Matt Brooks, right, started the company in 2001, and partnered with Mark Black in 2002.
Photo courtesy of Country Club Lawn & Tree Specialists

Matt Brooks and Mark Black both worked for a large lawn care maintenance company in Illinois’ Metro East area outside of St. Louis. When a national chain acquired the company, the revenue-centered structure presented a dilemma of whose interests to serve: customers or shareholders?

With the goal of putting customers first, Brooks started Country Club Lawn and Tree Specialists in 2001, after working briefly for a competitor. Black stayed with the acquisition for a couple of years before partnering with Brooks in 2002.

“Being locally owned and operated, there isn’t any corporate interest dictating the policies, the chemicals or the hours,” Brooks says. “This allows us to adjust our programs as needed each season and use the best materials to get better lawns.”

Brooks and Black have grown the business by focusing on customer results over revenue.

“Other companies are calling and calling. Even after they’ve sold them, they’re calling to sell them something else,” Brooks says. “We don’t telemarket or upsell constantly. We look at the lawn and say, ‘If this is the expectation, to take your lawn from point A to point B, this is what you need to do.’ It’s not bait-and-switch, tomorrow coming in and saying, ‘No, this is what you need to do also.’”

By focusing on quality over quantity, Country Club achieved a lawn care cancellation rate of about 12 percent. This leads to growth of 12 percent annually in lawn care and 20 percent in annual growth overall.

Rebuilding routes for service.

Lawn technicians come to each property with a goal.

“For most companies, whether national or independent, there are daily goals that technicians must hit. Usually, it’s dollar-driven to generate revenue,” Black says. “However, some of those numbers are unrealistic if you want to provide quality service. This is what we dealt with working for larger companies. Who do you make happy: the shareholders or the customer?” Country Club sets route goals based on satisfaction, not quotas.

“If you make the customer happy, then nine times out of 10, they’re going to give back to you, whether it be referrals or repeat business.” Mark Black, co-owner, Country Club Lawn & Tree Specialists

“If you make the customer happy, then nine times out of 10, they’re going to give back to you, whether it be referrals or repeat business,” Black says. “(We) focus on quality by giving technicians lower daily goals and time to actually take care of the customer. It will cost more in the long run if they lose that customer from a revenue standpoint, but also from a relationship standpoint.”

That means Brooks and Black must schedule accordingly, limiting route size to let crews serve without rushing.

“We try to limit (routes) based on customer base. You can’t do it geographically because outskirt areas have a smaller customer base, and interior areas are much tighter,” Black says. “We have a few subdivisions where we have 50, even 75 customers in one subdivision, so one technician may not have as much travel time as another guy.”

Country Club serves more than 4,500 customers with lawns ranging from 1,000 square feet to two acres. Different yards require handheld equipment, ride-on sprayer-spreaders, or even compact tractors, so routes may overlap to let crews concentrate on yards they’re equipped for. Customer count, density and square footage all factor into the size of each route.

“One thing that's unique to our area is the wide diversity of lawns (from two acres to 1,000 square feet, urban to suburban) so we have employees that we have using specialized equipment in each situation – as far as hand equipment or ride-on sprayer-seeders, and even compact tractor applications,” Brooks says.

“The routing is set up where the technician that has larger lawns, maybe a half-acre or larger, is running machine equipment to do those applications, whereas the hand routes are doing smaller lawns. That allows us to utilize that equipment as efficiently as we can.”

Employees can work their way up to more condensed routes through seniority or proven performance, but each season Brooks and Black wipe out the routes and start fresh to keep workloads balanced.

Country Club’s routes may overlap to let crews concentrate on yards they’re equipped to handle.

“Some of those routes do overlap each other, but what's more efficient: Have a guy doing stuff by hand going by a neighborhood that's all acre-size yards and bypassing it,” Black says,” or (have) him doing (those larger yards) and it taking him four times as long as if you just have one guy with a piece of equipment go in there and get everything wiped out in 25 percent of the time?”

Staff before demand.

Country Club stays ahead of route expansion by adding staff and equipment preemptively – for example, purchasing a truck last August knowing they’d add a route in the coming spring.

“We want to make sure we have the labor and equipment in place before it’s needed,” Black says. “Up until five years ago, it was the opposite – stretching yourself thin until you need to create new routes and add more equipment. Now we have the luxury of excess to help fill in the blanks.”

They typically hire one or two additional employees per season instead of waiting for positions to open, which allows time to train and vet people before they’re needed.

“We almost always have somebody in training, even if there’s not a position,” says Brooks, who runs 12 lawn care routes with 25 full-time employees, bringing on seven seasonal employees to help with fall aeration. “With 12 routes, anything can happen at any time, so if we lose someone, we have somebody to fill that position.”

“We want to make sure we have the labor and equipment in place before it’s needed.” Mark Black, co-owner, Country Club Lawn & Tree Specialists

New hires don’t go straight to the classroom for training. They start in the field, observing under a senior technician. This way, they see the work before diving into the books.

“Thinking back to college courses, you’re doing bookwork first and then you go to the lab,” Black says. “It’s kind of backwards because when you’re doing the bookwork, you can’t visualize what it is. If you can visualize what it is and then you do the bookwork, it brings it full circle.”

Of course, employees aren’t released on their own until they’ve completed training and licensing as commercial operators or certified applicators. Country Club’s in-house training includes turf grass certification materials from the University of Georgia as well as YouTube training videos from various university agriculture departments and lawn care companies.

“You’re only as strong as the next guy you’re working with,” Black says.

“We’re firm believers that if we invest in you and you invest in us, it’ll be successful all around.”