In the pre-dawn hours of Sept. 11, 2009, Wayne and Julie Bollinger stood on a bike path watching years of their labor go up in flames.

A fire had consumed their Lake Hallie business, Greener Grass Systems, and an adjoining residence. Though no one was seriously injured, the property was a total loss.

The thought of retiring crossed the couple’s minds. That's when individual Greener Grass Systems employees began arriving for their early-morning shifts, unaware of the damage done by the blaze.

“The look on their faces,” said Wayne, regarding his employees’ reactions to the fire. “What were they going to do?”

“We looked at each other and said we were going to rebuild,” Julie said. “This was about more than just the two of us.”

Greener Grass Systems, which initially offered irrigation services and a limited lawn fertilization program, now provides a variety of services and products. The company’s perseverance, and its steady growth, helped it earn the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business of the Year award for 2015. MEP Associates also took the honor.

“They have overcome a major fire and had to rebuild, but kept everything going and added new customers every week,” said Bob McCoy, chamber president and CEO, in announcing the award during the organization's Annual Meeting on April 21 at UW-Eau Claire that drew a sellout crowd of 688 people. “You will see their 60 vehicles running all over, including the Twin Cities, St. Croix Valley, Duluth-Superior and Black River Falls.

”The next generation is now involved in the business, and they also believe in giving back. They decorated three homes at Christmas for military families.“

Planting the seed

Wayne had worked at Greener Grass Systems, which was founded in 1978, during high school. The work was a welcome respite from the duties required of the Eleva farm on which he was raised.

The opportunity to buy the business, which then operated out of a rented farmhouse near Fall Creek, arose in the early 1980s. Two months of free labor from Wayne made up the down payment, and he and Julie formulated a business plan to solicit a loan for the rest. The banks initially declined, but Wayne’s father couldn't resist and helped the young couple secure the funding.

Both barely out of their teens, Wayne and Julie, a UW-Eau Claire graduate, became owners of a business with 75 lawn care and 100 sprinkler-system customers in 1984. They placed a hand-written letter in the Leader-Telegram, a signed promise to the community to provide exceptional service.

“The phone started ringing off the hook,” Julie said of response to the ad.

It’s rarely stopped since.

Greener Grass Systems expanded through a series of acquisitions — We Care Lawn Care in 1992, Service Master Lawn Care of Black River Falls in 1993, Lawnkeepers in 1994, Environmental Energies of Menomonie in 1999, Precision Lawn Management and Quality Landscape Supply in 2001 and Living Waters Nursery of Jim Falls in 2010.

The company also acquired the customers of Emerald Acres in Rice Lake in 2009. It was the purchase of Greenskeepers in River Falls one year earlier, however, that represented the largest acquisition in the history of Greener Grass Systems.

There have been challenges along the way. As with many small businesses, the Great Recession years were lean.

“We pulled back a bit and refocused on our core services,” Wayne said.

“It’s a tough industry and some of the margins are pretty slim,” Julie said. “But even then we pulled enough people in to keep the lights on.”

In the fall of 2010, the company moved into a new location on a 10-acre site at 1403 122nd Street in Lake Hallie. Traffic at the business, Wayne said, has increased each year.

Future looks bright

Greener Grass Systems' service area has expanded west to the Twin Cities, north to Ashland, east to Thorp and south to Black River Falls. It has grown from two employees to a peak of 85 during its busy seasons and boasts more than 4,500 customers.

The company now maintains an expansive garden center, and its services include lawn care, landscaping, irrigation, decorating and snow removal. The boutique side of the garden center has shown rapid growth, Julie said.

The business also hosts classes and has a training room that’s open to the public. Charitable events benefit several causes.

Current trends in the industry include increased interest in sustainability. All rainwater at Greener Grass Systems is collected to help irrigate its plants.

Future growth is anticipated, Wayne said, through adding to its customer base and offering more services such as perimeter pest control.

Both Bollingers said their staff has played an integral role.

“When hiring, you learn to recognize your gaps,” Julie said. “We just have a great group of employees,” Wayne added.

The company also is undergoing a rebranding effort. Eventually the name will fully transition to Green Oasis, which better represents its diverse services, the Bollingers said.

Their oldest son, Nathan, graduated from UW-Eau Claire and works at the family business as production manager. Although Greener Grass Systems seems destined to stay in the family, Wayne and Julie have put thoughts of retirement on hold.

Julie, however, hopes her husband takes a few days off this year for trips to Green Bay for Packers games.