2005 LEADERSHIP AWARDS: Dan Foley

Features - Business Management

Running a landscape company, heading a national association and spending time with his family doesn’t leave Dan Foley with much spare time. But he wouldn’t change a thing.

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February 23, 2006
Kathleen Franzinger

Fla 
Dan Foley. Photo: Bob LaV
allee

Unlike most contractors who love landscaping and learn business basics out of necessity, Dan Foley has always been passionate about both. A Babson College graduate of entrepreneurial studies, Foley has always loved the idea of starting and building a business. This same desire to create something from nothing also drew him to landscaping, especially installation. “I was definitely lured by the emotion of being able to build and create things,” he says.

His experience working landscaping jobs during high school and college fostered his love of the outdoors. So, in addition to his business studies, Foley started taking horticulture classes at Massachusetts Bay Community College to learn more about the industry.

As if he wasn’t busy enough attending two colleges, Foley started his business as a 19-year old college sophomore. Although it was stressful at times, the real-life experience added value to his studies. “I could better relate to some of the lessons my professors were talking about that day because I was experiencing much of it in real-time,” he says.

Twenty years later, Foley’s calendar is just as full. In addition to running his South Walpole, Mass.-based D. Foley Landscape, he has served as president of the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET) since its formation in January. He jokes that he got into landscaping so that he could be outdoors, and now he’s a bureaucrat who sits at a desk all day. “When I retire, I plan on going into the landscaping business,” he says with a laugh.

ABOUT DAN FOLEY

    COMPANY: D. Foley Landscape
    LOCATION: South Walpole, Mass.
    CAREER HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Bachelor’s degree, entrepreneurial studies, Babson College
  • Founded D. Foley Landscape in 1987
  • Open-book management company since 1998
  • Started CampusCare division in 2002
  • President, Associated Landscape Contractors of Massachusetts (ALCM) in 1995
  • Secretary/Treasurer, Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA) in 2003
  • President-elect, ALCA in 2004
  • President, Professional Landcare Network (PLANET) in 2005

Along with work and volunteerism, Foley also finds time for his family. Married for 12 years to his wife Holly and father to 7-year-old Courtney and 5-year-old Caitlin, Foley credits his family for providing the support and encouragement to continue with his industrious work schedule. “Everything in life starts with a good foundation,” Foley says. “I am fortunate to have that with a great family and home life. I love every single minute that I get to spend with my family and it really helps me try to achieve some balance in my life.”

With all the roles he plays on a daily basis, the ones of husband and father make him most proud. “Becoming important in the life of a child has been one of my biggest accomplishments,” he says. “I enjoy continuing to learn how to be the best parent that I can be.”

PARENTAL GUIDANCE. In addition to his wife and children, Foley’s parents, Joanne and Tom, have been constant sources of support since he started his business in their basement. Dan’s entrepreneurial spirit doesn’t surprise them. “Dan always seemed to know what he wanted even at a young age,” Joanne says.

But Foley wasn’t always as enterprising as he is now. Joanne recalls him being shy as a young child, which she says would surprise a lot of people who know him now. Things changed when some of his friends encouraged him to run for president of his third grade class. He won the election, and something about leadership seemed to agree with him. “From that point on, he really seemed to blossom,” Joanne says.

After seeing Foley’s success in his college business courses – he won a prize for a business plan he developed for D. Foley Landscape as a junior at Babson – Tom knew his son would run some type of business someday. Joanne knew her son was good at business, and she thought landscaping was something he really enjoyed. But that didn’t stop her maternal instinct from kicking in. So she did what any good mother would do: She went to work for him. Every day when she came home from her job as a schoolteacher, Joanne would head to the basement to help with administrative tasks, such as bookkeeping.

To this day, Joanne still works at D. Foley Landscape 20 to 25 hours per week primarily processing payroll and handling accounts payable. And while she may have worked out of motherly concern in the early days, Joanne says she works now because she enjoys it.

With Joanne working for the company, Foley laughs that Tom no doubt heard about everything at the dinner table. But he didn’t mind. Even though their work experiences were different (Tom worked for a major corporation most of his career), Foley would often talk to his father about the business and ask him for advice. “He taught me so much directly and indirectly,” Foley says.

When making business decisions, Tom always stressed the importance of not getting caught up in the emotion of a situation and to step back and look at the big picture. “He taught me the importance of being prepared and analyzing each situation, problem or opportunity before reacting,” Foley says. His father was mainly referring to financial decisions, but Foley learned the advice applied to almost any business situation.

Foley is self-admittedly action oriented, so stepping back can be difficult for him. When he wants to immediately jump into situations and fix them, Foley hears his father’s words in his head. “I always try to assess a situation, ask questions and then step away,” Foley says. “I go with my heart and my gut, but I make sure my decisions are based on the facts and implications of every decision.”

DAN FOLEY ON GRASSROOTS

    Q. What does the term grassroots mean to you?
    A. Grassroots means there is strength in numbers that allows a message to be communicated or a change to be initiated. It harnesses the power of the masses to spread the word or explain a position to communicate a message quickly and effectively.

    Q. Describe a situation where you feel you had to defend the industry and how this impacted you in your career.
    A. When the H-2B cap was reached and the process was closed in early January of this year, I had the opportunity as president of PLANET to become personally involved in the role the association would take. I went to Washington and was able to quickly learn how the government works and begin the process of formulating and communicating our association’s position. During the weekly conference calls and meetings, I was able to have input into the direction that we would take to encourage the passing of the Save Small Business Act. In addition, I had to work to gain time from our members during a very busy time for them and convince them it was worth their time to try to make a difference by going to Washington, making local visits, making calls, sending e-mails and faxing information.

    I now have a keen interest in further understanding government relations for our industry and my own company. It’s imperative that we continue to monitor issues and have a voice locally, regionally and nationally.

    Q. Who is one person you admire most for taking a stand on an issue and why?
    A. I was fortunate to serve as president-elect of ALCA when Kurt Kluznik from Yardmaster was president in 2004. It was interesting for me to watch and work with Kurt through all of the discussions, debates, strategies and actions related to the potential changes in the ALCA legacy association during the merger with PLCAA in 2004. Many times Kurt could have taken the safe route and remain with the typical annual plan of a national association, but instead he chose to push us all by asking the important questions. He continued to exhibit the ability to do what was right for the long-term industry legacy rather than his own legacy. His drive helped to lead us to the historic merger of two great associations to form PLANET.

    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. One thing I’m doing now is continually reinforcing the importance of viewing things from the customer perspective. There are so many variables that it’s easy to focus on yourself and what you’re dealing with in an organization’s operations. However, the only really important thing is what is important to the client. I have found that you can change your entire paradigm by trying to frame each situation on how the customer experiences it, views it and benefits from it. It is very easy to project a positive and professional image when you think like a customer. This is something that I would like to continually improve upon and expand within our culture.

    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. I think the top three things are communicate, communicate and communicate. In our industry, we often get too busy delivering the work that we don’t take the time to communicate well. We need to communicate to employees, vendors, customers, subcontractors, our children, the general public and so on. I have found that many issues in life and business can all be rooted back to communication. It’s critical that we are ambassadors for our industry and invest the time to make sure everyone understands the positive aspects of our work. This will help in public relations, recruiting, marketing for new work and legislative issues.

DOWN TO BUSINESS. When Foley started his company in March of 1987, he hoped to keep it small until he finished college. The business focused on residential installation, but when customers started asking for maintenance work, Foley knew he couldn’t pass up the revenue opportunity. With the help of a high-school friend as his first full-time employee, the business generated $50,000 its first year.

As Foley entered his junior year, work continued to pick up to the point when he served about 25 clients. Still handling a full course load at school, Foley relied on his pager to communicate with customers, most of whom didn’t know he was a college student. “Customers would be paging me and I’d have to get out of class to return their calls,” he says.

The economy was tough in 1989, but Foley’s business background, youthful determination and responsiveness helped him – so much so that he budgeted to do $90,000 in revenue his second year in business, but ending up doing $225,000. “I realized early on that even though you have a good plan in place, things in business don’t always go as planned,” he says.

Foley’s business has come a long way since those early days. Today, the company has 33 employees and is projected to do about $4 million in sales this year. Most notably, the business has moved from residential installation and maintenance to full service commercial work. Foley estimates services are 50 percent maintenance; 30 percent enhancements, special projects and landscape construction; and 20 percent snow and ice removal services.

Foley’s business background definitely helped him make the shift from residential to commercial. “I think we were successful in that transition because we did it deliberately with a strategic plan,” he says. “We determined where we wanted to go and then developed an action plan to implement. The benefit was that we are able to focus on our strengths and learned to say, ‘No’ to work that didn’t fit our model.”

When it comes to leading his company to even more success, Foley says he follows the philosophy of looking out and looking down. “Leaders have to look down at what’s going on today, but also look out to see the future,” he explains. “I really enjoy appreciating our company as what it is and thrive off of looking ahead to plan for what it can become.”

In the spirit of constantly trying to improve business, Foley was drawn to the practice of open-book management – a term he feels is misleading because it implies that business owners simply open their checkbook and show it to employees. In reality, it involves considerable more. “It teaches your employees to think and act like business owners,” Foley explains.

Jack Stack, owner of Springfield ReManufacturing Corp., Springfield, Mo., developed open-book management and outlined it in his book The Great Game of Business. Intrigued by the idea, Foley hired the company as consultants in the fall of 1997 to implement the process at D. Foley Landscape. The team at D. Foley Landscape has been active practitioners of open-book management since 1998.

Foley explains that the goal of open-book management is to teach employees what financial numbers mean and how the business runs in hopes that the knowledge will encourage them to think about their job and how it impacts business. Foley holds weekly meetings with his managers to forecast what the numbers will be for the upcoming month compared to budgeted figures. If the predicted numbers aren’t good, every employee has the rest of the month to make it better. “Most business owners use numbers from what happened in the past,” Foley says. “Their accountants tell them what happened last week, last quarter or last year. But next month is too late to fix this month’s low numbers.”

Another part of open-book management is giving employees a stake in the outcome, which is why four times a year Foley’s employees have an opportunity to receive a bonus. And they win or lose as a team. If an employee on the operations team out in the field doesn’t get a bonus, Foley doesn’t either. When he first introduced the idea of open-book management, Foley asked his employees if they would be willing to give up their Christmas bonus in favor of the quarterly, performance-driven bonus. Foley explained that he would pay out bonuses totaling $7,000, which was more than the annual holiday and periodic production bonuses.

The goal was $7,000, but Foley paid out $41,000 in bonuses that year. “Open-book management has been unbelievably powerful for our company,” he says. “But it’s more than money. It’s changing the way we think, lead, manage and make decisions.”

Foley feels open-book management is helping him be a better leader, too. “Good leaders engage their employee’s hearts and heads, not just their hands,” he says.

PRIDE BY ASSOCIATION. Seeing the value of industry professions, Foley has always played an active role. “I have always felt that you get what you give, and I certainly benefited from being involved at the local and national level,” he says. “I have learned so much from the people that I have volunteered and worked with.”

But one fateful meeting took his volunteer work to a new level. Foley met Michael Byrne when he was a young board member of the Associated Landscape Contractors of Massachusetts in 1991. The two became good friends, and Byrne is the one who motivated Foley to join the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA), which merged with PLCAA to form PLANET. As part of ALCA, Foley served on numerous committees and the board of directors. He also served as an officer of the association as secretary/treasurer and then president-elect.

When Foley became president of PLANET in January, he knew he was going to have to make some changes in his company in order to serve both to the best of his ability. In October and November of last year, he and his staff restructured the company so that instead of eight direct reports, Foley now only has three. The restructuring involved breaking the business into three core functions: operations, finance and administration and sales. The leaders of each core function now report to Foley. “If we hadn’t done that, I would be really struggling to balance both jobs,” he says, adding that his staff deserves the credit for being willing to step up and take on extra responsibilities.

Foley tries to keep all his plates spinning by planning ahead and keeping focus on his daily priorities. “It’s easy for me to get caught up in what is urgent rather than what is important,” Foley says. Therefore, he tries to plan for tomorrow today. Before he leaves his office each night, he outlines the most critical priorities for the next day. “I lay out the important goals I have to meet in order to call tomorrow a success.”

But all of the time and effort is worth it to Foley. He says, “It is the ultimate compliment to get a ‘Thank you’ from your industry peers.”