Bernie Vrbanich used to play in a touch football league and
routinely worked out three to four times a week at a local gym. Not
anymore. In the spring of 2009, Vrbanich began year one as a
franchisee in Oakville, Ontario with The Gardener, a Thornhill,
Ontario-based franchisor that provides residential and commercial
gardening services from April through October and snow removal
during the winter. The tall, trim, fit-looking former truck driver
is generally too pooped for football or the gym after a day’s work,
but more to the point – he’s been too busy.
“My business ramped up very quickly,” says the 38-year-old Vrbanich. “I’m very happy with the amount of business I’ve been able to acquire and with the way things worked out in my first year. But I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support of the franchisor.”
Before opening his franchise, Vrbanich was eager to try a different career path and a layoff notice provided all the motivation he needed. Vrbanich considered franchising and researched a number of systems before settling on The Gardener.
The Gardener’s low start-up cost was one of the things that caught his attention, “I was comfortable with the investment and level of risk,” he says. “The nature of the work appealed to me because I had done it in the past and my research showed that The Gardener had a very good track record of success.”
The company has been in business for 25 years and franchising since 1994. Currently, The Gardener boasts 32 franchises in Southern Ontario, located between Burlington and Kingston, and is continuing to expand throughout Ontario. The company is also planning to award its first out-of-province franchises soon and further expand throughout Canada and the U.S.
Getting started costs between $50,000 and $55,000, says Vice President David Jones which includes a $25,000 franchise fee, vehicle deposit, all required equipment and other start up costs. All franchisee’s service their clients using a truck and enclosed trailer with professionally installed logo’s for a consistent look. “Our trucks and trailers are our storefront,“ says Jones “we want people to easily recognize them in any of the markets we service as it helps every franchisee grow their business.” They can start by working out of their homes, but as the business grows most franchisee’s consider renting space in a low-rise, industrial building with a roll-up garage door and available parking for their growing fleet.
Jones says that, ideally, prospective franchisees should have an interest in landscaping, prior experience is not necessary but any amount even if nothing more than cutting their lawn at home can be an asset. “A lot of our franchisees used to do landscaping as summer jobs in high school or university,” he says. “They went on to other careers, but are coming back to it looking for a change.” The Gardeners VP goes on to say, “other business skills such as sales, organization and communication are more important as our franchisee’s are only going to do the physical work for a short period of time before stepping into a management role with staff handling the hands on labour.”
Franchisees go to work early each spring pruning shrubs and hedges to stimulate new growth, de-thatching lawns and preparing the flower beds for annuals. They cut the grass weekly from May through the end of October, keep the shrubs and hedges trimmed and in the fall they pull up the annual flowers. They also collect and bag dead leaves and other foliage. During the winter, they hitch a snow plow to the front of their trucks to clear driveways and parking lots.
Vrbanich says he found it refreshing to be performing different services throughout the year, not the same thing every day and enjoyed working outside enjoying a healthy lifestyle. Asked if he was pleased with the support he received from head office, Bernie says “They’ve been there every step of the way, If I have questions there’s always someone from Head Office available to help me. There are 31 other franchisees. It’s good to be part of a team.”
Basic training for new franchisees includes seminars on how The Gardener operates as well as sessions on keeping books and advertising and marketing. They also receive training in the field from independent industry experts and Head Office staff. After the formal training they can even work along side existing franchisees. As well, the company provides ongoing administrative and marketing support and has a team of office managers who are assigned to work with a designated group of franchisees.
Franchisees meet with prospective clients to discuss their needs and requirements. They submit an estimate to their office manager who then prepares and emails a formal estimate to the client. Head office sends out the bills, manages accounts receivable, payroll, handles all incoming phone calls and emails. “Our approach allows franchisees to focus on their work,” says Jones. “They don’t have to come home at night and do three or four hours of administrative work. Everything the client receives from us has a professional and consistent look.”
The Gardener also works closely with its franchisees to market the service. Head office develops radio and internet advertising campaigns, partners with Global Television on PR campaigns aimed at the elderly and the disabled, and designs and prints flyers to be used in locally targeted campaigns.
One of the first things Vrbanich did in the spring was go door-to-door in selected Oakville neighbourhoods distributing flyers. He also posted signs, once with the help from head office. “The company President was out one Saturday morning at 6 a.m. putting up signs,” he says. “When you see that kind of enthusiasm and passion, it can’t help but rub off on you.”
Vrbanich’s business took off so quickly that he needed hired help. He ran with a three person crew, including himself, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and a two person crew on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And as he wrapped up season one, he was weighing the advantages of adding a second truck with trailer and equipment for the following season. “There’s a real demand for this service,” he says.
Jones says Vrbanich is following a typical growth curve for incoming franchisees. Most are able to add a second unit after their first year and a third in year three or four. Some have as many as five to ten trucks on the road and employ up to 20 people. “Everyone finds their comfort zone,” he says. “We want all franchisee’s to get to the point where they feel comfortable with their size, some want to have three crews while others want more. We encourage them to expand and hire crew leaders so they can step back and run the business. Our motto is: run the business, not the lawn mower.”
As he completed his first season, Vrbanich looked back on the experience with considerable satisfaction. The business had grown to the point where it was producing a healthy cash flow and meeting his financial goals. “When you’re running your own business, the job doesn’t end when you leave the last customer,” he says. “ I don’t have as much free time as I used to. But I’m willing to make those sacrifices because there are real rewards from building a business.”
When asked if he would do it all again if he had the choice, Vrbanich replies: “Absolutely. Without question.”