Meet an enterprising couple who find success amid setbacks, and who seek new ways to keep customers happy all year long.
Entrepreneurs have a knack for finding the silver lining inside storm clouds. Possessing this ability are Mark and Debbie Walter, owners of LawnCare by Walter, 4235 S. Perryville Road, Rockford, who established their business 25 years ago, after a personal setback.
Today, they employ about 40 people during peak season, and their services have evolved from fertilization and weed control to total site management, including snow plowing, landscaping, hardscaping, tree and shrub care, mulching and commercial mowing.
“I like to take on lawns that are in really bad shape,” says Mark. “I like the challenge. It’s very rewarding to see how nicely they shape up when handled correctly. We often find ourselves fixing lawns that other lawn care companies have not handled well.”
The Walters moved to Rockford in 1982, after Mark was laid off from Caterpillar in Aurora, Ill., and accepted a job with the local ChemLawn franchise. Then, a locally owned lawn care franchise affiliated with ServiceMaster Co. hired him, and he rose to the position of manager. Mark purchased a portion of that business, then 100 percent of it. “I was already running the business, so I decided I may as well own it,” he recalls. He changed the name to ServiceMaster LawnCare by Walter.
Years later, ServiceMaster purchased the TruGreen company, so Mark renamed his business LawnCare by Walter, Inc.
Debbie took a starting position with Nicor Gas, and over the next 15 years, climbed to a human resource management position. She left Nicor to work with Mark in 1997. Her knowledge of human resources came in handy as Mark hired more employees.
“I began working with Mark part-time, and soon found myself working 60 or more hours per week,” she chuckles. “But I have no regrets.”
LawnCare by Walter has outgrown its offices seven times. Its current location in southeast Rockford is ideal for highway access. The Walters serve commercial customers, including utility companies, from the stateline south to Bloomington, Ill., and east into Chicago suburbs. Their residential customer base is confined to a 50-mile radius. Local corporate accounts include Hamilton Sundstrand in Rockford.
The Walters are a little amazed that their business is celebrating its 25th anniversary already, and share the following advice with novice entrepreneurs.
“Be prepared to work long hours and diversify your business with complementary services that are useful to people during different kinds of economies,” says Mark.
“And hang in there when times are tough,” adds Debbie. “Know that a bad economy will turn around eventually and you may have to tread water until it does. A lot of things are out of your control – from weather and gas prices to the state of the overall economy. So you can’t let that rattle you. You have to ride things out and keep thinking ahead.”
Like so many others, the Walters keenly felt the ripple effect of the recent home construction downturn. But rather than sitting back and complaining, they found ways to adapt their business to a new economic climate.
“We used to seed or sod 25 to 30 lawns per year for new construction,” says Mark. “That number quickly dropped to zero with the bad economy. But we could see that many people were staying put in their homes and fixing them up, so we focused more energy on marketing our landscaping and hardscaping services. Last year, we saw a big upswing in this – people are really upgrading their properties. They’re saying, ‘We’re not going to move, so let’s improve what we’ve got.’”
Along with being nimble and innovative, the Walters have practiced other good business habits.
“We hire the best people we can find, and we treat them well,” says Mark. “Most of them have been with us more than 10 years. This is a career for them, not just a short-term job.” In fact, this spring, the business celebrated the retirement of its receptionist, who worked there for 25 years. Satisfied employees tend to satisfy customers, says Mark.
The Walters also believe in thorough and ongoing training. They employ seven licensed applicators, who wear uniforms and drive marked vehicles.
“We stay up-to-date on the latest technology and solutions to lawn or landscaping problems,” says Mark. “We meet with our crews to get their feedback and suggestions on how to improve the quality and efficiency of our services. As technology changes, we bring in people who are up-to-date and in tune with the latest.”
Bringing in the right talent is essential, agrees Debbie.
“There comes a point as a business owner when you realize you can’t do it all on your own,” she says. The Walters recently created hired someone to handle marketing and website development so they can focus on customer service. Excellent customer service is, after all, the No. 1 priority – especially when competing against national brands for market share.
“When you call us, you talk to a human being,” says Debbie. “There’s no ‘Press 2 for this extension.’ We always answer the phone. During snow plowing season, all calls come to me at home, after business hours. That’s what our customers are paying for – great service. So we’d better provide it.”
Locally owned businesses are better at customizing, because they don’t need corporate approval to deviate from a plan.
“Some national brands will apply exactly the same treatments to every lawn they visit that day,” says Mark. “We customize at the front and back end of service and in between. When doing an estimate, we go to the property and measure only the area we’ll be treating. We don’t just use Google Earth and include the square footage of the pond and the garden patch and the doghouse in our estimate.
“And, we put real effort into our analysis of the lawn and its challenges,” says Mark. “Not all lawns have the same problems.”
Mark likes it when customers ask questions. “A big part of what we do is customer education,” says Mark. “For example, we often find ourselves explaining to homeowners that they should set their mower blades to a higher level. Many people cut their grass too short, which discourages the kind of healthy root system that makes turf thicker.”
The Walters say they compete well on price, but urge potential customers to look beyond the bottom line to overall value. For example, national lawn care businesses tend to prescribe more lawn applications than necessary, often up to seven per season.
“That may make sense in Florida, but not in our climate,” says Mark.
LawnCare by Walter uses granular fertilizer and liquid pesticides hand-picked by Mark, and offers organic products, too.
When it comes to generating new customers, the Walters use a variety of marketing techniques, but firmly believe there’s no substitute for a stellar reputation. LawnCare by Walter enjoys an A-plus rating from the Better Business Bureau. It’s also a member of the Rockford Chamber of Commerce and PLANET, a professional land care network.
“We live in this community, we’re raising children here, and we want our reputation to be as good as it can be,” says Debbie. The business offers incentive referral programs, giving customers a $10 discount for every new lawn care account transferred to it.
While business ownership requires hard work, it’s also rewarding.
“Probably the best thing is the way it makes a work-life balance possible,” says Debbie. “At least to some degree, we can work around our kids’ schedules and get away together every summer, knowing the business is in good hands, because we trust our employees.”
The Walters have two sons and a daughter, Dilyn, Grant and Sophia, in 9th, 7th and 4th grades. Because the children attend three different schools, the Walters are especially thankful to have some scheduling flexibility.
“It’s important to us to meet our family obligations, and we know that’s important to our employees, also,” says Debbie. “If they have parent-teacher conferences to attend, they should attend them. We’re a family business, so we understand this.”
“Somehow, we weave it all together,” says Mark. “When I’m on my way to pick up one of the kids from school, I’m driving past customers’ homes along the way to check up on the progress of their lawns. The business is a lot of work, but very rewarding, and we’re proud of what we achieve for our customers.” ❚