Teen brothers from Horace reap what they mow with 4 Bs Lawn Service
After Robert Otterson read a national article on the death of the summer job several years ago, he knew one thing. He was going to raise sons who knew how to work. So it made sense for Ottersons' two sons, Chase and Dillon, to join forces with his friend Dustin Roberge's same-age sons, Taylor and Chase, when the older boys got to middle school. Since then, their 4Bs Lawn Service has become a growing mowing business.
Editor’s note: Today is the second installment of The Forum’s “Kid Bosses,” an occasional series which highlights kids and teens who run their own businesses.
HORACE, N.D. — When brothers Chase and Dillon Otterson and Taylor and Chase Roberge told friends they were teaming up to form a lawncare business, some of their buddies laughed.
You’ll never stick to it, they told them. A couple of their peers even formed their own “rival” lawn-mowing service, although it didn’t last long.
Five years later, their 4 Bs Lawncare is still clipping along like a brand-new lawn tractor across a flat, open lawn. With some help from their dads, Robert Otterson and Dustin Roberge, they’ve expanded their fleet to include a couple of Bobcat stand-on mowers, two zero-turn riding mowers, a stand-on aerator, two power rake dethatchers, a spreader/sprayer and just about anything else you need for the care and feeding of a lush lawn.
And the two oldest boys, Chase Otterson and Taylor Roberge, both 17, were able to use their earnings to buy some pretty impressive wheels for high school kids: a 2015 Ford Mustang for Chase and a 2012 Ford F450 truck for Taylor.
No one’s laughing now — although the boys have learned not to talk much about their success to their peers. “We keep it pretty quiet at school,” says Dillon Otterson, 14. “Humble has to be a big key,” his older brother adds.
In a day when some old-timers like to shake their fists and sigh, “Kids these days,” these four business bros suggest otherwise. They not only run their own business, they also balance it with school (the older boys are juniors at Sheyenne High School, their younger brothers attend Heritage Middle School), sports ranging from football to lacrosse, scouting (the elder Chase is pursuing his Eagle Scout badge), school activities, homework, summer sports camps, part-time jobs (Taylor works at Menard’s) and time to just have fun.
From childhood friends to sodbrothers
The idea behind 4 B’s was percolating several years before the boys were old enough to launch a business.
Robert and Amy Otterson and Dustin and Laura Roberge live in the same Horace neighborhood, where the fact both couples had two boys — who happened to be the exact same age — quickly bonded them. It also didn’t hurt that Robert and Dustin both work for heavy-equipment companies: Roberge is a rental fleet maintenance adviser for Butler Machinery, while Otterson is in product management at Bobcat.
“We’re both big DIY guys,” Robert says.
The men also wanted sons who could grow up and take care of themselves.
Robert describes an eye-opening piece he read in a national publication on the death of the summer job.
From then on, Robert was determined not to raise entitled kids with a questionable work ethic.
“We wanted to raise men who knew how to work,” Robert says.
By then, the Roberge and the Otterson kids had each started mowing lawns for friends and family as separate entities.
At some point, Dustin and Robert figured it made sense to join forces. They could double the manpower and, in the process, keep growing the customer base.
The boys were all for it. “We figured we could work with our friends, have a good time and make a little money,” Taylor says.
It made sense to call the business “4 Bs,” representing four brothers.
They started out as a bare-bones operation — with two push mowers, a trimmer, a borrowed trailer and a blower they snagged at a garage sale. Their parents had to drive them to jobs because they didn’t have a driver’s license yet.
Of mulch and men
The first two years, they say, were pretty rocky. On occasion, they would knock on someone’s door to tell them about their services and the homeowner would get angry or treat them as if they were running a scam.
“Coming up as a 13-year-old kid, it can be pretty tough to get them to trust you,” the older Chase says. “Right away, we had a couple of guys who would really grill us. But dealing with adults, learning how to sell … that would be the biggest take-away for me.”
They also learned that some people feel as strongly about the proper mode of lawncare as they do about their favorite sports team. One customer might complain his grass was too short. The next might feel they’d left the grass too long. Some people were happy with a simple, no-nonsense trim. Others expected lawns that, after one application of herbicide, were perfectly lush and weed-free.
The dads acknowledge that there was a bit of a learning curve. “There’s been bumps and bruises,” Dustin says.
The young men have learned more about handling money, billing people and talking to the occasional unhappy customer.
Part of that education has included the difficult lessons that come with running any business. “They’ve been yelled at by strangers for their prices. They’ve had billing disputes. They’ve been stiffed on bills,” Robert says.
Although the dads have stepped in to help for especially tough problems, they still expected the boys to take responsibility, if needed, and to learn from it.
Even if things didn’t always go perfectly, the boys weren’t about to quit. For one thing, they loved the chance to make their own money. For another, they had a personal stake in this business.
“I had a lot more pride, because it was something we had grown and carried out,” the elder Chase says.
After a couple of years, Chase says they “really started to come into our own.” By then, they had driver’s licenses so they could get to jobs on their own. They had added additional services such as fertilization and aeration services. They had found their sweet spot when it came to marketing: making door-to-door calls and distributing fliers. The two older boys were doing much of the paperwork and billing — a job they say their younger brothers have handled capably since the older boys got busier with school and activities.
They’ve also become pros at customer service. “Basically what I’ve learned is that there’s a lot of gray area,” the elder Chase says. “When you’re in school, you either get the question right or you get it wrong, or you pass or you don’t. Here, a lot of different customers have different views on what they want done. You might do it one way and they might think another, so you have to find the in-between.”
They also are big believers in efficiency. Their most recent acquisitions are two Bobcat stand-on mowers, which they purchased this spring because it was a struggle to get all their jobs done with existing equipment last fall. “We needed more efficient equipment,” Taylor says.
Although their parents may help buy some of the equipment, they say they pay them back as they make money throughout the summer.
“Efficiency is probably one of the biggest keys to our success story,” Dillon says. “Everything we do is based off of efficiency,” Taylor adds, pointing out that “Time is money” is even printed on the back of their 4 B’s logo shirts.
Even things like internal disagreements are handled efficiently. If there’s a conflict among them, they resort to a maturity which many adults could learn from. “The biggest thing is communication, reasoning and — if we have a fight — we don’t bring it up the next day,” the older Chase says.
“We just mow it over,” Taylor quips, without skipping a beat.
A mowing concern
The business has grown steadily. Usually, their client list will grow as the summer progresses and their number of overall customers increases every year. Some of their jobs are large, requiring the maintenance of 7-acre properties. They estimate that over the years they’ve built a customer list of about 100 people.
While the boys have put in the hard work, they say they couldn’t have done it without the support of their parents.
“I would say both our dads are two of the most driven people I’ve ever met,” Chase Otterson says. “Both are incredibly good mentors and have opened our eyes to opportunities we never thought possible.”
The boys are so proud of the business they built that they intend to keep it running — even after they graduate. The two younger ones would take charge after Chase and Taylor go to college. There’s even talk of contracting out jobs to other workers under the 4 B’s name.
Their business has given all four a taste for starting more businesses as well as learning a trade.
The elder Chase is eyeing either the University of North Dakota or the University of Montana for business. Taylor is deciding between an education degree at UND or studying a trade at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton.
Dillon is tentatively thinking about a business and marketing degree, either at UND or NDSCS. Chase Roberge is also leaning toward a trade school at someplace like NDSCS.
But until then, they’ll keep working to keep 4 Bs in business. The last two years, after all, have also ushered in some extra challenges. COVID slowed down business, as did last year’s drought. And they’ve taken a hit with soaring gas prices.
They used to be able to do some lawns for as little as $35 a week. When fuel costs started inching up last year, they kept their prices the same.
“They learned a big lesson,” Robert Otterson says. “Now it starts at $40-$45. And that’s even tough. Everyone is short-handed so to keep it going, paying them the going rate plus fuel, equipment, insurance, etc. — it disappears fast. After that it’s a mix of acreage and time. But they are learning what the market value is and that they had to add services to make up for some of the jobs that aren’t profitable.”
Recently, one of the kids remarked, “Now I understand why mower guys turn into landscapers … more margin.”
“That was the day,” Robert says, “I knew the education was worth the work.”
Learn more about 4 Bs Lawn Service at https://www.facebook.com/4BLawnService.