not driving all over the place from property to property. Providing lawn services is also where the enjoyment is for a contractor, at least a contractor like Fran Meister.
A TROPHY TICKLES THE ENTREPRENEURIAL BONE
Fran first started mowing for money in the mid-1990s while still in high school. He hustled from one residential lawn to the next with his Steiner tractor, a nifty little all-seasons machine built roughly 150 miles away in Dalton, Ohio. Even at this young age, loyalty to the locals meant a lot to Fran.
“I was in the FFA (Future Farmers of America) back in high school, and actually used my mowing business for one of my FFA projects,” Fran recalls. “I ended up winning a couple of awards. This encouraged me to pursue a career in groundskeeping.”
After graduating high school, Fran went off to college to study turf management. He had his sights on a career as a golf course superintendent. But when completing an internship at a local golf course, his eyes were opened to what he really wanted to do.
“I wanted to go back to having my own business,” Fran says. “When working at a golf course, your budget is given to you. You’re at the same place day after day. I really liked the thought of working on different properties and for different customers. I also liked the idea of being more in control of what I was doing.”
After making a commitment to restart his mowing business, Fran made the short journey south to Louisville, Kentucky, to attend the landscaping industry’s largest tradeshow.
“I can’t remember if it was 1997 or 1998, but what I do remember is that this is where I first saw the Walker Mower,” Fran relates. “I was fascinated, and ended up buying one about a year later.”
Even though 22 years have elapsed, Fran remembers the feeling he got when he first started mowing with his new Walker. “I actually got a little mad at it,” he says with a chuckle. “It was so comfortable and did such a good job, but I was a dedicated Steiner guy. There was no getting around the fact that it really outdid my Steiner, though. Since that time, we’ve always had a Walker around.”
CASTING A TIGHTER NET
Fran’s Mowing & Snow Removal has grown and changed a lot over the 22 years it has been in business. At the same time, a few things have remained constant — especially Fran’s desire to provide year-round grounds management.
“For anyone starting out in the lawn care business, you get what you can get because you have to make some money,” Fran says. “When I think back 10 or 12 years ago, we were servicing around 80 properties. Now we service around 40. They are larger properties, though, and we provide more services.”
On the day Walker Talk visited, all seven Walker Mowers were buzzing around a vast commercial property that includes a mix of condos and an assisted living facility. All five employees and Fran and Ivan were spending the entire day there. It’s the kind of account Fran dreams of these days.
“We looked at our customer base and asked ourselves, who will hire us all year round?” Fran says. “We’ve had to plow snow on a lot of Christmases over the years, but that’s just how it goes.”
Snow removal has become an increasingly significant part of Fran’s business. He leases two skid-steer loaders that remain parked at two huge parking lots his company has been hired to plow. When it snows, an employee drives directly to a lot to hop in a loader and start plowing. Another employee comes by later with a salting truck. Several other snow removal accounts are managed with the typical truck-plow-spreader setup.
“I actually have more people working for me during the winter because a lot of farmers and asphalt contractors are looking for work,” Meister says. “So that works out great. Landscaping season is different. It is becoming difficult to find people. Thankfully, I have some really good ones who’ve been with me a while. I don’t know why, but it seems like the magic age is 30-plus. That said, I’ve also had luck with college students working seasonally. By the time college lets out in late May, we typically have seven employees working full-time.”
One other “student” who has become a reliable employee is Fran’s oldest son, Ivan. Fran and Bretnie started homeschooling Ivan when COVID hit last year. Bretnie says it has been a blessing to see how much Ivan has blossomed over the past year. Part of that development can be attributed to the experience of working with his father.
“Ivan has gotten really good at running a Walker,” Fran says with an ear-to-ear smile. “I pay him, of course, but I sock that money away or he’d spend it all on eBay.”
TAKING CARE OF TURF
Providing mowing and snow plowing services helps Fran’s Mowing appeal to larger customers like HOAs, schools and businesses. What really sets the company apart is Fran’s background in turf management. His turf care regimen works harmoniously with his lawn mowing regimen.
“We always apply a late-winter fertilizer treatment,” Fran explains. “That way we get a lot of nice top growth in early spring, which is why we have to bag our grass at least through May, especially on front lawns and sports fields. Once we get into June, we start to monitor things. If the growth slows down enough, we’ll start switching over to mulching decks to start recycling the grass back into the lawn. Whatever we’re doing, we use 48-inch decks.”
Fran has also invested in a couple of 64-inch rear-discharge decks. “These are really great in the open areas we mow, as well as back yards,” Fran relates. “This way our employees don’t have to worry about blowing grass onto flower beds, houses or windows. A rear-discharge deck takes that potential problem and puts it away.”
Fran Meister likes to put problems away. Sometimes a better piece of equipment is the answer, and sometimes a better work process is what’s needed. In any event, Fran’s 22-year career has been all about learning from experience.
One “problem” Fran can’t seem to get around is the fact that his Walker dealer is more than two hours away. That’s why he is on a strict three-year trade-in cycle.
“We like to upgrade two mowers a year,” Fran says. “We’re typically putting around 1,000 hours on before we replace. Our dealer, Emmett Equipment, is great. They walk us through things over the phone and ship us parts. But we’ve had to learn how to work on our mowers because we don’t have that kind of time to spare during the growing season.”
Just another problem Fran Meister and his outstanding team have learned to put away over the years. ˜