How to grow a business

From doggie waste to a whole menu of yard services, the Bulldog has grown by meticulously calculated meaures

Story by John R. Ingrisano

ESPECIALLY IN TOUGH ECONOMIC TIMES, anyone with a lawnmower and a trailer hitch prints a business card and becomes a lawn care expert. Most don’t last a season. That’s what makes Allan Dreblow different.

 

Starting with a single idea in 2006 of cleaning up dog waste from yards under the name K9 Poop Patrol, Dreblow has applied sound business practices – aided by a degree in finance from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh – to steadily evolve his one-scoop business into The Bulldog Lawn and Landscape (www.hirethebulldog.com), an Appleton-based, full-service lawn care company.

“I always wanted to be the guy in charge,” Dreblow said. So, after a few random jobs in sales, the then 27-year-old started K9 Poop Patrol in 2006, springing for an eye-catching billboard along U.S. Highway 41 – complete with a bulldog as his logo – and cleaning up in the yard waste business in the Fox Valley region. From there, the next logical steps were to expand into more lawn care services and add snow plowing in the winter. 

The growth has been steady, though not stellar, with business increasing from $30,000 in annual sales the first year to $175,000 and two fulltime employees today. That’s how Dreblow likes it, he explained, saying he has to constantly resist the temptation to expand too quickly.   

In fact, talk to him for five minutes and it becomes apparent that he does not think of himself so much as a lawn care man, but as a businessman who takes a methodic, businesslike approach to a line of work too often dominated by fly-by-night, mower-and-a-rake wanna-bes.   

 Tips for success

How has Dreblow managed to survive and thrive in the lawn care business? Here are a few thoughts he provided:

  •  Be driven. Work all the time and work hard. “I played a lot of sports in school,” he said. “I want to be the best. Anybody can start up a lawn care business. But making it work takes work.”

Have a passion for what you do. Having gone the cubicle-and-tie route for a few years, Dreblow knew that life wasn’t for him. “I always liked being outside, and I enjoy yard work,” he said. That’s crucial. “There are going to be days when you don’t enjoy the business side of it or have a customer you don’t care for. Still, overall, you’d better like what you do, or you won’t be happy. Otherwise, even if you’re making money, it will be a drag.”

Keep debt under control. This is a point Dreblow emphasized time and again – he hates debt. “One of my best days in business was when I managed to get some equipment paid off.” He had invested heavily in new mowers and other equipment, buying machinery designed to help make money, and he had to borrow to do it. “Then I worked aggressively to pay it off, so I’m pretty much debt free.” One of the biggest challenges with debt, he said, is that it makes you behave differently. It can skew your thinking. “If you’re not carrying a load of debt, and you’re not financially desperate, your thinking is clearer. If you are desperate, your mind is in a different place and you’re going to make bad decisions. “So, I try to avoid taking on too much debt, and I keep one eye on cash flow. I’m always looking to pay off debts and not find something else to buy.”

Invest in the business. It takes more than a cheap mower and a rake to make it in this business. Dreblow would analyze the value of buying a new piece of equipment in terms of productivity and time. Only if the numbers made sense would he then make the investment. “I put every cent back into the business at first,” he said, purchasing the equipment he needed and then systematically paying off debt.

Plan. A lot of businesses fail for lack of planning. “You have to think like a businessman,” he emphasized. “Always look ahead, know what you are doing. That also means learning how to make good decisions. If I make a wrong decision, it can cost thousands of dollars. I have to be patient and realize that good businesses take time to build and plan.”    

Pace your growth. “My biggest challenge is watching and controlling growth,” Dreblow said. “You start adding employees and you are adding costs, taking on a lot of things that do not make you any money. The challenge is to grow at a pace you can control. I’m at the point now where we have a fair amount of business and can grow slowly. Though it is not easy, I try to be patient.”

• Create systems. Keenly aware of his fly-by-night competitors, Dreblow believes in establishing SOPs (standard operating procedures). That way, even if he’s not on a specific job, his employees know what to do and how to do it. “I have systems in place for pretty much everything. The more you plan, the better the business will run. At the same time,” he offered as a caution, “don’t let the planning become the business. Plans don’t make the business. And you have to be flexible and make sure employees have the opportunity to make decisions on their own, too.”

Keep learning. When not managing the business or in the field, Dreblow is continuously looking for new ways to run and grow the company. “I study on the downtimes,” he said, whether it is looking for faster ways to do a leaf clean up, exploring the purchase of a new piece of equipment, or learning a new landscape technique. “Some things I learn on the job, but the Internet is also a great source of information. I also like to get to know other business owners. They’re going to have good ideas. Find a mentor. I didn’t come from a family of business owners, so I make a point of learning from others.”

Watch your image. This is especially important in his business in which lawn care companies come and go. “Our trucks all have the Bulldog message, like billboards on wheels, sending people to our Web site,” he explained. “We have uniform shirts. The idea is to project an image of a company that has it together. When we give an estimate, for example, our prices may be a bit higher. We’ve had instances where we didn’t get the job at first, but got it later when the fly-by-night company folded.”

Dream. “I’m always building toward something,” Dreblow explained. Though much of his business evolved step by step, the progression from K9 Poop Patrol in 2006 to The Bulldog Lawn and Landscape was logical, as he kept adding value by adding services.

The next step? Continuing to build logically on the existing business platform, Dreblow said that “our dream is to get into the retail side, opening a landscape center and being able to cross-sell services and products to customers. Not sure exactly how to bring that about yet, but that will add a whole new dimension to the business. Most of all, we’re going to grow slowly and take our time.”

Sounds like a good way to grow a business.

John Ingrisano is a Wisconsin-based business journalist and marketing strategist who helps clients recognize, maximize and realize their competitive advantages. For more information, contact John at john@thefreestyleentrepreneur.com or call 920.559.3722.