Andy Felker didn't know he was launching the career he would pursue throughout his life when he started mowing lawns at 15. In fact, he went off to college at the University of Tennessee thinking he'd come back an accountant.
"I started out an accounting major — my father's an accountant and my stepmom's an accountant — but after a few semesters, it just wasn't my thing," Felker says. "So I went to the agriculture campus at UT, and worked for a landscape company there in college."
Felker, a Nashville native, met his wife Lisa in college, and brought his freshly minted degree in ornamental horticulture and landscape design to Chattanooga when she came home after graduation to help run Wilkins Research, her family's business.
"She graduated before I did, and she had an established business, and I could do my thing anywhere," Felker says.
In 1994, he called a guy about buying a blower, and ended up taking over the 15 clients that fellow was leaving. Now, 26 years later, Felker typically has 22 to 28 employees working on projects that range from regular residential maintenance to designing and installing landscapes from scratch. About half the work is residential, while the other half is commercial.
"I like doing the designs, but I really like doing the work," Felker says. "I love running equipment, the feeling of satisfaction after something's done, but I can't do that as much any more. It's grown to where I can't be out there every single day with the guys and cut up and work hard and stay physical."
His crew is the secret to his success, Felker says. They're a tight group that takes care of each other and had been together a long time — some of them going on 20 years.
"They share all the hours, so even in the winter when we have less hours, instead of laying people off, they split the hours, which keeps the crew together," Felker says. "I asked them how they wanted to do it, let them kind of decide, so they can have as much responsibility as possible.
"I'm not out there every day any more. They need to be happy."
The crew isn't the only group that has shown a lot of loyalty, Felker adds. From that original batch of 15 clients he started with in 1994, he still has one yard he maintains.
"He's 94 years old," Felker says.
Felker's clients range from developers building out new subdivisions and looking for everything from landscape design to plant placement, to individuals who just don't want to mess with mowing.
"I've just been really fortunate in that I've had some really super good guys over the years who have built the maintenance side without me even trying," he says. "Their work really sells."
The maintenance contracts carry the business through slow seasons, and this time of year is reliably when the phone starts ringing off the hook, Felker says.
"Usually after two 70-degree days, the calls start coming and it's hard to get to all of them," he says. "Lots of people get spring fever, they say 'I want mulch' and 'Let's spruce up things.'"
The coronavirus crisis has hit many businesses hard, including his wife's company, but landscaping is an essential service and he is staying busy so far, Felker says.
"If we didn't mow grass for two weeks, you can imagine what it would be like."