After seeing Dale’s “dead cockroach” van on the TV show “King of the Hill,” Jim Zylstra had the idea to add moles to the top of his fleet vehicles. Then a few years later in 2009, Zylstra experimented with different colors on his vehicles: he changed the paint on his white-and-green vehicles to bright green and orange.
“We want to build a brand that people will recognize,” says Zylstra, owner of Tuff Turf Molebusters, which operates 13 fleet vehicles. “Maybe they don’t know the services we offer, but they see us enough around that we get calls asking, “You are the guys with the moles on the roof and the bright green cars, right?”
Serving most of West Michigan from Grand Rapids to Detroit, Tuff Turf Molebusters specializes in mole control but also handles other pests outside the house, including mosquitoes, wasps, ants and spiders. Additionally, the company has fleet vehicles dedicated to the lawn fertilization side of the business, which serves the Grand Rapids area.
Starting the company in 1994 by knocking on doors to see if homeowners needed their lawn fertilized, Zylstra hired his first employee in 1996 when still operating out of his parents’ basement. Since then, the company has seen many years with double digit growth, according to Zylstra.
“Not only do people notice our vehicles, but people take our photos all the time while we are on the road,” says Zylstra. “If you had an hour-long highway drive, there would be at least four people who roll down their window and stick out their cellphones to take our picture.”
Zylstra’s fleet is made up of different vans and trucks, including Ford Transit Connect and Nissan NV vans for pest control, Ford F-350 trucks for lawn fertilization, and a Chevy box van and Ford E250 van for transporting equipment and supplies.
Traveling about 8,000 to 10,000 miles per year, each lawn fertilizing truck features a custom-built tank for weed control, a flatbed to transport fertilizer and a customized rack to hold equipment such as a Z-sprayer, a fertilizing machine that weighs close to 1,000 pounds. “The F-350 trucks make it easier to maneuver through the small neighborhoods,” says Zylstra.
Providing services as far as Detroit on a biweekly basis, the pest-control vans put on more miles per year, approximately 15,000 to 20,000. Needing to transport water for diluting insecticides and pesticides, Zylstra’s upfitter designed a custom tank with slots for a fork lift — to lift the tank in and out of the van for biannual cleanings. A sliding door on the tank allows technicians to store traps and backpack sprayers. Additionally, boxes were built behind the seats to hold extra mole traps, says Zylstra.
After each new vehicle is customized, each is hand-painted green and orange by a local owner of a paint and vinyl letter shop. “He has also hand-carved all the moles we put on each vehicle,” says Zylstra.
Working outdoors in Michigan means the vehicles aren’t operating year-round. Not only does this downtime help reduce mileage but it also provides more time to work on the vehicles.
“We do all the major maintenance work, such as rewiring taillights, putting in new hoses, replacing brake pads and rewiring tanks, in the winter during our off-season,” says Zylstra. “During the rest of the year, we have a part-time mechanic who does the routine maintenance onsite.”
Currently, Zylstra’s young fleet hasn’t experience too many maintenance issues — the oldest is a 2006-MY with 93,000 miles.
“With the customizations on the vehicles, I’m hoping to maintain them for 15 years,” says Zylstra. “I haven’t sold one of our green and orange vehicles yet. I will have to repaint them to their original white color — not only for better selling value but also so they will no longer be associated with our company’s branding.”