A lot of successful business people like to talk about the humbling start they had in their careers before reaching success, but local entrepreneur Patrick Jones can probably top most stories.
Jones didn't just fall into his prosperous landscaping business, fittingly named The Yard Crew — a simple name that reflects the local company's tightknit group of employees and its friendly approach to working with customers. Jones got his start shucking dog waste from lawns in Oak Park and River Forest. He also mowed those lawns.
Determined to start a business, Jones moved to the Oak Park-River Forest area in 2003 shortly after graduating from Kalamazoo College in Michigan. He says that the area seemed ripe for a career in landscaping, although his work in the field got off to an unusual start.
"I was 23 at the time, and when I moved here, I noticed that everyone's landscaping was meticulous," he recalls. "People take very good care of their lawns here."
Looking for a way to differentiate himself from the other area lawn care services, Jones decided to promote his business by offering canine waste removal. The tactic helped gain initial customers.
"I got lucky at first; I ran an ad for canine waste removal in a local paper, and by mistake, they ran it in every one of their Illinois papers. We received 100 calls right away. The ads really brought the customers in."
Although new clients were originally drawn in by his marketing ploy, the substance of Jones' business was — and always has been — lawn care.
"With the recession, a lot of people started taking care of pet waste removal themselves, plus there was always more money in the lawn mowing," says Jones. "The pet services helped us generate business in the beginning and helped us get our start."
Jones knew his business had a chance for success in the land of carefully tended green lawns, but he also had youth on his side.
"I figured if it didn't work out, I'd only be 25 and then I'd have to get a real job. My parents weren't thrilled that I just spent all this money on college to mow lawns, but my dad, who has an MBA, was really behind me from the beginning."
Jones took horticultural classes at Triton College, learning all about native plants and lawn care. "One advantage to my college background was that it taught me how to research so I really learned a lot about how to run a landscaping business," he says.
At Triton, Jones also took classes for landscape design so that he could do all of his own work and not rely on subcontractors. He also received his license to apply fertilizer, a learning process unto itself.
"You're supposed to be licensed by the Illinois Department of Agriculture to apply fertilizer, but I'd say 95 percent of landscaping companies don't do this," he says. "Every year you have to take classes and carry insurance to do this, but I think it's worth it for our customers."
A real job
Now, almost nine years after he began, Jones has gone from borrowing his brother's truck in the beginning to a six-truck fleet of his own, and he employs a crew of around 10 workers year round. The Yard Crew does lawn care and patio work from March through December and snow removal in the winter. He takes pride in the fact that he has a low turnover rate among his employees.
"My cousin has been working with me for seven years, and some of the other guys for five and six years," he says. "It helps, because if you have to retrain people constantly, you lose a lot of time and you don't get the consistency you need."
Jones believes a couple of other factors play into his ability to retain good workers. He lived with a family in Mexico as a foreign exchange student in college and says that time has helped him better understand the Mexican culture. He's fluent in Spanish, which also helps him relate to his employees, many of which hail from Mexico.
Good compensation may also play a role. "I know what the other guys pay, and I pay a little more, so my guys aren't constantly looking for another job."
Jones' signature red trucks keep his crews busy during the spring, summer and fall. He estimates they work on 200 lawns in the Oak Park, River Forest, and Forest Park area, with two crews for lawn maintenance and two crews dedicated to design construction. With two of The Yard Crew's River Forest clients on recent Oak Park-River Forest garden walks, Jones feels that his hard work and attention to detail is paying off.
Jones lives in Oak Park with his wife and three children, and believes the area is a great place for his company. The mix of single-family homes and multi-family dwellings, he says, are good for business.
"Oak Park and River Forest is a perfect combination of professionals who care about what their landscape looks like, but they may not have the time to do it all themselves," says Jones. "We can help them out with full three or four season service or just do a specific job as their needs require. Because we're local, we can handle the small jobs, too."
Many of Jones' clients opt for seasonal contracts, which include spring and fall clean-ups as well as weekly mowing service, and the patio design construction can help people plan their backyards for the life of a home.
The Yard Crew was recently recognized by stone paving company Unilock as one of the Top five finalists in the Best Outdoor Living category in a five state region, and Unilock also recently certified the company as an authorized dealer. Jones says The Yard Crew's work with Unilock reflects a trend in home garden design.
"People are moving away from decks to patios. If you sit on your deck in Oak Park, you're perched up there, looking all the way down your block at your neighbors," he says. "If you get down to ground level on a patio, it makes your yard feel bigger and provides some privacy."
"People are also concerned about watershed," he adds. "They're more interested in permeable paving products. When I first got started, the permeable options were boring, but now they are as attractive as anything else out there."