Bought growth

Jim Eccleton grew up on the golf course. Naturally, he started working for a country club, where he became grounds superintendent and worked for more than a dozen years.

Members were so impressed with the property, they often asked him for advice about turf issues at their homes and businesses. “I finally determined I should start a business in 1987, and Country Club Turf seemed like a good name since I was a country club superintendent,” Eccleton says. At first, he offered basic lawn care and sprinkler services, which opened the door to other services.

Over several years and a handful of acquisitions, Eccleton added equipment and skills to meet customers’ needs and Country Club Turf Cos., eventually become a full-service, year-round company.

Irrigation improvement.

Eccleton saw his first acquisition opportunity in 2000, when a business in the area went up for sale.

The company, Silver Rain Irrigation, had been larger than Country Club Turf at one time, but the business was struggling. Still, it possessed the equipment Eccleton needed to improve his irrigation services, adding installation and repair capabilities. Plus, the price was right.

He purchased Silver Rain Irrigation, increasing his sprinkler business. By combining the company’s inventory with his attentive approach to customer service, growth was inevitable.

“The business was not doing well, so when I purchased it, I instantly gained a large percentage of their customers because they were not being serviced properly,” Eccleton says.

Then, the owner of nearby Lakewood Irrigation suddenly died, leaving no transition strategy behind.

The regional Rain Bird representative asked Eccleton to help the man’s widow handle service calls for a while. Eccleton relieved her altogether.

“After getting all of the work orders caught up, I purchased the company for the cost of equipment and inventory,” he says. “That added about 20 percent more customers to my database.”

Leveraging the strengths of two irrigation acquisitions, Country Club Turf was better suited to serve customers.

Building 12-month services.

Meanwhile, Eccleton noticed a growing trend among larger clients as they requested year-round property management. Country Club Turf offered some services, but relied on subcontractors to supplement certain jobs, such as mowing.

So, in 2012, Eccleton acquired Sunshine Landscaping. Although several of Sunshine’s services overlapped with Country Club Turf’s, it had something Eccleton didn’t: 12-month property management contracts.

What RVS have to do with turf

In 2010, after renting for 10 years, Jim Eccleton bought a foreclosed property to house his growing lawn care business. Country Club Turf moved into its new headquarters, which had been home to Larry’s RV Center since the 60s.

“The previous owner told me I would have to hire a full-time employee at both gates to tell people as they drove in that there was no longer an RV business there,” Eccleton says. “He was correct. I reopened Larry’s RV and it now grosses more than all of my lawn care companies combined.”

Although “the businesses don’t really go together,” he has noticed that “the synergies abound.” For example, employees are cross-trained early on to help RV customers get propane gas for their campers from the company tank.

Cross-training between companies helps Eccleton make the best use of each employee. For example, if Larry’s RV needs campers moved to the secure lot across town, or if mechanics need help installing an awning, it doesn’t make sense to pull salesmen or store clerks into the shop. Instead, crews from the turf business may lend a hand in between service calls.

“If somebody calls for service, I can react quickly because so many of my employees are cross-trained.”

“When I purchased Sunshine, they had some lucrative contracts already established,” Eccelton says.

“By leveraging their equipment and manpower, we became a true 12-month property management company without subcontracting any labor. That was my goal – to do everything in-house and have more quality control, more billing control, and deal directly with supervisors on site to meet needs in a timely fashion.”

Customers have been hugely appreciative of the change. Instead of different trucks showing up for each service, they get the consistency of dealing with one person and the convenience of 12 equal monthly invoices.

Smooth brand transition.

Though acquisitions aren’t always easy, Eccleton prefers this growth strategy over bootstrapping. Country Club Turf grew at double digits during the acquisition period, and still maintains about 7 percent annual growth, with $1.5 million in revenue.

“If you start from scratch and have to buy equipment, hire all new employees and advertise, it’s hard to get a footprint out of the gate,” he says. “I can acquire a company for the cost of equipment – that’s huge if it already comes with a couple of employees and some customers – even better if it comes with a good reputation.”

The Sunshine purchase was valued at about 50 percent equipment and 50 percent goodwill. The existing reputation and relationships looked lucrative, but tapping into those required a smooth transition into the Country Club Turf brand.

Eccleton’s first step after acquisition is liquidating any duplicate equipment. To initiate acquired customers to the new parent brand, most trucks and trailers are all lettered with the Country Club Turf logo (except for a couple from Sunshine that survived liquidation). Eccleton doesn’t advertise the names of acquired companies, although the sign outside of the company’s headquarters in Jackson, Mich., lists them – at least for now.

The names drop off as acquisitions slowly integrate into the Country Club Turf brand.

“When I acquire a company, I keep the name for a year or two, and then blend it into the parent company,” he says. “I don’t want to confuse my customers with two names, but I want them to know that we are still Sunshine.

After a year or two, customers start getting invoices that say Country Club Turf, not Sunshine. We transition them slowly into the brand, until they get all the correspondence from Country Club Turf.”

To avoid confusion during the transition, each company maintains separate phone lines. “We can tell by the display on the phone which company customers are calling,” he says.

“If they call a number associated with Country Club Turf, you would see CCT on the display, so you know how to answer the phone.” One employee may answer calls for any company, because operations are streamlined under one roof.

This allows Eccleton to integrate phone systems, administrative support and other resources, while reducing costs.

Cross-trained to multi-task.

Cross-training is crucial at Country Club Turf, where employees often hop between services and even companies.

New employees, who typically come through word-of-mouth, start in one division. If Eccleton likes what he sees, he starts to pair them up with various crews to learn as many skills as possible.

“As long as you’ve got one person who knows what’s going on, the second person should always be a trainee,” Eccleton says.

“You would never send two people who were good at one thing; that’s a waste of manpower. If you send one person who’s specialized and another person who can help, he can learn as he works.”

Eccleton learned that cross-training doesn’t just make his staff members more productive, it often makes them happier.

“When I was in the golf business, changing cup holes was one of the most tedious tasks,” he says.

“When one guy gets good at it, that poor guy has to do the same thing every single day. Cross-training is important for morale because it takes out the monotony. You enjoy your job more if you’re not stuck to one routine.”


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