The road to entrepreneurship is paved with failure. Phil Catron can certainly attest to that. Today he’s the CEO of lawn care powerhouse NaturaLawn of America, which licenses 90 franchises across 24 states. But before founding the company in 1986, he was just a guy without a job who couldn’t get his idea taken seriously.
“It was a concept I’d been playing with for several years,” Catron reflects. “I couldn’t get the company I was working with to head in that direction. I was fired. Didn’t seem like it at the time, but it ended up being a very good thing for me and my family.”
Catron was exited from his position as Operations VP, and took his idea to several other chemical companies with whom he had a relationship. They wouldn’t take his pitch either. As most entrepreneurs know from personal experience, multiple rejections can be hard to absorb, even for the thick-skinned. That’s when Catron’s brother stepped in with some timely advice.
“He said, you’re allowed to feel bad for 48 hours,” Catron jokes. “Then… move forward. Understand that you’re too smart to starve. And I said, you know what, I’ve got to put food on the table. This is a concept that I believe very strongly in, and although I wasn’t good enough to convince other people, I’m going to show people that it can work. And it has.”
From these early roadblocks to $65 million in annual revenue, NaturaLawn has been a family business every step of the way. Now, as he prepares to extricate himself from the empire he built, Catron is placing the future of the company in the hands of his children.
Don’t Be Afraid Of The Forbidden Fruit
NaturaLawn provides organic, environmentally-friendly lawn care products and services. Today natural solutions like these are commonplace, but in 1986 Catron’s million-dollar idea was a huge leap of faith, too huge for most lawn care companies of the time.
“It was almost a forbidden fruit,” he says, “because it was very easy to pull the chemical trigger to make a lawn green and weed free.” An organic approach simply didn’t fit most lawn care companies’ business models. It didn’t look profitable to them. Despite the rejection, Catron knew the idea was sound, so he put his focus on creating a business model that would marry his industry disruptive idea with a profitable business. Without the financial resources to create a business of the magnitude he wanted, Catron took an alternative approach to get NaturaLawn off the ground.
“It was always going to be a franchise organization,” he reflects. “We knew it had to be something that was duplicative, so that’s the way we structured the business model. And in 1989, we were able to sell our first franchise in Pennsylvania.”
Now in its 32nd year, NaturaLawn has franchises from Maine to California. Catron points to his loyal, dedicated staff as the source of his company’s continued success. But as he prepares to hand over the reins to his children, Catron is keen to keep innovation at the center of their business philosophy. This means shaking things up from time to time.
“80% of my employees have been with me for 15 years or longer,” he says. “We’ve made a concerted effort over the last 12 to 16 months to bring in fresh blood – young people that have different, innovative ideas, that know the new technologies better than I would. To help us grow, we have to bring in those types of people that have a different bend on where the world is heading.”
Prepping The Next Generation Of Leadership
When it comes to creating leadership roles to take over for him, Catron is keeping things in the family. His daughter Theresa Smith, who previously held the role of Marketing Director, will be taking over as CEO. Smith is already following her father’s innovative lead, aiming to boost sales of the company’s burgeoning retail arm from 2% to 15% of the overall revenue.
Catron’s son, Jesse, is also transitioning into a vital role, that of Logistics Officer. This has helped Catron begin the process of extricating himself from the day-to-day operations of his business, allowing him to focus on his succession plan. But after sharing his vision of his departure time frame, he quickly realized that his estimate was overly optimistic.
“I saw a look of wide-eyed amazement on several of the key senior principals here,” he recalls. “They went, oh no, that’s way too fast! You can’t leave in 16 or 18 to 20 months. It’s just not going to happen! And in hindsight, I can understand why they reacted that way, because I was just dropping that bombshell on them. So realistically, it’s probably closer to a 24 to 36 month back-away.”
While Catron is stepping down as CEO, he has no plans to step away from his business entirely. Over the past few years he’s realized that the best use of his talents lies in the role of Chief Innovation Officer, a role that allows him to collaborate with his talented staff to continue the innovation that lies at the heart of everything NaturaLawn does.
A Roadmap To Success
One of the exercises Catron uses to foster an innovative culture at his company is to ask for five solutions to every problem. He claims it doesn’t matter if a few of the ideas aren’t ideal. What matters is being able to look at a challenge from every possible angle.
“It’s kind of like having a roadmap,” he explains. “If you’re hellbent on just taking I-95 from New York City to Washington D.C. And you have a traffic jam, you’re going to be there for six hours hating life. So there’s got to be an alternative route – and preferably three or four alternate routes – that you can take to accomplish your goal. They may take longer. It may include a little more financial help, but you’ve got to do it.”
With this mindset Catron challenges his people to troubleshoot problems. With some fresh perspectives on board and his tried-and-true approach to innovation locked down, he has no doubt in his people’s ability to keep his business moving forward, whether he’s in the boss’ chair or not. With one eye firmly planted on the beach, he still has some sage advice for his fellow entrepreneurs.
“The number one most important thing in business is take care of your people first. If you take care of your people, they will take care of your customers, and then your customers will take care of your business. If you reverse any of that, you’re not going to get where you want to go.”
To listen to my full interview with Phil Catron, click here.