Reprinted from the College of Business
Ken Kayser was just 12 years old when he hopped on a mower to cut his neighbor’s grass for the first time. Little did he know that 23 years later, he would own a successful landscaping business—Ken’s Landscaping and Supply, Inc.—and be making more than $2 million in annual sales. You cannot get more grassroots than that.
Kayser says that his business began in 1988, when he was 14 years old and mowing the entire block. The true breakout, however, came when Kayser turned 16.
“It was the year I got my driver’s license. I had saved up enough money to buy two vehicles—a personal truck and work truck—as well as a trailer. From that point on, I was mobile,” says Kayser.
Kayser calls the year that he was 18 the “beginning of the future.” He had hired a second pair of hands to help him service more than 35 clients, and some of these clients were beginning to ask if Kayser could fertilize their lawns and install mulch, in addition to mowing.
“While I was away at Illinois State, word of mouth spread rapidly that we were doing quality work at a fair price. We were up to four or five guys and over 60 weekly lawns,” says Kayser. “The landscape side of my business began to grow as well.”
Not only did Kayser continue to excel in the business world. He was also a “star student” at Illinois State, according to his professor Mark Hoelscher, director of the Means Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and associate professor of entrepreneurship for the College of Business.
“He called he up one night before class to say, ‘Doc, I lose 5 points out of 2,000 if I miss a day of class. I can make $2,000 right now if I go up to Chicago to work my snowplowing/mowing business. What should I do?’” says Hoelscher. “I told him to go to Chicago. I don’t think I even took off the 5 points.”
After graduation, Kayser’s business was at 160 lawns a week, with a team of 15 to 18 employees. In a few years, Kayser sold the mowing end of his business to a competitor and began focusing solely on landscape installation and hardscaping.
“To date, we have adapted with the times and have slightly scaled back the workforce, which has allowed the company to stay in the black,” says Kayser.
Kayser is a professional who remains passionate about his work. When asked how he managed to maintain his interest in landscaping after all these years, he cited his love of people and desire to work outdoors.
“I love to walk into someone’s yard and have a vision of what it could look like. I love then to see the final product and see how closely it fit my initial image,” says Kayse
In the future, Kayser says he plans to hire a licensed landscape architect, so that his company can begin doing state work. His main focus, however, will remain being sustainable.
“It is not always about growing a business, but staying in business to see growth in the future,” says Kayser. “I don’t know if it is because it is such a grass roots (landscape humor) kind of company, where it literally started with one lawn, or if it is the willingness to do whatever was necessary to please the customer to get the results…whatever it is, it is working.”
Kayser has recently expanded his business by taking ownership of a nursery, and was also named an Early Career Achievement Award (ECAA) winner by the College of Business this fall. Reflecting on his own journey, Kayser offers this advice to aspiring entrepreneurs:
“Be ready to devote all of your time and energy for as long as you can to your business. It certainly is not a nine to five kind of job. And never get down on yourself—when one door closes, another usually opens, so it is important to be open to the ideas of others along the way. They may help you more than you know.”
Hoelscher also offers his advice, based on his time teaching and as an entrepreneur, as well as his experience getting to know Kayser.
“You really have to be passionate, driven, and focused. You’re always on the clock, and it is a completely different world. This is the one line of work that truly allows you to reach your full potential. It is unfair to say that it’s fun, but it is incredibly satisfying,” says Hoelscher. “Ken understands what it takes to be successful. He is driven and focused and takes complete responsibility for any success or failure that comes his way. He has much farther to go in the future.”