Interview Date: December 1, 1983

(Edited Version)


Interviewed by: Jim Morris, Troy Daily News Reporter

Transcribed by: Mike Robinson

Transcriber’s note: Mr. Duke, co-founder of the ChemLawn Corporation, tells of his early experiences in the landscaping business and events leading to the formation of one of Troy’s most successful business enterprises in its history. His daughter, Mrs. Patricia Duke Robinson, donated the recording of this interview to The Troy Historical Society on October 30, 1992.

Our family had orchards in Front Royal, Virginia for generations and came to Ohio in about 1824 and immediately planted orchards here. There were four generations of us on one farm down below Centerville; orcharding was the main thing; we raised a lot of peaches in particular- five generations counting my kids- we had one of the outstanding orchards, in that part of the state certainly, for years. Then we gradually began buying peach tree stock and apple trees to plant most every year- we bought them from Burtons, Springhill, and Old County Bollinger in Springhill talked my dad into buying a bunch of

liners for ornamental stock-spiarreas, barbarries, the whole list- we got into the nursery business a little bit. Eventually, I got away from the farm by my kid brother who came along and took over where I had been involved with my dad on it and because of some health reasons of my mother, we moved to Houston and lived there two years- this was during the war period. Then I bought a business in New Orleans, lived there for two years. When the war was over we came back up here and because of the associations with Burton’s Nursery in Casstown, I had to have a job and took over their landscaping; I’ve been in Troy ever since.

After I left Burton’s we went into doing landscaping and started the garden stores- one above the fairgrounds on U.S. 25, then had one in Piqua. That developed into a sod farm back of Dettmer (hospital). People began asking us, “Why don’t you spray my lawn” for fleas or whatever. We got into lawn feeding, lawn weeding, and insect control- just like topsy from that point on. All these events occurred just prior to July of ’68. Tom (Grapner) and Dick were out doing the work and I was running the sod farm. The two of them had been talking it over on the job and sold me on the idea that it was a business that we hadn’t solicited, really, and grew to around 500 customers, just by word of mouth. We decided after talking it over very seriously that here was a field that nobody was in- let’s gamble- let’s jump into it- and we did. We went to Columbus with a branch- that worked real well. In 1970, we had some boys trained and sent a crew to Toledo and Indianapolis, Louisville and Cincinnati- those four cities. It has grown just as fast was we had people to go into new branches- tremendously, ever since then, steady growth.

At this time, all fertilizer was dry, except for our initial entry into chemical treatment and the successful start we had experienced with very little promotion as I mentioned. Using our sod farm as a testing ground, we had for some time been consulting with the Ohio State University experimental station at Wooster, concluding that liquid applications were far more efficient- you get the coverage that the dry applications just cannot afford and this is especially true in the weed control and you get better distribution on the fertilizers and better penetration when it comes to the insect control on the lawns- with a liquid. There was no question in our minds, in spite of our competition talking dry fertilizers; there just isn’t any good comparison between the liquid and those drys.

We have four research areas- thirty-five acres northwest of Columbus that I suspect has as much research going on- grass research- as any place in the country. We have fifteen acres of intermediate grasses outside Atlanta, one for the Deep South grasses right adjacent to the Everglades, right below Miami. We just bought 109 acres on North High Street, beyond our headquarters, and it undoubtedly will end up being the most comprehensive, the best grass research area in the United States. In Troy, we have, out at the old WACO plant, - that’s our North Dayton branch- we have three branches in Dayton- East Dayton, Springboro for South Dayton, and Troy is the North Dayton branch. Out beyond Friendly’s we have our equipment research facility and we’ve developed a lot of equipment- modified trucks, tanks, and guns to get the right kind of metered spray on the lawns; those boys can and do make just anything that they think would be helpful to our equipment needs.

When we got into this full time, we closed all our other businesses, sold the farm to Dettmer, and went into lawn care exclusively; it has worked beautifully. It was a gamble, for sure- there are no guarantees, but it had been so satisfactory, building up those first five hundred customers, without really trying. Every year, you had to add people and equipment, and every year we have expanded into new territories as fast as we had people trained to go into those to manage them. One thing that I think has contributed to our success as much as any one factor is the simple fact that we do train our people- absolutely, thoroughly, in the needs for this kind of business. This is a broad statement, but I think we have probably the finest group of lawn specialists that was ever put together. After the first five hundred customers, we began to grow very rapidly and then began to advertise- we started out and still use brochures that are distributed, some places by mail, other places by hand- we use kids to go up and down the streets to drop them off. That was our prime advertising for years.

For all our success to date, the gamble is still in it, but we started out with the right people- there was a challenge and these people seemed to accept the challenge- they were intelligent boys, they learned, and they saw the possibilities of advancement after a year or two- if a fellow did his job and did it adequately, he could be a branch manager in some other city you know, in a hurry, after he was trained sufficiently. The profits haven’t varied too much in percentage all the way along- they have increased as the volume has increased.

Of the original seven people we started with, five are still with us. I’m no pattern as a moralist or Christian, maybe, but I do know one little verse in the Bible, Luke 2:52- “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” I think these boys of ours have increased in wisdom and stature, we are so proud of the way they have developed in their abilities, their capacities.

When my son was living, we used to get together after he had moved to Atlanta, maybe for a week at a time, and sit and talk about the things that were going on, how the growth was certainly thrilling, but we assumed that we had the responsibility for however many families there would be at that time, that was on our shoulders alone; we had to do everything that we could to see that they prospered. In fact, there is one little quote in one of these speeches that we have used as a creed for all of our years in this business. We started out with that idea and we preached it at every meeting that we had of everybody- our first obligation is to our own employees; if we make them happy, if they’re satisfied, and then our customers are satisfied, we’re going to make profits, and it has worked that way and we still preach that same thing to all of them. We have, I think, now over 3,200 satisfied employees, after having started in 1968 with just three.

Interviewer: How long did you keep your office in Troy as headquarters after you started?

About four years. In 1971 or ’72 we opened the administration office in Columbus. That city is about as geographically centered as any major city you could name- the bulk of our business even now comes from the east and the Midwest; transportation is good out of Columbus. The move from Troy was a natural growth step. Now the Atlanta office is our southern zone office. We’ve started this carpet-cleaning business and this is our trial year on pest control and without any question we’re going to get further and further into that area.

Within the last three years we have added outside directors, which has added to our thinking and growth; their advice has been very valuable. These outside directors, by the very nature of them, gives us great support to the things that we had going for us- when you get people like Frank Stanton, the head of CBS for so many years, Bill Walneck has been associated with Mead as a vice president down there, Jerry Office- Ponderosa- has been very successful and has given us many helpful ideas. Larry Noles from the west coast- we have a good board. We’re in forty-one states plus international- we have three branches in Canada.

Interviewer: How long have you been franchising?

About eight years, and that came about because we lost a couple of good boys that wanted to get into business for themselves- a very friendly situation- they resigned and started their own lanwncare business. They were so outstanding; we realized that after you have trained these people so well- and they were ambitious to get ahead on their own- you couldn’t be critical of it- why not set up a franchise so they could be their own operators and owners. We have no franchise where there is not an ex-ChemLawn employee connected with it, so that the same degree of integrity and honesty goes into their operation just like ChemLawn’s. We don’t sell the franchises, we collaborate with them and in place of losing them, we keep them tied to the ChemLawn family. We do have small competitor companies but in the aggregate they would still be smaller than us. Our name, ChemLawn, was a shortening of Chemical Lawncare and was and is protected.

Interviewer: Who came up with the name?

Probably my son. All the way through, Dick was the idea man; there was a certain charisma that Dick had, he’s the one that put the spirit into all of the people. Everyone in our organization respected him for his ability, integrity, and his care for people, not that I didn’t also. He was a character all of his own. Dick grew up with me in the lawncare business except for the times he was in school or in the service- he was in the navy for a while and spent some time at Miami University business school. He had ideas and his daddy backed him up in them. He had vision.

We carefully picked the people, maintained the clean appearance of our people and our equipment- you will not see a dirty ChemLawn truck. The whole thing was established on a pattern of “we just couldn’t fail”. We believe, and we preach, that if you did the same thing on your lawn by going out and buying the materials and applying it yourself, you couldn’t do it more cheaply than we can come and do it for you- and that’s just a statement of hard fact. Many times people don’t know what to apply, when to apply; they go to a hardware store or garden store where maybe you get hold of a person who’s knowledgeable about the thing, maybe you don’t. We’ve got different programs across the country; the makeup of our fertilization ingredients, timing, the whole thing varies from region to region as is necessary.

We know that our appeal is in the better residential areas and those people were not hit so hard by this depression (early 1980s recession)- so we have not suffered so much. One other factor is invaluable- we don’t have a turnover of people; we have the most solid list of employees now, including many ten-year employees and several of fifteen years with us. People have come out to the Troy branch asking for a job, but nobody there wants to quit- no openings. That is true across the country. We have a great pay scale, stock option plan for employees after a year, and a lot of them have taken advantage of this.

Interviewer: Where do you see your company going from here as far as new ventures?

We’re open for suggestions as to acquisitions that we might entertain, primarily things that would be aligned with our present business and we feel pest control for both lawns and inside the homes is certainly right in line with what we’re doing now. Carpet Cleaning (ChemLawn Carpet Clean) is something hardly that close but that’s going to be a big volume business with us- it’s really growing. ChemScape is our tree and shrub business. We’re not limited by any influence other than our own ambition and development of people who can handle these new businesses. We’ve purchased four or five smaller competitors- companies who were running into difficulties came to us with an offer we could hardly turn down, but we started into the carpet by buying a small concern south of Columbus and that turned out to be one of the smartest things we ever did, I think. As these new product lines get past their start-up phase, we plan to eventually offer all their services through our existing ClemLawn office network wherever our market footprint takes us. People who want their lawn cared for or their carpet cleaned or their shrubs fed and pruned, their house fumigated, they just call one number and our crew will be available to do whatever. We’ve even flirted with the idea that these home repairs would fit in- we could build patios, storm doors, and storm windows. Outside carpentry, especially, enclosing in a porch room- anything in that general range is an outside possibility. Many people- most of us- don’t know how to do these things, they don’t have the time, or, if they did have, there are other things they simply would rather do- there is room for a service organization such as ours; that’s really what we are.

I’ll make a prediction: in the future, one of the fastest growing segments of our economy will be service organizations. High school and college students make a lot of money mowing grass in the summer by working up lists of customers. People don’t want to do all the odd jobs that they used to do or have become too elderly to do- they don’t even want to go out and shovel the snow.

(Recording ends at this point).

Interviewer’s note: In addition to the entrepreneurial success of ChemLawn, its founders as individuals became some of Troy’s most notable philanthropists. Although the corporation was sold in 1987, this philanthropy, begun with Mr. Duke and his son Richard Duke, has continued through the activities of the Paul G. Duke Foundation.

Further carrying on this tradition has been continued to this day, but personally through the enormous contributions to area and regional civic projects, charities, public school activities and institutions of higher learning by his daughter and son-in-law, Patricia Duke Robinson and Thomas E. Robinson. A complete list of recipient organizations is included with the unedited transcript of this interview on file at the Troy-Miami County Public Library- Local History Library- located at 100 West Main Street, Troy, Ohio.

Return to Oral History Listing

Return to Main Page

Copyright © 2013 by The Troy Historical Society
All Rights Reserved.