Travels with Jim follows Jim Huston around the country as he visits with landscapers and helps them understand their numbers to make smarter decisions.

It was late afternoon on the Monday after the New England Patriots had just won their sixth Super Bowl as I drove out of Escanaba, Michigan, in the middle of an ice storm. That day I had worked with Jonas Olson of Olson’s Lawn & Pest. Jonas was putting together a great full-service landscape company in a rather small community.

To say that Escanaba is a bit off the grid is like saying that Mount Everest is a big hill. It lies on the north side of Lake Michigan in what is referred to as Michigan’s “UP” (Upper Peninsula). Because of its heavy snow fall and wide-open country, it’s a popular snowmobile destination. It boasts a population of less than 20,000, which makes Jonas’ success at building a $1 million-plus company even more significant.

I was driving to Detroit where I had a 1 p.m. consultation with a landscape entrepreneur the next day. Weather conditions were terrible and getting worse as I headed toward the Mackinac Bridge over one hundred miles east of Escanaba. The Mackinac Bridge spans the Straits of Mackinac and it connects Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas. It’s also the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere and just 28 feet short of being five miles long.

The good news was that I safely traveled across the bridge. The bad news was that the road that took me the 300 miles from the bridge to Detroit (I-75) was full of potholes. Fortunately, I missed most of the potholes. Unfortunately, there was one that I didn’t.

The damage to the front right wheel of my Honda CIVIC wasn’t immediately noticeable. All appeared fine and nothing seemed to be out of line. However, at 9 p.m. and about 60 miles from my destination, the right front wheel began to vibrate significantly. Before I could pull off of the interstate, the wheel actually came off and I slid onto the right shoulder of I-75. What a pickle!

How it works in the field.

I inadvertently scheduled a consultation with Zech Strauser on Easter day. As it turned out, meeting on “Resurrection” Sunday was quite appropriate. We met and Zech informed me that his entire crew of three men had just quit in order to pursue another opportunity. This was just a few weeks before his season in the Pennsylvania Poconos really got into motion. After discussing his situation, we decided that this was a great time to start from scratch and resurrect his full-service landscape company, Strauser Nature’s Helpers.

Zech and I had previously met at an estimating course that I taught at Rutgers University. A snow storm prevented him from attending the complete course so he had me work with him at his office in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. We created a budget for the upcoming year, reviewed all of his pricing for all of his services and put into place a strategy for the upcoming season. We both knew that it was not going to be easy.

Zech wasn’t one to shirk from a challenge. The fact that he had been home-schooled by his mother, Sharon, for many years probably had a lot to do with his determination to succeed. He was self-reliant and a “go-getter.” With a plan in his hand, he hired a new crew and sold a lot of work.

Where are they now?

Jonas is having a record-breaking year. His top line is far exceeding his expectations. More importantly, his bottom line is on track to do the same.

Fifteen years after Resurrection Sunday, Strauser Nature’s Helpers has over fifty employees and annual sales near $5 million. Due to his vision, perseverance and dogged determination to succeed, his company is a recognized leader in his market. He not only survived his company’s crash of the early 2000s but he and his company have also thrived. Last year Zech won Lawn & Landscape magazine’s Emerging Leader award.

As for me, Colorado AAA came to my rescue. By 2 p.m. the next morning my Honda was sitting in the parking lot of Suburban Honda in Farmington Hills, Michigan, awaiting repairs and I was in my hotel room. I had successfully navigated past some serious bumps in the road and met with my client that afternoon.


We all encounter those times when the wheels come off the wagon. Most of the time the lost wheels are figurative but, as in my case, occasionally you literally lose a wheel or two. You can’t avoid it. The issue isn’t what you’re going to do “if” the wheels come off of your wagon, it’s what you’re going to do “when” the wheels come off of your wagon. Your job is to put the wheels back on the wagon and get on down the road.

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