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Practical Magic

Features - Business Management

Kurt Bland combines practicality with ideology to embrace the green industry’s future.

Emily Mullins | December 16, 2008

Sometimes it takes the worst to bring out the best in someone. Sometimes, a person’s true leadership skills don’t shine though until duty calls and they must rise to the challenge. Kurt Bland knows this from experience. In 2004, his mother, Nancy, was diagnosed with cancer. Given two years to live, Bland’s father, Tom, knew it was time to fulfill the couple’s dream of purchasing a motor home and traveling around the country. With 30-days notice, Tom placed his company, Bland Landscaping, in the hands of his sons and hit the road with his wife. It was at that moment Bland learned the true meaning of leadership. “I’ve always known I possess leadership qualities, but the day we took over the business for my father was the precise moment I knew I had to step up,” Bland says. “I knew I had to accept the responsibility I was being presented.” 

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Kurt Bland is one of Lawn & Landscape and Bayer Environmental Science's six Leadership Award winners for 2008.

While unfortunate, the transition in management excelled Bland Landscaping into a new realm. Among other changes, the Apex, N.C.-based company added an irrigation division, instituted rigorous water and lean management practices and began running its fleets on biodiesel. In 2007, the company grew 24 percent and saw its most profitable year to date. Tom Bland credits much of this to a revitalized passion and energy the younger generation of Blands brought back into the business. “It was hard turning over the business I built and had been in charge of for 30-plus years,” he says. “But knowing my wife would never live to be an old woman, I made the decision to spend the time with her. It wasn’t good that it had to happen that way but, business-wise, it really excelled things.”
 
While seemingly effortless, Bland’s transition from operations manager to general manager was years in the making. A green industry career seemed inevitable for the curious outdoorsman with a knack for machinery and a love of technology. Born in 1975, a year before Bland Landscaping’s inception, Bland was exposed to the landscaping industry from day one, and it was assumed he and his brother, Matt, would one day take over the family business. But rather than being entitled to the role, their father made sure they earned it every step of the way. “Many people expected me to come into the business after high school and just take over, which was an unfounded thought,” Bland says. “Like most, I was a pretty irresponsible teenager. Had I not learned from my mistakes, I wouldn’t have been as confident in my new role and really think I would have gotten more flack and resistance.”
 
SCHOOL DAYS. Bland’s first paying job was mowing a neighbor’s 6-acre field when he was 13 years old for $100 and a place to board his horse. At 15, Bland got a workers permit and became a “glorified laborer” for the family business. During summers and school breaks, he’d do whatever was needed – from grounds maintenance duties to helping with large-scale commercial installation projects. One of his favorite things to do was repair equipment – or at least try to. “I probably tore more things apart than I actually fixed,” Bland says. “But it helped me learn about the machinery and increased my interest in equipment technology and how it works.”
 
While he started working at a relatively young age, he still made time for fun. “My parents wanted me to enjoy being a teenager, but at the same time, I wanted to buy a horse and a car and they wanted to see me work for those things,” Bland says. His father remembers Bland and his brother driving old trucks and jeeps around the property and woods, getting them stuck in the mud here and there. He was and still is an avid reader, but always preferred books and magazines about subjects that interested him – like technology or sports – over school books. “He might not have always gotten his homework done, but he read what interested him,” Tom Bland says. “He’s always been able to pick up something and just have a tremendous comprehension of what he reads.”
 
Bland was a delegator from an early age, always willing to pass off his chores to someone else “so they could gain the good experience.” In fact, his mother often compared him to the legendary delegator Huckleberry Finn. This mentality lasted well into college, when Bland remembers his grounds management professor reminding him that this was a classroom, not a business. “Even though our lab group finished first, the professor observed that I’d given everyone a specific responsibility and, as a result, they’d only learned what they were assigned to do,” Bland recalls. “He reminded me that the only way to learn is through doing, and it was then I realized I naturally gravitate toward taking the lead.”
 
Bland’s college career got off to a rocky start when he missed orientation to prolong his time as a counselor at a Canadian fishing camp. He began at a community college and transferred to a four-year program at North Carolina State University. Although he earned a double major in horticultural science and agriculture business management, his first intended major was landscape design, something he quickly realized he wasn’t meant to pursue. “My design professor, Will Hooker, said I was too practical for design – that I was always finding reasons not to do something creative instead of creatively finding ways to do them,” Bland says. “At that level of the landscape design educational process, practicality is discouraged.”  

LEADERSHIP 2008

    This is the start of a weekly series that recognizes six green industry leaders. Lawn & Landscape, along with Bayer Environmental Science, will honor these professionals at a reception Oct. 24 at the Green Industry and Equipment Expo in Louisville, Ky.

    See the entire Leadership 2008 supplement at the show.

Bland continued to butt heads with Hooker, who approached landscaping with an ideological approach Bland didn’t possess at that time. Their differences reached a pinnacle when Hooker told Bland that, unless he viewed the future of the landscape industry with a sustainable outlook, he’d evolve into a “petrochemical abuser who does more environmental harm than good.” To this, Bland walked out of the classroom and received an incomplete. Little did Bland know at the time, this would be one of the most valuable pieces of advice he’d ever receive. “For years, I really felt a grudge toward Will and found it hard to talk to him,” Bland says. “But if it weren’t for him challenging me the way he did, I would have never changed majors and would probably look at the landscape industry the same way I always had. He opened my eyes and showed me I had to look at the future differently.”
 
Hooker’s approach stuck with Bland, who today is considered one of the industry’s most forward-thinking environmental supporters. The men are good friends to this day, to the point where Bland visits Hooker’s classroom to provide critiques and feedback. Bland’s newfound open-mindedness and acceptance of new ideas paved the way for his reentrance to the industry as maintenance division manager, not at Bland Landscaping, but at Del Conte’s Landscaping in Fremont, Calif. – a job he landed during the Professional Landcare Network’s (PLANET) (then the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA)) Student Career Days.
 
One of Tom Bland’s prerequisites was that each son gain managerial experience at another landscaping firm before assuming such a position at Bland Landscaping. Not only would this bring in new ideas and perspectives, but also give each son the credibility necessary to be respected by the company’s other employees, vendors and industry peers. “I think this was one of the smartest decisions my dad ever made,” Kurt says. “Without experience outside of the family business, you’re unable to relate to how things are done elsewhere. You’re more likely to accept things the way they are, especially at a business that has run successfully for 30 years.”

HEADING WEST. Bland worked for Del Conte’s Landscaping for two and a half years. While he could have gained his outside managerial experience anywhere, he chose California because of its progressive nature and hotbed of issues – from Hispanic labor to water and pesticide use. “So much in the way of legislation and government authority begins in the West and migrates East,” Bland says. “What I saw in California wasn’t necessarily better, but it was different. Things going on there were going to be issues for us here in North Carolina in the future and I was going to be thrust right in the forefront of all that.”
 
While maintenance division manager at Del Conte’s, Bland worked in a variety of roles and volunteer positions, most of which focused on sustainable landscape practices. Issues like blower bans, water management, grass recycling and reducing landscape waste were daily discussions on the West Coast and gave him a taste of what was to come back home. To Bland, this was the ultimate combination of his practicality and Hooker’s ideology. “You can’t deny a government mandate, you just need to find a way to comply,” he says. “I had the opportunity to work with very forward-thinking people from Berkeley and other Bay areas determined to find different ways of doing things.”
 
Bland took a particular interest in water management practices while at Del Conte’s, which would prove to come in handy upon his return to Bland Landscaping. For the past few years, North Carolina has suffered the most severe droughts on record, giving landscape and irrigation contractors little water to work with. While Bland Landscaping previously subcontracted all of its irrigation work, Bland was able to incorporate his water management knowledge to create a state-of-the-art irrigation division and become an important component of the City of Raleigh’s water management task force. “My dad never wanted an irrigation department unless someone was passionate about it,” Bland says. “I was passionate about it.”

HOMECOMING. Bland returned to his family’s business in 2002 as operations manager with a new breadth of knowledge and a wealth of ideas. However, these new ideas weren’t welcomed by all. Bland’s practical and no-nonsense business approach were different from his father’s laid-back style. Some of Bland’s new initiatives, particularly lean management, were downright rejected by some employees who chose to leave the company rather than conform. “When we started making changes, some people left, others compromised and others thought what we were doing was great for the company,” Bland says. “But I’m not always interested in debating everything. Some things are just the way they are and change is one of them.”
 
When his sons reentered the family business, Tom Bland saw a renewed passion and energy. He saw long-term plans and a cohesive vision. His initial succession plan was to place them in the driver’s seat by the time he reached his early 60s. However his wife’s illness accelerated his succession plan and, when he was 54, his sons were at the wheel. Tom Bland kept in touch with his sons via e-mail while traveling, and when he and his wife would return home every three weeks for her chemotherapy treatment, he would spend a few days in the office while she recuperated. But upon returning to his leading role after his wife’s passing in 2006, Tom Bland found the company running smoothly and efficiently, and he decided it would be best to keep things that way. “Last year was our best year ever financially and they constantly remind me of that,” he laughs. “I had the option to go back in front of the company or let my sons continue. It would have been moving backward to get back in front of them.” 
 
Since Bland rejoined the company in 2002, Bland Landscaping has gone from 120 to 190 employees – and counting. Last year, the company surpassed its goal of 15 percent growth by an additional 10 percent and doesn’t see it slowing down anytime soon. To keep it up, Bland makes it a point not to focus on any one aspect of the business more than another. He has his hand in every department, not deep enough to micromanage, but just far enough to know what’s going on. He tries to spend as much time out in the field as he does in the office, communicating with his maintenance crews in Spanish then addressing a client’s needs.

Aside from the family business, Bland has racked up his share of personal career accomplishments. He’s especially proud of the fact he passed both the Certified Landscape Professional and the Certified Landscape Technician exams on the first try. “It may sound corny, but I was very determined to pass on the first try and really put my mind to it,” he says. “It’s rewarding to be able to tell younger industry professionals gearing up for their tests that it’s possible to pass the first time around.”
 
He was also honored by the invitation to participate in the past two PLANET Crystal Ball reports, an annual publication regarding the future of the green industry as told by select industry experts. “I’ve read these books since I was 12 and 13 years old and I always used to think how neat it would be to go to some remote location and talk about the future of the industry and how we can adapt to the changes around us,” he says. “When I was asked to participate, I was stunned. I questioned if I was even qualified. There are people who’ve been at it for much longer and accomplished much more.”

Perhaps Bland’s interest in the green industry’s future has gotten him where he is today. His desire to figure out how to do things better has inspired those around him to do the same. According to Bland, the future won’t be as bright for contractors who choose otherwise. “Ten years from now I see the industry being prosperous and healthy, but it’s going to be much different from how we know it today,” he says.

In particular, Bland predicts fuel and manpower will be scarcer in the future. Gas-powered machinery will be phased out in place of newer, cleaner technologies. Lean management will be necessary due to a lack of labor. More water will be reserved for drinking, not for watering lawns. “Some people think my views are negative and pessimistic, but I don’t see it that way,” he explains. “I’m optimistic we can certainly change, but I’m not optimistic that all people are willing to change.”

Whether one sees him as an optimist or a pessimist, Bland’s practicality will no doubt continue to influence the green industry for many years to come. He’ll lead his family business through challenges that arise, because sometimes it takes the worst to bring out the best in someone. “Kurt is a dreamer,” Tom Bland says. “He is a visionary and sees the big picture.”


 

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