Turning to the Grounds

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Wade Theriot, an employee of Grounds Guys Landscape Management, does some landscaping Monday  at the Jack in the Box on Florida Boulevard in Baton Rouge.
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Wade Theriot, an employee of Grounds Guys Landscape Management, does some landscaping Monday at the Jack in the Box on Florida Boulevard in Baton Rouge.

Firefighter’s accident leads to new lawn care franchise

Rodney Champagne doesn’t remember the accident that took away two careers and led him to another. He doesn’t recall the moment the fire hose ruptured, how the water rocketed out, 200 pounds per square inch of pressure turning the line into an 800-foot-long whip.

Champagne doesn’t remember jerking his left arm up to protect his face, or how the hose caught him under that arm, then yanked him a dozen feet into the air before slamming him headfirst into the asphalt.

He doesn’t remember the 18 days he spent in the hospital, in and out of the Intensive Care Unit, while doctors treated him for skull fractures, a brain bruise, a punctured and collapsed right lung, a spine fractured in five places, five broken ribs, a broken left shoulder blade and collarbone, a separated left shoulder, seizures and pneumonia.

Those details came later, from other members of the Duson Volunteer Fire Department and his family.

“ I’ve got memory loss. I got problems that I have to deal with on a day-to-day basis because of the accident. But you just pick up and move on, man. Adapt and overcome. I just hope I can continue to adapt and overcome.”

So far, so good. Or at least as well as can be expected.

The accident happened on June 28, 2010. In April 2012, Champagne, and his wife, Nicole, became the owners and the only employees of the Lafayette Grounds Guys lawn and landscape service franchise. The franchise now employs seven other people. Its first-year revenue was around $250,000. Champagne’s five-year goal, admittedly audacious, is $5 million in revenue.

“If somebody came up to me and said, ‘Hey, man, if you do this, this and this, in one year you can gross a quarter of a million dollars.’ I’d say, ‘There’s no way in hell. Good luck. Have fun cutting grass and doing that, buddy.’”

Champagne never intended to become a Grounds Guys franchise owner. At the time of his accident, he was a full-time diesel mechanic and a captain in the volunteer fire department, and took pride in both. Champagne was doing a walk-around, part of an annual inspection, when the hose failed.

His wife was at home, just three blocks away. The fire chief told her Rodney was hurt. She needed to come.

She got there about the same time as the ambulance. Champagne’s face was covered with blood. His left eye was swollen shut. The firemen were trying to put an oxygen mask on him but Champagne was fighting them, trying to get up.

“So I screamed at him and told him to stop it, to calm down … They’re trying to help you. You’ve been hurt. You need to lay still,” Nicole said. “And he did. He just kind of looked at me with those ‘help-me’ eyes. Just ‘help me, help me’ eyes.”

Under 200 pounds per square inch, a 5-inch hose like the one the fire department was testing, swells to double its normal size. For safety reasons, the National Fire Protection Association recommends testing no more than 300 feet of hose at a time.

It’s hard to get away from 800 feet of hose flailing about, said Ken Willette, division manager of the association’s Public Fire Protection Division.

Nicole said she didn’t know how badly Champagne was hurt. She thought he just had a bad cut and he would be home after the doctor stitched him up.

“That was not even close to the case,” she said.

Most of the damage occurred in Champagne’s frontal lobes, the areas where memory and judgment reside. The injury left Champagne less patient, easily agitated, unable to relax.

He could still walk and talk. But he was very weak and had problems with balance. He had to relearn how to drink. It took him about a week, swallowing barium in an X-ray room, watching the contrast material to see where the liquid was supposed to go. Still, 10 weeks after the accident, Champagne was back at his day job, sort of, confined to administrative duty. He couldn’t be a mechanic anymore. He couldn’t lie down or get up without becoming disoriented. He also couldn’t take the chance that he might bump his head.

“Basically, my doctor told me one more brain injury, and you’re done.”

And by injury, his doctor meant pretty much all contact. A soccer ball, a low-hanging branch, anything. Repair jobs in the oilfield were out of the question. There’s a reason they wear hard hats out there, he said.

His first day back was also his boss’s last.

“So they were like, ‘Hey, Rodney. Welcome back to work. There’s his desk. Go ahead and fill in.’” Champagne did. About two months later, the company posted his boss’s old job, the same one Champagne had been doing. He applied and got it. But Champagne was going stir crazy. Even before he got hurt, Champagne preferred working outdoors. He had always done repairs in the field, never worked in a shop, much less an office. Now, easily agitated, each day had become an exercise in frustration.

He decided to find another job. That night, Champagne was looking online for work while “Undercover Boss” played in the background. The promo said Dina Dwyer-Owens, CEO of The Grounds Guys’ parent company, would be driving a zero-turn lawn mower — in pearls.

“Well, I got to see this crap,” Champagne told Nicole.

A few minutes later, the idea hit.

“Hang on. That’s what I need. I need that right there,” Champagne said.

He and a friend had a small mowing service as kids. But Champagne sold his piece when his family moved. Before the accident, Champagne was mowing a handful of yards to pick up extra cash. He had begun doing that again after the accident, but he had no idea how to run a business or how a franchise operated. He went to The Grounds Guys website and asked for more information. A couple of days later, he filled out some paperwork, submitted it and not long after that he and his wife were on their way to Waco, Texas, and the corporate headquarters of The Dwyer Group, The Grounds Guys’ parent company.

“South Louisiana, we try doing things our way. So I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to take this little weekend vacation on them, because they’re going to pay for my room and my meals.’”

Any ideas he picked up he would apply to his own lawn business. But three hours into the presentation, Champagne turned to Nicole and told her there was no way he could do this by himself. The Grounds Guys help with a variety of tasks, including scheduling, planning, marketing, landing commercial accounts, hiring workers and training for employees and the franchise owner. Nicole, the office manager for an orthopedic surgeon, didn’t have the time to dedicate to a startup.

A franchise it would be.

The Champagnes entered a crowded and highly fragmented market. There are around 80,000 commercial lawn and landscape companies nationally, with a combined revenue of around $70 billion according to Chuck Bowen, editor of Lawn & Landscape magazine. The vast majority of those firms generate less than $500,000 in revenue; few grow to the $5 million range Champagne set as a five-year goal.

On the plus side, the franchise they picked has relatively low startup costs, $65,000 to $189,000 including the $27,000 franchise fee, according to Entrepreneur magazine. And The Grounds Guys can help with financing.

The Grounds Guys began franchising in 2010 and is the fastest-growing of The Dwyer Group’s seven companies.

Ron Madera, Dwyer Group president, compares the lawn and landscape franchise to a rocket ship.

The Grounds Guys ranked No. 299 on Entrepreneur’s 2013 Franchise 500, jumping from 83 franchises in July 2010 to 122 by July 2012. The company now has around 160 locations in the United States and Canada, Madera said.

Champagne does all the selling, meeting potential clients and marketing himself and the Lafayette franchise’s work. His firm now has two trucks, a tractor, a bush hog and a number of edgers, blowers and string trimmers, nothing more than three years old. His territory covers the Acadiana area, stretching from Lafayette to Baton Rouge.

Nicole takes care of all the financial stuff and a lot of the scheduling. Champagne never liked doing those things before his accident, but now it’s impossible. He doesn’t always remember when and where a crew has to be. He copes with his short-term memory problems by dictating notes into his phone. He has trained himself to walk away when a task begins to frustrate him, rather than losing his cool.

It’s especially hard when something needs fixing. As a mechanic, Champagne prided himself on finding the solution, chipping away at a problem until he solved it, no matter how long it took. Now he has to let someone else do the work. It drives him nuts.

Nicole squeezes in a couple of hours of Grounds Guys duty after her day job, and more on the weekends. She worries about spending enough time with their two children.

“I struggle. But you find a way and you get it done,” Nicole said.

The business is taking off, and Nicole expects that at some point they will be able to hire someone to take over her duties.

But three years out from the accident, the family is still adjusting. For Champagne, hanging out with friends, taking vacations, even watching a movie with his 6-year-old, Elizabeth, is no longer enjoyable.

“Before, we didn’t go to the movies a lot, but we went on vacation. We did weekend trips and things like that. And now we just don’t. We don’t,” Nicole said.

Other things have also broken, such as the Champagnes’ relationship with other members of the Duson Volunteer Fire Department, which the couple sued along with Lafayette Consolidated Government, the fire department’s insurer, the makers of the fire engine and its pump and an assistant fire chief, claiming negligence.

Attorney Henry D. Olinde Jr., who represents the defendants, said the point of the lawsuit is to get to the fire department’s $1 million liability policy. It may be easier to get some of that money than to make a case against the truck or the pump manufacturers, Olinde said.

“Like it or not, a hose bursting is one of the risks of fire fighting … I represent a lot of firefighters and fire departments and this is just one of the things that happens,” Olinde said. “People don’t realize how much power there is in a hose that’s charged up with that much water under pressure … Rodney Champagne was lucky he was not killed.”

The firefighters and their family members stayed with the Champagnes 24-7 at the hospital. They brought food and other necessities to Nicole, offered their support and prayers. They helped raise $14,000 to cover the bills while Champagne couldn’t work.

Champagne said he still considers the other firefighters friends, although he knows they don’t feel the same way.

“Quite a few of them said, ‘You’re still living. Why are you (suing)?’”

Nicole still hopes everyone can be friends again one day. One day.

Champagne would like that too. But it’s like his brain injury. There’s a chance his issues will improve, but he doubts that will happen. For now, he’s concentrating on work.

“I was a volunteer firefighter. That was my way of helping people,” Champagne said. “I can’t do that anymore. Now the way I can help is to employ people in good quality jobs at fair wages.”