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Home Magazine LEADERSHIP 2005: Jim McCutcheon

LEADERSHIP 2005: Jim McCutcheon

Features - Business Management

Thinking ahead, but never getting ahead of himself, Jim McCutcheon leads the industry weith a long-term vision of raising the standards of professionalism.

Lauren Spiers Hunter | October 3, 2008

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Jim McCutcheon. Photo: Rod Smith

Anyone who meets him would likely agree that Jim McCutcheon is as energized by his job as a person can be. Even in a short conversation with the president and partner of HighGrove Partners, Austell, Ga., you can hear in his voice his pride in the company, his eagerness to educate future industry professionals, and, if you listen very closely, you can hear gears turning.

“People say I’m a ‘30,000-foot’ person,” McCutcheon says. “I look at our business and opportunities from a bird’s-eye view and I get stifled if I’m looking at charts and reports every day. I’m definitely more the idea guy. I work best when I can present big plans to our management staff and let them shoot holes in it and work out the details. That really fosters a great team environment.”

As an “idea guy,” McCutcheon jokes that he may have caused an accident or two on the road between HighGrove’s Georgia office and its branch in Charlotte, N.C. “The long drive gives me a lot of time to think about new ideas, and I tend to scribble and write myself notes while I’m driving,” he says. “By the time I get back to the office I’ll have a notebook full of new ideas and the team will roll their eyes and ask, ‘What’s he thinking about now?’”

Right now, McCutcheon is thinking of ways to increase industry professionalism. Already, his ability to instill confidence, courage and compassion into those he leads helps McCutcheon grow professional employees within HighGrove Partners. Moreover, his connection to horticulture and landscape students around the country provides McCutcheon with an unequaled opportunity to educate and inspire tomorrow’s industry leaders.

ABOUT JIM MCCUTCHEON 

    COMPANY: HighGrove Partners
    LOCATION: Austell, Ga.
    CAREER HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Received a BA in landscape architecture from the University of Georgia
  • 1990 – Joined Post Properties, Atlanta, Ga., as a landscape architect
  • 1995 – Took on sales position with Post Properties
  • 1996 – Became Post Properties’ maintenance division manager
  • 2001 - Formed HighGrove Partners with partners Bill Lincicome and Ken Rogers after purchasing Post Landscape Group from Post Properties
  • Former marketing committee chair for Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA) (2000)
  • Professional Landcare Network (PLANET) Crystal Ball Committee member (2002-present)
  • Former ALCA board member (2003)
  • Student Career Days committee chair (2004-05) – first Student Career Days event held under PLANET name; will serve as co-chair for 2006 Student Career Days
  • Board member, Cobb Christmas, a nonprofit organization providing food and toys for underprivilged families in Cobb County, Ga., during the holidays

GUT INSTINCT. Unlike a number of lawn and landscape professionals, McCutcheon didn’t get his start mowing yards for neighbors. An only child, McCutcheon grew up with the support and guidance of a single mom who gave him a great appreciation for personal independence and working hard to reach goals.

“I can remember as a kid, a few years when my mom and I went through some rough times. But even when she was working a couple of jobs, she always made sure I had what I needed so I could play baseball and football like the other kids in the neighborhood,” McCutcheon says. “No matter how much we were struggling, she always made sure I had the foundation necessary to grow into whoever I was going to be.”

Part of that foundation was a healthy  self confidence that has given McCutcheon the courage to take a series of personal and professional leaps, all of which have contributed to his role as a green industry leader. The first leap brought him to the green industry in the first place – he changed his major at the University of Georgia from business to landscape architecture. From there, a calculated professional risk launched him into an exciting leadership role.

“By the time I earned my landscape architecture degree, I had spent seven years in college – but after a few years in that career I realized there were a lot of landscape architects who were better than me and it wasn’t the job I wanted,” McCutcheon says. Instead, in 1995, five years after joining Atlanta-based Post Properties, McCutcheon moved into a sales position and then made another decision that still makes his wife shake her head. “I walked into my boss’s office and said, ‘I want to take over the maintenance division,’” McCutcheon remembers. “He looked at me cross-eyed and said, ‘Do you know anything about maintenance?’ and I didn’t, but I told him I was a fast learner and thought I could bring a whole new perspective to that division and that I thought I could grow it.’”

McCutcheon says his supervisor at the time, Bill Lincicome, made him a deal: He could take over the maintenance division, but with no salary increase for a year. “At that point, I was making about $35,000, which meant I would go from just managing myself to managing 15 or 20 people, all our maintenance clients and all the equipment without a raise,” he says. “Bill told me if I was willing to take that risk, the position was mine; I said ‘I’ll take it!’”

Occasional risk-taking, McCutcheon says, is an important leadership quality. “People sometimes think to themselves, ‘Maybe I can do this,’ but more important than wondering if you can do something is having the confidence and the courage to take a risk,” he says. “Changing my major and taking over the maintenance department at Post Landscape Group, were both  instances where I felt like I had to follow my gut instinct. There’s always got to be some planning behind the scenes, but even the most deliberate thinkers in business sometimes need to make quick decisions.”

PARTNERS IN THEIR PRIME. Still, some decisions need more measured consideration. As such, McCutcheon took another business opportunity to lead his team with more purposeful professionalism. “One of the most difficult challenges for someone on their way to becoming a leader is understanding that, over time, the further you go, the less your success has to do with what you do every day and the more it has to do with how you motivate people,” he says. “When we took Post Landscape Group private in 2001, we had a lot of learning and growing to do as owners. In other situations, I had taken risks that had worked out with great success, but all of a sudden we were in a recession and we had to be honest with ourselves and our staff.”

By “we,” McCutcheon refers to himself, Lincicome and Ken Rogers, the three “Partners” behind HighGrove. Their purchase of Post Landscape Group just after Sept. 11 put the new owners in a difficult spot, requiring them to share more business details with the staff than they had been used to. “In those situations, being a leader means you have to have absolute faith that you’ll get through,” McCutcheon says. “You have to keep an even head and get everyone involved in a plan.”

Thankfully, McCutcheon, Lincicome and Rogers powered through, and HighGrove Partners is a stronger company for it. Ask the trio why their partnership works so well and they’ll tell you they balance each other out, though Lincicome and Rogers agree that McCutcheon has a leadership gift that’s difficult to duplicate.

ABOUT JIM MCCUTCHEON 

    Q. What does the term grassroots mean to you?
    A. The first thing that comes to my mind is “the foundation.” For me, being involved in building HighGrove Partners has been a grassroots effort – we took a small landscape division and built it into a very large, established company almost from the ground up. We developed a foundation for the company and we couldn’t have gotten this far without that beginning.

    Q. Describe a situation where you feel you had to defend the industry and how this impacted you in your career.
    A. When I think back to the beginning of my career, I remember telling my dad I was going to become a landscape architect and he told me, “All you’re going to do is get dirty and never make any money.” Thankfully, it didn’t work out that way and my dad is proud of what I’ve accomplished in my career. But at the point when I told him about my decision and heard his reaction, everything became about defending my position. Even today, it still bothers me that there’s a perception that our industry isn’t professional – even within the industry there are people who feel that way. So, building up and emphasizing professionalism within our industry and defending the professionalism that exists is essential.

    Q. Who is one person you admire most for taking a stand on an issue and why?
    A. Ronald Reagan. He took over this country during a very down-trodden time. Interest rates were high, times were tough, and there was a great deal of political tension internationally. Somehow, through all of that, he was able to make Americans feel better about their situations and what was going on. He defeated our greatest enemy and did it at the same time that his opponents were vilifying him – and he kept a sense of humor the entire time.

    Q. What is one thing you do to ensure your employees are reflecting a positive and professional image on your company when they are out in the field?
    A. This goes back to being compassionate in business. We try very hard to make people feel good about themselves and what they’re doing. It’s very rare that we’ll dress someone down – never in public, for sure, but even in a bad situation, we try to find a way to turn it into a learning experience and build from it. By having that type of approach, our people feel good about themselves and that comes across to our customers.

    Q. In your opinion, what are the top three things a lawn care operator or landscape contractor can do today to help defend the industry against negative perceptions?
    A. That’s easy: 1) Don’t feed the perception. 2) Help develop solutions – get involved in the industry. 3) Train and invest in your people.

    Because there are so few barriers to this business, we’ve ended up with too many companies in the industry and that’s allowed a number of those companies to act unprofessionally but fly under the radar and get away with it. The news media will often shine lights on poor contracting jobs in lots of industries and that ends up feeding the perception that service providers, in general, are bad. It’s up to us in the industry to make sure we’re trained and certified and to meet or exceed our customers’ expectations to separate ourselves from unprofessional companies and raise the profile of our industry. I think the Professional Landcare Network, Lawn & Landscape and all the companies that participate in and sponsor these Leadership Awards are doing a great job promoting professionalism in the industry and I look forward to seeing that increase in the future.

“When I was approached by Post about purchasing the landscape division, I knew I wanted Jim in an ownership role from the beginning,” says Lincicome, now HighGrove CEO and partner. “In the green industry, you have to deal with all types of people from minimum-wage workers to  very sophisticated clients and Jim is easily able to transition between those groups. He has that range and a wonderful ability to work with people.”

Rogers agrees. “Jim has a unique ability to bring out the best in people and at the same time get them to understand what we need to get done,” says HighGrove’s chief financial officer and partner. “He’s the  cheerleader behind HighGrove. We all have strengths and weaknesses that complement each other, and Jim’s strength is in his dynamic personality and ability to explain the vision better than anyone else.”

McCutcheon says having a vision is important for any successful company and that Lincicome and Rogers have taught him some key leadership qualities that make  HighGrove’s vision come alive. “The traits that make a great leader are confidence, courage and compassion, and those are three things that my partners and I strive for every day – along with having a great sense of humor,” McCutcheon says. “Every day, we work on those traits and I’m reminded that having 250 employees actually means we have 250 families to take care of and, to me, that’s a bigger responsibility. As my supervisor, Bill showed me the need to make sure the decisions we make are fair to everyone, and that can be tough, but it’s necessary. As partners, Bill and Ken and I are always supportive of each other in those situations when we have to make decisions that may not be the best for the individual but are best for the company.”

Speaking to McCutcheon’s skill for leadership and motivation, Rogers adds, “Something that makes Jim a great leader is that he won’t ask anything of you that he wouldn’t do himself,” he says. “He’s really taught me that it’s easier to motivate people when you take the time to understand and respect them first.”

STUDENT SUCCESS. As a green-industry leader, McCutcheon takes on the responsibility of encouraging more than his own company and employees. During an Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA) meeting a few years ago, McCutcheon accepted the opportunity to chair what’s now the Professional Landcare Network’s Student Career Days event. Ultimately, this most recent professional leap turned out to be one of McCutcheon’s most rewarding leadership roles.

“Education in the classroom is important to build a foundation of knowledge, but being able to come out of college and immediately be a success in this industry is a fallacy,” McCutcheon says. “You have to have real-world experience and Student Career Days is a fantastic opportunity to bring those experiences to the next wave of industry leaders.”

In 2001, McCutcheon attended Student Career Days for the first time at Colorado State University. That was all it took to get him interested. “I went out and saw it for the first time and fell in love with it,” he says. “It was the most energizing thing in the world, but when ALCA approached me about running the committee for it, I didn’t realize how much work it would be!”

Nevertheless, McCutcheon used his leadership savvy to bring multiple audiences together for the largest Student Career Days to date: nearly 1,500 students, faculty and volunteers attended the event at the University of Maryland in March 2005. “Imagine having professors, students, sponsors and industry representatives all wanting the event a certain way,” McCutcheon says. “They all come from different directions and you have to navigate those waters to get the event done and make it great. It was a challenge, but truly rewarding.”

McCutcheon says Students Career Days, which he’ll co-chair for the 2006 event at Brigham Young University, is a golden opportunity for the green industry to build leadership among the young people to whom the industry will be entrusted over the years. “The smart companies are the ones that attend year after year because they can begin to see, in just a short period of time, the nucleus of folks that could be great leaders in the industry,” he says. “You really need to chase those kids down and take the opportunity to talk.”

Part of growing new industry leaders, McCutcheon adds, is to help Student Career Days participants and other industry newcomers to think past the “What have you done for me lately?” mentality. “They’ve got to put more energy into long-term thinking and planning,” he says. “What the industry needs is not a lot more like-minded thinking. We need true leaders and visionaries who can create the path to the future. My advice to those potential leaders is to stop thinking about the short-term details, like “How much will I be paid?” and think first about where you’re going to learn the most and how you’re going to get the best education to become successful in the industry.”

McCutcheon’s own long-term visions are working on bringing in concepts from outside the green industry with an aim to advance both HighGrove and the industry as a whole. “A limiting factor in our industry is that we look too much to our peers and inside our own industry,” he says. “I think if we’re truly going to grow and thrive and be competitive in what really amounts to a world marketplace, we have to get out of that box a little bit. Right now, we’re studying other industries to determine how we can apply their techniques, systems and practices in a way that will benefit our own clients because they’re at the center of what we do.”

McCutcheon hopes that by considering industry advancements, lawn and landscape contractors will adopt a more professional appreciation for their own careers, thereby building up the industry’s profile. “One thing that frustrates me is that this industry isn’t viewed as a profession, sometimes even by people within the industry, and too many times we end up feeding that perception,” he says. “As we bring on new employees and follow the college students that enter the job market, we have to demand excellence, focus on training and have high expectations of future leadership.”

In the meantime, McCutcheon and his family have taken a leap of their own in purchasing and renovating 2 acres and a house built in the 1850s, which coincidentally once belonged to an ancestor of McCutcheon’s wife Mary Jo. “Part of me can’t separate business and personal,” McCutcheon says. “Professionally, I’m incredibly proud of making my dream to own my own company come true, especially because that happened sooner than I thought it would. But personally, that means I can also achieve many of my family goals.”

McCutcheon says Mary Jo has been his partner in life and his best friend, often keeping him on track when his big visions take him on a new path. Likewise, McCutcheon says their children Anna Reeves, Brenner and Wills are his inspiration. “I wake up every day and go do what I do because I want to provide the best life I can for my family,” he says. “Leadership isn’t just about business. It’s also about being a teacher and a provider to my family so they know there will be good days and bad days, unconditional love and to give them the foundations to be able to grow into the people they’re going to become. At HighGrove, we try to engender the same type of atmosphere so we know the people around us are realizing their potential and I hope to see more of that as we pass the industry onto its next leaders.”

JIM MCCUTCHEON'S RECOMMENDED READING

    An avid reader, Jim McCutcheon, president of HighGrove Partners, Austell, Ga., has a number of books – fiction and non-fiction – to recommend to fellow business owners and managers. “I read a lot of business books, but I find that if you read too many books on management, you can end up building walls in your mind that keep you thinking all business all the time,” he says. “I make myself switch to fiction once in a while because it really helps engender creativity and get me out of a business rut.”

    Here are some of McCutcheon’s favorite titles for business and pleasure:Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand. “There are some great themes of self-reliance that you can take away from this novel,” McCutcheon says. “There are characters that show very independent attitudes and don’t wait for someone else to take care of them. It’s about taking risks and being courageous in your own life.” At 1,000 pages, “Atlas Shrugged” isn’t an easy read for everyone, but McCutcheon offers a tip: “Try it on tape,” he says. “I read a lot of books on tape because I spend so much time driving between our offices in Atlanta and Charlotte. I’ve suggested that to a lot of people for this book in particular.”

  • The Great Game of Business, Jack Stack. Another management title, McCutcheon says he likes this book because of the personal story behind it. “‘The Great Game of Business’ is about open-book management and why that’s important to your company, but it’s based on a personal experience,” he explains. “The information in the book is based on what the author went through himself – he lived it, so there’s a lot of credibility there.”
  • Red Storm Rising, Tom Clancy. “I really liked Tom Clancy’s early stuff and “Red Storm Rising” is one of my favorites,” McCutcheon says. “It’s really important to indulge yourself in reading something you enjoy, even if it’s fiction and you don’t have to really concentrate on the message like with a business book. Give your mind that time to unwind.”
  • Winning Behavior, Terry R. Bacon and David G. Pugh. “This book is about how to differentiate your company in the marketplace,” McCutcheon says. “It’s one I’ve really enjoyed and a lot of companies can learn from this.”
  • McCutcheon says he deliberately makes time to read at least once a week. “The best time for me is Sunday afternoons,” he says. “After church is my time with a good book and a good cigar, just taking some time to sit out by the creek near our house and read for a while. It’s great.” McCutcheon is also writing his own book, of sorts. “Over the last year, I’ve started keeping a journal and it’s brought me a lot of joy,” he says. “I always thought it would have been neat to see what was going on in my parents’ lives and all the experiences that they went through and how they handled them. By keeping a journal of my experiences and the lessons I’m learning even as an adult, I hope this is something that can give my children some guidance as they get older.”

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