Integrity rules

Integrity rules

Sticking to high standards isn’t always the easy road, but it’s the way of doing business at Bland Landscaping.

January 4, 2012
Kristen Hampshire
Industry News

Kurt Bland was acutely aware of how poorly a large client was treating the employees who were stationed five days a week on the commercial property in town. He was blind-copied on emails from the owner that “blasted” his employees. His workers were being falsely accused on a daily basis. There was complete lack of respect for their effort and talent.

Bland, president of Bland Landscaping in Apex, N.C., saw the tension building for six months. And he just didn’t feel good about any of it – the client, the job, the way his employees were being treated. His business was facing a dip in morale because of a client that couldn’t be pleased.

So when the three-year contract was about to expire and the property owner announced that 10 other companies would be bidding on the job, Bland politely declined the opportunity. “Unless there was a substantial change in their organization and how they managed their vendors, we didn’t want to be involved,” Bland says.

You have to draw the line somewhere, even if that means losing money – even in a recession.

“That’s a really hard thing to do,” Bland says. “You see revenues declining and in a recession where you are losing construction revenue and finding opportunities to diversify. It was a big fish to not even throw a hook at.”

But Bland’s employees were involved in the decision. “I spoke to them candidly about it, and I was involved behind the scenes so I was empathetic to what they were going through and trying to manage that situation,” he says. Essentially, that particular work site had become a toxic environment full of blame and bad feelings.

Sure, walking away from the bid opportunity cost Bland Landscaping a good quarter-million dollars; that’s how much revenue per year the company pulled in by servicing the account. But declining the bid process also showed employees that the company’s values are more important than a single job.    

“It showed our people that even in difficult economic times, we are going to stand behind what we say,” Bland says. “It’s important that at the end of the day, the work is something we can be proud of, and that everyone involved is treated with respect.”

Integrity is one of those intangibles that could easily disappear from a company’s daily operations because there’s not necessarily a way to measure it. You can do good things, you can set a positive example, but there isn’t a performance meter attached to it – at least not directly.

But Bland Landscaping’s decision made an impact on judges at the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, which awarded the firm with the 2011 Integrity in Business Award. The recognition honors stand-out companies that demonstrate dedication to corporate responsibility, integrity and ethics.

Bland says he looks to the North Carolina state motto for guidance on how to live integrity in business: Esse quam videri (To be, rather than to seem). It’s the old adage, “treat others as you want to be treated,” and Bland would add be flexible to that.

Focused on flexibility

“Like any successful company in any industry, the biggest key is to be flexible and not have a rigid approach to business,” Bland says.

Bland and his team have always relied on a strong moral compass to guide business operations. And the company has enjoyed a legacy of producing work that is highly regarded, earning more than 100 awards for excellence in commercial and residential landscape.

But what has changed drastically in the last decade is the company’s service mix. What was a company steeped in commercial landscape design/build, mainly for Class A office space, has evolved into a firm focused mostly on maintenance. Design/build now represents only about 15 percent of the business, which is about $1 to $2 million per year, depending on the projects.

The company does not take on projects that are publicly funded or performed for general contractors (with the exception of a few GCs Bland has formed trusting relationships with over the years). Rather, the firm has a handful of substantial residential projects on the docket and runs six landscape installation and enhancement crews, one of which is stationed full-time on a private estate that is a commercial-scale property.

“So, it’s not the traditional bread-and-butter that, for years, our brand was built on,” Bland says, relating that the commercial design/build work the company once majored in is “gone.”

Besides, in what Bland describes as a “ridiculously competitive bid market” it doesn’t make good business sense for Bland Landscaping to focus on those commercial design/build jobs that are available.

The company’s bottom line was preserved through a consorted shift into commercial maintenance and a focus on boutique and specialized design/build projects such as memorial gardens.

“I personally enjoy construction, the whole process, everything about it – it’s my passion,” Bland says. “But as a businessperson, I don’t like it so much. In terms of a business owner trying to build something that continues to grow in value and doesn’t fluctuate wildly with the economy, our business depends on maintenance.”

That’s what Bland means about flexibility.

“We have to adapt to a broad spectrum of challenges and changes in the market: changes in service type, customer type, changes in the workers we employ,” Bland says. “And there are changes in customers’ willingness to pay a premium for services.”

Plus, business today is harder than ever before. “You work more for less,” Bland says. And he doesn’t see that changing. “I personally think this recession is changing how business will be done for a long time to come.”

Growing the team

One of the company’s greatest challenges is labor: attracting, hiring and retaining quality employees. Despite the high unemployment rate, there’s still a gap in the labor market. Bland’s looking for people who want to work hard and move up in a company and those people can be difficult to find.

That’s why he created a position called “foreman-in-training.” It involves a 90-day training program with proficiency test in key skill areas. Account managers act as trainers, and foreman are expected to work through the training modules on their own, meeting with managers to get evaluated.

Bland says the foreman-in-training concept isn’t brand new, but what’s different is how he administrates the program: hiring outside the industry, and requiring a 90-day self-initiated training curriculum. Bland is constantly hiring – he maintains a pool of applicants to battle attrition.

“The age-old problem in landscaping is, a foreman leaves and you don’t have someone to take over,” Bland says. “So, you hastily try to hire a foreman, and you can end up making some bad hiring decisions because you are in a hurry.”

And, he has learned by trial and error that how you advertise certain positions, including field labor, makes a big difference in the number of applicants you attract. For instance, when advertising on Craigslist, the ad is reposted at least weekly to ensure that the position appears on the top of search results.

“It’s part of that point-and-click mentality where people expect instant results – they look for something (like a job posting) and want to find it right way,” Bland says, adding that he posts even when there aren’t positions open to fill. “We have to keep that applicant flow up,” he says.

The hiring game is another example of industry change, and Bland applies his mantra to be flexible to this area of the business as he looks forward to what’s next. “Times are challenging, but I’m grateful that we are still 175 employees strong,” Bland says. “We are healthy. We are profitable. We actually have some growth opportunities ahead of us right now – but every bit of that goes back to being flexible.”