Mercer Group, Your Ohio Sports Turf Contractor

 

Lawn Landscape - Article

 

Reprint from Lawn & Landscape Magazine, May 1999

Lawn and Landscape Magazine

Joe Duncan (left) and Ted Mercer (right) have built an expanding company by taking advantage of being in a small town and offering the services customers want. Photo: Sonny Fulks

Joe Duncan and Ted Mercer can't go anywhere in Troy, Ohio, without being noticed.
     Walking into a local restaurant, as president and vice president, respectively, of the 23-year-old, locally owned and operated Ever-Green Turf & Landscape, the pair is readily approached by customers and friends.
     "I pride myself on the fact that 75 percent of my customers live within a 10-mile radius of the office and 90 percent live within a 20-mile radius of the office," Duncan related.
     Focusing strongly on the local service area, encouraging his employees to get involved in the community, giving his employees as much attention as he gives his customers and standing behind his company's mission statement, Duncan has kept Ever-Green growing at a comfortable 5 percent average annual growth rate.
     "My goal isn't to expand out of this area or focus on making more of the almighty dollar," Duncan asserted. "I want to give the best service I can within this 10- to 20-mile radius. If I get outside of this area, it's human nature that I'll take better care of customers living 5 miles away vs. the one living 40 miles away -- that's not what I'm about."
Joe Duncan and Ted Mercer
     Duncan is comfortable with his company's steady growth, and he's proud of what he calls his "prehistoric" ways of managing, such as refusing to use telemarketing to gain customers. Instead, he has perfected the art of expanding his services based on his employee's strengths.
     Ever-Green has added commercial grounds maintenance, sports turf maintenance and construction, residential tree and shrub spraying, and landscape installation and design to his once all-residential lawn care company. An this year, as growth approached the 15 percent mark and the customer cancellation rate hovers below 10 percent, according to Duncan, the quality of service has not been lost.
PLANTING THE SEED. In 1970, Leisure Lawn made its debut under the ownership of the late Jim Sackett. As a small lawn care business in the same town that industry giant Chem-Lawn was founded in, Leisure Lawn had an advantage by offering a granular alternative to Chem-Lawn's liquid lawn care.
     Duncan was hired in 1975 as one of the two lawn care technicians. Almost overnight, he became witness to remarkable growth, and branches were opened
 in Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Minneapolis."
     At 20 years old, Duncan was offered a job managing the sales at the Cincinnati branch of Leisure Lawn. By 1977, Duncan was branch manager and by 1983 he was zone manager responsible for the Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Ind., and Dayton, offices.

"We chose to grow by selling supplemental sales to our current customer base -- residential with tree and shrub care; landscaping design...and commercially with a total maintenance package." -- Mercer

     After selling the rest of his business to the Baker family, Sacket owned only the Troy office of Leisure Lawn.
In December 1984, Sackett wanted to retire and Duncan jumped at the opportunity to buy the $400,000 lawn care business. He was able to purchase the company through a 10-year buyout, in which Sackett financed the company 100 percent and agreed with Duncan on a purchase price.
     "I set goals for myself," Duncan said. "I didn't finish college, so I knew I had a strike against me. I thought, 'OK, I don't have a formal education, but I did have the opportunity to be with some of the greatest minds in the industry -- people like Doug Halterman, senior vice president of Leisure Lawn.'  So I told myself that by the time I was 30 I would own my own business, by the time I was 40 I would have the business paid off, and by the time I was 50 I would be retired. The only problem with that last one is that the older I get the more fun I have coming into work everyday."
     Mercer and Office Manager Patty Gaylor have similar backgrounds. Gaylor started at Ever-Green in 1976 and has run the office/accounting ever since. Mercer maintained golf courses after high school and was hired as a lawn care technician at Ever-Green in 1979.
OPEN TO EXPANDING. "Never jump into a business just because it's there," Duncan recommended, sharing one of his most important business philosophies.
     After purchasing Ever-Green -- an all-residential lawn care company -- Duncan started to pick up on potential growth areas within his market. Figuring out what additional services would be profitable wasn't tough after accepting the fact that the company couldn't do everything.
     "A lot of companies around here offer irrigation work, but we stayed out of it," Mercer noted. "We didn't have the background in it so we subcontract it. We also get another company to trim larger trees."
     One service that contributed to the growth of the company was commercial grounds maintenance. Although Ever-Green only has about 150 commercial grounds maintenance accounts vs. 2,000 residential lawn care customers, the commercial grounds maintenance business brings in a greater dollar volume.
This expansion into the maintenance of commercial grounds arose out of the company's visibility in a booming commercial area off of Ohio's main north/south highway, Duncan explained.
     "The growth in this area just happened over night," Mercer said. "We had one company that wanted us to do maintenance and then another. Then they started asking us to do pruning and lawn care and irrigation. After that, we were practically forced into doing their snow removal."
     This contributed to Ever-Green's focused, local growth.
     "We chose to grow by selling supplemental sales to out current customers -- residential with tree and shrub care; landscape design; installation and construction; and commercially with a total maintenance package," Mercer noted.
     In 1990, after about five years of experimenting, Ever-Green also ventured into the sports turf business, which became one of the company's key services through Duncan's and Mercer's sports-related turf maintenance backgrounds. Duncan is a college football referee and continually learns about the business by talking with grounds maintenance supervisors and athletic field directors; and Mercer was in golf course maintenance prior to starting his career at the Ever-Green.
     "Now, I think sports turf is going to be one of our biggest areas for future growth," Mercer enthused, explaining that the company's first project -- Troy Memorial Stadium -- helped kick off this part of their business (see "Playing Ball--Profitably").

Playing Ball -- Profitably

***********************************

When city schools and parks began to phase out in-house grounds crews to save on equipment and supply purchases, it didn't take long for a college football referee and ex-golf course maintenance worker to incorporate sports turf maintenance and construction into their lawn care company. The company already had the right equipment and knew about key sports field issues, noted Ted Mercer, vice president, Ever-Green Turf & Landscape, Troy, Ohio. So all they needed to do was sell.
     "The toughest part was selling to the right people: athletic directors and building managers," Mercer recalled. "It time to build those relationships and explain that we're not taking this work away from them but we're there to help. A good selling point was discussing game and practice field

safety issues. These people saw a need to improve their facilities due to liability concerns."
     Another selling challenge was getting schools to understand that a lawn care company can't afford to give this service away just for advertising or recognition.
     "At first, that's what we did, "Mercer said. "But we couldn't continue that way and be profitable. Growing out of it wasn't hard, though, because the school was happy with our service."
     Once Ever-Green had the first stadium done, it had something to show potential customers.
     "We sponsored our own field day and we invited business managers and field directors to Troy Memorial Stadium," Mercer recalled. "We showed them the field, had a slide show explaining the progression of work and served lunch. Once we could show people what we did, it was easier to sell the service."--
-Nicole Wisniewski
     "The school asked us to take care of the field, "Duncan explained. "I though about it and asked myself, 'Do we have the right personnel to handle it?' We had experienced managers. All we needed to do was train our employees in this area."
     Ever-Green now has 20 accounts, which amounts to about 50 sports fields.
     Because sports turf is a "specialty" service, Duncan said the dollar volume that jobs bring in warrants traveling out of Ever-Green's normal service area for work.
     "Sports turf is not as competitive a business because there aren't 14 companies bidding on the same project," Duncan explained. "We can get a good rate of return. The stadium renovation in Lima is a $100,000 project."
     One way Duncan and Mercer expanded this service while keeping the work within a 30-mile radius of the office was by stressing the importance of keeping practice fields constantly maintained.
     "That's where the kids spend most of their time, "Mercer noted. "They're on the game field once a week, but they practice everyday, so safety is a big issue on these fields."
     "Ever-Green's growth in the next five years will be mostly in the sports turf area," Mercer declared. "And as sports like soccer become more popular in the area, sports turf maintenance will continue on as a necessity."

LOCALLY OWNED & OPERATED. "My greatest compliment to this business is that if I polled all of the residents of Troy, Ohio, more than half of them would say that Ted Mercer owns this business and not Joe Duncan," Duncan enthused, crediting Mercer's community involvement as a two-term councilman for much of the  company's success.
     "I find it very important to give back to  your community," Duncan noted. "I'm very active in this community."
     This involvement has been a key for Ever-Green because of the company's size, Mercer added.
     "In a town of 20,000 people, being visible in the community certainly helps business," Mercer said. "Because 

'I set goals for myself. I told myself that by the time I was 30 I would own my own business, by the time I was 40 I would have the business paid off, and by the time I was 50 I would be retired.' --- Duncan Joe goes to Kiwanis lunches and meetings and because I have contracts from being born and raised with family in this community, call Joe Duncan or myself first and at least give us a shot before contracting anybody else."
     A recent challenge because of Ever-Green's community involvement is reaching the new residents of Troy, Ohio, who don't have any local loyalties.
     "One of the problems we are finding is that the demographics of this community are changing a bit," Duncan noted. "People are moving in, and these aren't 'Miami County' people anymore. It becomes difficult to communicate who we are, especially because we don't do phone solicitation." 
To overcome this obstacle, Duncan makes sure his employees do whatever they can to have as much interaction as possible with their clients.
     "We have a policy here where when we do an application we make sure we talk to that customer before we leave the yard," Duncan noted. "If they aren't home, we make sure to leave an invoice and a note reminding them that if they have any questions, comments or problems, they can call us. This ensures that these people will talk about us on their lawns.
     "We also send out or hand deliver brochures explaining who we are and listing the services we offer to the neighbors of people who have our service. If we have an opportunity to meet potential customers at their front door and explain our program and who we are then the chances of selling our services to them are greatly enhanced."
The author is Assistant Editor of Lawn & Landscape magazine.
   

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Ted S. Mercer
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Athletic Field Contractors
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