Stronger together

Merging businesses with different service focuses and founding a common culture is helping drive growth for Columbia LandCare.

April 5, 2012
Kristen Hampshire
Industry News

The conversation started simple. Jed Taylor, who started his company Missouri Mowing out of college, visited the office of a competitor one day and asked the question: “Would you ever be interested in selling out?”
Bill McWilliams, then owner of Columbia Turf, had never really thought about selling the commercial maintenance business he bought in 2006. But the two met for lunch during the summer of 2008, and they continued meeting every Wednesday that year.
“We would sit down and rekindle our conversation, and it went where it went,” Taylor says, relating how the two owners of Columbia, Mo.-based businesses began sharing experiences, discussing ideas and forming a relationship that eventually formalized into a new company in 2009. Today, it is known as Columbia LandCare.

Since the merger, the company has nearly doubled in size, building the combined staff of 45 employees into a team that will top 80 people this year. And Columbia LandCare boosted its revenues from $2.5 million in 2009 at the time of the merger to $4 million last year.
“Our momentum to move forward and our vision is greater together than it was separately,” says Taylor, 32. “That created great energy and motivation for everyone to carry their weight and keep on moving forward.”

Coming Together

Competition, burn-out and succession swirled in the pool of reasons for merging the two companies. Taylor admits that his company was running into McWilliams’ firm quite often while bidding commercial maintenance accounts. “We were competing on a lot of jobs,” he says.
And Taylor’s business, mainly focused on design-build, was beginning to bleed him dry. “I was personally getting burnt out,” he says. “You know, you run a business and you wear all the hats.”
Taylor now heads the design/build and snow and ice removal divisions of Columbia LandCare so he can focus on his passion. “The merger was a way to break up the responsibility [of running the business], so that was an original motivator for me.”
Meanwhile, McWilliams’ production-driven company was focused entirely on maintenance. Taylor saw the merger as the way for both leaders to grow a business that would be strong across all sectors while allowing owners to manage to their strengths.
Aside from combining talent, there were sheer numbers reasons for joining forces. Taylor was running into the growth speed bump that so many business owners experience when their companies hit $1 to $2 million mark. You’re almost a “big guy” – but not quite. “It’s hard to get over that hump and up to the $3-4 million level,” he says. “By merging the businesses, we gained critical mass.”
That volume advantage was first evident in the field, when the new company was able to connect the dots between its accounts and absorb more business. At the same time, the company improved routing efficiency. “Being separate companies, we had properties that were adjacent to each other, so by servicing all of those properties together as one company, we gained geographical efficiency and crew strength,” Taylor says.
Meanwhile, accountability has increased since the two companies merged. “There are more people around who are focused on our vision and it’s harder for anyone to get off track because there are more people around to hold you accountable,” Taylor says, noting that the team is more goal-focused now that the companies have merged and the cultures are beginning to mesh.
Taylor and McWilliams were a natural fit as partners – Taylor in his thirties, McWilliams nearing sixty. Taylor was looking for a way to grow a business, and McWilliams recognized that merging the companies and running it jointly with Taylor would give him a succession plan when he decided he was ready to exit. There was no strategy in place before the two owners began talking.
Also, the yin and yang of their businesses – Taylor’s a design/build outfit with a staff focused on personal service, and McWilliams’ a commercial mowing troupe that kept a close eye on numbers – has resulted in a complementary balance that is driving success today. “Together, we are a lot stronger than we ever were before,” Taylor says.  

Blending Cultures
Of course, no marriage is perfect – and when businesses tie the knot, the joining of cultures takes work. The honeymoon ends after the papers are signed. When the “couple” moves in together, differences surface.

This isn’t a bad thing. For these two firms, the meshing of two cultures required that the owners, Taylor and McWilliams, carefully define their vision and relay that to the team. Open communication has been critical as the newly formed Columbia LandCare dispatched its crews into the field.
“You have to take care of your guys, and that’s why the mission and vision are so important, so everyone is on the same page,” Taylor says.
“It was an adjustment for people,” he admits. “We lost guys over it.”     
Taylor’s focus today continues to be on culture. “We had the old Missouri Mowing, the old Columbia Turf, and we bought a company in 2010 called Quality Cut and that owner came on for a while – we really have combined four different companies,” he says.
That’s where the mission and vision statements become so important, he adds. “What excites me now is we have great people – and we still have some different points of view – but we have brought everyone together.”
That happened literally this winter when the company purchased one office space. Prior, Columbia LandCare maintained its two separate business locations. “When we came together in the same shop, it reenergized everyone,” Taylor says. The company has been focused on streamlining its processes and systems, such as software.
Taylor says to never shortcut the planning process when engaging in a serious business decision such as a merger. “We had to learn that the hard way,” he says, noting that the partners never expected such rapid growth. The past two years, the company’s revenues have increased by 25 and 28 percent. “Planning is critically important to growth and what really helps sustain growth.”
Today, the key driver of Columbia LandCare’s growth the company’s renewed focus, Taylor says. “Everyone here is really focused on what we are doing – we’re focused hard on customer service, quality, doing things right,” he says. “I think that is paying off.”