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Cleat Bell, owner of Muscle Mowing & Landscaping, Amarillo, Texas

| 03.11.2013 |

It is not unusual for people to change careers. But few have experienced Cleat Bell’s diverse career trajectory. Really, how many folks do you know that worked as a police officer, as a train conductor and as the owner of a successful landscaping business? Trust us, Cleat Bell's career is quite a story!


Q: You have one of the most unique career trajectories imaginable. How did you move from law enforcement to railroad conducting to landscaping?


Cleat Bell: I graduated from West Texas A&M University with a degree in marketing in 1999. While I was going to school, I worked at a gym after classes and met some police officers that trained there. I would hear their stories and I decided to take one of them up on a ride out. I immediately knew that is what I wanted to do.


I worked for the Arlington, Texas, Police Department in patrol, SWAT, street crimes, under cover and drug interdiction enforcement from 2000-2008. It was a blast – I had a lot of fun and learned a lot about people and what drives them to do what they do for good or bad.


In March 2008, I resigned the police department and went to work for Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railroad in Fort Worth, Texas. I had a brother who also worked for BNSF and he would tell me about the railroad and how good the pay was and benefits. It was a no-brainer when it came to changing careers: money talks.


I went through 13 weeks of conductor school and a month of on-the-job training and became a certified FRA railroad conductor. I was in charge of multimillion-dollar trains moving cargo across the rail in Texas and into Oklahoma. My end goal with the railroad was to become an engineer and retire. I was going to make a career out of it.


But the recession hit the end of 2008 and I got furloughed from the railroad. Not knowing then how bad the recession would be, I wasn't worried. The railroad called back three days later and I went back to work. I worked for two days and got furloughed again. A week went by, then two, then a month. So there I was, a guy with a college degree who just gave up a $60,000 job at the police department and just got furloughed from another $60,000 job at the railroad. I had a wife, a three-year-old, and an infant, plus my mortgage and bills.


I took every part-time job I could find, even stocking shelves at the local Wal-Mart during the middle of the night, hoping and praying I would get back to the railroad. I also started mowing lawns in my neighborhood for extra cash. Before I knew it, my lawn business was making just as much as the part-time jobs combined, and I had a decision to make. I started mowing lawns full-time out of the back of a Mitsubishi Montero Sport. I would actually pick up the mower by hand and put it in the back because I didn't have a ramp.


The railroad called back two years later and wanted me to come back to work. My answer: "Thanks, but no thanks!"


Q: Tell us about the beginning of your landscaping business. And was this the first time you created your own opportunity?


Cleat Bell: That first year, I ended up with about 25-30 yards via door-to-door soliciting, I was bottom-dollar, cut-throat – if people told me they were getting their lawns done for $30, I would tell them I would do it for $25. I was just hustling – I didn't care, I needed cash and I needed it then.


I had never run a business, but I did draw on my education in marketing, my gift of gab, and the streets smarts I learned as a cop.


So the second season, I had some business cards made up and I calculated on how much I needed to make per day, week and month to survive. I carried about 35-40 yards in my second year. I still wasn’t treating it like a business needed to be treated and ran – I was still in the hustling mindset.


Last year, third year in business, I made a big move. I moved from the Dallas/Fort Worth area after 11 years to my hometown in Amarillo, Texas. The reason for the move was simple: my network of people was in Amarillo and I needed to be there to make my business take off. Amarillo real estate is insane, and people make a lot of money in Amarillo.


My father is a very successful cattleman in Amarillo, feeding cattle for very high profile people across the U.S. So when it came to me running my business, I was lucky enough to have him as an advisor. So I asked him 1,000 questions on how to run a business and he gave me advice. I took what I had already learned from trial and error, applied some of the advice my father had for me, and stayed up for four days straight. I wrote a business plan, marketing plan, figured out all my expenses, fixed cost, pricing, etc. I learned everything I could learn about the grasses in Amarillo. I went through a 10-week school on mowing, irrigation, weeds, pesticides, herbicides – the whole nine yards of landscaping.


I educated myself so I could be confident in my sales pitch and have an answer on any question a prospective client could have. I targeted certain high-end areas in Amarillo and saturated it with flyers and name recognition. After the first 20-25 accounts I landed on my own, the phone just started blowing up with referrals due to the quality of work.


Last year, I ended up with 52 residential properties and eight major hotels in Amarillo. My inspiration now is to provide a quality lawn service for clients. A service they can count on weekly that exceeds their expectations.


Q: What have been some of the challenges in starting and maintaining Muscle Mowing & Landscaping? And, conversely, what have been some of the high points of this endeavor?


Cleat Bell: The biggest challenge is keeping your prices right – they need to be competitive, not overpriced, but high enough to make a profit. If you are not making money, and there is money to be made, then you are not doing something right. It's a constant evaluation of running numbers and making sure your prices stay competitive, which is something I like to do anyway.


Another challenge was making sure I was in the right target market. Lawn service is a luxury item for homeowners. Thus, you have to target the neighborhoods that can afford luxury items.


Also, lawn service is not year round, so learning to budget your money for the slow months can be tricky if you don't constantly run your numbers.


Without a doubt, the highest point is being your own boss. I have total control of everything from what days we work to what clients we sign. I have control of not only my career, but also my life, and I don't have some boss or third party telling me when to come to work, what to do and how to do it. It is freedom and I have sacrificed a lot to get to where I am today with this company.


I've had a lot of sleepless nights and 15-hour days, but it paid off because this year, my fourth in business, I am projecting 75-100 accounts and could possibly bust $100,000 for the year, which would be epic.


Q: How do you currently promote your business?


Cleat Bell: I have an established client base and every new client is now a referral. I don't have to advertise anymore if I don't want to. I still do flyers in new neighborhoods that are popping up, there is a Facebook page, and there is signage on the truck and trailer. I hand out business cards all the time to people I think could afford or want lawn care.


Q: What professional advice would you give to someone who is interested in following your example and launching their own landscaping business?


Cleat Bell: Mowing is the easy part. I would encourage them to educate themselves on the types of grasses in their area. Write a business plan and stick to it. Be honest with your clients and do what you say you are going to do, and service their property like you would your own. Learn logistics, group yards together on a certain day, talk to people even if it is about the weather – it builds rapport. And be competitive in your prices – you can make as little or as much money as you set your mind to.


[Editor's note: Bell has also branched out into a second seasonal business – a full-service Christmas light installation and removal company called Jingle Bell Christmas Lights. And Bell tells us that his brothers are also entrepreneurs – one is a police officer who also operates a custom leather business, the other owns a custom home building business.]