For many, mowing the lawn is a dreaded weekend chore. For others, it's a low-paying seasonal job. For Nate Roelfs, however, it's a business opportunity.
Last summer, when moving his family into an Iowa City house, the then 28-year-old Roelfs was confronted with a host of newfound responsibilities. Not least among them was lawn maintenance.
Unlike most first-time home renters though, Roelfs opted for a less traditional approach to lawn care. He bought a human-powered reel mower.
"Over the past couple of years, my wife and I have been making changes to our lifestyle in order to be more 'green,'" said Roelfs. "I fell in love with the idea of not using any gasoline for this part of home maintenance."
But he didn't stop there. An incoming first-year MBA student at the UI Tippie College of Business, Roelfs—an aspiring entrepreneur with a commitment to living sustainably—saw more than just an environmentally friendly mower.
"I began to wonder if this [mower] could become a successful business model. I did a lot of market research and some speculating and I became convinced that this 'old school' technology could become part of a successful business."
Truly Green was thus born, Iowa City's own gasoline-free lawn service. Roelfs' burgeoning business includes his partner, Clifton Brinkmeyer, and one part-time employee who performs the lawn maintenance. Truly Green currently serves about 10 clients.
"We deliberately started small so that we could gain more experience with running a business and also because of the busy schedule I have in the MBA program."
Indeed, being a full-time MBA student leaves little time for running a small business. And Roelfs' Graduate Assistantship (GA) position leaves even less time.
Last fall, as part of his scholarship, Roelfs was awarded a GA position. Funded through the Tippie College of Business, GAs are "part-time business consultants," according to Roelfs.
"We place [GAs] in a variety of different opportunities ranging from working with faculty members on different research projects to staff throughout the university," said Nadia Dwight, director of student services at the Tippie College of Business. "We try to place students in areas where we feel that they will benefit the most in broadening and strengthening their professional skillset."
Among those placements is the State Hygienic Laboratory. The lab, however, hasn't always been a recipient of GA insight.
In 2007, while pursuing a dual master's degree in Health and Business Administration, Yasmine Rezai was recruited by Hygienic Lab director Chris Atchison. After graduating in 2009, she was hired full-time as the Grants and Contracts manager.
"Chris was looking for more of a standard business practices infiltration into our culture," said Rezai. "It's our mission to be the environmental and public health stewards of Iowa, but we need to balance our unlimited commitment to serving Iowa against our limited resources available."
Much like Roelfs saw a mutually beneficial opportunity for a lawn service and the environment, Rezai saw an opportunity for the Hygienic Lab and the Tippie College of Business.
"Here, students can get hands-on experience in a process-oriented place while funded as part of the GA," said Rezai. "It would benefit everyone."
Fortunately for the Hygienic Lab, Tippie had recently launched a new part of the MBA program specifically focused on process improvement. As a result, several students were placed at the lab's Coralville campus: Amol Bagaitkar, Mark Hoy, Louis Landphair, Joe Provorse, and Nate Roelfs. Each came to the Hygienic Lab to work with Lorelei Kurimski, program consultant, on process improvement initiatives.
The GAs quickly applied their business acumen to a variety projects. Included among them was reorganizing the internal billing system to reduce the number of errors and help the lab keep better track of its expenditures.
Roelfs also individually worked on a project concerning the Safe Drinking Water Act and the collection and testing of samples. He proposed several basic suggestions to reduce costs, including increasing batch utilization, implementing a testing schedule, installing interfaces between testing equipment and computers, and providing Microsoft Office training to employees.
Full implementation of the recommendations could potentially save more than $100,000 annually, according to Roelfs. Roelfs is now hoping to apply some of what he learned as a GA to Truly Green.
"I learned how to discover the root cause of problems, and how to make a business case for change by performing analysis on live and sometimes messy data," he said.
Though he's only working for Truly Green part-time this summer, Roelfs is confident that his small business may one day not be so small.
"This year we've targeted Iowa City, next year we'll gain a foothold in Cedar Rapids, and then we'll look at the Quad Cities after that. In 3-5 years, I see the business having 200-300 residential clients," said Roelfs. "In two years, I would also like to expand our services to be a more expansive lawn care program by including fertilizer, weed control, and more. All eco-friendly of course!"
Roelfs, currently a project manager intern at Pearson, will begin his second and final year of the MBA program this fall. His business elsewhere, however, is certainly not finished.
"Hopefully, I'll be working at the lab again this next school year so I can see my recommendations being implemented," he said.
This profile first appeared in the June 2011 issue of Lab Link, produced by the State Hygienic Laboratory.