Ray Bradley earned his nickname as a kid in the '80s cutting lawns around his Palm Harbor neighborhood. ¶ Where's Ray? his middle school buddies would ask. After school, the answer was easy. Bradley, often in cut-offs and a T-shirt, pushed his dad's gas mower to earn $5 a yard. ¶ "Ray's mowing" got shortened to "Raymow." And the nickname, like the hobby, stuck. ¶ Soon he was a skinny, muscular teen with a mop of dark brown hair — too young yet to drive — steering his own Snapper riding mower and trailer to adjacent neighborhoods. His mother still wonders how he got good grades. She doesn't know when he did his homework. ¶ Today, Bradley is 41, and his nickname shows up in block red letters on 122 vehicles, countless work shirts, and the business card that calls him "chief." But that name's about to change, as Raymow merges with the nation's leading landscape company. It's the story of a 12-year-old who turned his hobby, one that paid for baseball cards and bubble gum, into a business that made nearly $17 million at its peak, and caught the eye of an industry leader looking to expand.
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Bradley was just another outdoorsy kid who loved to camp and collect snakes from the fields and woods in Eastern Pennsylvania, where his dad was a project engineer for U.S. Steel. When he was 12, his father was transferred to the corporation's Belleview Biltmore Country Club. Bradley washed cars there for cash.
An itch for work seemed congenital. A string of Bradleys had risen early to move Pennsylvania earth or to sell or rent equipment to do so. Bradley's father, who favored 10-hour work days, wore out a quote from his own dad: "If you're gonna do the job, you might as well do it right."
"There was no sleeping in at my house," Bradley says. "I was always rising early to do something."
Then he got his hands on his dad's lawn mower.
In the early '80s, brand-new subdivisions were popping up in Palm Harbor, and the Bradleys were the second family in their neighborhood. Each new neighbor was a potential customer. Bradley knocked on every door.
He hired friends to help. His parents printed invoices on a Macintosh SE set up in the spare bedroom. His mother hand-wrote payroll checks. His dad gave up the garage.
He was a hard worker, and a handful.
"I think he would be the first to admit he wasn't a piece of cake in class," says Jed Lehrer, 56, his business education teacher at Tarpon Springs High. "We butted heads." Strong personalities, Lehrer noticed, tended to pay off for his young entrepreneurs. Of his successful students, none matched Bradley.
The guy known as "Raymow" raced three-wheelers at a Dade City track. As a teenager, he owned a shiny red Ford F-250 4x4, a charcoal T-top Mustang and a Honda racing bike.
"Everybody thought I was the most spoiled kid in the world, but I got it all with my own money," he says.
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It took one semester of community college to tell Bradley his high school hobby was actually a full-time job. He would get home, filthy from yard work, jump in the shower, grab whatever his mom had in the kitchen and head to a night class. By the time he got home at 10 p.m., the answering machine in his bedroom was full of messages it was too late to answer. He was missing out on jobs. He told his dad, who has a master's degree, it was school or work. But not both.
He picked Raymow. Instead of classes, he devoured business books like Tom Peters' In Search of Excellence. Two years out of high school, he bought his first house.
Meanwhile, he was learning to delegate — a strength that grew from a deepening disability.
Bradley, born with a degenerative hearing condition, was going deaf. He had tried bulky hearing aids in middle school, but they just made things louder, not clearer. Instead he became a skilled lip reader. Many people who knew him, such as Lehrer the business teacher, never guessed he had trouble hearing
Even after cochlear implants in his early 30s gave him back a sense of sound, he didn't do well on the phone, or in large groups. So he would bring employees along for property walk-throughs, or rely on them for meetings and sales presentations.
The side benefit was that his workers grew alongside him, and understood his business.
"I got to do a lot of listening," says Rusty Miles, 40, a Raymow branch manager and friend from middle school.
Bradley built his team with Christmas parties and fishing trips. He called his employees "Raymownians." They included his mom and brother-in-law. He demanded good work and strong time management. Buddies enjoyed working with him — they traded barbs and cracked jokes. They also understood if they screwed up, they would hear about it.
"People who took care of him, he took care of them," Miles says.
So when real growth came, Raymow was poised.
The '90s building boom was ready-made for a burgeoning landscape company. Raymow installed new yards, then got contracts with communities to maintain them.
"It was a really sweet deal," Bradley says.
By 1997, he had hired Wendy Andrews-Fine from a national landscape company to handle marketing for a nursery venture. He closed the nursery, but kept her on to modernize an office that still hand-wrote some records.
Where he was impulsive, she was thoughtful. He wears Raymow shirts and work pants. She twists up her blond hair and wears heels. He made her vice president.
The company hit 400 employees. It was landscaping 5,000 homes a year. It pulled down more than $15 million in 2005 and again in 2006.
Bradley was still Bradley — going full-speed. He couldn't even vacation without picking up real estate — a home in the Dominican Republic, property in Costa Rica and Colombia.
His favorite time to go fishing, it seemed to his buddies, was when it was rough, cold and rainy.
"When everybody else was coming back in, he would want to head out, further," Miles says.
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Bradley wasn't looking to sell.
In fact, this summer he was the one thinking of buying. Sure, revenue had dropped 20 percent in 2007 compared to 2006, then kept falling. Yards in new neighborhoods, his staple during the boom when Raymow did 5,000 a year, dropped to hundreds. But he battled for maintenance business to replace it, winning big contracts like Innisbrook resort. Companies gutted by the economy could make cheap acquisitions — and Bradley was always looking for a smart buy.
He worked with Emery Ellinger at Aberdeen Advisors. But he didn't like the companies he saw. Then Ellinger had a suggestion: What if Raymow was the target?
Bradley remembers saying: "Put a number on it, and if it interests me, I'll see."
He had some requirements: His staff, like a family, had to be cared for. He had to trust the company to serve his clients.
He didn't have to wait long. The nation's largest landscaper, ValleyCrest, wanted to expand in Florida. Tourism, a high-tech corridor, residential communities, they all made the state attractive. Grass and trees still grow, even in an economic slump, says Roger Zino, president of ValleyCrest's landscape maintenance division. "I think we're in a business where the work still needs to be done."
"When they heard we were for sale, they wasted no time," Bradley says.
And he trusted ValleyCrest. They had been a competitor for 20 years, and he thought they played fair. They were huge — nearly a billion-dollar company, with projects like Disney's Animal Kingdom Park. But they were also a private, family-run firm, with a patriarch he respected.
They knew some things about him. His reputation for pleasing customers. His deep local knowledge. His employees' attention to detail.
"We got very excited that this was a group that really cares about having really satisfied customers," Zino says. "This is a guy, he's a worker, he gets it from the field up, and we just love that."
Before he knew it, Bradley was on a plane to Southern California. He was hooked.
He would need to pitch the deal to Raymownians. Bradley used a sports analogy:
"You got traded, and you got traded to the best team in the industry."
• • •
On Dec. 1, ValleyCrest hosted a dinner to announce the deal. Forty people flew out from California. They gave out ValleyCrest coolers with swag, welcomed Raymownians to the team.
The merger, which included a third company near Orlando, boosted ValleyCrest's maintenance division 10 percent, and made Tampa and Orlando its biggest markets.
Bradley used another sports analogy: "We just went from the minor leagues to the major leagues."
His new job: Keeping customers for the new partnership. He still owns a supply company, Southern Landscaping Materials, and Ray Bradley Real Estate.
He could slow down, travel with his fiancee and two kids to her native Colombia. Spend more time at the vacation house in the Dominican. But he can't stop working. He loves the industry that hooked him at 12.
Bradley still cuts his own lawn, walking like in the old days. But the mower he pushes cost 10 times more than his dad's Sears Craftsman.
Times researchers Natalie Watson and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Becky Bowers can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8859. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/bbowerstimes.