GreenThumb: Stephen Waring
Stephen Waring's first office was in the back of his Ford Sierra, but has since seen his business blossom
Name: Stephen Waring Company: GreenThumb Sector: Lawn Treatment Services Founded: 1986 Annual Turnover: £12.5 million
It's not an easy step to make, from an office in the back of a Sierra armed with only a bucket of lawn fertiliser, to being the MD of a business with a £12.5 million turnover. And you may have thought that along the path to success Stephen Waring, founder of GreenThumb Lawn Treatment Service, may have lost his sense of wonder about the miracle of making grass grow.
But it's not the case. He still has it, but mainly he wonders why householders waste their weekends trekking into garden centres to buy feed and weed, and even more time walking up and down their own patches of lawn, applying it.
He has built his present success on offering an easy alternative to lawn feed and weed, letting his crews across the UK do the hard work. They visit more than 50,000 gardens every couple of months to carry out four individually tailored lawn treatments in a year. Importantly, they visit during the week, leaving weekends free for householders to sit back and enjoy relaxing in the garden.
Knocking on doors
Stephen started his first business venture when still at school in north Wales, selling loft insulation. And he was still only 19 when he invested £64 in 1,000 leaflets, put a bucket of fertiliser in the back of his Sierra and knocked on doors, offering to feed and weed lawns. He ended up with 70 customers on one housing estate.
“The very first door I knocked on, the lady said this service was exactly what she wanted and the business has grown from there,” he says.
Stephen, determined to be a success, realised that with an estimated 20 million UK lawns, there was a huge untapped market. He researched the idea and set up GreenThumb UK, tailoring the concept to meet the needs of the British market and climate.
The company, now based in Flintshire, north Wales, grew steadily, with Stephen taking on staff to help him deliver the service across north Wales and northwest England.
He adds: “The biggest obstacle in getting the business up and running was probably creating the marketplace, and educating people to recognise what we were offering. It was literally inventing an industry.”
Then, five years ago, as the present wave of garden care took off, Stephen took the next big step in his business career. He decided that to spread across the whole of the UK more quickly, he wanted to expand through franchising. Some of the first franchisees were the crews that had been working alongside him.
Now the company is growing again, with 58 branches servicing 50,000 lawns each year. His no-scorch fertiliser has been patented, and they are trialling other new products. And within the next five years Stephen expects to have a fleet of over 2,000 GreenThumb vans on the road and provide jobs for 1300 people, treating more than one million lawns each year.
GreenThumb doesn't ask householders to sign contracts, it relies on the strength of its customer service – you're only as good as your last visit. Each time the GreenThumb crew calls, it leaves the date of the next visit, about ten weeks ahead. All the householder has to do is drop a cheque in the post.
Stephen adds: “The business has been very successful and we are growing rapidly to become a UK-wide company. There continues to be substantial interest from customers and from those who want to invest in a franchise.”
“GreenThumb is a true business franchise, and we have found most franchisees quickly expand to employ numerous people, plus a small fleet of vehicles. That's because there is a huge market for the service. Almost everybody who has a garden has a lawn but the area is often neglected. People spend a lot of money on plants without realising that the backdrop that shows off the garden is this great swathe of grass.
“Homeowners have less and less free time these days. Our service means there is no need for them to spend their precious time shopping for a feed and weed, applying it and then hoping it rains. They just leave it to the experts. And once people realise that our service costs less, they're delighted, because they can't lose.”
Married to Lynne, with two young sons, Stephen feels a sense of pride and achievement that the company has become so successful and that the franchise operation encourages others keen to strike out on their own.
He added: “It does give me a certain sense of achievement, and I am thrilled that people have the same passion that I have about this business.”
Without the support of grants or regional aid, Stephen has learnt to be innovative to stay ahead. He added: “Everything about this business shouts innovation, the actual service, the products we use, the software applications we have had to develop, and the methods and process of operating the business. “There was no model on which we could base the business.”
And his advice for other would-be entrepreneurs is simple: “If you feel passionately about an enterprise, and all the signs for your potential market are good, then you should go for it.”
GreenThumb's website has information on franchising, plus an interactive lawn problem solver.