Nathan Brandon's Turf Managers - Every little bit helps a small business thrive

When you run a small business, the details matter — and fine-tuning enough of those fine points can save owners real money.

Just ask Nathan Brandon and partner Billy Leavell, who own a $1.5 million-a-year-in-sales landscaping company, Turf Managers LLC.

With gasoline prices soaring to an average price of $3.40 per gallon here — up 70 cents from a year ago — Brandon and Leavell are breathing a sigh of relief that they've started to switch over their minifleet of commercial mowing equipment to propane as the fuel of choice.

The switch saves about 40 percent of the fuel costs for each mower and has helped Turf Managers manage through the recent economic downturn.

"It's a cost thing; with our clients we service anywhere from a quarter-acre lot to 20 acres, and those fuel costs add up," Brandon said last week as warmer temperatures started making the grass grow again here.

It costs $1,200 per mower to convert the equipment to propane fuel from gasoline. Turf Managers has made the switch on about half of its equipment and plans to phase in the rest.

"We started looking for an alternative source when fuel prices began flirting with $4 a gallon a while back," Brandon said, adding that the recent run-up in prices at the pump this spring makes the strategy a good one to keep pursuing.

"With our fleet of 16 company vehicles, 12 mowers and so much other equipment such as string trimmers, blowers and more, the rising gas prices can easily take a pretty substantial toll on our business," Brandon said. "The investment in propane mowers was a proactive measure. It's a way we could lessen the impact on our bottom line (from rising gasoline prices) and be more environmentally conscientious.

"It's part of how we're trying to do things — to be a more environmentally friendly business," he added. Propane also helps the company's grass mowers run cleaner and with less wear and tear.

"It's a clean-burning fuel, and we can typically get nine years out of a mower. We take very good care of our equipment. The cleaner fuel means no expense for fuel filters
and it reduces our oil changes, too," he said.

Those pennies and dollars saved added up at just the right time.

The economic slowdown here meant the company's key commercial accounts at big office buildings and other business properties started spending less — or not at all — on landscaping and maintenance as harder times kicked in over the past two years.

"We've really de-emphasized the commercial market, and we've pretty much gone completely residential now," Brandon said. Homeowners are still spending money on upkeep, and it makes sense to chase those sorts of clients.

"Our commercial customers kept spending less and less, or dropping the price they were willing to spend with us," he said. "We want to be able to provide a high level of service, so as those contracts expired we redirected our focus to the residential side."

Next, Brandon and Leavell plan to put more emphasis on another bright idea. In the past year or so, the company has come up with its own organic-based fertilizers pegged to Middle Tennessee's typical soil contents (and weaknesses).

One possibility is to start trying to sell the fertilizer compounds through area stores as another revenue stream. Every little bit helps.

Randy McClain is business editor of The Tennessean. Reach him at 615-259-8882 or [email protected].

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