Some people were born to do one thing in life. For Mike Crawford, it was mentoring young people in search of their own purpose. As it turned out, mowing lawns was the perfect avenue to help carry out his mission.
Mike started Lawn Masters of Springfield in the late 1980s when the lawn service industry was still in its infancy. “I got going at just the right time when there were only a couple of other companies in this area,” Mike recalls. He quickly established a reputation for being reliable and professional, a reputation that has allowed his company to flourish for the past 33 years. More importantly, Mike has been able to provide jobs to dozens of people who really needed them.
With an underlying desire to help lift other people up, Mike originally had his sights set on a career in social work.
“I grew into alcoholism and was a pretty wild teenager,” Mike shares. “My life was basically falling apart when my girlfriend’s parents introduced me to Christianity. My life changed completely, and I found a whole new direction.”
That direction was to help other young people cope with the same types of challenges he had wrestled with. Mike moved from his hometown of Indianapolis to Springfield, Missouri, to attend Evangel University. While earning his degree in social work, he also got a job at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.
“I worked there for a year or two, but it was really tough and I wasn’t making much money,” Mike says. “But I still wanted to make an impact on people’s lives. I had developed a bond with two young brothers I stayed in touch with after I’d left the rehab center. I also got involved in the youth ministry. Then I got this idea that I should start some kind of business to help some of these kids learn how to work.”
From Shining Shoes to Striping Lawns
There is a saying, “That business was started on a shoestring budget.” Well, Mike Crawford started his lawn maintenance business on not only a shoestring budget, but also a shoeshine stand.
Mike Crawford is owner of Lawn Masters of Springfield in Springfield, Missouri. Mike bought his first Walker Mower in 1991.
“I don’t know where it came from, but I got it in my head to start a shoeshine business,” Mike says. After a string of good luck, the business started to shine.
“The business just blew up,” Mike says, adding that it was back in the 1980s when everybody still wore dress shoes. The experience opened Mike’s eyes to the potential of entrepreneurship. It also gave him an opportunity to continue his mission of mentoring.
“I started hiring young people to help me,” Mike says. One of those employees was one of the brothers Mike had developed a bond with at the rehab center. The spiritual fulfillment of helping lift that boy up was far more rewarding than the wads of cash that were filling Mike’s pockets from polishing shoes.
The other thing that was becoming quite polished was Mike’s gift for gab.
“I just love talking to people,” Mike relates. “I guess that is the social worker in me. I love talking to people and finding out what their needs are. A couple of my regular customers started asking me if I ever thought about mowing lawns. I hadn’t because I didn’t even know that could be a business. This was in the late 1980s when there weren’t any lawn maintenance companies around here, at least none that I’d heard of.”
In any event, Mike Crawford had discovered another unmet need. One of his shoeshine employees was a young man from the East Coast who actually had lawn care experience. So Mike decided to start a small mowing operation and gave that young man an opportunity to help run it.
Like the shoeshine business a couple of years earlier, Mike’s mowing business quickly blew up. Within a year or so, he could no longer juggle both businesses. Mike Crawford was now in the mowing business full time.
Lawn Masters of Springfield continues to serve the same mix of customers today, primarily high-end residential properties with a few retirement communities and smaller commercial sites mixed in. And what about that young boy Mike had developed the bond with at the rehab center? His name is Vernon Wells. He traded in his shoeshine rag for a string trimmer and became an integral part of Lawn Masters of Springfield for the next 30-plus years.
The Right Motivation with the Right Tools
Mike Crawford started out mainly using push mowers. “I also had one of those old Snapper riding mowers like Forrest Gump used, but it wasn’t any better,” Mike says with a chuckle. As the new customer requests continued pouring in, it didn’t take long for Mike to identify another need. Only this time, it was his need—the need to become more efficient.
“A wealthy person in town called me about mowing his property,” Mike recalls. “So I went over to his house to look it over. When I pulled up, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this has got to be at least seven acres, and all I have is a belt-drive walk-behind.’ That is when I realized I needed something different in order to keep up.”
A short time later, Mike was walking the aisles of a local farm show when he first laid eyes on the Walker Mower.
“I thought, ‘This could really help me out,’” Mike recalls. “We live in an area with a lot of leaves and varied working conditions. I thought this Walker Mower could be something I’d use for just about everything all year long.”
Mike bought his first Walker Mower in 1991. Within a few years he was up to three crews and three Walkers. From there he settled into a rhythm of replacing one mower every few years. “I think I’ve bought 12 or 13 Walkers over my career,” Mike says. Today he has three Model T’s, each with a 48- inch deck and between 500 and 1,200 hours. He uses his mowers to not only cut and catch grass, but also to clean up leaves and even shrub clippings. “There is nothing like it in terms of efficiency,” he says.
The Lawn Mowing Mentor
For the most part, Lawn Masters of Springfield has remained a three-crew operation over the course of its 33 years in business. But the company has also gone through some changes. It expanded into fertilizing and chemical applications many years ago, services that Mike continues to personally deliver today. Mike has also experimented with different labor pools to help staff his crews.
In the company’s early years, Mike leaned heavily on college students and church acquaintances for employees. Motivated by his social worker instincts, Mike then looked to inner city youth. Results were mixed, however, so he searched for a different approach.
“I started hiring people who were in-between jobs when the economy wasn’t so great,” Mike says. “Then when the job market picked back up, I started to look for a different labor pool. That’s when I saw another unmet need in society. There were a lot of men in their 30s who, for whatever reasons, were struggling to get their lives on track. So I decided to create a mentoring program.”
In addition to providing a job, Mike provided financial counseling and other guidance. Mike ran some ads on the careers website Indeed and was pleasantly surprised by the response.
“I always told these young men that lawn care can be a wonderful profession, but it can also be a great stepping stone,” Mike says. “If they would come work with me for a year or two, it would prepare them to get another job if that’s what they were looking to do.”
One employee Mike has been mentoring for the past several years, Ryan Escalante, discovered that he wanted to make a career out of lawn care. “The plan is to sell Ryan one of my trucks, trailers and Walker Mowers so he can take over one of our routes,” Mike says. “I will continue to mentor him in business and other areas as he branches out on his own.”
As that plan unfolds, Mike is now looking to take a step back from the daily grind.
“When we were growing like crazy and running three crews plus myself, most days felt like I was working more for my employees than they were for me,” Mike relates. “Now my goal is to hang onto enough accounts that I can work a few days a week mowing and treating lawns. That will allow me to devote more time to the mentoring I love to do.”
Mentoring has always been at the heart of Mike Crawford’s pursuit of entrepreneurship. It’s why he started shining shoes and mowing lawns in the 1980s, so it’s only logical that is how he wants to finish his very inspiring, somewhat unpredictable career.