Higher standards

Sunrise Landscape + Design fosters a workplace where quality and customer relationships are the top priority.

September 20, 2012
Kristen Hampshire
Design/Build and Hardscape

If Joe Markell says he’ll be on a client’s property at noon on Tuesday, he shows up on time. When his crews are scheduled break ground on a design/build project, they get to work on the plan. If it’s mowing day for a maintenance customer, that homeowner knows that the lawn will get cut.

It seems simple: Do what you say you’re going to do. Keep your promises. Honor your commitments. But business ethics today are not a given in every organization. And when times get tough, sometimes standards are the first thing to go.

Not at Sunrise Landscape + Design in Sterling, Va. “We set the tone that we are a stand-up company and we always do what we say we are going to do and deliver on what we promise,” says Joe Markell, president and CEO of the firm, which he founded 26 years ago.

In the landscaping business, setting the tone means not cutting corners, and turning down jobs that aren’t a fit for the company. Sunrise never compromises quality in favor of price. “We have walked away from jobs because the customer didn’t want to pay for it or didn’t appreciate the quality, and that’s fine,” Markell says.

There’s a mutual respect for the company’s ethics among employees, vendors and clients. Everyone is on the same page, and this results in long-term relationships built on honesty. That’s why one employee approached Joe Markell in 2011 with a nomination for the National Capital Business Ethics Awards. “He thought it would be a good idea,” Markell says humbly. “So, we kicked it around and filled out the paperwork, which was fairly extensive.”

The awards committee interviewed employees, clients and vendors. “I think leaders in our community feel that ethics are important and need to be reinforced in this day and age, with all of the scandals,” Markell relates.
Sunrise Landscape + Design was invited to an awards ceremony as a finalist, and the firm won the award in its category, Micro Company (50 employees or less). “I’m proud of what we have achieved,” Markell says. “It is a significant accomplishment and we won against companies from all different industries.”

Weathering economic stress. Markell and Sunrise Landscape + Design has worked hard to get where it is today, serving mostly residential design/build clients in Northern Virginia. More than half of the business is focused on maintenance, with about 35 percent of revenues generated from design and installation work. The two businesses feed each other – maintenance account managers tune in to clients’ needs so they can turn new work over to the design department, and designers offer the option of continued maintenance to clients following project completion.

But in 2007 and 2008, business synergy heightened in importance. Sunrise Landscaping + Design was hit hard by the recession. “It was a real root canal for us,” Markell quips. Business dropped by 40 percent during those two years and dwindled until the firm saw a gradual comeback in 2010. Last year, Markell says “things got better,” and this year the company is focused on growth.

The way Sunrise managed the economic blow saved the business and earned the firm recognition from the National Capital Business Ethics committee. Markell made the tough decision to furlough the entire staff, including himself, for four weeks. It was a company decision. “Sunrise employees at all levels work as a team,” the ethics committee wrote of the decision, adding that “the action ultimately saved the company.”

Aside from this decision, Markell skimmed through company operations and teased out every possible efficiency. “We had to make a lot of changes,” he says. For one, the company moved to a four-day workweek with 10-hour shifts. Friday is reserved as a day for planning and catching up – and is helpful if there was a rain day during the week. Not working on weekends saves on overtime, and Markell says the extra couple of hours tacked on to each workday allow crews to be more productive.

“We are more efficient in the field with less travel,” Markell says. “We can better control our overtime, and the expenses of working extra do add up. We now pay less for fuel and travel less with those four 10-hour days.” And in Northern Virginia, minimizing travel time is critical given the traffic logjams.

Ultimately, Markell attributes employee accountability for the firm’s ability to climb out of a deep, recessionary trench. It goes back to the basic ethics of the firm: Do what you say you’re going to do. The company’s simple business philosophy is to remove the worry, apprehension and concerns that clients may have about their landscapes and to provide the highest level of professionalism, quality, efficiency and craftsmanship possible. This responsibility falls on every employee who works at the company.

“As business owners, we always struggle with balancing fairness and accountability for people’s actions, “Markell says. “You have to hold people accountable, and we do this by communicating what is expected and working together to reach the common goals of the team.”

Markell emphasizes that accountability is, indeed, a team effort. “It’s not an individual thing,” he says. “We try to [hold each other accountable] so there is pressure from within the group to make sure everyone is towing the line and doing their jobs.”

Markell holds weekly meetings with individuals and the whole team. “We discuss what’s going on in the business and who needs help with what projects,” he says.

Without this type of communication that comes from the top, Markell says employees can lose focus. “We need to make sure everyone concentrates on doing what they can to be most productive for the company, so communication is the key to that,” he says.

A tradition of high standards. Longevity in the business is proof that Markell’s philosophy works. The firm gets very few customer callbacks on its project installations, and the employee attrition is one quarter of the industry standard. As the National Capital Business Ethics committee pointed out, “Joe Markell’s leadership style and commitment to a fair, honest, ethical and open business environment are the same as when he founded the company 26 years ago.”

Perhaps this commitment stems from Markell’s desire to do good by the family name. The Sunrise name has been in the family for more than 60 years. Markell’s great-grandparents owned and operated Sun Rise Dairy in Reston/Herndon, Va. His grandfather owned Sunrise Amoco, a service station. In 1986, Markell founded Sunrise Lawn/Landscaping Services with two employees (including himself), two mowers and a pickup truck that had been in the family since 1964.

Since that time, the company has grown to about 40 employees and established a solid reputation in the community as a choice firm. That’s because of how Markell chooses to run his business. Designers do the selling of installation jobs. “You can have the best designs in the world, but if you can’t sell them, they’re not worth anything,” Markell points out. So his designers create solution-based designs that address issues including drainage or grading or budget constraints. Six crewmembers man the installation team, generally two-man crews.

These days, customers are asking for patios, backyard retreats and upgrades of aging landscaping. Markell says that times are much better and clients are beginning to invest in their properties – especially because so many have decided to stay put. Sunrise is focused on capturing this business.

“We are doing more networking in the community and really getting out there and keeping our name in front of people,” Markell says, noting that he is always surprised when a customer says, “I didn’t know your company could do that.” “We are a full-service company, and if we don’t do it, we can at least get customers the resources to get the project done,” Markell says.

Hiring continues to be a struggle, with the unemployment rate hovering around 5 percent in his area–much lower than most regions of the country. Local advertising and encouraging existing employees to refer potential workers to Sunrise will help build a hiring pool so Sunrise can recruit more quality team members.

Markell is optimistic about how 2012 is shaping up and what next year brings. “We are back up to where the business is before it dropped off, so people seem to be spending money,” he observes. “I’ll be happy when consumer confidence returns.”

In the meantime, Markell will focus on continuing to build internal confidence by emphasizing accountability and sticking to the company’s rules of the road, which have served it so well in the past. As the ethics committee pointed out, “Sunrise really does walk the talk.”