Quarterly checkups, SBDC partnership, pave growth for turf company, alum

By Hope Belli Tinney, Washington Small Business Development Center

planet turf logoSPOKANE VALLEY, Wash. — Like many small business owners, Jim Connolly is setting goals for the coming year.

Their company, Planet Turf, was expected to reach $3.5 million in sales in 2017, mostly from the sale of turf grass seed, soil amendments and environmentally safe fertilizers. They project about five to seven percent growth in 2018 if they keep doing what they do.

The question facing Connolly and his wife Amy is, have they found the sweet spot for financial stability and quality of life for their company and their nine employees, or do they want to push for the next level, where they could be looking at annual revenue of $10 to $15 million in the next 3 to 5 years. 

Planet Turf owners Jim and Amy Connolly, center, surrounded by employees.
Planet Turf owners Jim and Amy Connolly, center, surrounded by employees.

“Our growth potential is pretty big,” Connolly said. Connolly said Planet Turf is currently working with about 25 percent of golf courses in the Pacific Northwest, and they have just begun to penetrate the market for athletic fields and landscape services. But demand is just one part of the equation. The other part is having the business systems and infrastructure to support rapid growth. Connolly credits the Washington Small Business Development Center with helping him build the foundation for his business to thrive.

In addition to selling grass seed purchased from farmers in the Pacific Northwest, Planet Turf has developed its own proprietary fertilizers and soil amendments, which it sells along with products developed by others. A big part of the business is consulting with clients to ensure that they are getting the right products for their climate and soil conditions.

From garage to warehouse

Word-of-mouth marketing has helped them move their operations from their garage to a 2,000-square-foot rented warehouse to a rented warehouse plus office space, and, in 2016, to their own 10,000-square-foot warehouse in Spokane Valley. Staffing has increased to nine full-time employees, including a chief financial officer.

When Jim and his wife started Planet Turf in 2009 they had more modest expectations. Jim, who earned an agronomy degree from Washington State University in 1978, had been a sport turf consultant for more than 35 years, including being one of only eight U.S. Golf Association agronomists in the country in the late 1980s and early 1990s. When the recession hit and consulting work declined, he pivoted to plan B — creating and selling products he believed in to turf managers in the Pacific Northwest and around the country.

Growing with SBDC support

Early on, the Connollys began meeting with Alan Stanford, a certified business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center. The Washington SBDC is a network of more than two dozen certified business advisors and two international trade specialists who provide no-cost, one-on-one advising to entrepreneurs who want to start, grow or transition a business.

 The Washington SBDC is hosted by Washington State University and receives financial support from WSU, the U.S. Small Business Administration and other institutions of higher education or economic development.

Connolly has been in business since 1999, but the decision to sell turf products changed everything. Selling his expertise as a consultant was one thing, but managing large inventory in a seasonal business — would be a challenge. Jim was confident of his industry expertise and sales ability, Amy took on office management responsibilities, and they turned to the Washington SBDC for assistance with the business side of their business.

The hands-on advising from Stanford, who came to the SBDC after a 35-year career in banking, has been a huge help, Connolly said.

Over the past eight years, Connolly said, Stanford has been instrumental in helping them get the credit they need, avoid long-term debt and build a stable, financially healthy company.

“An important focus of the SBDC is to show business owners how to engage with their financial statements to more closely manage their operating expenses, staffing, supply chain and inventory levels,” Stanford said, “so that they can be as efficient and financially aware as possible. Jim and Amy have done a great job understanding finances and managing the growth of their business.”

Performance reviewed quarterly

Just about every quarter, Connolly said, he and Amy would meet with Stanford to go over

seven or eight key performance indicators to determine if the company was on track. By keeping close tabs on indicators such as gross profit margins as a percentage of sales, inventory turnover and cash flow forecasts, the Connolly’s were able to make immediate adjustments when necessary.

In addition to providing expertise in financing options and financial analysis, Stanford also helped the Connollys evaluate when to bring other professionals onboard. “We used Alan’s advice to get other experts, like accountants, tax specialists and other advisors,” Connolly said.

“In the early stages, you can see how the SBDC provided solid guidance to help us get where we are now,” he said. “The SBDC has been a big part of our small business development.”



  • Hope Belli Tinney, director of communications, Washington Small Business Development Center, 509-432-8254, hopebt@wsu.edu

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