Interview Date: December 1, 1983



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 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. There was a good reception for the service, so in the spring of ’69, we hired what we called “the dirty seven” and that’s where a number of our zone managers, regional managers developed from; we went to Columbus with a branch- that also 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.

At the two garden stores, we used to sell a lot of Scotts products- and I respect and admire the things that O.F. Scotts have done over the years- turf builders and so on- but with all the experimentation we’re doing now, no one is going to convince me that a dry can compete, over a period of time, with a good liquid application. You get thorough coverage with a liquid application; sometimes, with a dry, you just don’t get a 100 percent, absolute coverage; that’s especially true of the weed control- you cover every leaf of every plant; a dry weed control, in my mind will never compete with the liquid, and we’ve demonstrated that in our test areas. We have four research areas- we have thirty-five acres northwest of Columbus that I suspect has as much research going on – grass research- as anyplace 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. We hired away from Ohio State, Bob Miller several years ago and he is in full charge of our research. Dr. Bob Partica, who is an entomologist, fighting the bugs and so on, and we’ve gotten others from OSU; we got a boy from the University of Florida, we’ve gotten them from Purdue- 52 or 53 doctors- subjects related to our business on our payroll now. We have zone specialists- every region has a real specialist in insects, diseases and fertilization- just all those things related to what we’re trying to do- anyone in any of our regions call on those fellas if they have a problem and get a darn good answer quickly.

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- they had wanted it when we bought it- 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. All winter long, each one of the branches has training sessions for the few new people we need to hire and to keep up on the newest things that we’ve found- or someone else has found- that would be applicable to our business. This is a broad statement, but I think we have probably the finest group of lawn specialists that was ever put together- these boys on trucks are real experts in the matter of identification of grasses, weeds and insects and in fertilization- the needs of different grasses for different kinds of fertilizer- it’s the thing that has been uppermost in our mind all the way along- hire the best people you can and train them the best that anyone can be trained, and you can’t fail. We went to Wooster when they had “Ornamental Days”; we kept reading all the printed material that was available. We used to sell those Scott products and Ortho; we used to go to Scott’s frequently and catch up on all the testing and research they had been doing. Scotts really developed the lawn business- they did more for it than anybody else up to that time surely- a tremendous outfit of people back then.

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. We ended up ’68 with the fall season with $35,000 worth of business; the next year was about $250,000- it’s just been a very steady chart of growth. We ended up ’82 with 180,000,000 plus business and our year ending October of this year was about $230,000,000- almost a perfect chart, the growth just coming in percentages almost equally every year; we’re happy with it, I’ll say that.

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- Tom (Grapner) is on a retirement program and we’re setting him up, six with him, no doubt. One of them is now in charge of all of our day to day operations nationwide- Mark Kruse. And most of these boys came from the Troy- Piqua area- Willie Vornholt, for instance, a youngster from out on Peters Pike- he’s the zone manager in the east; Dick Lyons is in charge of our carpet-cleaning division, and so on down the line. Tom Demmet is regional manager of the Columbus region- they’ve all just gone right up the ladder and doing a beautiful job; 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.” and 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 many offices do you actually have around the country now?

Actually, we have some other divisions now; of strictly ChemLawn, there are 120 or so, because, for instance in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, the New York area- Chicago has eight office now- it’s almost physically impossible to travel the one-hundred miles from one end of the metropolitan area to another to spray a lawn, so we’re geographically located around those bigger cities.

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- the franchising is out of there, but it is only one-twentieth the size of our Columbus operation. Within the last three years we have added outside directors, which has added to our thinking and growth; their advice has been very valuable. Before we had them even, we had begun to branch out even more by setting up other divisions; we have a shrub and tree division that is clear apart from Chemlawn; its feeding and trimming of the ornamentals, rather than grass. Now 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.

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.

Interviewer: Have you gone to the West Coast with your operation?

Oh Yes- we’ve been there for three years now. 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. Some of them have infringed on our pattern of operation but we have chosen not to make court issues in those instances. In two cases, however, companies came very close to copying our name and we met those situations head-on. 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.

Interviewer: When you two started out in this business, was there any thought this would become a nationwide, million-dollar operation?

Not immediately but within a couple of years those ideas began to grow in our minds; after ‘68-’69, we decided that the Dayton market sometimes afforded us a quarter million dollars in annual business; now it’s something over three million. From that point on, there were big ideas in all of our minds; the whole process was working. 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”. God only knows what the top of it will be. One of the best talking points that we had, and certainly now, we’re buying fertilizers. Weed controls, insect controls, all of those items, in greater quantities than anyone else in the United States, where we end up applying those materials. 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; in this bluegrass area, we have nominally a four times a year application which gives and adequate amount of fertilization and the other things that go along with it. In the mid-South, we sometimes get to five applications because you have different grasses and the growing season is a little longer. In Texas and south Florida, sometimes we use six applications because there’s really not much of a growth period year around. The makeup of our fertilization ingredients, timing, the whole thing varies from region to region as is necessary.

Interviewer: Your company, from its growth pattern, obviously wasn’t affected by the recession and economic problems of the country, was it?

Nothing snobbish about this, but our service doesn’t seem to attract the family that’s hard-put for money. We do appeal to the more affluent people; in fact when I said that we started in ’68, we immediately added to our Troy-Piqua-West Milton area, we added Kettering, which has really taken off. We know that our appeal is in the better residential areas and those people were not hit so hard by this depression- 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. We have a profit-sharing 401(k) retirement plan. Other companies offer this, of course, but I don’t know of anybody else in the lawncare business that does.

We decided in ’71 or ’72 that it was time to do some real expanding and some of our financial advisors told us it was a lousy time to sell stock- things (economic conditions) aren’t too good, and you might not get it sold. We offered 30,000 shares at five dollars a share and offered it only to our customers; in less than a week’s time it was oversubscribed and we had to pro-rate it. So some people believed in us and bought on that basis; I won’t name any name but there is one family in Troy who told me that with all the splits that we have had, that the stock they bought originally has a current value of over $l.5 million. Several of our employees are millionaires on paper; there may be some exceptions, but I honestly believe that we have the most dedicated, loyal group of employees of any company that you could name. I brag an awful lot (about our employees), but I do it because I believe it.

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. We bought the management along with it for a couple of years and Dick Lyons is doing a great job with that operation which will generate over $2 million in sales in ’83. 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 of this tradition has 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. Over the years, their financial awards and assistance have been rendered, but not limited to, the following organizations:

Ruth Lyons Children’s Fund

Clear Creek Farm

Piqua YMCA

Piqua YWCA

Robinson Branch YMCA

Duke Park

Troy Memorial Stadium

The Acorn Society

The Troy Foundation

The Ohio State University

Athletic Department

Thompson Library

Schultz Library

Veterinarian Clinic

O.S.U Marching Band

The Wexner Center for the Arts

The Wexner Medical Center

The Ronald McDonald House- Dayton

The Ronald McDonald House- Cincinnati

WACO Historical Society- Troy

T.L. Baseball Boosters- Post #48 American Legion Baseball

Edison Community College

Urbana University

Upper Valley Medical Center

UVMC Foundation

Stouder Memorial Hospital and Foundation

The Dayton Art Institute

Think TV Network

Masonic Temple Board- Troy

Troy Elks- Christmas for Kids

Troy Police Bicycle Races

Mayor’s Concert- Troy

American Red Cross

Hayner Cultural Center

Bruckner Nature Center

St. Patricks Soup Kitchen

Miami County Abuse Center

Partners in Giving- The Troy Foundation

Partners in Hope

First Place Food Pantry

Chaplaincy at Stouder and UVMC

Hospice of Miami County

Troy Public Schools

Piqua Rehabilitation Center

Troy Strawberry Festival

The Future Begins Today

Sculptures on the Square

Miami Valley Recovery Council

Miami County Recreation- Bike Trail

Miami County Agricultural Society

Troy City Beautification Committee

The Idea Factory

Music Warehouse- Piqua

Troy Dollars for Scholars

Dayton Early College Academy

Pink Ribbon Girls- Dayton

Women and Philanthropy, Columbus

Kangundo Wild Life Fund- Africa

Brethren Charity Fund- Africa

Columbus Zoo

Agape Ministry

The Barn, Covington

Museum of Troy History

Troy United Fund

American Heart Fund

The First United Church of Christ

Pelotonia of Ohio- Columbus

Miami County Health Partners

Troy High School Athletics

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