Backstory: Building a solid business, one green lawn at a time

jmgiglio@newsobserver.comMay 13, 2013 

  • Advice from Brad Sutton

    •  Hire a good accountant.

    •  Set yourself up with a salary you can afford. Have taxes taken out.

    •  Don’t be focused on growing too fast.

    •  Don’t borrow too much money. Only get what you need.

    •  Enjoy what you do. But don’t work yourself into the ground. Make sure to set time aside to enjoy something else.

— Growing grass is easy.

Brad Sutton has the lawn care company to prove it.

“It is a simple business. It’s not very complicated,” said Sutton, owner of Eastern Turf Maintenance, a Raleigh lawn care company that handles services such as weed control, fertilization, aeration and seeding. “Fertilization and weed control, it’s not rocket science.”

He learned how to care for lawns and for a business while working for EPM Lawn Care after he graduated from N.C. State. When the company was sold, he decided to scratch his go-into-business-for-himself itch and set up shop in his garage in 2000.

He didn’t start with much. In those early days, he had one truck, one spreader and one customer.

Sutton’s wife, Ann, spent her afternoons and weekends passing out simple fliers in nice neighborhoods. Sutton spent his days framing houses and evenings doing lawn care.

But the business didn’t stay too small for too long.

Within a year, that one client had turned into 300. Sutton moved out of his garage and into a mini-storage unit, a larger place where he could keep his lawn care equipment.

The next year meant an even bigger storage unit and a bigger client base. And after three years and 800 customers, Sutton hired his first employee.

Eastern Turf Maintenance has been building steadily ever since.

“Every year (the growth) has been on a steady increase,” Sutton said. “No bumps down. No big bumps way up.”

Sutton now has 20 trucks, 30 spreaders, three tractors and 20 employees who work out of a 9,000-square-foot warehouse and office complex on Anvil Place in Raleigh.

Twelve of those employees are territory managers, who make customer service calls, sales calls and do production work within assigned areas.

With that staff comes a different set of responsibilities for Sutton. Instead of managing lawns on a daily basis, he spends a lot of his time managing personnel.

“Personnel will take up a lot of your time,” Sutton said. “(So will) other parts of the business, like running a 401(k) program.”

However, Sutton stays hands-on with one part of the job: maintaining athletic fields.

Sutton has developed working relationships with area high schools and colleges, including N.C. State University, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Duke University and East Carolina University. The schools hire Eastern Turf Management to do specialty work such as aeration and weed control for their football, soccer, baseball and lacrosse fields.

Eastern Turf Maintenance gets about 85 percent of its business from residential customers; the other 15 percent are commercial clients, including the schools.

Sutton still uses those fliers to spread the word to potential customers. Territory managers are responsible for their mapping and distribution – about 50,000 fliers go out every six months.

“Fliers are what sustained our growth up until four or five years ago,” Sutton said. “Then we started doing some radio advertising.”

Expanding to radio ads are just about the only thing Sutton has changed about his model. He has stuck with the same weed control, fertilization, aeration and seeding services that made him successful in the beginning.

“Don’t try and do too much,” Sutton said. “Just pick a thing and be really good at it. … If you provide a good product, and you do it at a good price, you’ll get all the business you want.”

It’s just that simple.

Giglio: 919-829-4649

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