Winnipeg contractor cuts lawns in style

Joey Daigle has never cut a head of hair in his life, yet he still considers himself a barber. “You don’t want just anyone cutting your lawn,” says the owner of Lawn Stylists, located in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “No, you want someone to style it, and that’s what we do. We consider ourselves to be the barbers of lawn care.”

The barbers have their hands full today, styling lawns for 60 commercial accounts, six residential accounts and one large estate. To each customer, they bring a full service repertoire that, in addition to cutting and trimming grass, includes aeration, fertilization, sprinkler system repairs, and installing and maintaining landscape and flower beds. In fact, each year the company will typically install 20,000 flowers.

Lawn Stylists gets the job done with eight full-time and three parttime employees, a full complement of top-of-the-line commercial equipment, and a detail-oriented management approach that brings order to what can be a less than orderly business.

Details, Details, Details

If you’re not an orderly person, then the word “detail” can bring the hair up on the back of your neck. For Joey Daigle, however, details and order grease the wheels that drive his business and his barber shears. “I’m very organized,” Daigle admits. “I think I got part of this from working several years as a head manager at a McDonald’s restaurant and as a supervisor for Kentucky Fried Chicken. I recall one day when an employee asked me where those 16-ounce cups were in the storeroom. After finding them in a different location for who knows how many times, I built a special rack for them, and for the other restaurant supplies. I was never asked that question again.

“Getting organized may slow you down at first, but it speeds up any operation in the long run. We have a schedule for cleaning and maintaining all of our equipment, every tool has a place in our enclosed trailer, and I’m fastidious about checking weekly, monthly and yearly operational reports. Our company has less downtime than most because we are organized, and our customers win out in the long run, again because we are organized. In my mind, taking care of the little details makes the difference between doing a good job or doing a very good job. It’s all part of our friendly, caring and thorough service package.”

Speed and details seem to be especially important in Winnipeg where the season is short and competition is intense. Lawn Stylists begins its season on April 15 and closes up shop on October 31. In between, crews split the work week in half, working part of the week as one team, mowing and maintaining large commercial accounts, and working the other part as two teams maintaining smaller commercial and residential accounts. Crew members, comprised of highly motivated college-aged workers, cut grass on Monday through Friday. Daigle devotes Friday afternoons and Saturdays to designing and installing landscape beds. Sunday is for equipment maintenance, he adds.

From Burgers To Mowers

Lawn Stylists hung its proverbial barbers pole in 1989. “At the time, I was working seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day in the restaurant business, so I decided to go into business for myself,” Daigle explains. “Knowing that Winnipeg residents like coupons and other promotions, I developed a coupon in the spring that offered a free yard mowing to anyone who retained me to clean their yards. I placed the coupons under the windshield wipers of more than a few cars — and I was in business.”

Daigle moved his new business along with one push mower and one weed trimmer, and for the first two years, supplemented his income by repairing photo copiers. At the end of his second year, he had enough customers to go into business full-time. Having outgrown his push mowers, Daigle purchased a $3,000 Honda rider on his wife’s credit card, and transported it from site to site in the back of their conversion van. He later added a Simplicity rider to his lineup.

“I took a pretty good pay cut in those first few years,” Daigle remembers, “but it has been worth it. I work just as hard, if not harder, now. But I truly enjoy what I’m doing and I like being outside.” His job became a little easier in the fall of 1993 when he bumped into a Walker distributor at a shopping center parking lot. The distributor asked him to try a Walker Mower for a week. “I didn’t like it at first,” remembers Daigle. “I was accustomed to operating a steering wheel rider and had never even been on a zero-turn mower. But the more I drove it, the more I liked it.”

Daigle liked the mower enough to buy a new 20-hp model the following spring, and he purchased a second one three years later. He has operated two Walker Mowers ever since then. Today, he operates two 26-hp models with 48-inch GHS decks.

“With my Walkers, I get a lot more done in a lot less time,” says Daigle. “In addition to giving me the kind of cut I want, the mowers are dependable and very versatile. I think the only trouble I’ve had over the years was a couple of broken belts. We broke a deck gearbox once, but that was our fault, not the mower’s.”

Lawn Stylists also employs the rotary broom attachment, which, Daigle says, is ideal for sweeping snow off drives and removing sand from boulevards. It can also be used as a power rake. Crews also operate two Walker dethatchers in the spring.

The Walker Mowers save so much time that Daigle has offered a couple of customers a $20-per-month maintenance discount if they would widen their gates so he could use his Walkers. As he explains, time is money in the competitive Winnipeg market. The trick is to do it faster … and better than the competition. The Walkers help on both fronts.

Daigle’s crews put anywhere between 50 and 75 hours a month on their Walkers, and the company trades them in every 2.5 years. As “the barber” says, “By trading in my mowers I get updated machines, and I’m a stickler on image. I want my equipment to look nice, if not new. From my trucks, trailer and mowers to my stationery, I believe in casting a good shadow. The truth is: People will pay a little more for image.”

Tough Market

There’s not much room for error in the Winnipeg market. Lawn Stylists tries to get $25 per manhour for maintaining properties, and pays its employees a starting wage of $9 per hour. To make ends meet, the owner has to be as efficient and competitive as he possibly can be all the time, and make his money when and where he can. That’s one reason his target market over the years has shifted from residential to commercial accounts.

“I started with all residential accounts, but gradually made my way into the commercial sector,” Daigle relates. “It was a slow process, at first. A few of my homeowner customers asked me to maintain their commercial properties. Once people see you on a property, the word spreads.

“Commercial properties are easier for me than residential, in part because of my restaurant background. I know what managers expect from a contractor because I’ve been there. Residential accounts, on the other hand, are more time-consuming with less return. In fact, I believe residential accounts take up 90% of my cell time today, and account for less than 10% of our revenue.”

Of its commercial accounts, Lawn Stylists maintains 70% of the McDonald’s restaurants in Winnipeg and all the KFC restaurants. Roughly 95% of its properties are irrigated and all are on sevenmonth service contracts. The company gave up snow removal last year. Now, Daigle spends his winters maintaining equipment and designing flower beds.

“Landscape design has been a good profit center for us,” says Daigle, “and it has helped set us apart from other contractors in the area.” Also setting the company apart is a team of enthusiastic young people. “I have a great rapport with my employees,” Daigle adds. “They are responsible, hard workers, and I simply enjoy being around them. I think they help me stay young, too.”

To show his appreciation for their hard work, Daigle throws a year-end party across the border in North Dakota. He rents a limo and off they go to celebrate the day away. Afterward, a few of his employees will begin collecting unemployment; others will continue with their education. Another, Mike Thorwesten, has been with Daigle for six years and recently took over his snow accounts. For him, the second season begins in November, if not before.

As for Daigle, what’s a barber to do when the hair stops growing? Just sharpen the shears, adjust the chair, and wait for the growing season to begin again.

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