Doing Business Here: Green is Golden

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Turf Tamer’s roots began as a summer job for a medical-school-bound teen. Today it’s one of the region’s most successful landscaping companies.

Story by RANDY GRIDER, Photos courtesy of TURF TAMER

In the winter of 1994, Lee Buffington was knocking on doors around Fort Payne, Ala., asking residents if he could cut their grass. It was a way to put away some money for medical school. His plan was to become a surgeon.

“I basically drove around town, picked out the biggest yards and knocked on doors and asked if I could price cutting grass for them,” Buffington says.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Come spring, Buffington was mowing after baseball practice at Fort Payne High School and on weekends. Summer allowed him a break – not having to work around a school schedule. By the end of the first season, he was responsible for cutting and trimming about 40 properties.

“At the end of that first season, I was enjoying what I was doing, but not enough to change my career path at that point,” Buffington says. “But I realized with a little bit of investment, I could do more. So I invested a little bit at the end of the first season, and during the second season it was going really well.”

Buffington generated about $200,000 during his second mowing season. He was hooked. Medical school was out. The green industry was his new future.

While Buffington didn’t understand much about scaling a business, he knew that hiring more people meant the ability to do more work and his business could grow. He also knew he needed to learn more about the landscaping industry.

“The business was doing really well, but I couldn’t really leave it to go off to school and then come back,” says Buffington, who went to nearby Northeast Alabama Community College for a couple years. “I made the decision through experiential learning to better my skill set. I dove into books. I was at every book store that I could go to in order to buy books. Every time I went into a book store, I would walk out with eight or 10 books on horticulture, landscaping design, plants – trying to learn the industry while experientially trying to learn in the field.”

And to say Buffington’s self-taught landscaping endeavor was a success would be putting it mildly – a vast understatement. Twenty-one years after he knocked on his first door, Buffington heads one of the most successful landscaping companies in north Alabama. Turf Tamer Inc., headquartered in Fort Payne, has offices in Huntsville, Ala., and Chattanooga, Tenn. The Fort Payne facility is approximately 9,000 square feet, and the offices in Huntsville and Chattanooga are 5,500 square feet and 7,500 square feet, respectively.

Turf Tamer, which employees 70 people and has 60 company vehicles, specializes in landscape design and installation services that feature outdoor living (including kitchens and fireplaces), landscape lighting, patios and pavers, driveway installation, retaining walls, masonry and stone, water features (including waterfalls, streams and ponds), swimming pools, drainage, excavation and irrigation installation.

Due to Turf Tamer’s growth, Buffington has been able to hire some of the top landscaping specialists in the industry. Success breeds success, and Turf Tamer gets a great deal of new business on its reputation for quality service. But like the old days, cold calling is still a big part of Turf Tamer’s business model. Buffington proudly boasts that some of his first customers – those who answered the door 21 years ago to a teenager asking to cut their grass – are still customers today.

We asked Buffington to tell us more about Turf Tamer.

LA: How has the company evolved since it was founded?

Buffington: We started like most in the green industry, mowing for clients, and then progressed to more complex design/build projects. We now have a full-service design/build department with landscape architects and designers to prepare and present the dreams of our clients. Today we continue to perform a lot of maintenance for our clients across three states. We have many regional clients that have properties in all of the markets that we serve.

LA: Who are your primary customers?

Buffington: We have two primary clients. Our design/build division’s target is the residential client who is looking to improve the property through renovation or new construction. Our landscape management division’s target is a commercial client who’s interest is to have a continuous maintenance plan in place that provides for enhancements to the property each year as to keep the property fresh and competitive in their industry.

LA: Tell us about your service and where people are likely to have seen your work.

Buffington: Most of our design/build work is performed for residential clients across three states. Hardscaping work has really taken off in the last 10 years, and it has become a larger portion of our work. It makes the biggest impact because of the drastic change that it makes to our clients’ properties. Although most of our design/build work is performed in the residential arena, we do have several commercial/industrial properties that we have built – Ferguson Enterprises Southeast Distribution Facility, Isbell Medical Clinic, Sand Mountain Electric Co-Op Corporate Office, Farmers Telecommunications Corporate Office, Heil Environmental and The Children’s Place Southeast Distribution Facility, just to name a few. We perform landscape management services for much of the clients listed above as well as many more across our market place.

LA: Tell us about the most unique job you have done.

Buffington: Because our design/build department is so driven on each property being unique, this is a tough question to narrow to one property. We start every design with a unique plan for the property and client. We have built properties with multiple waterfalls cascading and streams flowing under walks leading to ponds. Water and lighting are always cool features to add to any landscape. We have built some really unique water features and patios. The patios are typically designed to have patterns, color and texture changes within the patio area. If I were going to narrow to one project – although it has nothing glamorous about it – it would be an irrigation system that we installed at an industrial facility to control dust. They had people employed and water trucks that operated several times per day to control the dust. Our project allowed them to keep their people producing their products, and it allowed for the dust control when needed – not when time permitted.

LA: What is distinctive about Turf Tamer compared to other landscaping companies?

Buffington: We offer a lot of depth in terms of capacity. Many companies that perform maintenance services don’t offer design/build services. Our philosophy has always been to get the very best people who understand the industry, but at the end of the day, their primary focus is to care for our clients. We prepare our clients with information about their project in the beginning phases of the design so that they have a clear picture of what to expect when building their dream. Oftentimes, companies get “in the door” with a client by offering what appears to be a lower price, but as they get deeper into the relationship, the client realizes that they don’t have the entire picture, so changes are necessary. It has always been our philosophy to plan and prepare our clients for their dream in its entirety from the beginning.

LA: What is the company’s guiding philosophy?

Buffington: Do what is right and it will always be returned to you. LA: What are the advantages of operating in northeast Alabama from a business standpoint? Buffington: Our home office is located in Fort Payne, and this works well for our business because it is a hub located centrally for the spokes of our business. We have quick access to Chattanooga, Huntsville, Knoxville, Nashville and Birmingham.

LA: How do the area’s people contribute to the company’s success?

Buffington: We have some great people who come from this area, and that is the single biggest challenge that we face in business – acquiring great people. This is not just a local issue in our marketplace; it is a problem across the nation. We have performed better than many of our peers in other markets in this respect, but it isn’t easy. We partner with many vendors and sub-contractors that are right in our marketplaces to keep the investments in our communities.

LA: What does this area offer employees in terms of work/life balance?

Buffington: Fortunately, I get to travel all across the country and see many places, and I haven’t found one that I would trade for this area. The outdoor recreation and beautiful scenery that we have is second to none. Chattanooga, Fort Payne and Huntsville are all great places to live, work and play. When compared to other parts of the country, it shows in many studies from market resilience to job growth and cost of living. It is a wonderful place to call home.

LA: What role does the company play in the community?

Buffington: We always consider ourselves a partner in all of the communities we serve. This is for community events that we sponsor and support as well as the economic engine that we support through our team members’ employment. Through our local sub-contractors and partners, we are able to keep our investment dollars in the communities that we serve.

LA: What are the company’s plans for the future?

Buffington: We are continuing to grow out our current markets and will add new ones as we progress. I have always had the mindset of never stopping…once we reach a milestone, then we move the bar higher and continue the progress.

LA: What else should we know about Turf Tamer?

Buffington: Core values are something that we all live by each day whether we slow down to think about them or not. They are in essence engrained into our being. These are called our personal core beliefs and effectively guide our decision processes each day. At times we can vary from those beliefs, thus creating the urgency to continuously review and reinforce them.

In business, we have the same guiding principles, which are critical to our success. A core value should be more than just a word – it is way of life.

I’ll begin by listing our “Leadership Values” and then further define each one: safety, profitability, excellence, communication and professionalism.

Safety – We must strive for safety perfection and believe that ALL injuries are preventable while continuously assessing, training, measuring and rewarding desired behaviors. The primary focus is to safely return everyone home at night.

Profitability – To continue in business we have to be profitable and create “wins.” To win, everyone has to own their decisions and operate efficiently to meet the profitability goals while always looking for opportunities. Profit comes in small pieces…it is seldom a big find. It normally happens when many things are done effectively and value is created when they all come together.

Excellence – Excellence is delivering what is promised by being consistent and disciplined in what we do. Continuous improvement is a must while providing a great experience for those we encounter. We provide urgency when necessary, but remember that the quality of our work will never be forgotten.

Communication – Communication is about keeping everyone in the loop as to what is happening. In essence, it is providing information to all who need to know what is going on – no surprises. We are consistent, open and two-way with our communications.

Professionalism – Professionalism can encompass a lot of items, as with all of these leadership values. On the surface, it is to be the standard that others are measured by. Our uniforms, clean trucks and worksites, and documentation that we provide our clients are all a big part of our professionalism. It is always our goal be professional even when others aren’t looking our way.[/s2If]