Landscaping companies have long been a core customer group of outdoor power equipment dealers. This customer’s urgent need for equipment uptime — and the service and parts that help provide it — align perfectly with a servicing dealer’s value proposition. Can dealers make a lot of money catering to landscape contractors? Yes. Can all dealers provide what it takes to do so? No. Quite frankly, some may not even want to try.
Landscape contractors can be very demanding in terms of service turnaround and parts availability. They can have unrealistic expectations concerning warranty. Landscapers can also be very frugal. Landscape contracting is an extremely competitive business. Even when business is booming, as it has been for the past few years, contractors still face a lot of pricing pressure. Many may lack the business acumen to properly budget and recover costs and most earn a net profit of less than 10%. This often results in a penny-pinching kind of mentality.
A hallmark of any well-run company is the desire to seek out cost reduction. For the landscape contractor, though, it can be a shortsighted approach that fails to take “time” into consideration. Phil Harwood, a well-known business consultant in the landscaping industry, says that a company owner’s time is worth $300 an hour. If that’s true, how much time should an owner spend shopping around to save $100 on a $10,000 mower? It makes more sense to partner with reliable suppliers that will help the landscape company deliver more services in less time and for more profit.
Speaking of time, labor often eats up 30-40% of a landscape contractor’s revenue depending on which services they are providing. Dealers that can provide products and services that help a landscaper reduce downtime and labor cost are in a strong position to foster loyalty.
- Take an interest in the size, scope and maturity stage of a landscape contractor’s business.
- Offer equipment and products that help landscapers provide a diverse array of services and tailor services toward specific pain points.
- Focus on a handful of favorable brands that can help you streamline after-sale support.
- Become a partner in training and education to build relationships and become a trusted adviser.
Understanding Market Fragmentation
Josh Levien, a second-generation dealer in the state of Washington, says it best when describing the landscape contractor market: “A hamburger is not a hamburger,” he relates. Levien is general manager of Carl’s Mower & Saw in Ferndale, Wash., a dealership owned by his parents, Carl and Beth Levien. The dealership’s main lines include Exmark, Gravely, Honda, Husqvarna and Stihl.
While the industry tends to celebrate the bigger, more progressive landscape companies, the majority are smaller owner-operators with fewer than 20 employees, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. In fact, roughly half employ fewer than 5. That said, as the industry has continued to grow and mature over the past 10-15 years, there are also more multi-million-dollar landscape companies than ever before.
Landscape contractors offer a variety of services. Some just provide mowing and maintenance or lawn care, such as fertilizer and pesticide application. Some offer installation and hardscaping or specialty services like tree care, aeration, irrigation, lighting and snow removal. And, others provide a combination of those services. This creates demand for a variety of outdoor power equipment that rural dealers often sell, including mowers, trimmers, blowers, tractors, skid steers, excavators, trenchers, tillers, chain saws, concrete saws, compactors, rammers, spreaders, sprayers, trailers … and the list goes on. A landscape contractor can save time if they can obtain as many essential tools as possible from a single dealer. Remember, saving time is the name of the game.
“Our seminars reinforce the value of doing business with us as opposed to another dealer…” — Oscar Cavazos of MAE Power Equipment
It’s important for dealers to understand the size and scope of their landscape customers, as well as the stage of business they are in. Doing so will help tailor services toward specific pain points. For instance, newer and/or smaller companies are likely struggling with making the right equipment purchases, adding services and growing sales. Bigger, more established companies are likely struggling with staffing, fleet management and operational efficiency. Dealers can play a role in helping solve all of these problems. (See the sidebar “9 Hallmarks of Great Commercial Dealers.”)
Putting a Price Tag on Good Service
Up in Washington state, Carl’s Mower & Saw has had a great year. Lawn maintenance contractors have been as busy as ever, and many are returning to Carl’s after disappearing for a year or two. It’s a good reminder that low prices can only go so far.
“A major equipment manufacturer had been pushing hard into our territory with some big discounts. I was naturally a little upset when it first happened, but there’s only so much you can give up to get a sale. You can’t create long-term customer satisfaction — especially with landscape contractors — by just focusing on price. So we lost some customers at first, but this year they’ve already started coming back to us. We’ll continue to take care of them the way we always have,” says Levien.
For Carl’s Mower & Saw, that means remaining loyal to a handful of key mower and handheld manufacturers, each of which has strong favorability among landscapers. “By sticking with proven brands, I can feel confident that my customers will get a good product I can support long-term,” Levien says.
The landscape contractor market is very fragmented. Most companies are small and many provide a variety of services. Nate’s Landscaping in Wisconsin, for instance, offers hardscaping, lawn maintenance and snow removal. Photos by Gregg Wartgow
Emphasis on the word support. A dealer’s biggest selling point with professional customers has always been service. That still carries a lot of weight, but is starting to change in some markets. As the dealer network has consolidated and the contractor market has matured, more landscape companies have begun taking on their own service.
Levien says many of the landscape companies he has served for years have grown. Once they build up to 4 or 5 crews, they start bringing on their own mechanics. When that happens, a dealer’s biggest selling point starts to erode, at least to a certain degree.
9 Hallmarks of Great Commercial Dealers
- Expert product knowledge that relates to landscape contracting
- Fast, “priority” service turnaround
- Technician certifications
- Significant parts inventory
- Loaner and/or rental equipment
- Packages, programs and pricing geared toward professionals
- Easy communication, such as through texting
- Educational resources and training support
“When a company is smaller, a dealer can be a lot more relevant. Small landscape companies typically don’t have a shop and storage space. They don’t have enough capital to own backup mowers. A dealer’s parts availability and service turnaround are paramount to their success. They know they can come to us and we’ll pop a belt on their mower and send them on their way,” Levien says.
It’s good to note that well over half of landscaping companies fall into this category. At the same time, their spending power is limited. Some of the best money to be made is with landscaping companies that are established, profitable and in growth mode. Service is still relevant to these types of companies — especially those that have come to realize that an in-house mechanic can be a major source of overhead creep. In other words, if you’re a 4-crew landscape maintenance company generating $1 million a year in revenue, does it really make sense to carry a full-time mechanic’s salary on your books? Certainly not if that full-time mechanic isn’t top-notch.
“The hard thing for a landscape company is that when they bring on a mechanic, they often want a jack of all trades,” Levien says. “They want that mechanic to change oil, sharpen blades and replace belts. They also want him to work on trailer brakes and truck transmissions. If you have a mechanic who is that talented, he’s probably going to go work in an auto dealership and make some serious money.”
For that mid-size landscape company, dealer service is still paramount, and the dealer needs to do a good job of making that point known. However, you don’t want to insult the landscape customer or come off as pompous. Simply talk dollars and cents. Show how much the landscape contractor typically pays a year to have his equipment serviced in your shop. Reinforce how you’ve helped him avoid additional downtime by having the parts in stock and turning the service in a day or two. Again, the landscape contractor is in the business of selling time. When a dealer can help the landscaper save time, that’s value.
“The established companies we’ve been serving for 10-20 years still come to us with the same expectations. With the newer generation of landscapers, it is much different.…”
— Rich Crane Jr. of Crane’s Outdoor Power Equipment
One way dealers are doing that is by helping their landscape customers take care of their own preventive maintenance and minor repairs. Many dealers even conduct equipment service workshops in the spring, often in conjunction with their open house events. Depending on the size and lifetime value of the landscape customer, some dealers will even send a technician out to a landscaper’s site to train their in-house staff. Each dealer and each market is different. Flexibility and creativity are crucial in the quest to maintain service relevance.
Loyalty Skipping a Generation?
The landscaping business has a relatively low barrier to entry. Rich Crane Jr. continues to see numerous new companies pop up from year to year. Crane is a second-generation dealer with Crane’s Outdoor Power Equipment in Canaan, Conn. The dealership’s main lawn and garden lines include Scag, Stihl, Simplicity, Masport and Hurricane.
“The established companies we’ve been serving for 10-20 years still come to us with the same expectations. With the newer generation of landscapers, it is much different. They aren’t nearly as loyal because they grew up with the internet and like to do their own research,” Crane says.
That said, Crane and his team have fought the desire to stroll down the price-cutting path. For Crane’s Outdoor Power Equipment, winning over this new generation of landscapers still comes down to education.
“We take the time to explain why doing business with a dealer like us is in their best interest. Most eventually realize the importance of fast service. We offer a no-downtime guarantee to our landscape customers, and that’s often enough to get them to buy their equipment from us,” he says.
That equipment includes mowers and handheld equipment, along with a few unique product lines that keep landscapers coming back from one season to the next. Crane’s sells a lot of Fisher snowplows, which makes sense since most landscapers in the Northeast also plow snow. The dealership also sells trailers and truck bodies, which has become a major part of its business over the past few years. Brands include Martin Truck Bodies and Big Tex, Bri-Mar, Haulmark, Parker and BWise trailers.
“We bought a nearby vacant building about 6 years ago and turned it into our welding shop. We custom-build a lot of truck bodies for our landscape customers. A side benefit to this is that it helps us keep our employees busy year round,” Crane says.
Down in South Texas, dealer Oscar Cavazos says most of the landscape companies are small operations with just 1-5 crews. To these types of landscapers, traditional dealer service is still what sells. He has also had a different experience with the new generation of landscapers.
“With our smaller customers who have been in business a while, they seem to come back all of the time because this is where they’ve always gone and we always take care of them,” says Cavazos, owner of MAE Power Equipment in Mission, Texas. The dealership’s main lines include Echo, Exmark, Gravely, Scag and Stihl. “With the younger contractors, they are much more internet-savvy. But it seems like only 5-10% are really relying on the internet to learn about equipment and make purchases. Most like to come in here and pick my brain. We strive to be a hub of landscaping information. If a contractor comes in here and asks me a question, we either have the answer or know how to find it,” he says.
“I want my customers to grow. When they grow, they can spend more later and our dealership can grow…”
— Josh Levien of Carl’s Mower & Saw
Cavazos is another second-generation dealer. He works alongside his father, Ben, who started the business 64 years ago. Cavazos says that engaging landscape customers in thoughtful dialogue is important to establishing a lasting relationship. Dealers can help them make better purchasing decisions by learning precisely what they are trying to do.
Some landscape contractors, especially the younger ones, take to YouTube to learn how to service equipment. “Fortunately, most find out it’s not that easy and realize they could use a good dealer,” Cavazos says with a chuckle. At the same time, YouTube is where a lot of up-and-coming landscapers now go in search of knowledge. Dealers can post basic how-to videos in an effort to gain exposure and trust.
Cavazos agrees that it’s important for dealers to help their landscape customers learn how to take care of their own preventive maintenance. In the grander scheme of things, doing so can actually result in the dealer making more money over the long term.
“Sometimes we get bogged down in the shop. Yes, those quick-service jobs are money, but there are a lot of other things my techs could be doing. We don’t want to take away from the service we’re providing on those more intensive repair jobs,” Cavazos says.
Many successful commercial dealers also offer loaner mowers to their landscape customers — at least their most lucrative ones. Many also offer parts delivery and on-site service. It’s all about doing everything within reason to help landscapers keep downtime to a minimum.
Leveraging Parts Availability in the Era of Amazon
To keep a contractor’s downtime to a minimum, service and parts go hand in hand. Many dealers have adopted a policy of servicing only the brands they sell in order to streamline parts inventory. This helps ensure fast service turnaround, which helps foster landscaper loyalty.
Parts sales have always been a boon to dealership profitability. It still is, but online retail has eroded some of that competitive differentiation. Traditional brick-and-mortar dealers have evolved into the online parts sales business, creating new competition from sometimes hundreds of miles away. Some of the biggest online parts retailers — including Jack’s Small Engines, Parts Tree and Replacement Commercial Parts Warehouse — are actually the creations of dealerships.
MAE Power Equipment of Mission, Texas, wants to be a hub of landscaping information. The dealership offers seminars on tree trimming and other safety topics. MAE also hosts equipment maintenance seminars for its commercial customers on two-cycle equipment, zero turns, blade sharpening and other topics. Photo courtesy of MAE Power Equipment
Pushing hard into online retail is not for every dealer, though. In some instances, it doesn’t even have to be.
“Some of these online parts stores that have been around a while already have this business locked up,” Cavazos says. “I don’t want to compete against them. To me, it’s almost like a loss leader. Our location doesn’t help either because it’s hard to ship fast enough compared to some of these other companies that are more centrally located. Regardless, I’m not interested in selling parts all over the country. I just want to sell parts to my customers in the Rio Grande Valley.”
The reality is that landscape contractors need equipment uptime to remain profitable. A good local dealer that can make parts readily available is a tremendous asset.
Promoting Education, Trust and Relationships
Building loyalty from landscape customers might not be as simple as it was 10 or 20 years ago when the industry was still in its infancy. That said, many dealers are still fostering that loyalty by focusing on the same three things that worked all those years ago: good products, in-stock parts and fast service.
Training and education can help dealers add even more value and remain relevant in a
MAE Power Equipment holds a commercial field day every year. Attendance ranges from 125-200, many of which are landscape contractors. “We put on equipment maintenance seminars for two-cycle equipment, zero-turns, blade sharpening and other topics,” Cavazos says. “We’ve also done various safety seminars on topics like tree trimming. Our commercial customers really appreciate those. It helps reinforce the value of doing business with us as opposed to another dealer.”
“We’ve always worked hard to build great relationships with our landscape customers,” Levien says. “When a new business pops up, we want to teach them about the equipment and help them grow. Not all can grow because landscaping isn’t an easy business, but we want to help and be a resource.”
Carl’s Mower & Saw has been coordinating business education events for its landscape customers for many years. Roughly 50-60 contractors each pay around $100 to attend. Various business consultants speak on important topics to help landscapers become better business managers. The event is held each January.
“Everyone who attends ends up leaving these events really excited,” Levien says. “They take the information to heart and want to get better. Others always say they are too busy to come. I tell them, ‘Please, you have to come. Could you pay the attendance fee in March?’ I want my customers to grow. When they grow, they can spend more later and our dealership can grow.”
Much like how the dealer-manufacturer relationship is symbiotic, so is the dealer-landscaper relationship. When there is a mutually shared respect, everyone can win.