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Why lawn care sometimes leads to 'starving children'

Lawn care has its dangers. Since striking out on his own seven years ago, Mark Utendorf has had to threaten lawsuits, go to bed in his clothes and learn plenty of dog names.

Origins: Utendorf, 51, has been in and out of the industry since high school, when he did a turn at Klehm Nursery in Arlington Heights. “I was one of those weird kids who, when my dad asked me to weed, I was like, ‘Sure!’ I never really outgrew it.”

In 2007, after a long run in corporate marketing, Utendorf recognized an opportunity to acquire Emerald Lawn Care from Rooney Landscape — equipment and clientele included. He used his savings and a home equity line of credit to fund the purchase.

Looking back, he says he overestimated the value of the company and underestimated the shrewdness of its employees. Without the restrictions of a noncompete, an employee under the previous management marketed himself as the original business, taking 75 percent of Emerald Lawn Care’s customers in the process. Utendorf made a call to his lawyer, who eventually persuaded the alleged imposter to cease and desist.

Even still, it was all Utendorf could do to stabilize expenses and work around the clock to survive. The first four years were a frenzy, but he eventually paid off the bills he’d accrued as a result of the transaction. In the meantime, Utendorf jokes, his two kids went hungry. “If you know you can always go back home and crash on your parents’ couch, that’s not the end of the world,” he says. “When you’ve got a whole family, there’s not enough room at mom and dad’s house.”

Pricing: Utendorf negotiates prices based on individual lawn size and needs. He says typical prices would be $49 for fertilization or weed control of a 5,000-square-foot lawn or $13 per 1,000 square feet of aeration.

Expenses: Utendorf’s major operating expenses break down into two buckets: labor and materials. Herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and other raw materials take up about 20 percent of total revenue.

Utendorf employs one administrator and two applicators (that’s the person who makes your lawn look nice). Utendorf isn’t required to provide his three employees with health insurance, but he does so anyway — at a cost of $3,000 a month — to attract and retain talent in an industry where such a benefit is the exception rather than the rule. General liability insurance and workers’ comp tacks on another $8,000 a month.

Rent runs $1,500 a month for Utendorf’s office and warehouse in Arlington Heights. A copy of the Real Green Systems service assistance software — his best investment, he says — costs about $3,000 and comes with 24/7 technical support for an additional $100 a month.

Marketing: Emerald Lawn Care distributes mailers, sponsors community events, and maintains a website and a profile on Angie’s List, but Utendorf says most of his advertising is pretty ineffective.

Truth is, he says, there’s no better marketing plan than when residents see Utendorf’s Emerald Lawn Care truck parked in front of their neighbors’ healthy green lawns. Utendorf keeps clients happy by providing a ton of personal attention — calling the pooch by name, sending sympathy cards when there’s a death in the family. All the little touches result in a customer retention rate that he pegs at more than 90 percent.

Seasonality: No matter how much you fertilize and mulch, Chicago’s short on grass in the winter. That leaves Utendorf six months to take care of administrative work for the next season — renewing contracts, planning promotions and taking stock of equipment — before his team hits the subdivisions of Arlington Heights again. Until last year, Emerald Lawn Care also provided some subcontracted snow-plowing services, but the money wasn’t enough to justify wearing work clothes to bed for 2 a.m. blizzards.

Growth: Emerald Lawn Care has experienced an annual growth rate of about 15 percent — until this year. Since January, growth has been “shockingly” low, expanding only about 3 percent versus 2012. Utendorf says he can only wait out the trend to understand the implications.

Bottom line: “Make sure you have a buffer,” Utendorf says, “You jump into your own business, you better make sure you have your ducks in a row because it’s a big risk. I have zero regrets, but there are lots of sleepless nights.”

Photo of Mark Utendorf by Susan Du