Twenty-five percent of homes in the United States are worth less than their mortgages. Unemployment is 10 percent. War, deficit, businesses folding, more and more daily bad news.
If you listen to the media this year and formulate a strategy and a vision for moving forward in this economy, you might as well close the doors and sell off the assets: It seems that terrible.
This is how I felt in January of 2009 as we firmed up seasonal commercial and residential contracts for Competitive Lawn Service. We are just a small company in Downers Grove, Illinois, that shows up weekly and cuts, trims, fertilizes, and cleans up properties locally.
At the beginning of the year, this is what I faced:
All of the contracts could be canceled. The clients might not have any money to pay for these services this season. They might cancel all of the additional services and leave the company under water on the revenue side. What was going to happen? How can we prepare for this impending doom? Maybe we hire fewer employees this year, I thought, purchase less equipment that we will need to service these accounts, figure on losing 20 percent or 30 percent of our contracts because that is what our industry is experiencing.
OK, take a deep breath and do not think that way.
I would not want to work for a company with that kind of vision. It’s like walking backwards—off of a cliff. And besides, what about all that has occurred in the last few years? How can we use all of the good news in the economy, the local changes, and the ability that company leaders have to make “stuff” happen?
But where are the bright spots? Are there any? My gosh, they are all around us, and we just need to lift ourselves out of the negative muck and mire and look around. 2009 can be amazing, but it just depends how I take us down this road, I thought.
We already had started without even knowing or concentrating on it.
In 2007 and 2008, our company started playing around with alternative fuels and running lawn equipment on propane. Why?
Well, originally it was less expensive than the rising price of unleaded gasoline and was saving some money for us. Only a few pieces of equipment and maybe 50 bucks here and there, but was it worth the hassle? We had engines that blew up and equipment that we couldn’t get started sometimes. But this was a learning process, the same learning process that any new company would experience with gasoline engines getting started in our industry. We went through that 28 years ago when the company began.
We can run with this. Maybe we can create the first commercial crew in the country to run on propane. We would be 60 percent less CO2 emissions for our clients. The equipment is quieter. Propane is less expensive and more efficient to run. So how do we do this?
First we need a place to fill our equipment. We had been refilling containers at our local equipment-rental company. Let’s put a fill station on our site in Downers Grove. The first private fill station for lawn equipment in Illinois. But why is this so groundbreaking? Why is it so hard? Local and state regulations. Hassles, problems, and it took months to get approved.
Next, let’s get more equipment—now we’re talking. But all of the equipment we need doesn’t exist yet. Let’s do research and development for the manufacturers and help them get the equipment that we need for the next season. I think this summer we tested just about every propane piece of equipment coming to market for 2010.
What about the kinds and types of propane tanks that need to be mounted on the equipment for operation? Some work, some don’t, and some just need to be changed. Fiberglass lightweight tanks? Baffled aluminum tanks? What works well and what doesn’t?
What about trucks? They are unveiled at Ford but that is only for half-ton and we need larger 1-ton trucks for our operations. When do the 1-ton trucks come out in propane, and when can we get our hands on the first ones. OK, so we will receive the first Ford F350 from Detroit. Great! Looks like it will be shipped in December. Time for a photo and video opportunity!
What about trimmers and blowers? They are out now but use the Coleman 1-pound canisters, and we cannot refill these for commercial operations. We need a solution. How about a backpack that can carry propane and operate the trimmers? Will this work, and when can we get smaller tanks like 1 and 2 pound? Can they make them in Norway?
We need some kind of tagline on this. “Green Propane Power” sounds good. Let’s brand this up and get it on all our trucks and trailers as we switch over to propane. As I visited the Green Industry Equipment Expo show in Louisville, Kentucky, and saw all of the propane-powered equipment presented, I think that our industry is on to something. The industry is moving forward and changing.
I was fortunate enough for British Airways to give me the ability to fly to Europe on their “face to face” program and begin to make international connections that could open the doors for the technology that our industry needs to move forward in the direction of alternative fuels. I was able to meet literally hundreds of other company leaders who get it and see the doors and the opportunities that exist throughout the world.
I am proud to say that after a year of hard work, Competitive Lawn Service, Inc. will be the first company in the country to have a commercial lawn maintenance crew to operate 100 percent on propane as an alternative fuel, as well as a private propane fill station at our location. And our growing list of commercial and residential clients are listening and applauding. The future looks bright for 2010, and we are ready. Ready to branch out, expand, open new locations, and go where no company has gone before in the direction of alternative fuels, quality service, and a passion for making a difference in this world.
So, here I am in London in November of 2009 blogging about the year that was. How much different would the blog have sounded if I didn’t hear that single knock on the door? I would have listened to fear. I would have listened to all of the bad news in the marketplace, in our economy, in our industry. Instead I listened to a clear knock. Now there are more knocks every day. I am listening. Are you?
The question we all should have is not how we are going to survive, but rather what door we should open and go through—and where it will lead.
Eric Hansen is founder of Competitive Lawn Service, Inc.
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