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LEADERSHIP 2006: Alan White

Features - Business Management

If a problem needs solving, all you have to do is tell Alan White that he can’t fix it. Then, he’ll prove you wrong.

Heather Tunstall | November 7, 2006

When Alan White was a young teenager working on a golf course near his rural home in Burlington, Ontario, it never crossed his mind that working in the green industry would one day become his career. He was just a kid doing a summer job that he loved. He enjoyed being able to work outdoors and learn about plants and trees – a far cry from sitting in a stuffy high school classroom.
 
As he grew into an adult, he attended school at Sheridan College to study marketing and advertising, much to the pleasure of his mother and father. He quickly discovered, however, that this was not the path he wanted to take.

LEADERSHIP 2006

    Lawn & Landscape recognizes green industry leaders each year with a reception at the Green Industry Expo.

    Read the welcome letter from Bayer Environmental Science's U.S. Green Business Director Neil Cleveland.

THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED. White has a good sense of what he wants in life and tackles each obstacle that comes his way head-on. Even as a child, his principal at grade school met with his parents for a conference and told them, “Your son gets to the same endpoint as everyone else, but he takes his own path to reach it.” Early on, his leadership qualities began to surface.
  
While working his first few jobs, he took mental notes on how to become a leader. “Whenever I worked, I looked at everybody else’s job around me and tried to learn as much about those who were leading me as I could,” he recalls.
 
White worked at ChemLawn for a couple of years while he was at college. Mid-way through his higher education, he switched his academic focus to sciences and turfgrass at the University of Guelph. Through his schooling and job at ChemLawn, he began gaining insight into the business side of turf management.
 
But working for others soon became tiresome for White. He wanted to do something bigger – he wanted to start his own business. “I was frustrated with working for other people and not being in control of where I was going and not being able to try new things,” he says. “I wasn’t really paying much attention at the time as to why I did it, but once I was locked into it I was going to do it.”
 
White, armed with knowledge from his younger years in the golf industry, his short time at ChemLawn, his background at school and some serious ambition, started Turf Systems in 1991. At the time, Canada was in the midst of a recession and White found it difficult to gain encouragement for his endeavor. When you’re looking for support from other business people, White says, they keep telling you “it’s not easy; these are the failure rates.” So, he did it on his own. 

Fla 
Alan White

Getting through the first five years was an accomplishment in itself for White. “It was so entrenched in my head that most companies don’t make it to five years that that was kind of one of my career highlights, because everybody said I wouldn’t do it,” he says.
 
The challenges didn’t end there. In 2002, Canada’s Supreme Court gave the right to manage lawn care product use to the cities rather than the federal government. Cities began to heed environmental activists’ cries and place restrictions on pesticides and other products essential for proper lawn care.
 
Rather than falling into line with others or waiting for someone else to do something, White decided to better his situation. He started offering an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program, which uses fertilizer as its main ingredient, but spot-sprays herbicides and insecticides as problems are found.
 
“I saw that things I learned in the golf industry also worked in the lawn care business, one of them being IPM. So that was the niche that I locked into,” White says. “My main career focus was to provide IPM to the mainstream client. When I presented the philosophy of IPM to mainstream lawn care, a lot of people said, ‘You can’t do that. The customer won’t buy into it – they won’t understand it; it’s too expensive.’” But White stuck to his guns and now owns a successful business with a 90 percent customer renewal rate.
 
Today, White is not only the president of a thriving company; he also spends most of his time encouraging others in the industry to do as he does. “To this day I still believe that it’s our responsibility to be leaders and take risks we wouldn’t normally take,” White says. “We can’t be complacent if we’re going to be leaders.”
 
To sum up his idea of how others perceive him, White notes: “Some people characterize me as ‘thinking outside the box.’ Well, I kind of always live outside the box.”

HIGHLIGHTS

    Name: ALAN WHITE

    Company: Turf Systems

    Location: Burlington, Ontario, Canada

    Career Highlights:

  • Founded Turf Systems in 1991 
  • Elected to lead the Lawn Care Commodity arm of Landscape Ontario in 2004
  • On the IPM Council of Canada’s Board of Directors
  • Helped develop the IPM Accreditation Program
  • Working with the U.S. Project EverGreen Board to bring the program to Canada

IN GOOD COMPANY. White is no longer alone in his quest for success in the green industry. He surrounds himself with friends, family and other leaders for support and insight.
 
Although as a child he believed he grew up in what he calls the “school of hard knocks,” he now knows that any hardships he went through were just his parents way of teaching him independence and leadership skills.
 
“When I grew up I always thought everyone was hard on me, nothing ever came easy,” White recalls. “Later on I asked my parents why they were so much harder on me than my brothers – I was the oldest – and my mom said, ‘We always knew you’d stand up and you’d always find the right way.’”
 
But now, White sees his greatest asset as his parents always saying, “You can do anything you set your mind to.” When he first decided to start his own business, they told him they would not help him financially to begin with – he would have to do it on his own. White didn’t think that was very nice.
 
“My parents said, ‘You might run into problems in the first two years, and you’ll need help then. So you figure out how to start it, and we’ll figure out how to help you,’” White explains. “I had this idea and I was looking for support – the bank wouldn’t help, my parents wouldn’t help – but it was because my parents knew that most businesses run into cash flow problems within two years. They were thinking ahead and I know inside they wanted to help but they knew they didn’t have that kind of luxury. They would be taking a risk, and they needed to know I was doing my homework first.”
 
Ultimately, White did not need his parents help at the two-year mark. But he did learn his problem solving skills and analytical approach to life – which combines the “can do anything you set your mind to” philosophy with “think twice, act once” – from his father, who is an engineer. 
 
Along with his parents, White also has his wife by his side. They have been married for six years, but have been together for about 18 years. They have two young daughters. 

ALAN WHITE ON GIVING BACK

    Q. What does the term “giving back” mean to you?

    A. “I think giving back leads to providing a return to the community and the industry, helping others advance and providing benefits to others. I think we help support society for the role we play in the green industry. And I think a way to profile what we do in the green industry is to always participate and showcase what we do as a means of bettering the community and teaching people what we do.”

    Q. Describe a situation where you feel you gave back the industry or your community due to a cause or effort you believed in and how this impacted you in your career.

    A. “We try to give back everyday, not only on a national scale, but also in our local community. That was part of the reason why a mayor friend of mine originally approached me and got me involved – because I had a commitment and a passion to help our city with its green spaces when there was increasing pressure to do nothing with them and let them suffer. And that just bothered me that our children might not have somewhere green to play one day. There were people promoting that it was a bad thing to look after parks. So I became involved before it really became an issue.”

    Q. Who is one person you admire most for giving back, and why?

    A. “I admire anybody who has the ability to give back – some people give monetarily, some people give time, some people give leadership and some give all of the above. Some people I admire most are the ones who give back and it doesn’t necessarily have to be self-serving. Even as recently as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who are great leaders who give back to causes like world hunger, education, disease research and things like that. Those are worthwhile causes that don’t directly benefit their businesses. And they could have chosen to do so many different things with that money.”

    Q. What is one thing you do to teach your employees the value of giving back?

    A. “My staff asks me why I spend so much time participating in businesses and areas other than my own. They ask why am I involved in the U.S. market, why I belong to PLANET. I don’t do anything in the U.S. market but I think being involved will tremendously benefit our industry as a whole, whether it directly benefits me or not. If I have something I can share, I think it’s important to do it. I teach the same concept to my employees.”

    Q. In your opinion, what are the top three things a lawn care operator or landscape contractor can do today to establish a trend of giving back and experience the benefits?

    A. “1. Participate in community groups to bring the importance of green spaces to the forefront. 2. Identify strong environmental initiatives that build strong community values. 3. Help our peers grow. Too often we see our competitors as competitors instead of part of a team. By building a stronger community together, we all benefit.”

Outside of the business, the Whites’ friends view them as an extremely hospitable family that is determined to make life better for everyone. “They always have people over, they’re always entertaining – they like people around,” says Dwayne Job, president, System Fencing Limited, Rockwood, Ontario. Job has been a friend of White’s since they were in public school together and has watched him build his family and business.
 
“If you drop by and it’s close to 5 p.m., you’re having dinner there – they just invite you into their home all the time,” Job says, adding that the White family also regularly helps people talk through their problems and find solutions. The outside observer can see they have a strong family connection and spend time together as often as possible, Job says.
 
Though he is an active family man, White spends a considerable amount of time building his business.
 
“Someone lied to me a long time ago when they said running a business allows you to do what you want and that you get Wednesdays off to go golfing or get to go to the cottage with the family on the weekend whenever you want because you’re your own boss – I work more hours than I ever worked,” White laughs. “Not that it’s bad – if it were bad I wouldn’t be doing it. I love doing what I do.”
 
“The fact that he can balance that personal, business and political kind of life where he’s challenging people to think a different way – I think that’s the most admirable thing about White,” Job says.

A SENSE OF STYLE. Though a lifestyle like White’s can be busy, he finds a way to balance it to preserve his sanity.
 
“I always try to leave enough room in the day so there’s freedom to do whatever comes up,” he says. “To free up time to make decisions, you have to make a portion of your environment predictable and calming. It can get deadline-driven and stressful quickly and it’s good to have things that aren’t causing questions and concerns. It’s good to know the staff is operating automatically and don’t require you all of the time, and it’s good to have things that calm you so your environment isn’t stressful when situations outside become stressful.”
 
This would explain why there’s a large aquarium in White’s office. He finds it calming amidst an office that his wife would call “organized chaos.” White describes his office as a comfortable, large working space. The only TV in the office is used for weather and news reports, and there is nothing to distract him from a productive work day. The staff is friendly and professional.
 
“Image, marketing and direction has been a focus for our company from the day I started it,” White says. “I show up every day in a uniform and my employees wear the same uniforms. I’m always dressed to meet a client or go to work.”
 
White has all of his bases covered when it comes to running a company. “He’s built a very nice business that is methodically thought out so right from the start, even though he’s a small business, he acts like a large business,” Job says.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE. As if these qualities alone don’t make White a leader in his field, he goes above and beyond to stand out as an innovative lawn care specialist and what he considers to be a “true environmentalist.” White is extremely active in his community and in the industry as a whole, spending countless hours examining problems and finding solutions, attending meetings and discussing the policies and regulations that have been forced on the Canadian lawn care business.
 
With Canada’s increasing restrictions on pesticides, environmental issues have come to the forefront of people’s minds. Lawn care operators must deal with customers alarmed by the perceived health concerns of pesticides.
 
In order to win this battle, consumers need to be aware of what lawn care operators are really doing and that some environmental activists don’t give an accurate account of the risks involved with the products used, White insists. It is the responsibility of those in the lawn care industry to inform consumers of the truth, he says.
 
“We’re all so busy running our businesses that somebody else is telling the story and then, ultimately when it comes down to it, nobody understands what we do,” White notes. “We need to take that message to them. We need to tell them that we care about the things they care about because, right now, most would perceive the opposite. Once we gain that trust back and consumers see us as the go-to people in the environment, then we can be better landscapers, lawn care companies, irrigation managers and green space managers.”
 
White now heads the Lawn Care Commodity arm of Landscape Ontario and is a member of IPM Council of Canada’s Board of Directors. Most recently, he has been working with the Project EverGreen Board in the United States to bring this important initiative to Canada. He has also developed the IPM Accreditation Program, which supports the idea of using Integrated Pest Management as a major solution to pesticide regulations.
 
“He’s out there and in an association that’s giving back to the community,” Job says. “He’s challenging the activists to get them to think in a new way. He gives back so much and he has a very defined vision of where he wants to see the industry go. And he’s not afraid to take the steps to lead that vision and get it pushed through.”
 
The fight has been challenging, but White is determined.
 
“He’s got pressure from both sides to conduct business responsibly and grow his business, but at the same time not use the same products that everyone else is able to use throughout the rest of the world to fight lawn care problems,” Job says.
 
“I think the biggest turn-around was when it went from running a business to helping an industry – it just became exponentially bigger,” White says. “I try to help others understand the concept that it doesn’t matter how big you are, it’s the influence that you have on the environment that surrounds you. It just requires a passion and a dedication to meeting objectives and being a part of the solution.”
 
Participation of landscape contractors in their communities and in the landscape and lawn care market is an absolute necessity to grow the industry as a whole, according to White. “My staff and I dedicate a considerable amount of time to not only servicing our clients, but considering new ways to help all of the clients and to help our peers grow,” he explains. “It’s either teach by example and help others or we all kind of falter and are grouped into the same class.
 
“We have to make some decisions in the next 10 years that will have long-reaching impacts on our industry and how legislators deal with things, and how consumers perceive what we do,” White adds. “So it is critical that you’re involved with your community, and that you’re involved in government to promote the environmental and social benefits that we all believe in.”
 
Being a leader just comes naturally to White. It has been a part of his personality from the start. “Originally you don’t see it as leadership. You see it as ‘the buck stops here, and I have to make that decision that nobody else wants to, so I’m going to do it,’” he says. “It’s only later on that you start classifying that as leadership – initially, it’s just survival.”