Thursday, August 21, 2014

Home Magazine Patience Pays Off

Patience Pays Off

Features - Business Management

Brian Labrie uses a little patience and lots of persistence to build his New Hampshire landscape business.

Nicole Wisniewski | July 15, 2002

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Brian Labrie got the entrepreneurship bug from his grandfather, father and uncle, who started a construction business in 1948. Photo: B.H. Labrie Landscaping

They say patience is a virtue, and Brian Labrie would have to agree. Embracing patience and persistence provides a company with industry staying power, according to the president of the Hollis, N.H.-based B.H. Labrie Landscaping.

Labrie’s father pushed hard work, so Labrie worked for landscape contractors part time after school and on summer breaks through junior high and high school. When he graduated in 1992 from Bishop Guertin High School, he felt he gained enough business knowledge to go full time. Plus, he always aspired to start a company because he grew up in a family full of business owners.

He started accumulating equipment and residential clients, offering mostly maintenance and some small design/build work. His perseverance got the work done and built growth, and he remained patient while branding the B.H. Labrie name. “The hardest challenge was putting in the time in the beginning and having the patience to know that it’ll take five, six or seven years until you don’t have to solicit work anymore, and it comes to you instead,” Labrie explained.

This, in addition to expanding the business’ array of services, has escalated B.H. Labrie Landscaping to a more stable planning podium where Labrie is setting lofty goals. The currently $564,000, eight-employee maintenance company that now draws in 95 percent of its work through client referrals wants to be a $2.5-million operation with 40 employees by 2007.

RECOGNIZING CHANGE. B.H. Labrie Landscaping offered mostly residential services until three years ago when Labrie decided he should think about commercial work.

“I started to get nervous about a recession,” he said. “We’re near the Massachusetts border and many folks who live here drive there for work. I saw them cutting back on spending a little bit, so I wanted to gear up for losing some residential clients.”

Luckily, adding commercial work was easy because he had contacts from his family’s Labrie Construction business, which built many schools and commercial sites in New Hampshire.

And being nearly 50 percent commercial and 50 percentresidential paid off in the last six months, Labrie said. “Some major companies in Massachusetts, like Sun Microsystems, laid off people, so they cut back their landscape work or people were transferred or moved because of a new job in a different state. Of my 150 residential accounts, I lost about 20 for layoffs.”

During this time, Labrie said simply returning a phone call within a 24-hour period helped him retain some residential clients or gain additional ones. “I would return all phone calls within one day and make appointments with everyone or try and prequalify them over the phone the best I could,” he said. “Then getting estimates turned around within 24 to 48 hours helped – before they changed their mind.”

To finish this work quickly, he started opening up a three-hour gap between 3:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. daily – he refused to schedule meetings or other work during this time and left it open for calls and client appointments and estimates. “In that three-hour block, I could get in four estimates and return a bunch of calls,” Labrie said. “The key was not to let the work build up on my desk. By making the time each day, it didn’t get a chance to pile up.”

Basically, it’s the “do what you say, say what you do” motto that pushes Labrie daily. “I’ve had more people complement me for returning a phone call than anything else – probably five out of 10,” he enthused. “The competition here gets so busy that they don’t call clients back and don’t show up on time, so clients are impressed when I put in the extra effort to do this.”

Uniformed workers and clean, painted trucks also exhibit professionalism and help bring in clients, Labrie said. “My competitors all have different-colored trucks and no one recognizes them,” he pointed out. “So all of my 10 trucks are green with yellow and orange, and the uniforms match.”

And while drawing in new clients, simplifying the renewal process helped hold on to clients. Labrie sent out a work order sheet March 1 with boxes where clients could check off the services they wanted. A signature at the bottom authorized the deal based on 2002 prices.

After Labrie gets the clients, showing up to do the work in a professional and proper manner retains them. Labrie uses a two-man crew – one foreman and one laborer – for an average maintenance job. “If I stick a third guy on, I notice that guy doesn’t have enough responsibility,” he explained. “With two guys, they each have enough responsibility. Thisway, I’m paying for two and getting the work of two. When I use three- or four-man crews, I still feel like I’m getting the work of two, so I stick to two. Plus, with two, each of them has enough responsibility and they feel more in control, and there’s no one to blame if the job doesn’t get done right.” 

KEEP ON GROWING. In the beginning, B.H. Labrie Landscaping grew 50 percent every year. Three years ago, this dropped to 25 percent, and now growth is holding at 20 percent. After experiencing high growth, leveling it off feels pretty good to Labrie. “I’m comfortable holding on to 12 to 15 percent growth annually for the rest of my business life,” he said, adding that he plans to be around $700,000 by the end of the year.

To boost his cash reserves, Labrie puts most of his profit into 8 to 10 percent mutual funds every year so he can save up to start making some acquisitions. “I want to establish two or three different locations in the area,” he explained. “I think the best way to get there is to buy out smaller companies, keep the presidents to run them and get them going, and turn them into what I’ve developed here. One area I really think would be a good one to move into is Cape Cod. I like the challenge of working near the ocean and there is great money on the coast.”

Another way Labrie manages his money is by minimizing debt. To accomplish this, he buys only used equipment. “I can find good deals on leased or rented equipment that is more than two years old that the companies are now selling,” he said. “We paint them and fix them up, which can cost between $500 and $1,200, and it’s as good as new. It’s tempting to go out and buy expensive trucks and equipment, but because of the hard use our trucks get, I can’t justify buying new, flashy equipment.”

To take care of these trucks, drivers are paid more than laborers, Labrie said. And he emphasizes to his employees that if a truck goes down and he can’t free up another one, they’ll have to go home for the day. “They don’t like to hear this – they want to work and get their hours in, so they treat the machines and trucks like they are their own,” he said.

So far, Labrie feels like he’s learned a lot, but he admits he’s got much more to discover. “I’m only 29,” he said. “I learn more every day on how to run a business nice and tight and lean, without the extra spending. I’ll keep going and I’ll get there. I’m just going to be patient and not overextend myself.” 

The author is Managing Editor of Lawn & Landscape magazine and can be reached at nwisniewski@lawnandlandscape.com.

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