But seven years later, more than 500 courses closed due to the economic downturn. While the golf industry is still huge, for businesses involved in course construction – like Connolly’s was – it was time to shift gears or get out of the business altogether.
Connolly has a degree in agronomy from Washington State University and 36 years’ experience in the sports turf industry. He is a former U.S. Golf Association agronomist and has consulted for superintendents, owners and developers in 13 countries in golf course construction and environmental best management plans.
Shifting to product sales
Getting out of the business wasn’t really an option, so he decided to shift gears. With his wife and business partner Amy, Connolly planned to broaden the Planet Turf brand (http://planet-turf.com/) to deliver not just expertise to his clients, but seed, fertilizers and pesticides as well.
“Fertilizer, and other products, are only effective if you know when to apply them, how to apply them and understand the most effective method of application,” he said.
He had the scientific expertise and sales experience to realize his dream, but neither he nor Amy were business experts, so the shift to managing a sales company was potentially overwhelming. That’s where the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) provided valuable assistance.
The Washington SBDC (http://wsbdc.org/) provides no-cost, one-to-one, confidential advising to small business owners who want to start, grow or transition their businesses. SBDC advising is supported by the U.S. Small Business Administration, Washington State University and other institutions of higher education and economic development.
Soil test database aids clients
Over the past five years, Connolly has worked with SBDC advisors Alan Stanford and Vern Jenkins to successfully build the manufacturing side of his company and build equity as well. The core products of Planet Turf include fertilizer, pesticides, grass seed and a variety of products for turf and ornamental maintenance.
Connolly has designed and sells unique fertilizer products that minimize negative effects on the environment.
“We have a database of over 2,000 soil test results and our advice to customers about building healthy soils and plants is why we stand out among our competition,” he said.
Planet Turf grass seed is grown in Washington and Oregon and most of the fertilizers are manufactured in Washington and Idaho. Turf products are shipped across the Pacific Northwest but also around the world, including Japan, Korea and even Mongolia.
Setting up efficient business systems
The shift from diagnosing soil challenges to providing products that address those challenges has allowed Connolly to grow his company from one employee to eight. In 2016, he will move operations to a new 10,000-square-foot facility in Spokane Valley.
The key, he said, was the hands-on advising he received from Stanford, who came to the SBDC after a 35-year career in banking, and Jenkins, one of two SBDC export specialists.
“They aren’t going to build it for you,” Connolly said, “but they can guide you, and I think guidance is what I needed – and still need.”
Connolly credits Stanford with helping him set up business systems so he can quickly and accurately monitor the health of his company. Cash flow was always a problem, for example, because expenses were constant but sales were cyclical.
Stanford’s expertise with financial statements helped Connolly put together a business plan and loan application that resulted in a $400,000 line of credit through Washington Trust Bank. That allowed him to continue to grow the business and post strong financial statements. So strong, he said, that when it was time to get a loan for a new warehouse, the application process was a snap.
Careful overseas expansion
Along with growing its domestic market, Planet Turf has also expanded internationally. Since 2009, export sales have more than doubled, Connolly said, though he plans to proceed cautiously overseas.
“Having the experience of Vern Jenkins on board to help with understanding the difficult business of exporting and dealing with foreign clients is a resource that is very valuable,” he said.
The SBDC “helped us get better,” he said. “Without that we could have been going awfully far down the wrong path – to the point of being unrecoverable.”
Instead, Planet Turf is strong and growing stronger. As any soils scientist can tell you, sometimes a little change can make a big difference.
By Hope Belli Tinney, Washington SBDC
James Connolly, Planet Turf, 509-951-0270, firstname.lastname@example.org
Alan Stanford, Washington SBDC adviser, 509-358-7892, email@example.com
Vern Jenkins, Washington SBDC export specialist, 509-358-7998, firstname.lastname@example.org