Hanging Lights Keeps Landscape Pros in Business

(NECN: Peter Howe, Wellesley/North Attleborough, Mass.) Finding new sources of revenue is something all businesses are fighting for in these tough economic times. One example especially visible this month: Landscape companies finding that a great way to busy up a normally slow time of year is to use their staff, trucks, and ladders to help homeowners hang holiday lights.

Something you see over and over again in service sectors is companies looking to take an existing relationship with you to sell you something else, whether it's the bank pushing insurance, your car insurer offering credit protection, or companies that mow grass and collect leaves becoming snow plowers in winter to cover their off-season.

But this time of year -- when in most of New England there is no more grass to cut or leaves to blow, but before much snow has fallen -- is typically a dead time of year for landscaping companies.

An example of a dream customer some are finding: Dawn Pascucci Baillie of Wellesley, who loves to make her family's home beautiful all year around but especially at Christmastime. This year, for the first time, she's getting help from an unexpected source: the guys from Stay Green Irrigation who maintain her lawn-watering system. After getting a flier from Stay Green about its sideline business installing holiday lights, this year she had them -- instead of her husband -- deck out her home near the Worcester Turnpike.

"It's never looked better,'' Pascucci Baillie says. "So happy. So festive.'' Come 5 p.m. when the early winter sun has fully set and the sky is dark, "I have cars just lined up" with drivers admiring the lights. "I couldn't be happier.''

Paul Parker, CEO of Stay Green, which is based in North Attleborough, is one of more than a dozen southeastern New England landscape pros who've added Christmas Decor www.christmasdecor.net franchises. He figures it's added 10 percent to his sales, or around $200,000, and kept 14 employees working in months when the irrigation business, like New England, goes into deep freeze.

"I was losing very good employees over the end of the season, just guys who there wasn't enough work for them,'' Parker said. "We do holiday lighting for October, November, December, and then, obviously, we come back and do the takedowns for January, February, March, so the guys have very limited, very little, layoff -- if any.''

Customers can spend anywhere from $250 to $10,000 to $12,000 for lights. With new high-efficiency light-emitting diode displays that use one-tenth as much energy as conventional incandescent bulbs, the added electric bill for installing lights has plunged to just several dollars a month for most homeowners. Parker says that's a big factor that's helped his holiday-light business boom in an otherwise sour economy. "Last year, we actually we grew 30 percent with very little effort, and this year, we grew another 20 percent on top of the 30 percent.''

Something else Parker's experience exemplifies is how many New England entrepreneurs have gone the route of buying a franchise rather than starting a franchise from scratch. The Christmas Decor name, brand and trademark red hoodie sweatshirts and aprons for workers come from a Texas franchisor who has been expanding a lot in Massachusetts and Rhode Island in recent years. A landscape pro like Paul Parker or companies like Seascape in Coventry, R.I.; Suburban Lawn of Framingham, Mass.; Fairway Landscaping in Easton; or Ferris Landscaping in Andover, Mass., among many others, basically buy the right to generate and pursue sales leads through an exclusive territory. They get design, promotion, and installation information and pay Christmas Decor a royalty.

Something that's helping business: This is a gift husbands can give both their wives -- and themselves. Dawn Pascucci Baillie in Wellesley said, "My husband is usually out here in, you know, 20 degrees, putting out all the Christmas lights, and I'm saying, 'More! More! More!' '' she laughed. That's a job from the honey-do list she's confident he won't miss this December -- "and he won't miss taking them down either in the cold winter January" either.

And in some months when they might well otherwise be facing layoffs, dozens of landscape workers are enjoying the gift of a year-round job.

With videographer Rich Mazzarella

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