The grass truly is greener after 30 years in business. Meet the Walter family and learn how they’ve creatively turned setbacks into opportunities through their Cherry Valley-based lawn care company.
Mark and Debbie Walter know how to nurture a business. The owners and operators of LawnCare by Walter, 4235 S. Perryville Road, Cherry Valley, Ill., have been growing their company for the past 30 years. They started with three employees and now support upwards of 40 families.
“The secret to success is surrounding yourself with good people,” Mark says. “We try to choose the best and I think we’re doing a good job.”
The Walters moved to Rockford after the recession hit in 1982, when Mark was laid off from his job with Caterpillar Tractor Company in Aurora. This “setback” was actually the beginning of a successful entrepreneurship for the Walters.
Mark worked jobs in carpentry and farming until 1983, when he accepted a position as an account manager with ChemLawn Services in Rockford.
“I started there and primarily did fertilizing and weed control,” Mark says. “So I’ve done that part of the job firsthand.”
In 1985, he was hired as a manager at ServiceMaster Lawncare. He bought out the company in 1986, renaming it LawnCare by Walter, Inc. a number of years later. In 1997, Debbie left her human resources job at Nicor Gas to work with Mark.
Over the years, the Walters have expanded the types of services they offer. When the 2008 recession hit, they knew they needed to diversify in order to stay in business.
“So that’s what we did,” Debbie says. “We said, ‘OK, instead of just doing fertilization and weed control, we need to get more into landscaping and more into hardscaping, because we know people are staying in their homes – they aren’t moving.’”
So Mark and Debbie adjusted themselves to their customers’ needs. The business now offers total site management. Although fertilization and weed control remain the primary focus, LawnCare by Walter services include mowing, tree and shrub care, landscaping – mulch, plantings, design and installation – as well as hardscaping, which includes design and installation of patios, walkways, outdoor kitchens, fire pits, water features and more.
With more customers staying in their homes, the Walters have seen a large increase in hardscape projects. Outdoor kitchens and living spaces are especially popular in our area.
“A few years back we did some projects like that up in the Lake Geneva area, but nothing really around here,” Mark says. “Now, it seems that people are more interested in making improvements to their homes and spending more time in their backyards. So, water features, fireplaces, pizza ovens, grill ensembles – that kind of thing has become a lot more popular around here.”
Debbie considers ‘diversifying’ to be one of the best business decisions she and her husband ever made. Increasing the amount of services offered helped the company not only to survive the recession, but also to expand its loyal customer base.
In fact, many new customers who come to LawnCare by Walter are referrals from previous or current customers. The company has a referral program in which a customer receives a $50 credit reward for recommending a friend or neighbor who utilizes its lawn care services.
“And we don’t care how many $50 credits you get, so you can build them up and use them for anything,” Debbie says. “The loyal customer base is one of the keys to success. A lot of our sales come from referrals, so it’s important to maintain that reputation with our current customers and keep them happy, as they will ultimately recommend us.”
The company once offered just a $10 referral credit, but Mark has noticed a large increase in referral customers since upping the ante to $50.
“It’s simple – people get more excited about a $50 bill than a $10 bill,” he says. “It’s been a smart decision to give rewards to our customers.”
Debbie and Mark are good at identifying what customers want and have learned through trial and error. They offered mowing services when they realized their customers wanted that in addition to fertilization and weed control. At first they used sub-contractors, but found that was a mistake. The sub-contractors too often didn’t perform to the Walters’ standards or took customers away. Debbie and Mark adapted by offering their own in-house mowing services.
“We have the capital C in our name because ‘Care’ means more than just maintenance,” says Debbie. “It shows we’re trustworthy. The reason we’ve been successful for 30 years is because we listen to our customers and we genuinely care for them.”
Not only do the Walters look for opportunities to reward customers, but they also strive to offer the highest-quality customer service. Oftentimes a question, problem, or concern is addressed within minutes of an initial phone call.
“I think that’s one of the advantages of being a local business,” Mark says. “You can deal directly with the owners. We may not be on your lawn with every visit, but our people are an extension of us, and we give them the best training possible. If they don’t know the answer, they’ll right away find out from us.”
The Walters are confident about the future of their business, thanks to their well-trained employees.
Some of them have been with LawnCare by Walter for upwards of 20 years. That longevity, says Mark, stems from continuous opportunities for growth.
All employees have the opportunity to become familiar with all aspects of the business. And the Walters aren’t afraid to modify their current procedures if an employee has a better idea.
“Some people are content with mowing lawns all day, but some people eventually want to run departments,” Mark says. “So we get everyone somewhat cross-trained and familiar with all aspects of the business. That way, we can look from within, first, when it comes time for promotion. We allow our employees to see this as a career more than a job, and we’re always open to what our employees suggest. They’re out in the field, so it’s important to recognize that they might have a better way to do something.”
The Walters consider their employees to be an extension of their family. Some of their own family members work alongside them too, including their son Dilyn. They’ve also hired relatives of employees. Many have brought in brothers, uncles, nephews and cousins.
“I think a family business resonates with people,” Debbie says. “You know you’re working with a business that has family values, and you know the staff members work well together side by side.”
The Walters take pride in their business. They know they provide customers with the best quality of service. They know they offer employees fulfillment and job security.
Admiring a “job well done” never gets old.
“That’s what keeps us going,” Mark says. “It’s refreshing and positive to see a property transform, and we just enjoy working with our customers. It’s a good feeling when they take pride in our work.”