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Press > A Cut Above

6 Jun 1996

Show David Swanson a lawn that needs cutting and he will walk away with green in his pocket.

Swanson, at 15 years old, has already initiated two successful outdoor business ventures while displaying the skill and enthusiasm for business that would make a CEO green with envy.

Swanson not only runs his own sophisticated lawn-care business in Palatine during warm-weather months.

He also put together his own award-winning rock salt business this winter through an after-school Junior Achievement program offered at Fremd High School.

Real-life business
Junior Achievement is a program that gives students hands-on opportunities to learn about business and economics. And as part of that program, Swanson -- with the help of several Fremd classmates and advice from some Motorola executives in Arlington Heights -- packaged rock salt into plastic pails, sold it door-to-door in the community and delivered the packages directly to his customers during the icy winter months.

The venture was a huge success. Though only a freshman, Swanson sold nearly double what other Junior Achievement projects did each week.

"I sold seven days a week, including Saturday and Sunday," Swanson said last week. "I sold the most. I blew them all away."

For his efforts, Swanson recently was awarded Junior Achievement's Salesperson of the Year honors. The award is particularly impressive because Junior Achievement officials can't remember someone so young earning top salesperson honors.

"It's almost unheard of for someone his age to win this award," said Michael O'Laughlin, senior director at Junior Achievement. "I can't recall a freshman ever winning this award."

O'Laughlin said about 3,500 students in the Chicago area participated in the particular program that Swanson was awarded for -- a companies program that lets students start and operate their own business with guidance from large companies like Motorola.

"The impact this has on students is a real eye-opener," O'Laughlin said of the program. "It's a hands-on approach to learning about business."

Cold day. Hot idea
Swanson got the idea for the project while looking out at his driveway one particularly cold day.

"It was winter and the driveway was all ice," Swanson said. "I was like, hey, maybe we can do something with salt."

Swanson checked around and found that all the stores sold rock salt in big, clumsy bags. It just didn't seem like the best approach to the young businessman.

"The problem with bags is that they may open up and salt can get all over your trunk," Swanson noted. "And you have to lift a heavy bag."

The student decided that plastic buckets might be a better way to go. The buckets were easier to handle and didn't break. And once someone went through the salt, they could keep the plastic bucket for something practical, like washing their car.

"None of the salt companies ever thought about that," Swanson said.

However, Swanson had to figure out a way to get hold of both salt and plastic buckets.

After checking around several places, the student found a distributor who was willing to part with five- and 10-gallon buckets at a fair price. The only catch was that the buckets were originally used to hold food products and had to be cleaned by Swanson and other Fremd students working with him on the project.

"We had to wash out sour cream from the buckets. It really smelled," Swanson said.

Sweet smell
But the sweet smell of success was just around the corner.

After finding a rock salt distributor and spending a cold winter day filling up 360 buckets with salt, Swanson was ready to begin selling.

He tried cold-calling and working with some local stores to sell the salt. But eventually, Swanson found he had great talent for door-to-door sales.

"I talked to a lot of new people. The more people I talked to the better I got at selling. The more you do it, the more comfortable you get," Swanson explained.

Swanson says he wouldn't just go up to people and ask them if they wanted to buy rock salt. Instead, he would explain who he was and what he was doing. He would try to explain the advantages of his product over what was found in the stores.

As part of the process to select Junior Achievement's top salesperson, Swanson eventually had to go before a panel of three judges who tried to raise doubts about the product as if they were skeptical consumers.

Sales pitch on key
However, it was tough for judges to find flaws in Swanson's project or sales pitch.

"They couldn't think of any objections," Swanson said.

It helped that Swanson already had a lot of experience talking and working with people through a lawn-service business that he runs in the summer months.

The lawn mowing is far more sophisticated than the summer businesses done by the average kid.

Swanson started a couple of years ago by using a standard 21-inch household mower. But he reinvested the money he made into better equipment. Swanson now owns a commercial mower and machinery for de-thatching, aeration and chipping. Over his spring break, Swanson says he aerated 75 lawns using his machine.

On average, he will mow about 24 lawns a week during summer months.

"I really want my lawns to look good," Swanson says, noting that he wants to buy a truck and really expand his landscaping abilities once he's able to drive.

Swanson's mother Casey notes that her son seemed interested in making sales from a very early age.

In fact, she once got a call from a neighbor when David was just 3 years old. The boy was picking up pine cones and selling them to the neighbor for a penny apiece.

"I made a dollar," Swanson laughs. "I think I blew it all on ice cream, but that's OK. It was fun."

Swanson hopes to keep having fun in the future with his business projects. He says he will stay in Junior Achievement all four years at Fremd. He's looking for a new business project right now.

"I want to have an eye open of different things. It takes a long time to come up with something," Swanson says.



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