Landscapers pass on fuel costs to customers

Soaring fuel costs are causing Fairfield County landscapers to alter the way they do business as they struggle to remain competitive and profitable in a sputtering economy.

With the price of gasoline up more than 35 percent from the same time last year, many landscapers are tacking fuel surcharges on to customers bills and some are settling for slimmer profits.

Even supplies are more expensive this year, as virtually all of them arrive at distributors by truck.

Dennis Leahy, owner of Bren Landscaping & Masonry in Fairfield, said he has added a fuel surcharge to his prices because his daily fuel expense has gone up by one-third to $100 a day.

Leahy also said he has added a surcharge for materials because some landscaping suppliers are charging a 1 percent fee for deliveries to counter higher fuel costs.

"Everybody understands," said Lisa Gnandt, manager of Greencycle, a supplier of recycled mulch, compost and topsoil with three locations in Connecticut, including Fairfield. "We didn't do an outrageous increase in prices this year because of the economy."

Mike Pasquarella, owner of Lawn Enforcement Landscaping in Westport, said his surcharge is based on the time it takes to complete a job and the fuel efficiency of the equipment that is used.

"It's either that or we raise our prices," said Pasquarella, who has four employees. "The only thing we can hope for is the price to come down."

Prices for regular gas in the Bridgeport metro area have risen to $4.27 a gallon from $3.07 a gallon a year ago, according to AAA's website.

The slow economy and higher fuel costs also create "pricing pressure" among the dozens of landscaping companies competing for business in the area.

"There are a lot of people who are willing to work for not a lot of profit," Leahy said. "If you're just paying to keep your trucks and guys going, you still need to turn a profit."

The higher cost of landscaping supplies as a result of higher fuel prices is hitting most landscapers harder than the price hike in the fuel they use to run and transport their equipment, said Bob Heffernan, executive secretary of the Connecticut Nursery and Landscape Association.

"It's probably that more than anything else," he said, adding that fuel costs really start impacting the landscaping industry when they reach $4 per gallon. "When you cross that threshold, it really costs more to do business."

Heffernan said the increased costs do require most landscapers to place a surcharge on their prices, but that surcharge usually goes away if fuel costs decline.

"They can disappear when gas prices go back to what they were," he said.

Some companies, such as 33-year-old T. Palmer Landscaping of Westport, are skipping the fuel surcharge despite the higher fuel prices.

The costs to run the landscaping business are "exorbitant," but loyal customers will be retained by keeping prices down, said Tony Palmer, whose business has 14 employees.

"We decided because of the way the economy is that we're eating it," Palmer said. "But if it continues to go up, we might be forced to (add a surcharge) because we're paying for it on deliveries that come in."