SMITHVILLE — In the late ’90s and early 2000s, John Keefer, then 10 years old, started working in the family business using a lawn trimmer and blower. Founded by his uncle and now run by his cousin, ARL Family Lawn and Landscape is something Keefer takes a lot of pride in.
“Ray Lubert was the founder, and Anthony is his son,” Keefer said. “That’s how we got the initials ARL ... In the late ’90s when someone needed lawn care service, they would open a phone book, they didn’t have Google in their hand. So when they opened it up they would see ARL first and call us.”
Keefer is the director of operations for the family business. In this role, he oversees and runs day-to-day operations in addition to maintaining his own route and helping other routes when he’s needed.
This requires a lot of route mapping, scheduling and flexibility, Keefer said.
What kind of specialized training do you have to have to do this job? “It’s really having years of experience,” Keefer said. “You learn new things every day that make you better. I’d say one of the things that did help me out a lot is I attended carpentry school in high school. I was the foreman my senior year. Those tools of leadership and the tools of scheduling I’ve been able to use in my day-to-day work life.”
What would surprise people most to learn about your job? “I think what would surprise people the most is how much the weather dictates what we can and cannot do. That’s been a real issue for us this year especially with the amount of rainfall we’ve received,” he said, adding, “I can’t control the weather. Even though I wish I could most days.”
Would 10-year-old you be surprised that you are in this position or field?
“No question, absolutely. I just didn’t know that at the time.” Keefer said. “I wanted to be a teacher/coach.” What is the most challenging aspect of your job? “I’d say the most challenging aspect of the job is ensuring the routes run in a proper way every day. There is a lot of moving pieces,” he explained. “In a two-week time period, we can mow as many as 450 yards. And to plan that out and schedule that out is quite a challenge. ... it’s about having the people and having the equipment where it needs to be and when it needs to be there.”
What do you like the best about this field or job in particular? “The people,” Keefer answered. “The employees that we have and have worked for us over the years are the heartbeat that make things go every day. ... Then you have the customers, there are still some of them that we service their properties for who knew me before I could even drive. And they’ve got to see me graduate high school and college, and now be married and have a young family. So that is pretty neat for me, that I’ve built these relationships with so many people.”
Outside of the workplace, when you meet somebody new, what tips you off that they also work in landscaping? “A lot of times we’re all wearing our shirts,” Keefer said with a chuckle. “We are all really proud of where we work and what we do. I would say the other thing would probably be the sunburns. We spend a lot of long hours outside every day, so typically, if someone has a sunburn, they work in an outdoor industry.”
What is the most common question you get about what you do? “It would have to be, ‘how do we do what we do?’” Keefer said. His answer to the inquiry is experience and planning. “There is so much planning and organization that goes into, not just a day but a two-week time period, it can be very overwhelming for someone who has not done that before.” He continued, “Before the mowing season starts, I typically spend three weeks routing and rerouting trying to find the most efficient routes for every truck ... Then I also have my black book.” The black book is organized by week, day and route.
What advice would you give someone starting a job similar to yours?
“I would tell them, in all seriousness, chase your dreams,” Keefer said. “If you put in the hard work, believe in yourself and surround yourself with the right people, anything really is possible. It really just comes down to the people. We have been very blessed not only with our employees but also the customers and the family as a whole all being involved.”