Dancing days

Dancing days

These crucial steps got Duke’s Landscape Management moving in the right direction.

December 19, 2011
Matt LaWell
Industry News

Eric Cross walked through the open door of a hotel ballroom, a spot so often reserved for parties and receptions and celebrations, for those moments that we want to remember forever, and looked at the vast expanse in front of him. This was a little more than three years ago now, and he had rented all of it for a day. He was not throwing any sort of celebration – not in those uncertain first months of a recession that grabbed hold of both the nation and the lawn industry, then refused to let go – but the event he planned. Yes, he wanted to remember it forever.

Eric Cross was 45 years old, and he had owned his company for more than a quarter of a century, had built it up from nothing.

He wanted to make it great.

So he rented that hotel ballroom, and he filled it for what he referred to as a town-hall meeting with every one of the employees he had hired at Duke’s Landscape Management. Be early, he said. Look nice, no jeans. Take notes. And then he and the rest of his team shared every bit of information about performance and profits and outlooks. He had been preaching to them to work harder, to work smarter, to be safe out there. In that ballroom, he told them why.

“Nobody knew the big picture except me and a couple of managers,” Cross said. “So we started to talk about how we were doing. Safety, client retention, gross sales, profit. That was the beginning. We were either going to make this a great company again, or we were going to go out of business.”

That meeting provided a proverbial and literal turning point for Cross and Duke’s. Three years ago, with about three dozen employees on board, and another three or four dozen added each spring, the company booked about $3.5 million in sales. Now, with an identical number of folks in the offices and out in the field, the company booked $5.2 million. How? How could a company in suburban New Jersey – headquarters are in Hackettstown, with a planned move next year to a LEED certified building in Mount Olive – increase its sales nearly 50 percent in three years? In this environment?

How about we start with football? Cross played the sport at Delaware Valley College in the early 1980s, a tight end by trade, and he likes to highlight similarities between landscape businesses and football teams, the parallels apt. “You have a season and an offseason,” he said. “You have your team and your strategy, you have a coach, you have a score.” One of the many things Cross did to prepare for the town-hall meeting was to slap the company logo on a football helmet and ask his employees to vote whether they had just finished a good season. He offered up different records like 10-0, 3-7, 0-10. Most said yes, the season had been a success, they had finished 10-0, best in the business.

Then Cross broke down the numbers. The company had scheduled about 3,500 hours over budget, nearly 70 extra hours every week. Client retention was under 80 percent. One employee had recently filed a workers’ compensation claim after, Cross said, he left his safety glasses in the truck and a bungee cord slapped him in the face, resulting in the loss of an eye. The figures and stories went on and on. They were hard to stomach.

“The first meeting,” Cross said, “was a shock.”

Afterward, everyone cast another vote. This time, a few minutes after thoughts of a perfect season, they said they had performed like a 3-7 team. Were we even trying?

A second meeting followed, this one focused on what Duke’s was going to do to climb the standings from doormat to perennial contender. A third broke down what performance figures would be measured and how new processes would be implemented. Cross and his managers would balance the schedules and measure the productivity of every crew every day. A multi-year plan followed shortly and featured a projected budget, sales goals and an organization chart. Before long, change started to show up in expected – and unexpected – areas.

Today, three years removed from the town-hall meeting and perhaps the company’s darkest days, Duke’s has scheduled almost 4,000 hours under budget, a swing of nearly 7,500 hours per year, about 150 hours per week. Client retention is up around 98 percent, so high that Duke’s can actually turn away some clients and shed others that provide no profit.

“The key is, if you go to any of my crews in the field and ask them how many hours they have today, every crew will give you a number,” Cross said. “We measure every crew. That’s the goal. We job cost all the work we do, and we know exactly where we stand per service, per account, per month, per week. We had all those systems in place. The problem was we weren’t following it.”

And as for safety? Through the end of November, the company has gone 961 days without lost time because of an injury, and recently hauled in three safety awards from PLANET. Every employee in the field wears a safety vest, Cross and his managers have a safety conference call scheduled for every Friday and there are two safety meetings every month at both of Duke’s offices.

“We’ve learned that, whether it be safety, training or expectations, we always have new employees coming in, we’re growing, we’re hiring, and we have some turnover, so you can never assume that everybody knows everything,” Cross said. “We have guys who have been here 20 years, but we’re still going to train them as if they’re new. It’s all about getting more information to the guys. You’re never really done.”

Information is more important now than ever. When Cross walked into that ballroom three years ago, he wanted to make his company great. When he walked out, he knew he could. He had plenty of work – and numbers, and schedules, and information from the offices to the fields – in front of him. No forgetting any of that.


This is one of three stories that ran in Lawn & Landscape’s A Cut Above e-newsletter, a new source of information for maintenance contractors. To continue reading about Duke’s Landscape Management:

Tough test leads to big results: Eric Cross received LEED certification in order to build a company and headquarters based on the program’s principles.

Finding ways to cut: Here are tips on how to make your operations leaner.