Leaders from the Top 100 discuss the biggest challenges facing their companies and how they’re solving them. Turns out, their solutions work for landscapers of any size.
As part of this year’s Top 100 coverage, Lawn & Landscape convened CEOs, presidents and other leaders from companies on the list. We asked to eavesdrop on their conversations – which ranged from how to find good employees to how to choose services to how to make the landscape industry sexier – so we could share their ideas with the broader industry. On the pages that follow, we have two of those conversations for you. The first is among Jen Lemcke, COO at Weed Man USA in Oshawa, Ontario, and Frank Mariani and Fred Wacker, CEO and president, respectively, at Mariani Landscape, Lake Bluff, Ill. The second is between Christy Webber, president, Christy Webber Landscapes in Chicago, and Jim McCutcheon, CEO, HIghGrove Partners in Austell, Ga.
Lemcke: Recruiting right now is one of our big issues. We’re seeing it in pockets across the U.S. Gone are the days you can put an ad in the newspaper and get the phone ringing for people coming in. So you need to be innovative in how you’re recruiting employees and getting good talent. But it goes beyond that. You’ve got to manage the process. I’m trying to put my finger on it right now onto why it’s not working in some areas.
It’s also acquiring online customers and really adapting our technology with some of our processes with customer service. People are expecting a higher level of service, and we’ve got some of the highest retention rate in our segment of the industry, so we’re very happy with that but I think we could be better, and I think technology will help us be better.
Wacker: Jen, you’re talking about the need for assistance to allow for someone coming to Weed Man to be able to engage with you in an easy-to-do-business way so that they could start their program with you?
Lemcke: A little beyond that. If they want a quote, they fill it out and it goes to the right franchisee. What I’m talking about are the people that come to our website … but they didn’t quite have enough request to quote. We’re not doing enough for those people and then on top of that bringing people to our website.
We have a system where you can manage your account on-line, pay your bills online, order services, all of that but it’s going beyond that, Fred – allow them to maybe not commit fully to a quote or engage with the company but allow them to get something for free that they can download, and we get a little piece of their information where we can fully ease them into our brand and bring them on-board.
You get these service companies now, and these are small industries – that will tell you 10 minutes before your technician’s about to come in and do a service on your fridge. They call you afterwards for quality control.
Wacker: I can take a shot at our lead challenge in 2015, and how we’re addressing it. We probably get a lot of the same challenges, Jen but I think recruitment is really important to us, too.
We’re both on the professional side and on the field labor side, but professionally we know that on this, sales and horticulturally, I think sales talent is going to come out of the colleges and universities that have good horticultural programs, and we’ve turned them into our best source.
But, you know, I want to say it’s more than sales but sales is an important aspect, but it’s the people that really get engaged with the clients on a professional dialogue and be able to manage a landscape program.
We need more of an effort to really engage with those schools and no one does it better than Frank himself. Frank is known in the industry and he’s instantly recognizable and knows the professors. He knows the schools and he’s well-committed to the industry associations we participate in, but our recruitment for that sales talent, that comes from the universities we know and we set up recent graduates who we’ve brought on board, who are enthusiastic in engaging Mariani associates who start in the field for us and then progress up as they demonstrate that they have the talent and the sales and the whole thing.
Mariani: I think Fred brings up an excellent point. Nobody’s going do a better job of enticing people and getting people excited than their peers. So having these young people visit the schools in the job fairs, they can see students that they were in school with a year or two before in the eye and say, ‘Hey, this is a great place to work.’
We in turn need to be very open and honest and make sure everybody understands that this is what you’re going to do when you’re at Mariani. We like to say you’re going to get your MBA in the field. You’ll learn a lot at school and you’ll make relationships at school but there are a lot of things that you really don’t learn regarding the day-to-day activities that happen at a landscape company. So we don’t sugarcoat it at all. We just say, you know, you’ve got to be able to field it, by the way, you’ve got to earn the respect of your co-workers and the associates that are so important to us, the ones that are actually pushing the lawnmowers, digging the holes, doing the pruning and things like that.
I remember years and year ago I would hear horror stories about people taking kid interns and basically throwing them on a lawnmower and leaving them there, or putting them in the field and they’re watering or pulling weeds.
At the end of the day too, the thing we can’t forget is that this is an industry where the hours can be long and there can be a lot of manual labor. So we want everybody to have an open, honest look at what we’re all about and quite frankly – Fred, if I’m not putting words in your mouth – but we feel rather bullish when it comes to middle-management and up.
Wacker: I think I agree 110 percent and what Frank and I are seeing is that by just we painted the picture of what we needed and it took a little while for the leaders to kinda get their arms around the fact that if we just continue to grow at the rate that we’re growing, you’re gonna need to replicate this many people per year in your department to be able to stay even, and once we kinda did that simple math and laid it on the table, it’s amazing the uptake.
And our guys and gals ran it out this year and did a great job of recruiting and they got more than we budgeted for. If we get good people we don’t want to lose them to another opportunity that they might take and then when we get these young folks from the schools recruiting, and then bring in people that are inspired to come because of the enthusiasm that those young folks showed them, then they see, they understand our culture.
So then later and when they get in they like what Mariani stands for. They see that we’ve got wonderful clients, we’ve got the best jobs to work on in our area. So if you want to come to Chicago it’s a great company to work for and we’ve got a lot of opportunity.
Lemcke: We did an apprenticeship program and what you said Frank and Fred, it’s so true. I had the opportunity to co-chair an event with Steven Cohen from Maryland and he’s a professor. He said exactly what you said: ‘I’m sick of sending students to these companies and they just put them into these jobs just to get work done over the summers. They didn’t give them the tools that they need to succeed after they finish this.’
So we actually blew up our apprenticeship and our internship program based on what Steven had suggested and we sent it to him and said what does this look like to you and we sent it to a bunch of people in academia and they were fully on-board, they went through it.
But you’re absolutely right, you need a roadmap for these kids to come in to see where they could go with this.
Wacker: We connect them with someone, and they have a mentor. They’ve got a clear path in what their early weeks, months and year are gonna look like. They meet with me and Frank and then carry around a piece of paper that gets signed off by every department and they – so that time when suddenly they are coming into a company and not just saying that’s your desk, or that’s your truck; get up and work. No, they put the extra time and effort in because we know it pays dividends going forward.
Mariani: There’s been a lot of hubbub about McDonald’s raising their minimum wage and working wages. Last year we really did some strategic planning regarding this issue and we made a decision to raise our minimum wage substantially, and to communicate that to Latinos and other minority organizations and to the public at large, because we’re finding more and more Americans, be it whatever color or ethnic background they have are actually interested in getting into our industry.
And so far this spring, we’ve got about 40 percent more applicants than we had the same period last year.
So not only are we gonna get those quote-unquote professional side fulfilled with our aggressive internship program, but on the labor side it’s equally if not more, important. They’re both equally important and we’re finding that the good planning that we did is paying dividends.
We just did the math on how many guys were turning over last year where a dime or a quarter or a dollar make a difference. And we just raised it and people are telling their friends. We’re getting a lot of men and women coming in the door that were from somewhere else and once they come in and see, and learn the Mariani culture which is one of respect and reward for hard work, they want to say.
You know, this industry is really a little sad when it comes to the way you promote somebody, well, if they’ve been there two years, they do this. If they’re three years, then they do that; four years they do that, but quite frankly they may not have the skill to climb that ladder.
For example if you can convince us that you’re gonna sign up for a class at a local junior college or whatever, online, whatever the case may be and that because you’re taking that class it’s actually gonna increase your skills or your skillset to do something better at Mariani. Get a passing grade, we’re happy to pay for it. It’s kinda silly but you know, to a lot of people in the industry, well you’re a crew leader when you get a driver’s license. I mean, really? I mean you’re a truck driver when you get a driver’s license. and what – did that help you hone your pruning skills, your horticultural knowledge and all that?
Lemcke: You’re creating a competitive spirit, you know, where you had maybe guys that were motivated before but they’re seeing people bypass them. They’ve either got it or they leave.
Commercial vs. residential
Jim McCutcheon lays out why he doesn’t do residential work, and Christy Webber outlines why she’ll never give it up.
McCutcheon: There are lots of people in this industry, if you asked them who their ideal customer was, it was pretty much anybody that would hire us. If they were being honest, that would be the answer. So no matter what somebody asks to do – sure, we'll figure out a way to do that.
Through all the years of doing this, what I recognized is that I wanted to build a business that allowed me to achieve my personal goals as well as my professional goals. And so we started really throwing down on what it is that we do well.
And I know everybody around the country, and I’ve done it myself, thinks they can do residential and commercial. I firmly, and will debate it with anybody, all day long, that I've never seen anybody in this country do both of those very, very well. I've seen people that do one very well and the other one pretty well, but never seen anybody that does both very well. It's two very, very different models and mindsets, customers, and customer focus – as well as the training for the crews and the interactions are very different games.
And I recognize that we're better on the commercial side of things. So I've eliminated all the residential.
Webber: So how much revenue did you give up when you got rid of your residential?
McCutcheon: So I sold Charlotte about ten years ago now. That was about a $5 million branch. I sold about $3 or $4 million worth of residential work here in Atlanta. So knocked the company down by half, and then rebuilt it. I’ve had a history of doing that. Years and years ago when we were starting out we were a 95 percent construction and design firm, and today we are – three-quarters of our business is maintenance and maintenance related services.
Webber: So we did an acquisition of Kinsella Landscape, which focused basically on HOAs and commercial work, because we were so heavy into the municipal work. So once I became this large company I started bidding against my competitors and beating them. So then they were my competitors – they were my friends.
And three days ago somebody said to me, this residential gig is so intense – men, trucks, is it worth it? – one of my VPs. I said, "I will never, ever get out of residential maintenance because it's always been what we’re known for.” When I started it many customers that I've spent 25 years with are still my customers.
So that's so funny that you said they are so different. You're exactly right. When you say commercial what are you referring to? Do you just mean like HOAs?
McCutcheon: So commercial for me is pretty much everything except for single family. So we've got office, retail, institutional, HOAs, apartments, that kind of thing.
About nine or ten years ago we started looking at things very differently and kind of split off traditional account managers and reworked that whole thing. And at that point working through our customer advisory council one of the ‘aha’ moments that we had that enhancements are not just an additional sale. It’s not just a revenue thing. The way we’ve trained our folks is that enhancements are really a customer service issue.
Our customers expect us to bring them solutions. They have challenges on our properties, some of which they know about and some of which they do not know about, whether it's security or it's foundation issues or, you know, whatever it may be. So once we got our folks to realize you're not doing the wrong thing by going in there and bringing this idea outside of the original contract to this customer. What you're doing is creating a happier customer, and you're solving more of their problems. Once we got over that hill the dynamic in that changed significantly. Our enhancements went through the roof.
Webber: So you don't have account managers – what do you call them now?
McCutcheon: So we split the role. My belief on it was if you looked at a traditional account manager, you know, generally there were four things that person had to deal with. They had to make sure that their crews were taking care of. They had to deal with any of the issues on the property. They had to take care of their customer issues and then also, you know, kind of upsell or new enhancements.
My contention is it's very, very difficult to find one person that’s exceptionally good at all four of those things. So we split it down the middle and we have what we call CRMs, or customer relation managers, and they are the ones that deal with the customers. They are managing the portfolios, they are selling enhancements. They're also doing new sales and then they work in conjunction with a separate operations manager.
But what we did not do was double our overhead. What we did with the operations managers – and the theory was if we could get guys that were really good at that side of the equation and have them out in the fields, meeting with their guys, working with them to improve efficiencies what we could pick up would more than pay for themselves. And it did.
Webber: Yeah, we call them account managers but they definitely do not deal with the operations at all. So very similar. I have operations guys that manage the crews, and each guy has four to five crews, so that’s 20-some-odd people. Every account manager does about a $1 million. A million-two is about the most they can handle well.
Mariani: Looking at the last 40 years, one of the mistakes I made, I assumed wrongfully that everybody was like me and if you were a laborer then you want to become a crew leader in training, then you want to become a crew leader, then you want to become a supervisor, then you want to become a client representative. And guess what? There are a lot of people that are happy and content being a laborer. You should celebrate that. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Lemcke: It is a huge concern and to attract good people to our industry, because we’re not that sexy industry when kids are coming out of their business schools, their marketing schools, and how do we get in front of them?
Mariani: Well, when you walk the floor at the trade show in Louisville, you know, it just kills me that we can’t make all the different jobs a little bit more sexy – everything from designing multi-million dollar machines, be it trucks or computers, or working for the chemical companies, developing new products. I mean there’s so much more than cutting grass and digging holes.