August 28, 2014
Thirty years ago, Kenny Crenshaw traded riding horses and wrestling steers for killing weeds and beautifying lawns. A former rodeo cowboy, the Bartlett-based Herbi-Systems®, Inc. lawn care owner and president lassoed an entrepreneurial dream and poured his free spirit into the business of “farming smaller spaces.”
This year marks Herbi-Systems’ 30th anniversary and in owning up to the signature slogan, “Lemme Kill Your Weeds®,” which has become a household phrase since its inception in 2001. It seems only yesterday that Crenshaw was the sole employee working to build a client base with only one truck and a typewriter. Today, Herbi-Systems is the largest privately owned lawn care company in the Greater Memphis area with more than 8,000 clients, 39 employees, 31 trucks and computerized operations. The company serves homeowners as well as industrial, governmental and commercial entities. Herbi-Systems specializes in weed control and fertilization of turf and ornamentals and also handles industrial and right-of-way weed and brush control. In 2013, the company expanded into irrigation system service and repair to further healthy lawns and conservation of water. In addition to county and municipal roadsides in West Tennessee, Herbi-Systems also treats athletic fields, school districts and industrial sites such as pipelines. Crenshaw is a licensed herbicide applicator in six states (Tenn., La., Ark., Ky., Miss., Ill.).
According to Crenshaw, he is fine with swapping the great outdoors for working a smaller tract of land. His company treats any sized lawn from zero lot to as large as several acres. Don Holsinger of Millington, a customer for six years, said, “It works! I’m happy. I get one treatment a year. I have a large yard (five acres) and Herbi-Systems treats about two acres of it. It knocks out 95 percent (of the weeds).” Holsinger, a retired MBA program recruiter at Union University’s Germantown campus, first decided to go with Herbi-Systems because he knew Crenshaw from church.
A retired salesman from Chicago, longtime customer John Linder has been with Herbi-Systems since 1985. At the time, his wife made the decision to go with the company when the couple lived in the Raleigh area. And since he traveled, Linder said it was easier than doing it himself. Today, he is most impressed with the company’s dependability. Now a Bartlett resident, Linder said, “They call right before to let me know they are coming and Faye calls me after to check. Cecil (lawn technician) kills my weeds and does a great job. I like the schedule. I don’t have to think about it. And my lawn looks good.”
Trust also is a factor in customer longevity. Jane Munsell and Elsa Tygrett of Millington both knew Crenshaw’s parents prior to enlisting the service. “I know his father Dan and mother Patricia,” said Munsell, a customer since 1989 and retired Shelby County music teacher. “I knew he (Crenshaw) was getting started so I decided to go with Herbi-Systems. They call you back to make sure everything is OK. And if you need to talk to your service person, they get you in touch with him quickly. It’s good to have that personal connection. There’s no reason to switch.”
Elsa Tygrett, a customer since 2003 and retired substitute teacher from eastern Kentucky, decided thatHerbi-Systems was a good choice as the Crenshaws also attended the same church as she and her husband, Charles. ”If we needed something, Kenny would come out and check on us. He and his employees are trustworthy, outstanding and do an excellent job.”
Carl Gentry, a Cordova resident and customer for the past two years, said, “I like the service and the most important thing is the call-back.” A retired federal officer for the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security, Gentry said he decided to go with Herbi-Systems based on the TV commercials.
Jerri Hess, a Bartlett customer since 2011and head sacristan for St. Ann Catholic Church, loves the service. She decided to go with Herbi-Systems even though a friend works for a competitor because she wanted to support local business. “They call me after visits and technicians and the girls call, too, and they are always so nice. They really go out of their way for customers. I have no weeds now.”
In the lawn care business, killing weeds is the big thing, according to Crenshaw. But attention to detail in every aspect of lawn care service also is important to him in day-to-day operations. Crenshaw is known to make personal visits to client homes and to conduct management inspections when requested. In addition, many customers have lauded technicians for remembering to close the gate where pets are kept. According to Office Manager Lisa Short, “Kenny is adamant about closing the gate. “If we ever do get a complaint regarding an open gate, he has said he would send people out to help round up the dogs.”
Crenshaw’s Entrepreneurial Beginnings and the Birth of Herbi-Systems
Crenshaw obtained his associate’s degree in agriculture on a rodeo scholarship from Northwest Mississippi Junior College, Senatobia and his bachelor of science degree in agricultural engineering technology and business from Mississippi State University while competing on the MSU rodeo team. He won second place in the Ozark Region in steer wrestling and then represented MSU at the College National Finals Rodeo in Bozeman, Montana. Crenshaw also competed as a semi-pro in the International Professional Rodeo Association (IPRA).
Crenshaw also mowed lawns for Taylor Pest Control during his college days. After graduation, he set his sights on a business frontier. Taylor asked him to join forces in launching a new business in the emerging lawn spraying industry. He was the only employee while Taylor was an investor. Herbi-Systems was founded in 1984, the year Crenshaw graduated, as a 50/50 partnership. Crenshaw eventually purchased Bob Taylor’s portion of the business. He began with one used Ford truck and zero employees and clients.
The Company Today and Crenshaw’s Leadership in Business, his Industry and the Community
Maintaining its standing as the largest privately owned lawn care company in the Greater Memphis area with more than 8,000 customers, Herbi-Systems grew 5 percent between 2012 and 2013 in the midst of an ongoing recession.
Last year, the company added more employees (from 32 to 39) and an additional service – irrigation system service and repair. During growth periods, the company continues to keep a close eye on budget, maintaining its low debt philosophy. All but three of the company’s 31 trucks are paid for, according to Crenshaw. More savings are passed to customers as the company designs, builds and services a lot of its own equipment. This practice also allows employees to take care of maintenance during inclement weather. Herbi-Systems operates out of a custom-built facility meant to protect the environment. The entire facility is constructed to allow immediate and thorough chemical cleanup and allows the company to recycle water.
Herbi-Systems provides the latest technology to assure that its herbicides are applied according to the stringent rules set forth by the EPA. Prior to any application, a site analysis is performed to determine herbicide selection and equipment requirements for individual jobs. The company also works with the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Department of Agriculture for compliance.
“The market has become saturated since the booming years in the late 1980s and 1990s, but we consistently provide good, quality service and have almost no turnover of employees along with a loyal client base,” Crenshaw said. Treating clients and employees with respect is a key component of Crenshaw’s business philosophy. Part of his company’s mission is “to provide a safe and welcoming place for employees to work and support their families.”
Crenshaw’s management style is that of delegation. His business philosophy is to “hire good people and then get out of their way.” Two of his managers, Carl Quick and Lee Barclay, own a piece of the company and have been with Herbi-Systems for more than 20 years. And Crenshaw ‘s employees have Tennessee state certification in horticulture, lawn and turf.
Leadership, Awards and Accolades
This year, Herbi-Systems was a finalist in the Memphis Business Journal Small Business Awards (26-60 employee category). Finalist status means Herbi-Systems is among the most successful businesses in the Mid-South and is credited with shaping the Memphis economy. Last year, the company won two Bartlett Chamber Barty Awards – for customer service and marketing – beating major contenders including BanCorpSouth and Chick-Fil-A. In 2012, Crenshaw was named the Entrepreneur of the Year by the Bartlett Chamber and the 2009 Solveras/NFIB Small Business Champion of Tennessee by the National Federation of Independent Business. He was applauded as a tireless supporter of small business by the NFIB and lauded as an individual who has made a noticeable contribution to the local economy by the Bartlett Chamber. Gov. Bill Haslam appointed Crenshaw to the state Pest Control Board for 2013-2016. He also received the Patriot Award in 2012 given by the Employers in Support of Guard and Reserve.
A National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) member for 19 years, Crenshaw was one of the founding members of the Memphis Area Action Council where he has served as chair for the past seven years. He also is on the state Leadership Council of NFIB. Crenshaw is president of the Memphis Association of Turf and Ornamental Managers (ATOM), 2010-present; a member of Professional Landcare Network (PLANET); Tennessee Vegetation Management Association (TVMA), past board member; and Mississippi Vegetation Management Association (MVMA), past board member, president (1999 and 2007).
Crenshaw has participated as a “champion” in the Arlington National Cemetery Renewal and Remembrance project in Washington, DC since 2003, where he supervises 300 volunteers from among more than 400 landscape professionals across the nation in a day of mulching, cabling and lightning protection of trees, pruning, planting and aerating of the more than 600-acre property. In addition to applying crushed limestone to turf areas to raise soil pH for healthier turfgrass, Crenshaw and his team added gypsum this year to improve water penetration and root growth in Arlington’s clay soils. The overall labor is valued at more than $200,000 and occurs each July. This year, the national trade association, Professional Landcare Network (PLANET), presented him with its inaugural Workhorse Award signifying 11 years of dedication and major contribution to the overall project.
A Brief Retrospective and A Look Forward to the Next 30 Years
Even though the company has grown by leaps and bounds over the past three decades, it is the policy of Herbi-Systems to maintain the small town feel and individual attention to customers. Witness 60,000 calls per year made to every customer after every service to check on satisfaction in addition to an annual survey for overall customer feedback for which the company routinely scores 4.5 to 5.0 on a scale of 1 to 5. The technicians also work the same routes to get to know their customers. Overall, the company maintains an A+ rating with the BBB and received the Angie’s List Super Service Award in 2011 and 2012.
In addition to customer service, Herbi-Systems’ aggressive marketing sets the company apart from the more than 100 competitors in the Greater Memphis area. The company retains Watkins Communications Company for its paid advertising and Kim Brukardt PR and Marketing for its public relations needs. Local and national TV ads bearing Crenshaw’s mug and his signature phrase, billboard and radio advertisements, direct mail campaigns, YouTube commercials and public relations strategies have positioned Crenshaw as the “Face of Lawn Care,” or as Bartlett Chamber President John Threadgill refers to him, “The Rock Star of the Weed World.” Throughout the Mid-South and even across the country, Crenshaw is recognized as people shout the phrase, “Lemme Kill Your Weeds” from their car windows. Having entered yet another dimension of success, Crenshaw has achieved pop culture status. His face is now a tattoo.
Looking forward to the next 30 years, Crenshaw plans to relocate into a new facility in 2016. Crenshaw is confident that there will always be a new frontier to conquer in the weed-killing business. And his cowboy spirit will continue to ride on where weeds dare to grow.