A push mower and 3 feet of overgrown grass stood between Zech Strauser and his first lawn job. The foreclosed home needed to be maintained and Strauser enjoyed the outdoors. He borrowed a mower from his mom’s friend and off he went. That first job led to another, then another. He didn’t have a car, so he was splitting the profits with the guy who drove him to each job.
“It just kind of snowballed from there,” Strauser says. “And I worked for some other garden centers in my teens and around probably the same time I was probably still working for someone full-time. But in the evening, I was doing that side hustle.”
In his early 20’s, Strauser knew he needed a more efficient way to get from job to job, so he purchased his first pickup truck and mower – the mower cost more than his truck.
“I don’t think I was business savvy,” he says. “I didn’t have good credit; I couldn’t balance a checkbook.” But he was fueled by seeing other people around him succeed. He felt like he really had to hustle to make a living for himself.
Strauser is no stranger to the outdoors. He grew up working with his parents in their vegetable garden, earning money for completing his chores like mowing the lawn.
“I think (my upbringing) laid the groundwork for me and my career,” he says. Before he was set on landscaping, he tried his hand at a few other things to make money, even becoming a self-proclaimed “ski bum” working at a ski resort.
“I was just kind of hustling to get myself out of a hole, out of having no money. So that's kind of how it started,” he says.
Bettering the business.
Strauser is the owner of Strauser Nature’s Helpers, a full-service landscaping company in the Poconos focused on combining what is good for the lawn and good for the environment.
Strauser says the industry teaches people to get a return on investment by creating beautiful properties. While he agrees, he says that the industry should be concerned about a few other things as well.
“I feel that our landscape profession as a whole, if you took, all the contractors, all the revenue, all the services, all the impact we have, I would say in general, environmentally it's negative,” Strauser says.
He’s built his business and adapted his practices to take a head-on approach to the negative connotation the industry has received. Yes, he still fertilizes lawns, but he’s switched his mindset to focus on educating his customers and the industry as a whole. Plus, he says he can do the most good from the inside.
“So why am I still in that arena? Because I feel that if I leave it and go to ‘the choir’ where I'm just going to hang out with a bunch of ecological landscape people and the land preservationists, then I've left the area that needs to start focusing on this,” he says. “And then we start to make the best impact, not just beautifying properties.”
He’s adjusted operations at Strauser Nature’s Helpers to reflect his push towards a better way of landscaping, too. While he hasn’t gone completely organic, he’s made efforts to reduce the company’s footprint. For instance, in the winter, he makes sure he crews know to only use the appropriate amount of deicer.
“We're changing the way we calibrate and the way we track. What's the best way to track how many pounds we're putting out on the properties?” he says. “I’m trying to get the guys to see that if they have the salt brine down, and working, just to scrape.”
His efforts to impact the industry don’t go unnoticed by his employees, either. Mike Guerrisi, account manager for Strauser Nature’s Helpers, has known Strauser since 2014.
“He's always looking for a better way to do things and give back to the environment,” Guerrisi says. “And I think that's what Zech’s passion is really. The main focus is really helping the environment and getting customers educated and clients educated on these different environmental practices that we're doing.”
Strauser developed a program that he has been able to pitch to his commercial clients. He offers property managers $1,500 towards an enhancement project if they listen to a presentation on natural lawn care.
“I think just he's always forward thinking, like that's just taking an initiative and being different and standing out,” says Kelly Dowell, industry friend and president of Keldo Digital.
While at this point his incentive program hasn’t caught on the way he hopes, Strauser is still going to pursue it.
“We're still going to push for it and it's probably going to take a couple of years until it really clicks,” he says.
The company will pick a topic, like “Five Native Plants” or “How To Better Manage Water,” and present that to the client. Strauser says it can even be presented to an entire community.
Strauser makes many of his industry connections because of the external work he puts in sitting on boards and being engaged in nonprofits. The first board he got involved in as a landscape professional was the Come Alive Outside, a nonprofit dedicated to getting people off the couch and back outside in communities across North America.
“From the very beginning it was just a belief concept that we talked about, coming alive outside,” he says. “So I kind of got into that and at the same time I was approached by the county commissioners of our county to sit on the county economic board.” From there, he was recruited by another board, this time a land trust called the Pocono Heritage Land Trust.
Strauser regularly spends time outdoors hiking and mountain biking, and as he was touring land in the Poconos with other board members, the idea developed to protect the land and develop trails for other hikers and bikers.
“The Pocono Heritage Land Trust is unique for me because I'm learning about land deals, and I'm into real estate. I have some rentals myself,” he says. “So I'm learning about how to make land deals because I was on the acquisition committee which is about buying and preserving land with different grants and different monies. It was very exciting knowing that we're making land deals, but then to know that we're doing it for the environment and to preserve (land) for the future, I think that's really awesome too.”
Strauser accepted the offer to be on the board, and he’s been involved with that program for about three years. And, as if those efforts weren’t enough, he is also working to develop his own nonprofit.
“Once you get involved with one (nonprofit) they come knocking. So I think my challenge right now is making sure that I'm finding the most value and I'm able to give the most value in giving time outside of your day to day work. So that's my challenge right now.”
He’s found inspiration in a national clothing brand’s effort to donate 1 percent of their profits back to the environment. However, he wants to pursue something similar in a way that better fits his goals. Strauser is in the process of creating a nonprofit in Pennsylvania that will benefit the environment on a more regional level.
“It’s called One Percent for Nature, and that will be basically at the point of sale where people and businesses will ask for 1 percent on top of the sale and that will come back to the (One Percent for Nature) board and the board will accept grants to enhance nature spaces and preserve land through northeast Pennsylvania,” he says. He won’t be able to sit on the board because he currently sits on a board that will eventually be able to apply for grants through that One Percent program.
He runs a business, sits on several boards and oversees a startup nonprofit. But Strauser believes now is the best time to be involved in his community. “I think that the hustlers and people that are out moving and shaking their businesses should be involved (now) because that's when I think you're going to get a full circle benefit,” he says.
At this point in his career, Strauser is beginning to look at where he fits into the industry. “I also want to figure out how do I really impact and help within the industry in some of my beliefs. (I want to try) to not work so remote. I kind of work external from the industry with the nonprofits other than Come Alive Outside,” he says. “I think as time goes, I think I would like to figure out how I navigate into the industry and figure out my spot as an industry leader also.”
Strauser is always searching for a better way to do things, whether it be switching up his operations or exploring new ways to connect his beliefs with his profession. He has a unique venture on the horizon, too. It’s not a nonprofit and it’s not a new way to maintain lawns.
“I think fashion could really help bring some life to the industry and that's what I'm working on right now,” he says. “I’m starting a clothing company that's going to help give to urban groups that are helping urban people become connected to nature.”