At about seven every morning at this time of year, Timothy J. Kent, owner of Timothy J. Kent Landscape Company, arrives at his business in Commerce Park in South Chatham. During the next half hour or so his crew of 12 men and women, ranging in age from 25 to 56, will arrive. By 8 a.m. the crew has dispersed into nine trucks, each with its own assignment of lawns. Before the end of the workday, each crew will have mown between 15 and 25 lawns.
“We have a great crew,” Kent says. “They come back year after year. One guy works in Colorado in the wintertime, here in the summer.”
Kent himself is now 52, and after 31 years of running this business, has no plans to retire. “I love this business,” he says.
This morning Kent is sitting in the office at the back of his one-story shingled building. A schedule written on a dry erase board tacked on the wall indicates which lawn crew will go where. The only thing is, that particular schedule has been posted for a while, because Kent says that he makes the assignments now on the computer. Still, the dry erase board is a reminder of Kent’s first days in the business, back in the early 1980s.
Kent grew up in Tolland, Conn., and came to Chatham in the summers as a child. His grandparents owned a summer house in Chatham, and later retired here. Kent himself moved here in ’82-’83, and initially worked for Christmas Joy in South Chatham. He then worked at the original Countryside Landscaping, a company that was sold off in 10 pieces in 1985. Kent bought one of the 10 pieces and formed his own company. Of those 10 spin-off companies, he says only four remain today in Harwich and Chatham.
Which brings us to this: It’s unusual that a landscaping company lasts for 31 years under the same owner.
“I know there’s a few guys around as long as we have been,” Kent says. But “a lot of them sell out or get bought out.”
Kent and his wife Heidi raised two daughters in Chatham. They are now also the grandparents of a granddaughter who will enter kindergarten in the fall and is visiting the office today. Through the years Kent has kept up with continuing education classes through the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is a certified arborist and a certified ornamental plant manager.
Now, if you think that running a landscape business revolves simply around a phalanx of lawnmowers, think again. The business is a tricky one with a fleet of heavy trucks that can break down and must be well-insured, workers’ compensation to pay, and labor costs. When Kent began, he could charge his clients $14.50 an hour for estate maintenance or $18 to $20 an hour for construction and tree work. Those charges have doubled or tripled now, he says. And one of the pitfalls in the business is “overextending, taking on too much,” he says. “And we all do it.”
Further, he stresses that most of his employees have families and need to earn a living wage. “This isn’t a minimum wage business,” he says. “I never paid minimum.”
Nationwide, lawns are either the second or third most common crop after corn and soy beans. So it is no surprise that lawn care and mowing would form the backbone of the business in the summer months.
Look at the company’s website, and you’ll see the words “organic lawn care” on the home page. Kent officially “kicked off” his organic care in 1991, he remembers.
“Most people opt for a blend of organics and standard lawn care,” he says.
Why is this? Going organic requires patience because “organics take the time for everything to work out.” When you grow an organic lawn, you use less fertilizer and the lawn is mown taller—three to three and one half inches. “That’s a tough sell for most people,” he says. (And that’s because most people’s idea of a beautiful lawn comes from a golf course.) The advantage of longer blades is that they “shade out the weed seeds so they don’t get a chance to grow.” Also, with an organic lawn you water for longer periods, but less frequently. “It makes the roots search for the water,” Kent says.
As well as lawn care, the company also does irrigation, fencing and hardscape work. In that area it partners with New England Stoneworks and LTE Landscape Architecture. It does pest control against winter and gypsy moths, tent caterpillars and gall wasps. Fall cleanups end in December, and the off-season is the time for tree work. “It’s more cost-effective,” Kent says, adding that the business offers discounts on tree work between December and March.
One thing Kent has given up for the most part is snowplowing.
“When you’re young you’re out there all night, you’re running into your friends,” he says. But it’s a job that’s tough on the person running the plow as well as on the truck’s transmission.
“There’s a lot of headaches in this business,” Kent says of his landscape company, “and a lot of fun.”
For more information visit www.tjkentlandscaping.com.