Jason Vahle expected “the skies to part” when his company reached $1 million in revenue. But when Green Thumb Lawn Care N’ Landscape hit that milestone in 2014, Vahle realized he’d need some help to grow it any further. “Everyone talks about it like you hit one million bucks and things get easier after that, but it felt like we made less money even though we did more business,” Vahle says. “I realized that growth is not just about taking everything that comes through the door. You need to find your niche.”
To take his operation to the next level, Vahle decided to purchase a lawn care franchise that would diversify his services while offering centralized support. That fall, he began the process of purchasing a Spring-Green Lawn Care franchise to handle lawn care services, allowing Green Thumb to focus on landscaping and lawn maintenance.
“This allowed me to have the best of both worlds,” Vahle says.
Now in its fifth year, Vahle’s franchise in St. Charles, Mo., is projecting $700,000 in revenue, while Green Thumb is eyeing $1.3 million. A strategically complementary combination, each side of the business helps grow the other.
Vahle’s career started in college, when TruGreen recruited him at a job fair in 1999. He changed his major and went to work for the largest lawn care company in the country, working his way up to operations manager of the St. Louis area within a few years.
Then, with the goal of providing more personal service while leveraging the best practices he learned at TruGreen, Vahle started his own company in 2005. Green Thumb Lawn Care N’ Landscape grew gradually as new hires brought additional skills to the team.
“We started out focusing on mowing and fertilizing, and as I hired more people and expanded my workforce, I essentially expanded my services,” Vahle says. “Hiring good people who knew more than I did was a huge benefit that allowed me to grow.”
Although this inadvertent approach to growth got the company to the $1 million mark, Vahle knew it wasn’t sustainable. To get to the next level of success, Vahle went the franchise route.
Vahle discovered several ingredients that were missing from Green Thumb’s growth formula – like business plans, budgets and balance sheets. Learning how to understand these business fundamentals helped him improve both sides of the business.
He learned to slow down and look at data to make decisions, rather than just going with what I think is a good decision. “We’ve gone from a ‘fly by the seat of our pants’ approach to a more concerted effort. As a result, we’ve had more structured growth,” he says.
Vahle began leveraging data to make more strategic decisions. Since his crews use software that routes them to jobsites and tracks the time and cost associated with each project, he had plenty of data to evaluate. Every winter, he audits this info to assess the company’s performance and identify the highest-profit projects and accounts.
But he doesn’t just look at the numbers. He also discusses trends with his team to get a clearer picture of what’s happening behind the data.
“I talk to my guys and ask them, ‘Why is Mrs. Smith’s property taking twice as long as it did a year ago?’ Maybe she had a new pool put in and they have to push-mow and edge around it now,” Vahle says. “I also sit down with my wife (Laura), who runs the office, and talk to her about it. If that customer is calling in with concerns every week, then we take that into account. If customers take a long time to pay, that’s just a headache we don’t need to put up with. We’re busy, and that offers us the luxury of being picky.”
Using this data, combined with input from his field crews and office staff, Vahle determines which projects actually move the company forward – and which ones hold it back.
“We’ve slowly filtered out things that don’t make us profitable and don’t keep us consistent,” he says. “Although mowing is great for recurring revenue, we’ve curtailed how much maintenance we’re doing, and we’ve explored more services on the hardscape and landscape construction side. That’s helped strategically grow the company.”
When Vahle opened his franchise, he reassured customers that: “It’s the same guys, just wearing different uniforms and driving different trucks. You’re still calling the same office, dealing with the same people.”
Green Thumb continued to offer lawn and landscape maintenance as well as construction of outdoor living areas, patios and retaining walls, while his franchise handles the chemical applications for fertilization, weed control, tree and shrub care and pest control.
Green Thumb has about 17 people in the field, and the franchise side of the business has four lawn technicians and one sales manager. Laura manages the back-office for both companies, with a support staff of two full-time and two part-time employees. While each company employs its own crews, there is some crossover, which benefits both sides.
Green Thumb doesn’t start its season as early as his franchise; they start at the beginning of April, so it gives Green Thumb crews time to help on the Spring-Green side. “Lawn care is only 40-42 weeks out of the year, so the Spring-Green guys cross over into Green Thumb, helping out with leaf clean-ups, snow removal or retaining walls in the wintertime after our H-2B labor leaves,” Vahle says.
The companies also share clients, regularly subbing out work to each other to offer customers a seamless full-service offering.
“A lot of customers on the Green Thumb side are full maintenance; they have their services built into a seasonal contract,” Vahle explains. “In doing that, Spring-Green actually subcontracts Green Thumb to do the additional work or vice versa, depending which side the customer originated from. That allows us to keep the invoicing streamlined and consistent.”
With almost 100 franchise locations across the country, Spring-Green offers national buying power and marketing muscle that Vahle couldn’t generate on his own.
“Spring-Green isn’t just finding me lawn care customers, because people who get their lawns treated also get other services done. Being able to cross-market those customers without paying additional money is a big benefit,” Vahle says. “And we do it both ways; as Green Thumb acquires a mowing customer, (we recommend that they get) fertilization as well to give them the best results possible.”
By setting up each business to focus on its own niche, Vahle leverages both teams’ strengths to grow client relationships.
“When you’re first starting out, you’ll take whatever work you can get, but sometimes that’s not the best work for you,” Vahle says. “As I grow bigger, I keep coming back to the advice that was given to me early on: Find a niche. That allows you to really be strategic about picking your clients and finding projects that work well for your company.”