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Taking Utah by storm

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  • SIMA
- Posted: October 1, 2014
By Cheryl Higley

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Rudy Larsen knew from the minute he graduated high school in 2006 that he was born to be an entrepreneur, charting his own course on his own terms.

Seeing a need in his Salt Lake City, UT, market, he started Lawn Butler and has been growing ever since. His company has averaged 80% growth each of the last three years, earning Lawn Butler a spot on Inc. 5000’s fastest-growing businesses list and Larsen a “40 Under 40” award, recognizing successful young businessmen, from Utah Business magazine.

“I knew school wasn’t for me and I wanted to be my own boss,” Larsen, 26, says. “I saw a lot of landscape contractors not taking care of their clients. I saw a need, and I love the positive impact landscaping has on a property. To be able to achieve the success we have had in such a short time has been gratifying, and I’m happy I can share it with my team.”

While he was comfortable in the landscape world, Larsen had never plowed snow - but living in a state that claims to have the “best snow on earth,” he knew it came with the territory. Undeterred, he used $10,000 in savings to buy two plows and two spreaders.

“That first year of plowing snow I was scared out of my mind,” he says. “Over the years, though, I have fallen in love with snow removal. It’s become my favorite service that we offer, and it’s the only thing I still go out and do.”

Overcoming the learning curve
Given that he had no snow-removal experience, Larsen was at a disadvantage, so he surrounded himself with people who knew the industry and asked questions of anyone who would listen, including his competitors. In 2011, he hired Jim Huston to help educate him on the financial intricacies of the business.

“I knew I couldn’t grow the business without having the financial understanding. Once you learn your numbers you can have an intelligent conversation with your clients. You can validate why you charge what you do. When you know your numbers, you can be profitable and still provide the services your clients expect,” he explains. “I needed that knowledge. The first few years were hard, but I’ve learned an immense amount in the last few years.”

Larsen also surrounded himself with key people who had the operational knowledge he lacked: “I was fortunate to hire Clayton Phillipps as operations manager. With 20 years of experience in the industry, having Clayton on our team has been vital to our success. The vision for your company starts at the top, but if you don’t have the right people to execute it you’ll look like an idiot!”

Building relationships
Lawn Butler has built a sizable portfolio of Class A office, large retail, government and other commercial clients, amassing more than $3 million in snow revenue alone. Maintaining relationships with his customers and managing their expectations is essential. Larsen says his team spends a lot of time with clients to understand their expectations and then relays that information to every team member.

“We make sure everyone is on the same page. Everyone has different expectations,” he says. “It’s our biggest challenge. Someone will call freaking out that there’s a half-inch of snow on the ground, but our contract says we service at 2 inches. I can say: ‘We had a conversation about this. Here’s what the contract says, and this is what we’re doing. If you’re not happy, let’s fix the expectation.’ It’s important to communicate up front and follow through.”

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Customer expectations: Lawn Butler clients include Class A office, large retail, government and commercial complexes - all of whom have high expectations for snow & ice management services.

Snow removal isn’t a luxury
In the eight years since he started Lawn Butler, Larsen has formed several complementary businesses and recently purchased another landscape company. Those businesses, which include irrigation, construction, consulting, real estate and holiday decorating, allow him to sustain and support winter operations.

Larsen says every enterprise is important to the company’s overall success, but snow & ice management is the most important service offering. While a typical winter in Utah sees 40 to 60 inches of snowfall (primarily from December to February), some markets can see 100 to 150 inches in a season. The Great Salt Lake also packs a substantial lake-effect wallop, which brings additional snow 24 to 48 hours after an initial event.

“People price snow services so cheap that they’re giving it away; they see it as a burden. We hold ourselves to a higher standard. I tell our clients up front that we won’t ever have the lowest price, but our work will be done right with immaculate attention to detail. We’re not just providing a service, we’re keeping people safe, and we feel like we’re making a difference,” Larsen says.  
Looking beyond the work

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Rudy Larsen loves snow & ice management, and he wants his employees to love it just as much as he does. By creating a culture of appreciation and empowerment, Lawn Butler experiences minimal turnover and has built a robust referral network.

“I’ve had people leave the company because they don’t want to do snow removal,” Larsen says. “If I’m doing it, everyone is doing it. We take a great attitude into it and create a positive atmosphere where people look forward to it.”

Employee incentives
Larsen has chosen not to use subcontractors, so developing a reliable workforce is imperative. Keeping his team of nearly 130 employees fed, warm, dry and happy can mean a lot during the winter. It’s not cheap, but he says the expense is worth it:
  • After every storm, the team regroups to assess the event, review safety - and eat a lot of pizza. Larsen says, “The pizza guys love us in the winter!”
  • Each employee who works outside in the elements receives high-quality waterproof gear. “Dry employees will work harder,” he explains. “It is a huge expense, but we know they’ll be out in the elements and we’re grateful for the work they do.”
  • Larsen invests in top-of-the-line equipment that helps the teams operate efficiently, safely and comfortably. “We have good equipment to get the job done so that the work is more pleasant for them. If it’s done right and employees are productive, we can generate a lot of revenue to help offset the cost of using new equipment,” he says.
  • He appeals to the competitive nature of the employees and rewards good work.
    “We give bonuses and will have internal competitions and recognize people for their efforts during the storms,” Larsen notes.
  • The team spends a lot of time together outside the office, whether it’s having a holiday party, company retreat or even renting out a theater for movie night. “It’s not all about the work. We’re like a family,” he says.
“The key thing is taking care of our employees,” Larsen says. “It’s doing those extra things that show you appreciate them.” 

Room for advancement

Retaining employees is only half the battle for Larsen. The more difficult task is getting people to grow with the company and being confident to advance through the ranks. He tasks his managers to look for talent in their areas and identify those who are up to the challenge.

“We have weekly meetings where we identify that talent and then pull them aside and begin the process of grooming them for advancement,” he explains. “We also love when someone comes to us and says they want to make more money. It’s a perfect segue into ‘I can pay you this much if you would be willing to take this position.’ We talk through the skill sets and what they need to do to be ready to take the position when it’s available.”

Growing the team
Providing a positive environment for his employees reaps additional benefits for Lawn Butler; offering referral fees to those who recruit workers for the company is one example. If a current employee brings someone in who works one storm, the employee receives $10. If that recruit works one month, the employee receives $40, and a full season means $50 for the recruiter.

Larsen says the company’s culture has been built to look beyond the work. He also plans many activities outside of the office, such as holiday parties, retreats and other events.

“It’s not just about work,” he says. “We love what we do, and because the employees are passionate about the company they take ownership and know everything will be OK.
Getting banks to buy in to your business

Trying to ramp up a business in the midst of a recession posed quite a challenge for budding entrepreneur Rudy Larsen.

He knew he needed money to help get Lawn Butler off the ground, but Larsen says banks were reluctant to underwrite a $250,000 loan for “a 20-year-old kid with no credit.”

More than a dozen banks turned Larsen away before a small local bank took a chance.

“It was hard, but I knew [in order] to grow I needed the investment. I had to get the banks to see beyond the numbers or the credit history. I needed them to see me, my vision, and how we were going to be successful,” he says.

Successfully selling the Lawn Butler story helped Larsen get the company off the ground.

“It’s a lot like selling a client. You have to work to build a relationship, make that time to network and meet with them so they under-stand your culture and your organization. The numbers don’t tell the whole story. But if you’ve built that relationship and shared your story, as you establish a track record bankers will be intrigued and want to bank with you.”

Cheryl Higley is editorial director of Snow Business magazine. Photos by John Woodbury.
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