By Cheryl Higley
Team Boren from left to right: Director of Fleet Management Jacoby, Grass Groomers founder Mike, and VPs of Development Justin and Zach. Video
: Justin & Zach Boren discuss company branding and culture.
Teamwork. Accountability. No excuses. Toughness. Never quit. Competitive excellence. This mindset served the Borens - Mike, Justin, Zach and Jacoby - well when they dominated their opponents while crafting award-winning careers in Big Ten football. Off the field, they are using their gridiron experiences - and their connection to The Ohio State University - to shape the Columbus, OH-based Grass Groomers into a perennial winner.
Mike Boren founded Grass Groomers in 1991 while working full-time as operations manager for a logistics company in Columbus. The business started small, with two mowers, a trailer and his truck. Snow and ice management gradually became part of the service offerings as he grew and his existing customer base began asking for the service.
Two of his sons - Justin and Jacoby - got a much earlier start in the snow business.
Justin, who is vice president of development, started in the field alongside Mike when he was 6. He says his degree at Ohio State was in “football,” but he would rather execute a game plan for snow and ice management. That focus has paid off. Since taking over the snow division in 2005, Justin has transformed Grass Groomers into a snow powerhouse with revenues that have grown from $30,000 to several million dollars.
“For me, I played because I was good at it and wasn’t going to let a scholarship opportunity slip away. I played three years in the NFL and wouldn’t trade it for anything, but football is not my calling in life,” he says. “I get more joy in being involved in our business.”
Jacoby also started early, first shoveling and graduating to operating skid steers, loaders and salt trucks. The youngest of the Boren sons, Jacoby graduated from OSU in May and is settling in as the company’s director of fleet management (see section below).
Zach plays a key role in the company’s snow sales efforts, but most of his time is spent as vice president and controller for Boren Brothers, a separate company that provides dumpster and waste management services. And that’s fine with him.
“Justin would do the whole route with Dad, and if my Mom wouldn’t let him go that day, he would scream and yell until she changed her mind,” he says. “Me? Not so much. All I cared about was sports, so I didn’t get involved in the business until three years ago when I was in and out of playing in the NFL. Now I’m involved every day since my playing career has come to an end.”
Mike Boren (left) taught Jacoby and Justin the snow and ice management ropes early. Both were in the field as kids. Today they service OSU properties and others that demand a high level of service.
Where football and business mix
Regardless of their roles in the company, the Boren brothers all agree that succeeding in business is very much like winning in football - and that’s how they approach it.
“Football has everything to do with our work,” Zach says. “Playing football and training in the off-season teaches you so much about toughness, teamwork and competitive excellence. Those skill sets translate to the business.”
From the sales side, the quest for competitive excellence shows in how they strategize which customers they want to tar-get. Justin says that focus has changed a lot since 2008. Whereas the company was very big into the residential and the commercial landscape market early on, the maintenance division wasn’t as much of a priority until the recession hit.
“We knew we had to diversify. We had a lot of assets and employees and saw snow as an opportunity. We strategically started to go after clients that might not be the largest in terms of landscape management but who demand a high level of service in the winter,” Justin says. “Snow has begun to drive this company.”
That shift in mind-set is a key differentiator in a market where snow often takes a backseat: “A lot of companies just ‘deal with’ the snow but don’t make it a priority. We are a snow company that does landscaping. When you hear that if a client has to shut down it will cost them $1 million an hour, it puts in perspective the importance of what we do.”
Ready for the worst: Justin Boren says because their clients demand a high level of service (including Ohio State medical facilities, parking garages and campus sites), Grass Groomers has to be prepared: “We can’t get
complacent. We get 2- to 6-inch storms fairly consistently. We haven’t had a 24-inch snowstorm or a 1-inch ice storm in a while, but they’re going to happen. We look at the worst-case scenario and prepare for it.”
Operational Xs and Os
Once Justin and Zach sell a new account, they hand over the day-to-day tasks to their account managers, who assume full responsibility for client relations, renewals, etc. Justin then turns his attention to operations and creating the game plan for Grass Groomers’ six zones and 250 seasonal workers around Central Ohio.
“Everything is based on priority. Our medical facilities are first, and then everything else falls in line behind them. We have created good cycle times and can get everything serviced in about four hours,” he says.
Equipment is staged at most sites, and the company deploys its salt trucks from 15 salt depots located throughout its service area. Eighty percent of the work is done in-house, but Grass Groomers uses some subcontractors who have larger equipment or to staff outlying areas to ensure service starts faster.
In years past, Justin was one of the area managers but will transition this season into overseeing all operations from the office.
“That’s my goal, but when it comes to snow, it’s really hard to be hands-off. We only have a couple of hours to get our properties serviced to bare blacktop,” he says. “Some events are easier than others, but we never back down and have trained our team to have that same mentality. Our never-ending commitment is to provide a superior service for all of our customers. My dad, my brothers and I have a passion for our business that is unmatched. We never settle for mediocrity and are always pushing and looking for ways to be better,” he says.
Grass Groomers uses OSU connections to build a client, talent base.
There is a saying that it’s not what you know but who you know. And in the greater Columbus region, which bleeds the scarlet and gray of The Ohio State University, there’s a good chance that there isn’t a true fan who doesn’t know the Boren family.
Grass Groomers founder Mike Boren played for archrival University of Michigan but grew up in Columbus (and now pledges allegiance to the Buckeyes). Justin, Zach and Jacoby all played football for the Buckeyes, serving as team captains and earning a multitude of football and academic accolades. Opening doors
Zach and Justin, who lead the sales initiatives, say the OSU connection isn’t the most important factor when it comes to advancing the company but admit it certainly doesn’t hurt to be affiliated with a college football program that is valued at nearly $950 million.
The company has built a commercial portfolio that includes industrial, class A office, medical and retail properties throughout Central Ohio. Ohio State is among its clients. Grass Groomers performs landscaping and snow removal on campus, at most of the OSU Medical Center off-campus properties and nearly 75% of the OSU parking facilities.
“We have a huge advantage being in Columbus and having played football. It has allowed us to get in front of business leaders who need our service, opens doors a little easier and makes some meetings more attainable,” Justin says. But, Zach says, “it comes down to customer relationships and delivering the impeccable service we sell.”
To some extent, the benefits of those connections go beyond the business community to human resources.
Justin says that despite a convenient labor pool of about 45,000 undergraduate students on the Columbus campus, recruiting for seasonal labor is a constant challenge. The company has found some success with those who have a farming background and are familiar with the bigger equipment, and Jacoby has used his contacts to attract some good candidates. But Justin says they can’t realistically count on college students for a reliable workforce.
“With students you have to balance breaks, holidays, weekends. They aren’t full-time employees, so if they go home and we get a 6-inch snowstorm, we’re stuck.”
While finding that part-time labor has been difficult, almost all of Grass Groomers’ core group of employees graduated from Ohio State, and many are former athletes.
“We love to hire athletes because they have the team mentality it takes to succeed in this industry,” Justin says.
Boren brand: Using their OSU legacy is a key play in Grass Groomers’ game plan, from marketing to reinforcing a football mentality in the office. Justin and Zach Boren say those connections are beneficial, but more important is building relationships and delivering impeccable service.
Running a new kind of offense
Newly graduated Jacoby Boren transitions from OSU football to fleet management.
Like his brother Justin, Jacoby Boren took an early and active interest in the family’s business, shoveling sidewalks as a kid to running a skid steer and driving a salt truck as he got older.
On the football field, Jacoby - a former Ohio State captain and Academic All-American -was at the center of it all, literally. Since graduating in May, he has transferred the intelligence and leadership it took to anchor the Buckeyes’ offensive line to fine tuning Grass Groomers’ fleet.
On the field, Jacoby touched the ball every snap. Today, as director of fleet management, he’s still involved in every play but in more of a coaching role.
“I am not afraid to get my hands dirty when I need to help out, but I am not capable of doing all of the work that my team does,” he says. “I try to make their jobs as efficient as possible and let them do what they do best and set them up to succeed.”
Technology is helping Jacoby better manage fleet maintenance. Grass Groomers uses GPS tracking systems in all of the trucks to schedule and track preventive maintenance. Based on the hours or miles he sets for each piece of equipment, Jacoby receives notifications to schedule assigned maintenance. Newer trucks also have technology that alert the fleet mechanics when service is needed, and scanners can help troubleshoot issues.
“The list is a mile long with how technology can help us with fleet management,” he says. “The issue is that the younger generations want to develop software for all these things; but in turn we won’t have anybody to actually fix the equipment that is broken.”
A key challenge for Jacoby’s team is balancing the demands on the fleet from the landscape and waste removal divisions with preparing for winter.
“It definitely makes it more difficult to keep on track, but we approach it with a sense of urgency. We are all aware of the importance of having our winter fleet ready to go by November 15.”
While he knows he has a lot to learn, Jacoby is up to the challenge: “I think with the opportunity for growth that we have, I can bring a lot of value to maintaining our growing fleet and working on our snow operations with Justin and the rest of our team. I love the challenges that the snow industry brings.”
Jacoby Boren has fully immersed himself into learning all he can about fleet maintenance. He is responsible for ensuring the team has the technology and operational tools to operate efficiently.
Cheryl Higley is editor in chief of Snow Business magazine. Contact her at Cheryl@sima.org.