October 20, 2006

Dream Turf's plastic lawns please homeowners

Snohomish County company cultivates technology that creates natural look

By Steve Wilhelm

Staff Writer, Puget Sound Business Journal

John Davidson sold natural cedar siding for two decades, but when more and more customers began choosing synthetic siding, he made a natural decision.

He switched to selling plastic grass. Davidson and two partners have built Snohomish-based Dream Turf LLC into a leading regional installer of synthetic lawns, and into a supplier of Chinese-made synthetic lawn material to other installation companies across the West.

Demand has been growing. Dream Turf will install 175 lawns this year and will generate $1 million in revenues, up 11 percent from 2005's $900,000 in revenues, said Davidson, who is CEO.

The company grew 115 percent between 2003 and 2005. Word of mouth has been bringing in so many customers that Davidson was able to halve Dream Turf's 2006 advertising budget compared to the year before, at least partly so the company could grow at a sustainable rate.

Davidson's main message is this: Do not confuse Dream Turf with AstroTurf. The latter, invented in the 1960s for football stadiums, tended to be abrasive and as hard as concrete. It looked artificial, more like a green rug than grass.

But Davidson and his partners have cultivated their own approach to the technology, so that a Dream Turf "lawn" is now made of millions of thin ribbons of polypropylene monofilament, woven through a porous mat. After the mat is installed, crews add a mix of sand and granulated rubber, giving the finished installation a soft and natural feel, with blades of grass about an inch high. It looks like an eerily perfect lawn, but a lawn nonetheless.

The multistage process to install Dream Turf isn't cheap, requiring removal of existing grass, installation of a permeable fabric layer and the spreading of a layer of gravel, upon which the 12-foot-wide rolls of Dream Turf are unrolled. A new lawn costs $10 a square foot, or more than $12,000 for an average lawn, Davidson said.

"For the most part, we're doing upscale lawns, and they want the best product possible," Davidson said. "A large portion of our clientele is multimillion-dollar homes."

Many clients cite environmental reasons for choosing Dream Turf instead of living grass. A number of them own waterside dwellings, and it's not lost on them that maintaining an emerald-green natural lawn requires lots of chemicals as well as irrigation.

"A lot of people don't feel good about putting fertilizer and pesticides into their lawn that will leach into the lakes and Puget Sound," Davidson said. His system is so permeable, he said, that even the heaviest rainfalls never pool on the surface but are quickly absorbed into the soil.

Dream Turf's installation work slows during the winter. As a way to bring more stability to the company, Davidson and his partners have been developing a wholesale business selling rolls of Dream Turf to other installers around the West.

While the company has contracted with several suppliers in the Southeast U.S., recently Dream Turf has bought most of its material from a single supplier near Shanghai, China, which Davidson declines to name for competitive reasons.

That Chinese company is making Dream Turf to Davidson's specifications, and controls every step of the process from spinning the filaments to finishing the woven rolls. In addition, the Chinese company has agreed to an exclusive contract with Dream Turf, and sells the product cheaply enough that Davidson can turn around and compete directly with U.S. producers and still make an acceptable margin.

"My focus was having the best product available that replicates real grass," Davidson said.

Copyright © 2006 Puget Sound Business Journal

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