Twenty-five years ago, Kevin Schroeder was working at an agricultural fertilizer plant west of Fairchild Air Force Base when he saw a business opportunity.
Schroeder noticed there were companies that offered lawn mowing, others that sprayed fertilizer and pesticides on yards, and still others that removed snow from driveways and sidewalks in the winter.
“But nobody did all three,” he said. “I was the first one in Spokane to say to property managers, ‘You can make one call to me, because we do everything when it comes to maintenance.’
“Now, everybody does it.”
But few do it on the scale of Spokane ProCare, which has 5,000 clients.
Schroeder and his wife, Carol, started the business in their garage with a pickup, one lawn mower and a sprayer.
During a recent interview, Schroeder discussed the company’s growth and offered seasonal maintenance tips for homeowners.
S-R: Did you mow lawns as a kid?
Schroeder: Not really.
S-R: What drew you to the lawn-care business?
Schroeder: My background was in agricultural fertilizer. That industry was changing back in the ’80s, with companies buying other companies out. I didn’t want to be in that anymore, and decided to start my own company.
S-R: Did you learn the chemical side of lawn care at your previous job?
Schroeder: Yes. We’re tested and licensed through the Washington State Department of Agriculture to apply pesticides, so my previous job gave me some background.
S-R: Were you initially on your own?
Schroeder: I started the company with my wife and my brother-in-law. About eight years into it, we took on another partner. And in 2000, Carol and I bought both of those guys out.
S-R: Did you have a mentor?
Schroeder: During the first 15 years, I bought out five other companies. The first one was Northwest Spray, which had been in business about 40 years here in Spokane. The owner, John Yates, was retiring, and he worked for us for a year. I gained a lot of knowledge from John.
S-R: When was business best?
Schroeder: We had our peak years in 2007, ’08 and ’09.
S-R: How much has the recession affected your bottom line?
Schroeder: Probably 10 to 15 percent. But we were positioned pretty well, being 65 percent commercial. Businesses may cut back on a few applications here and there, but they still have to maintain their properties. Some residential clients decided to fertilize and mow their own lawns. But things are starting to pick up again. This year has been a little better than the last two.
S-R: What’s your business philosophy?
Schroeder: To treat our customers fairly, and to give our employees the best tools possible to do the job right.
S-R: What’s your management style?
Schroeder: I know every one of my employees, and I listen to them. But I’ve done every job they do. So when an employee says, “Can we do it a different way?” I say, “We can look at doing it a different way, but trust me, after 25 years I’ve tried every way.”
S-R: If you had a do-over, are there any business decisions you’d change?
Schroeder: I wish I’d never gotten into landscape construction. That’s what my two other partners did, and we never made any money at it. So when I bought them out in 2000, I shut that portion of the business down.
S-R: What’s the outlook for your business?
Schroeder: I think we have a great future. I have two sons working in the business, and it provides a decent income for a lot of people. I think as the economy improves, business will get better and we’ll have another growth spurt.
S-R: Is there a trend away from traditional lawns toward low-maintenance, drought-resistant landscapes?
Schroeder: New construction is going toward that, absolutely. And that’s good for us. Pest management is getting more complicated, which is good for the industry.
S-R: Who’s your competition?
Schroeder: Our largest competitor is Senske, based in Kennewick. And there are two other companies in town that do what we do: Four Seasons Landscaping and C&C Yard Care.
S-R: Any other competitors?
Schroeder: A lot more people have gotten into lawn care because they’re out of work. But our people are paid well, they have health insurance and an IRA program, so we offer things to our full-time employees that a lot of companies don’t.
S-R: Is your business seasonal, or do you stay busy all year long?
Schroeder: Our seasonal employees work about nine and a half months, and we staff about 12 employees year-round. In the winter we bring a lot of people back for snow removal.
S-R: What’s your busiest time of year?
Schroeder: Spring. That’s when we’re starting up sprinklers, fertilizing lawns, pruning. In spring, everybody wants their yard to look great right now, so we’re very busy.
S-R: What do you like most about the business?
Schroeder: I don’t like sitting behind a desk. I enjoy getting out and talking to customers and selling. That’s how I built the business.
S-R: What qualities do you look for in job applicants?
Schroeder: We look for outgoing people who naturally like being outside.
S-R: What should homeowners focus on in the yard this time of year?
Schroeder: Make sure all of your plants are getting plenty of water, because you’re going to be blowing out your sprinkler system within the next month. We started blowing out sprinklers Oct. 1. And then do your fall pruning. You don’t want bushes overgrown, because heavy snow will break them down. It’s also a good time to apply spider and ant (chemical) barriers around the outside of the house, because those pests are looking for ways to get inside for the winter.
S-R: When you’re driving around town, do you notice any common yard-related problems?
Schroeder: A lot of people don’t know how to prune, so they butcher their trees, and it kind of makes you sick because you know the tree will never be right again. Also, people typically don’t know how to properly adjust their sprinkler systems. They either overwater or underwater.
S-R: How do you relax?
Schroeder: We live up north on Deer Lake, and just sitting on the deck and looking at the water is relaxing to me.
S-R: Do you have a lawn there?
Schroeder: We do.
S-R: Do you mow it yourself?
Schroeder: Our crews mow it (hearty laugh).
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