It may not be the most glamorous or high-profile area of horticulture, but professional lawn care continues to show recession-defying growth - so much so that it is tempting practitioners away from other parts of the green sector. Many have experience of fertiliser and pesticide application, an understanding of turf and experience of providing a service to domestic customers. That and relatively low start-up costs mean it suits sole traders well - though several firms now employ sizeable workforces.
However, such companies do not have the field to themselves. The lion's share of the UK market is occupied by GreenThumb and other franchise companies, with GreenThumb alone believed to have around 50 per cent of the UK market.
To compete in this field, independents need to coordinate and professionalise their marketing. This was the message to come out of the fifth UK Lawn Care Network conference last month.
The network has more than 30 members of varying sizes, concentrated in the South East of England. One is Kent-based Castle Lawns. According to owner Richard Beal: "Being independent, you can tailor your programme to what the customer wants, especially when you do a mowing and treating package as we do. The cultural side is as important as the chemical side. And franchise companies don't tend to mow as it's less cost-effective." However, he does not see the franchises as competition. "They raise the profile of lawn care generally, so we benefit," he says. "And if the service they provide isn't as good, their customers will come to people like me."
Network coordinator Richard Salmon reckons the sector holds more appeal and potential for those already in the horticulture world than for complete newcomers.
"So far, most entrants are from other areas of horticulture," he says. "There are a lot of people who have lost their jobs in the City who are now going into landscaping, but the lawn-care industry is a bit more specialist.
"A guy working for an independent company will probably have a background in turf care or agronomy. With a franchise, anyone from any walk of life can pick up the manual, and they will tend to apply fertiliser without regard for the requirements of the consumer, the product or the environment. You need a technical head on you, and the independents have that."
One such entrant is Martin Ashdown of Kent-based LawnsOne. He says: "I was a landscaper, but I find with this work it's much easier to manage your costs. With landscaping, no two jobs are ever the same, and there's always something unexpected."
Barriers to entry are not especially high, with a pesticide-spraying qualification the only legal requirement. Salmon, who also runs lawn care firm Pro LawnCare, favours this. "I don't want to see people spraying all over the place," he says.
With around 17.5 million gardens in the UK - the overwhelming majority with lawns - that would suggest considerable growth potential.
"It could be as big as the US," says Salmon. "The American market is maybe 30 years ahead of us, with over 25 per cent of garden owners employing a lawn-care company. In the UK it's only five per cent. But as the market grows, retaining customers and winning over new ones will become an issue."
All of which means operators need a good head for marketing.
According to UK Lawn Care Network technical director Martin Haverson: "You need to monitor the source and return rate of your leads." This involves a systematic approach to customer-record management and analysis. For the network, this will come partly from its new website (see box).
Salmon and Haverson also run Verdant Software Solutions, which supplies Lawn Assistant, a management and marketing package developed in the US by Real Green Systems. Founded by current owner Joe Kucik in 1984, Real Green now supplies the package to 1,500 independent lawn-care companies in the US and Canada.
"There's a need for people to learn how to grow their business cost-effectively," says Kucik. "The use of the Yellow Pages has fallen off in the past six or seven years in the US. Meanwhile, 80 per cent of households are on a 'do not call' list, making the phone more difficult to use to grow your business. So you have to work smarter."
Kucik's own lawn-care company Lawn Care Services has grown to 8,500 customers in central Michigan purely by using a sophisticated marketing database.
"The first thing we do is buy marketing data," he says, adding that his own company has data for 230,000 "probable customers". "Concentrate your marketing where you have customers already and buy marketing data for those areas first," he advises. "Neighbours of your customers are much more interested in your service and you won't have to drive so far."
There is a high rate of mobility of the US, with around a fifth of US households moving every year, he says. "We get a regular list of people new to the neighbourhood, including their lot size. If they're not on the 'do not call' list, we make a one-step sales call - that saves you money on time and labour. Otherwise, we send a mailshot that has pricing and any special offers."
Door-to-door sales calls should not be overlooked either, he says. "Last year a third of our new sales came that way. It's a cost-effective way to grow your business and some companies rely on it entirely."
The database also helps to sell additional services to existing customers, he adds.
"Marketing is a year-round job, not just March to May. And the downturn doesn't mean you cut back on advertising. On the contrary - you need to spend more. The downturn is an advantage for companies that understand their market - there's less noise, less clutter to compete with."
Haverson agrees the downturn should hold no fear for the sector. "In a recession, people spend more time at home," he says. "They cut back on big-ticket items instead. And even if unemployment hits 10 per cent of people, that's still nine out of 10 who have a job."
According to Salmon, who has 23 years' experience in the industry: "Lawn care is a luxury, but these are people who like their gardens and are prepared to pay for their upkeep. Often they are retired people, and low interest rates will mean they are getting less return on their savings. But we're still getting enquiries."
The industry also faces challenges from the recently passed EU restrictions on pesticide use, says Headland Amenity operations director Mark De Ath.
"We understand that the legislation will include lawns, though it will be a restriction rather than a prohibition," he says. "But the UK can meet this more easily than other member states as it already has a lot of legislation and pesticide use is low."
Salmon adds that the network will also look at how it might use its collective buying power to offer chemical products to members from companies such as Headland at reduced rates - another area in which the franchise companies have hitherto had an advantage.
It may seem a highly seasonal business, but according to Salmon: "There aren't usually quiet times of the year, although my staff tend to take holidays in August, when their customers are at home enjoying their gardens."
Salmon has found it difficult to recruit suitable staff, but not due to a lack of technical knowledge. "The key thing is, can they deal with people and build relationships with them?" he says. "They'll be round there six or seven times a year. It's all about customer care - that's how you differentiate yourself from your competitors. But you can't train people to be courteous."
A website launched last week will help UK Lawn Care Network members compete for business on the web, says Richard Salmon. "It will attract new business leads and give us national presence."
According to Martin Haverson, who has overseen the site's redesign: "We have aimed to keep the layout clean and sharp, and to make it easy for the homeowner to understand. We don't want them to spend long on it, just long enough to find a local lawn care company."
Such visitors can search by town, county or postcode, which brings up a list of members operating in the area in random order. For this reason, member companies can still benefit by having their own websites, Haverson adds.
It will also feature regular articles on topics such as red thread written by experts in the lawn-care field, says Haverson. "But to show up in search engine results, we have to write it in language the customer would use. We're improving the analytics on the website - you need to know what people are searching on."
The previous website, which required potential customers to fill in an online enquiry form, suffered from a "latency", he says. "You have to deal with leads quickly, otherwise they go cold."
Salmon adds: "At Pro LawnCare, we get enquiries from places like Scotland. We need to be able to pass referrals to each other."
An 0800 telephone number will be retained and promoted through the site. "We still get contact that way, and can't break that link," says Haverson. "But we don't want the calls - we want the calls to go to our members."
- See www.uklawncare.net