Building a board

Adam Linnemann formed a board of advisers to get an outside perspective on business issues and to grow his company.

February 2, 2012
Kristen Hampshire

An A-team of advisers is giving Adam Linnemann the outside perspective he needs to make some significant business decisions for Linnemann Lawn Care & Landscaping. Bringing in outside voices is a big deal for Linnemann, who started his business at age 14, before he even had a driver’s license. Today, the Columbia, Ill.-based firm is 15 crewmembers strong, and it brought in about $700,000 in revenues last year.

“We’ve been growing every year, and we haven’t fallen back (in sales) with the down economy,” says Linnemann, who has been working with a business consultant for the last two years. During that time, talk circled back to creating a board of directors – a group of select, trusted advisers that could provide insight on these key business drivers: sales, technology, customers and big-picture growth insight.

So Linnemann began collecting referrals and considering his own network of professional acquaintances – “people who were not really friends,” he clarifies, emphasizing that his goal was to build an advisory board that could provide the type of candid feedback that family and close friends might not want to dole out.

By July 2011, Linnemann had assembled a team and held his first quarterly board of directors meeting. After two meetings, he has already reconfigured his service offerings to customers and has better direction on the type of technology that will take his business to the next level.

Here’s how Linnemann chose his advisory team and how he maximizes the knowledge they bring to the boardroom table to make challenging business decisions.

Choosing the cast
Pulling in a few good friends (and obligating a family member or two) to join the board would have been relatively easy. Who’s going to say no to a buddy asking for help? And as for providing feedback, the friends-and-family clan is waiting for an invitation to participate. But how possible is it for people we know well and like a lot to bring an honest opinion to the table? That, of course, depends on your friends and family.

Linnemann decided when searching for a board, to pursue candidates that he knew were highly qualified – people he didn’t personally know all that well.

“We knew we had our own ideas about how to run the business, and we felt it would be good to get ideas from people who are outside of the company, people we trust,” Linnemann says.

Linnemann did a lot of asking around, and he gathered referrals. He invited a Boeing employee who specializes in technology management, a commercial banker and an owner of a John Deere dealership with locations in and around Linnemann’s service area.  He offered each a small payment for participating in each board meeting (so far, none have accepted the honorarium).

The mix of professionals on Linnemann’s board is what makes the team so valuable. For example, the technology manager can sound off on customer relationship management (CRM) software options and help Linnemann take inventory of his tech suite, what works and what doesn’t. The dealer is practiced in sales and has industry insight. “He has the knowledge of what other landscapers in our area are doing and purchasing,” Linnemann says. “But because he’s a dealer, he’s not in direct competition with us – and he has four or five locations in the area where we want to expand our business.”

The commercial banker can advise on growth decisions, including acquisition. This input is important for Linnemann, who this year purchased a smaller lawn care firm and grew his customer base that way.

Ultimately, choosing a board from the outside is giving Linnemann insider insight on how customers see his business. “I wanted to see what (our advisers’) perception is of our company and how they see us, which is, in turn, how our clients may see us,” he says.

Acting on advice

In six month’s time, Linnemann has made quite a few changes to his business, thanks to constructive feedback from his board. For one, he created a three-tier maintenance service menu – a fast-food approach.

“They thought this structure worked well with the businesses they have worked for, so we’re giving it a try,” Linnemann says.

Also, Linnemann’s tech-minded adviser is providing valuable guidance on CRM software, and the company recently purchased time attendant software. “All this technology is going to make the company run more lean and efficiently,” he says. “It will give us greater customer service capabilities, and that will come back in our sales and net profits.”

But the board’s feedback isn’t all focused on change. They emphasized that Linnemann should remember his roots and reflect that in his marketing efforts. Linnemann started out as the neighborhood lawn provider, and he’s grown – but customers still like to feel that personal connection with his business.

“They reminded me to not forget the small things like simple handwritten thank-you notes and following up with phone calls, things like that,” Linnemann says, adding that technology can actually alienate clients despite the ease of communicating these days. “We have to remember to stick to the grassroots of our company,” Linnemann says – no pun intended.

Linnemann suggests starting a board to gather this outside intelligence, and he says preparing an agenda to guide meetings keeps everyone on track. “We don’t want a board meeting to drag on three hours,” he says. “That can easily happen, and I know (my advisers’) time is important. I want to show gratitude, and respecting their time is one way to do that.”