Saturday, April 25, 2015

Brooke N. Bates

The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland


Ace in the whole


A+ Lawn & Landscape uses a five-step process to train employees to excel. By Brooke N. Bates

April 13, 2015

When Shawn Edwards founded A+ Lawn & Landscape in 1988, there were individual mowing companies, lawn care companies, irrigation companies and design/build companies, but none in central Iowa that did it all. So he set out to build a full-service company that aced every area.

Edwards started with mowing and lawn treatment, leveraging his experience from ChemLawn to build a foundation. The next year, after training with his sprinkler vendor and earning his certification, Edwards added irrigation. Design/build came a couple of years later, as A+ continued to diversify, training employees along the way.

“How I grew each division is, when I had a good handle and good people in place, I was able to give my time to a new division,” Edwards says. “I try not to work in the business full-time. I try to work more on the business. The key is once you’ve got guys in place, you can start another division.”

An acquisition gave A+ its newest services two years ago, offering fountain installation and pond treatment – the company’s smallest but fastest-growing segment.

Now, A+ employs about 40 year-round and 60 full-time seasonal workers who specialize in services spanning design/build, mowing and trimming, lawn care, irrigation, snow removal, ponds and fountains, as well as mower repair and holiday lighting. These people are key to keeping each division of A+ at the top of its class. Through an extensive training program, Edwards has learned to identify and lock in the top performers.

Training for the long-term.

The training program, which includes written tests, at A+ begins before employees even start working.

“We’ll say, ‘We’re going to hire you, but take these tests,’ just to see if they’re going to like it or can even handle it,” Edwards says.

Hunter Industries provides video training courses for irrigation as well as spraying and landscaping to orient new hires. Mowing doesn’t require coursework, but new employees receive a half-day of in-house training before hitting the field.

Edwards requires these pre-tests for employment, but doesn’t pay people to take them. As a result, many candidates drop off before they even get to work – and that’s the point.

“A lot of companies spend all this time on training and they lose those people. Then they have to start all over. So when we hire, we make them jump through a lot of hoops,” he says. “Some people quit before they start, but they’re really not the people we want. If they’re not committed to do a little bit, then they’re not committed long-term.”

A candidate’s background skills and test results help determine where he’ll work in the company. After testing, new hires attend company orientation before they’re assigned a mentor – a foreman in their department who trains new teammates through an increasingly hands-on learning cycle.

“The first step is video,” Edwards says. “The second step is observing. The trainee just watches the job. I don’t want him getting his hands dirty. I want him just observing and taking in as much information as he can for two or three days.”

Winning customers with a free application

Customers have several reasons to choose A+ Lawn & Landscape, but it helps when the company offers to do the first application for free.

“We’re saying we believe in our company to do the first one free, and it usually gives us an advantage over other companies,” says owner Shawn Edwards.

Some other companies question the tactic of discounting and giving away services. But Edwards says the pros far outweigh any con.

“Yeah, you have one or two guys that take advantage of that, get the free app then cancel, but the few that do don’t ruin it,” he says. “We have found that most people, 98 out of a 100 of them, really do want your service and if you do a good job, then they stay.”

In the grand scheme, this approach is actual cheaper than some forms of marketing where companies invest to attract customers. Plus, it has nearly doubled the rate of customers sticking with A+.

“You’ve got to spend so much money to get so many leads; that’s just how the world is,” Edwards says. “But we can actually cut back on spending that money because instead of closing 30 percent of 100 leads, we’re now closing 55 to 60 percent, so we don’t need as many leads.”

Third, trainees work side-by-side with mentors for a couple of weeks. At this halfway point, they start to wean themselves off their mentors’ support, gradually taking on more responsibility.

In the fourth stage, the trainee performs the work while the mentor observes. Though he’s not involved, he’ll stop and correct mistakes immediately. In the fifth and final step of training, the mentor again observes the new employee, but this time, he doesn’t point out errors until the end, when the employee has to go back and fix them.

This prepares employees to go out on their own. To make sure they keep meeting expectations, Edwards has to “inspect” what he “expects.”

He brought in two retirees to check properties the day after his crews mowed. Likewise, production managers in spray, landscape and irrigation divisions also check jobsites daily.

“Not every one,” Edwards says, “but they now know they’re getting inspected.

“They don’t know when or where, but if they know they’re getting inspected, they do what you expect.”

Growing into a new office.

By 2006, A+ Lawn & Landscape had grown so much that the original Ankeny location could no longer hold it.

Just as Edwards was preparing to buy a bigger building in 2007, the economy crashed. Edwards held tight until the markets turned back around, waiting to buy property until spring 2013.

He couldn’t find the features he wanted in any existing structures, so A+ broke ground on a new building project in Des Moines in March 2014, allowing him to build in efficiencies to make employees more productive.

The efficiencies include an outdoor loading dock where semis full of trees and shrubs can easily unload. The new headquarters also feature space to store rock, brick and limestone on site.

Since moving into the new location last summer, Edwards has noticed what a difference the space makes.

“Our loading time is cut in less than half, and it goes across the business,” he says. “We used to have one bay to fill up the spray trucks. Now we have two so they can get in and out. When it was taking 10 spray guys 45 minutes to get out and now it’s 15 minutes, that’s like five hours a day saved. That’s almost a whole person’s salary.”

A similar transformation happened inside the new offices.

“Instead of each manager having their own office, I wanted my managers to be in with the guys doing the production,” says Edwards, who arranged the entire team in 5-foot-tall cubicles, with one shared office and one conference room for private meetings.

“Even the managers didn’t know if they’d like it at first, but they love it now. It’s just a more open feeling, like ‘We’re here with you. It’s not us against you,’ so that has been wonderful.”

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