A FAMILY ENVIRONMENT
By Georgie Binks
What could be better than a sunny day, a warm breeze and the feel of earth between your fingers or a rake's handle in the grip of your hands? It's that superb feeling that enticed the founder of the company, Tim van Stralen and his nine brothers to form the very successful Sunshine Grounds Care company some twenty years ago. They subsequently watched franchises sprout up faster than spring flowers. The brothers who jointly own the environmentally friendly Sunshine Grounds Care have a unique franchise built on hard work, a love of horticulture, the environment and, well, each other, of course.
The full service grounds care company for commercial and residential clients was started in 1987, in Caledon, Ontario north of Toronto, by eldest brother Tim van Stralen, who was attending Humber College for horticulture at the time. Shortly after, brother Peter joined him and the remaining eight brothers Derek, Seth, James, Mark, Paul, Ben, John, and Luke were quick to follow after their graduation, all armed with horticulture diplomas. Peter explains, Our brothers saw how excited we were about the business and it just grew from there. The name Sunshine Grounds Care, was created by mother, Nellie, who took it from their Dutch last name van Stralen, -stralen- means -radiate- (as the Sun) in English.
The company was successful from the beginning. However, three years ago that success was starting to prove challenging. As Sunshine Grounds Care expanded across southern Ontario it simply became too difficult to run from one location to another so the brothers decided that creating a franchise was the answer, explains Peter.
Today, there are seventeen franchise units across the country with two more in development south of the border. The franchise network covers Vancouver, British Columbia; Barrie, Oakville, Cambridge, Guelph, Kitchener, London, Markham, Milton, Mississauga, Newmarket, Ottawa, Brampton, Toronto, Vaughan, Collingwood and Caledon, Ontario. The brothers are in the process of finalizing two new franchises in the United States, in Arkansas and Florida.
Brotherly love has been a key to running the business. We built the business around team work and learned how to work together as brothers which is probably a little more difficult than simply working with employees, says Peter. Our motto was always the same as the Three Musketeers all for one and one for all.
Naturally each brother has a strength Peter says, You get ten brothers and you get ten different personalities. We figured out the skills and strengths of each person and allowed that person to flourish in what they did best.
Peter says that back when they started their grounds care company, there was little awareness of environmental issues, but it was something the brothers were dedicated to from the beginning. Peter boasts, We don't spray any type of chemicals. If a customer requires it, we subcontract it out. We always provide an alternative which we do ourselves. Instead of spraying for weeds, for instance, we use other methods like aeration, dethatching (removing dead grass), top dressing, over seeding and fertilization. This creates a healthier grass cover and allows the grass to fight off weeds or choke them out, so they don’t become established as quickly as they would on a weaker lawn. You don't get rid of the weeds as quickly as if you used chemicals, but if someone is environmentally conscious, we can make their lawn healthy and looking nicer.
The company is so environmentally conscious that it actually monitors whether company vehicles are idling too long. Peter explains, We have a lot of vehicles on the road and through GPS tracking we're able to set a threshold and are notified if a vehicle idles for longer than that. We send the franchisee an e-mail so they can get on it right away.
The company has a mix of diesel and gas vehicles with plans to move more in the direction of diesel vehicles. There are also plans to soon add hybrid trucks to their fleet As well, an environmentalist is working with the company to enhance their environmental policies.
The job isn't just a seasonal one. Peter says it's a twelve-month program with seven months spent on summer maintenance and five months on winter maintenance which involves snow removal. We're actually just as busy in the winter as we are in the summer.
That also means that Sunshine Grounds Care is making an effort to become more environmentally conscious in the winter. Ontario uses a lot of salt to melt the snow in the winter it's really the only way to melt the really slippery snow that’s left after its plowed, but there are companies that have developed beet-juice by-products that are less damaging to the environment than salt.
Sunshine Grounds trains all of its franchisees in environmentally friendly grounds keeping. They learn everything from the basics about the Sunshine system, to administrative tips and important environmental information. There is a certified WHMIS (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System) instructor at each location. Each foreperson is also first aid certified and each employee is WHMIS trained annually. Sunshine provides ongoing training for each employee along with the protective equipment needed to reduce the risks associated with the job.
There are a number of benefits to investing in a Sunshine Grounds franchise according to Peter. It's a great lifestyle especially if you enjoy working outdoors. With Sunshine, we have an excellent system, through training, years of experience as well as a brand name that is well respected. Someone new coming onboard and joining a team with a proven track record can go right out and do well. Our prototype has been running twenty years and is very successful.
Several things set Sunshine Grounds Care apart from other franchises. Says Peter, The start-up or buy-in costs are reasonably low when compared to other types of franchises. It's just an enjoyable business to be in. You're not stuck inside in a factory or a restaurant. A lot of it is just lifestyle.
The ideal Sunshine franchisee has to be multitalented says Peter, Were looking for people who are able to manage, have a certain amount of business acumen and sales experience. They need to enjoy the outdoors thats a big part of it. We need individuals who see the value in being part of the team. They're not necessarily loners wanting to do things their own way.
While Peter says franchisees should love the outdoors, its unlikely they'll spend all their days outside up to their elbows in topsoil or pushing a lawnmower. He says it's more likely they'll be running the business but will experience a mix of indoors and outdoors work. You'll be out in the field in the sense that you'll be doing quality control. The owner is usually in a separate vehicle from a crew, so that they're not tied down to a crew.
Peter also emphasizes there is a different feel when a franchisee joins the Sunshine family. We're careful who we bring on board to join the Sunshine Grounds Care family. That’s because it's an extension of our family. We spent twenty years learning how to work together as brothers and we extend that to our franchisees. We're picky about who we bring on board. We want people to carry on the name.
One thing is for sure. These guys have plenty of sunshine heading their way. And because of that down home brotherly feeling, they don't mind spreading it around just a little bit more.