Click here to view the September 2010 cover feature Web Extra: Green Industry Business Consultants.
We asked industry consultants what they want their clients to do before they fly across the country to visit. Here are their responses.
- Get their current recruiting/hiring/interviewing material together (if any exists) so I know what I am starting with.
- Have a current list of all positions available in the company and wages ranges for each.
- Identify one person in their organization who will be my primary contact.
- Identify their vision, be ready to change, understand where they are today in their business journey.
- Organize financials, make goals and objectives, prepare for emotional aspect of a transaction.
- Be prepared to be completely transparent in our conversation.
- Allow full disclosure of the pain they are experiencing in their business.
- Understand that most changes in business are based on the metrics of past financial performance. Know your numbers.
- Review (or in many cases, develop) their strategic plan and related tactical human resources initiatives.
- Research their competitors and become aware of traits and characteristics that make them stand out.
- Be prepared to tell your story – why you have been successful, how you have done it, what barriers to success have you overcome, etc.
- Think about what it would look like to win.
- Have clear goals, necessary resources and objectivity.
- Talk with other clients.
- Join their state or national trade associations.
- Be clear about your goals and objectives, be ready to work and have an open mind about how to accomplish them.
- Have a simple vision, a budget and a commitment to the project.
- Collect relevant facts; don't take action against employee without speaking to us.
- Know your internal policy concerning the issue at hand as well as your past practices concerning that issue.
- Have an open mind, call early on, talk with other people who have had success with consultants
- Interview multiple consultants, be committed to partnering with a company/consultant, get commitment from key team members in your company.
- Organize documents, discuss plans with key employees, define your problems.
- More awareness of – and a commitment to – educating the customer on the importance of environmental stewardship. A bigger idea than “getting through plan review.” The goal is not to attempt to convert every client into an “environmentalist,” but simply imprint the basics of responsibility to their community.
Tom Delaney has spent decades haunting the halls of government for the green industry. Photo: David DienerTom Delaney, director of government affairs for PLANET, has spent more than two decades working on government types on behalf of the green industry. He’s traveled the country, visiting state legislatures to try and get each to pre-empt pesticides. Now he’s focused on local governments as they start taking up regulations on fertilizers.
Lawn & Landscape caught up with him in his Georgia office to talk about the biggest challenges facing the industry from government – and what contractors can do about them.
What’s the biggest legislative threat the green industry faces right now?
It’s probably still the comprehensive immigration reform. Immigration is going to have the biggest impact on the most number of companies.
Right now the administration is trying to take more action against companies that are either intentionally paying people under the table or taking advantage of workers, but our industry follows the law and is checking W-2 forms and documentation. So much of it can be fraudulent, and there’s also requirements that you can’t treat people differently: you could be sued for discrimination. Companies are careful. Some of them had workers with fraudulent documentation for a long time now.
Some of the states like Arizona and Georgia have passed some laws trying to get stiffer on checking for citizenship, so that’s something that will affect a majority of companies out there. And H2B is thrown into the mix.
What can a landscape company do to stave off any major changes?
It’s going to be on the federal level. Eventually were going to have to have support for our positions in Congress, and the only way is too have constituents having strong relationships with their representatives.
The wolf has to be at the door to get people to do things. You still have to come to Legislative Day and send letters on the issues even when there isn’t the wolf at the door, so we establish close relationships so that when we’re asking them to support a position, they already know who we are and what industry we’re in.
Our people represent businesses, they represent payrolls. A lot of the anti-immigration movements are just single people.
What’s the industry’s biggest stumbling block to getting more of a voice?
Right now it’s the economy. Everyone’s worried about keeping their head above water. It’s always been tough to get people to go to Washington. People are apprehensive about sitting in a congressional office.
There’s also fear. They might be singled out and that must mean you have illegal workers. Some people have that particular fear. We’re always trying to encourage groups to come. Even if two people come and are from different areas of the state and have different representatives, there’s no reason each one couldn’t go with the other to their representatives offices.
We get good representation from some particular states that have found the importance of coming and doing this on a regular basis.
How do you think the mid-term elections are going to impact landscape contractors?
There’s not going to be a total shift of power. Democrats are still going to be in control. There will be some changes. There’s some dissatisfaction. We’ll see some legislators more sympathetic to small business come online. Sen. Reid (D-Nev.) is going to have challenges. There’ll be some changes there. More likely, some governorships are going to be changed and state legislatures possibly on the edge of changing from one party to another. That type of thing can cause some individuals to be head of different regulatory bodies. In some states, agriculture departments are run by appointment and some of them are run by elected officals. More of them are being appointed lately.
I’ve see more proposed regulations by OSHA and EPA over the last few months than I’ve seen in the last eight years. They’re opening up more opportunity for changes. It felt like some of them have been stifled by eight years of Republican leadership. They can bring back things that couldn’t get passed before. There’s more federal register notices popping up of things being done.
What are the biggest changes in policy you’ve seen in your tenure on the Hill?
When we started, we had those lawn care hearings. There were a lot of negative articles about the industry. That sort of died down through the years until this last year. It all of a sudden picked up again. There was change in the legislature in New York that caused one of the pesticide bills to be passed. There’s a study committee in New Hampshire looking at a possible cosmetic ban like Canada’s. RISE has been active there.
In 1989-90 when we had the hearings, there was an organic movement. Now we’re back to sustainability and organic practices. There are a lot of negative articles about lawns again. They want to call it wasting resources that are used to maintain a lawn.
We’ve had more water issues in the past few years with droughts and quality like the Chesapeake Bay area. We’re in another mode of increased environmental activism, which makes people look more at things that they didn’t a few years ago.
And there’s more labor. OSHA is looking at agronomics again and safety. All those things are good, but it’s a question of how far you go with it. Now we’re talking about global warming, and whether it’s true or not or how far it goes – these are all things that end up having more influence on the tools we use and the appreciation for lawns and landscape.
Two decades ago did you think you’d have to talk about global warming?
No. And we thought a lot of this stuff could have been put to rest with more science. A lot of this just plain isn’t exact science. It stands to reason that we’re still looking at no 100 percent positives on risks or information we have on research.
Do you think the industry will ever be able to communicate cohesively?
It’s still something to work on. It’s grassroots and working with government at the state, local and federal levels. In some aspects, I thought it was getting better, then the economy slowed it down. Peoples’ priorities changed on some of that. It’s back to being difficult again. It’s as little as sending a letter. It takes less than ten minutes to send a letter, but we haven’t been able to do that.
When we get an issue that’s going to cripple us, at least we’ll have trained a lot of people to go to Washington and it won’t be their first time. We’re doing a little Hill training and communications training. They also need to be going to hearings and going to state capitals. Sometimes they just need to be in the audience for them to represent the industry.
RISE has worked more on the grassroots program over the last two years. We had a speakers’ ambassadors program where we’d go out and speak so that we’d be getting out some of those positive messages.
What do you consider your greatest success in your career?
Back when we started the H2B initiative to get more workers, I was the one who suggested not counting returning workers against the cap to a congressional staffer. That ended up getting legs. There was a voice vote in the Senate, it didn’t pass, but it got picked up by Sen. Mikulski (D-Md.) and others as being put in the law. When we were able to stay under the radar, we were able to work with H2B coalitions and organize our members, and we had some good grassroots movements. We had several fly-ins to get the bill passed, two years in a row. We took what we learned about working in pesticides in coalitions and took it with H2B and now we hope to take it on to comprehensive.
Has technology made it easier for you to do your job?
It’s definitely easier, but I also think it’s caused some of the people to not put as much heart in what they’re doing. You had a real commitment when you had to step forward and not just send a letter. It’s like that old saying: familiarity breeds contempt. I heard people saying now, “I e-mailed the guy. I left him a voicemail. I still can’t get him to respond.” Then they say, “I got on his Facebook, and that’s something he touches more regularly and that’s how I got him to respond.” That’s just the way people act now with new technology.
How many people open up the e-mails that are sent?
We’ve become blasé and it’s nothing to not respond to an e-mail. It used to be you’d feel terrible if you didn’t respond to a letter or a phone call. It’s getting harder to get attention and action.
What can contractors start doing today to have an impact on their government?
They’ve got to stop sitting on the sidelines and contact more of their people and their legislators. We’ve talked about the problem, but they just have to give it a try. It’s not so difficult or time consuming. What we’ve put on our website and I’m going to be putting in my next From the Hill message is a simple introductory e-mail. It’s sort of like a Facebook or Twitter – here I am, put me in your resources and use me when you need me, you’re going to hear from me again when there is an issue, and I’m a businessman. A businessman is more important in the community than a single person. It’s about time they used that to their advantage. Some are going to have to act more proud of their businesses.
Is there one area or level of government where a business owner can have the most impact?
There are a lot of challenges on the local level. I’m a big shot if I have a company worth so much money and employ so many people, I can be a big fish in a small pond at the local level. These kind of people become state level people. You can be more involved in local areas that will give you the confidence that you need to go talk to somebody else. One of the reasons for Facebook and all these things is the connections. You’ve got to remember face-to-face connections. Some of the best connections you can make are starting out with some face-to-face people and shaking somebody’s hand and looking them in the eye. We still want to use those other tools we have, but we can’t be closed up with our little handheld pieces of equipment.
We need to get out to meetings and fundraisers and city council meetings. And don’t tell me you can’t get on the computer and send a letter. You can do it from your hand-held equipment now.
What other issues do you see coming down the pike for landscape contractors in the next year or two?
I think it’s only going to increase these water issues. With quantity we also have quality. Phosphorus has been the key thing, the next thing is nitrogen.
We have to look at unions coming back. They seem to be flexing their muscles and their administration is in there, and they’re going to affect the way we’re able to do business.
I think that a tax of turfgrass and the landscape as not being good for the environment is going to continue until we have more of our people writing editorials and things. We do tracking and so does TruGreen with clipping services, we tend to see how many negative stories out there.
You don’t need a bunch of science and facts and figures to write an editorial. You’ve got to have stories out there and we’ve got to start that as a group.
We can’t close our eyes when one group or commodity is being attacked. We can’t stand alone anymore. It’s going to cost us more money, or it’s going to be because we lost on turfgrass.
The author is editor of Lawn & Landscape magazine. Send him an e-mail at email@example.com.
Landscaping: the original green industry. If you need a marketing slogan to promote your company’s eco-conscious ideals, steal that one.
“There are lots of industries that claim to be green, but we’ve been taking care of the environment for a long time,” says Dean DeSantis, president, DeSantis Landscapes, Salem, Ore.
But are we communicating the benefits of a healthy, managed landscape to our customers? Probably not.
“Everyone says they are interested in green and they want the service providers they hire to be green, but in a lot of cases, customers don’t know what green means,” says Jim McCutcheon, president, High Grove Partners, Smyrna, Ga., and chairman of PLANET’s Crystal Ball Committee, which produced a report last year called Green Industry ECOnomics.
Explaining sustainable landscape practices to customers is the first step. “Being knowledgeable, understanding what’s going on (in sustainability) and guiding our customers is going to raise our value level with customer,” McCutcheon says.
One way to brush up on green industry sustainability initiatives is to review the principles outlined in the Sustainable Sites Initiative. Its goal: to create voluntary national guidelines and performance benchmarks for sustainable land design, construction and maintenance practices.
McCutcheon suggests reading the guiding principles of the initiative and culling ideas from the document that could represent service opportunities. For instance, High Grove Partners has organized a storm water management program to address stricter enforcement of municipal water quality laws. Property management clients are getting citations, and now they can turn to High Grove for help.
Before you dive into a new service, take time to assess where your company stands in the spectrum of “green.” McCutcheon suggests focusing on the two buckets of sustainability: products and services; and internal operations.
“I think we can use our resources more wisely, protect our environment better and make good business decisions,” McCutcheon says.
This month, Lawn & Landscape spoke to three firms to learn how they approach sustainability.
Innovation the green way
During an annual planning meeting seven years ago, the DeSantis Landscapes team was lobbing ideas around the conference room. A facilitator asked each person at the table to describe his or her passion. “As we went around the room, it became clear that each of us had a passion for the environment and sustainability,” says Dean DeSantis, president of the Salem, Ore.-based firm.
The facilitator blew his whistle. “Why aren’t you doing something about this?” he asked the group.
Good question, DeSantis thought. Before long, the company hatched its EarthSense organic lawn care program and began scrutinizing its business practices. “That led us to ask the question: Where do we have the most impact on the environment as a company?” DeSantis relates. “One of the big things we found was fuel.”
So five years ago, DeSantis found a biodiesel vendor, brought two 500-gallon tanks on site and began filling equipment and trucks with this cleaner fuel. The change required some adjustments – mainly changing filters more often since biodiesel works as a sort of cleansing agent and can push the “gunk” on the inside of equipment into filters. And DeSantis pays slightly more for this fuel: $3 per gallon rather than the $2.79 going rate for regular diesel. But customers recognize the company’s eco-conscious effort.
“They call us because they’re heard we’re green, or they see our bumper stickers that say we have biodiesel in our trucks,” DeSantis says.
Clients can choose among three levels of EarthSense services – a no-pesticides platinum program; a silver level with some spot treatments; and bronze with more chemical intervention. “People love the idea of being green and no pesticides, yet we have several clients who then come to the realization that they also don’t want any weeds,” DeSantis says, adding that green never promises weed-free. “So we find out where clients are comfortable and how far they want us to go with (our green program).”
Regardless of the service clients choose, they benefit from DeSantis Landscapes internal green initiatives – the use of biodiesel fuel, the bioswale on the company’s property that filters storm water and the solar panels on its building that cut energy bills.
And while clients can certainly choose organic or so-called “natural” services from other firms, DeSantis Landscapes has established a leadership position in this niche by constantly innovating and offering customers interesting alternatives. One of those is compost tea. The company has a 100-gallon brewer and can customize batches for clients’ properties depending on soil needs. “Everyone can say, ‘We are using less pesticides,’” DeSantis says. “Something has to be unique.”
That’s why DeSantis is talking to customers about rain water harvesting: ways to capture run-off and redirect this water so it can be used for irrigation. He suggests rain gardens for homeowners and talks to commercial clients about bioswales. Marketing collateral that outlines these services helps customers understand what’s new in green.
A big part of selling green services is educating the customer base and community outreach. DeSantis has also found that partnering with like-minded businesses – even in different industries – can result in effective marketing campaigns. For instance, DeSantis Landscapes services a chain of burger restaurants that sell waste oil from making French fries and other menu items to biodiesel companies. “We use that waste oil to help fuel our trucks,” DeSantis says.
So DeSantis and the restaurant are telling the public about their good work. And clients in the Portland market listen. “People here are very interested in sustainability and green products and services,” he says, noting that about 80 percent of customer calls inquire about the Earth Sense program.
Meanwhile, DeSantis also fields inquiries from job seekers all over the country who want to work for his environmentally conscious firm. So he gets the pick of the crop.
What’s next for DeSantis? The company is assembling its many sustainable “pieces” into a comprehensive plan by using a Sustainability Planning and Reporting Kit (SPARK). This tool will help the company synthesize its current efforts and set goals for the coming years.
“One of our goals is to continue being perceived as the sustainable landscape leader,” he says. “And that requires innovation and constantly educating ourselves and continuing to improve.”
Freedom Lawns U.S.A. was founded on the concept of providing clients “freedom from harsh chemicals and freedom of time,” says president Mark Tamn, who has worked in the industry for 35 years at national firms. “I’ve seen companies come and go, and I’ve seen different ways of performing lawn care. I saw the chemical part of (the job), and I knew we needed to do something different.”
So Tamn applied this philosophy to a business plan and Freedom Lawns was born – and soon after in 2001, so was a fertilizer product he developed and registered in North and South Carolina.
The product is organically fortified and formulated specifically for southeast lawns. There are four different analyses for the region’s warm season grasses to suit various properties’ needs. Aside from the fertilizer, Tamn is testing a natural mole repellent that is a botanical product and a natural insect repellent.
When selecting other products for the company’s lawn care services, Tamn scrutinizes labels and practices common sense. He pores over research provided by universities and decides which products fit his business model. The core of that is Integrated Pest Management.
“We have thorough training of employees to make sure they understand these products and when to use them,” he says.
“It’s not only what you use – it’s what you don’t use,” he adds.
Because Tamn wants technicians to take their time in the field, properly identify weed and disease problems, then choose an appropriate product, the company does not pay its workers commission.
“It’s human nature to work as quickly as you can to get to the next job because, at the end of the week, the more you do the more profit there is for you,” he says of commission-based pay structures. “We want employees to spend time on the lawns so they can make sound judgment on when to use pesticides and when not to use them.”
This use-sparingly technique is what differentiates Freedom Lawns U.S.A. from competitors, Tamn says. “The majority of our clients are trying to be more green,” he says, citing demand for the services. “But they have to realize their lawn may not be that cookie-cutter, weed-free patch of grass. Most are OK with that.”
Setting reasonable customer expectations is a big part of the job. Technicians educate customers about what to expect of Freedom Lawns’ services – and that’s not a golf course look.
What clients can expect is a safe lawn that is virtually weed-free. And they can also expect to spend some time maintaining that lawn to get the best results. “We don’t do mowing or irrigation, so we have to educate homeowner on the proper ways to do that and what is required of them,” Tamn says.
Tamn worries that other companies are making promises that aren’t realistic of green lawn care, or calling themselves “green” but not walking the talk. “That will dilute the meaning of being environmentally conscious,” he says. In fact, in many industries, this “greenwashing” is already happening. “People really have to do some due diligence.”
And as a green industry leader in providing organic services, education becomes just as important as caring for the lawn. Tamn emphasizes his company’s complete “system” for sustainability. “It starts at the top,” he says of leadership. “It includes employees and works down to the end products you are using.”
Learning and adopting green practices
Richard Heller accidentally completed his first sustainable landscape project in 1996. It was a green roof a landscape architect asked him to build. “The architect said, ‘Let’s put up a stone retaining wall, add some waterproofing mat between the roof and plants, and we’ll plant right here,’” Heller recalls of the (at the time) radical concept. Now, roof gardens are about 10 percent of his business.
“I knew it was something different, but once I found out how eco-friendly it was…,” Heller says, adding that he wrote his college thesis on alternative technology and realized this project fell under that heading. “I got real excited about that, and we pursued it aggressively.”
At the time, Greener by Design was servicing interiorscape clients, as well. But as Heller began to rewrite his business philosophies with a green slant, he eventually dropped that niche and began exclusively marketing landscape design/build services to his New York City clients.
Heller gradually stepped into sustainability, beginning with soil testing and simply putting the right plant in the right place. It’s basic stuff, but no one else was really doing it in his market, he says. His suburban clients are curious about why his technicians pull soil plugs from their properties.
That’s why customized marketing pieces are a key part of getting new customers to understand the Greener by Design way. “When we go to pitch a client, we tell them we are the only full-service we know of in this area of New York that are using corn gluten, testing the soil and using compost tea,” he says.
None of this is new technology. “I have nothing original going on here,” Heller says.
But what Heller does have is a desire to learn from other companies and apply their green practices to his own business. “Through our affiliation with the Professional Landcare Network and our networking with other companies across the country, we are always finding out about sustainable innovations that we can take little pieces of and apply to our company,” Heller says.
For example, Dean DeSantis of Salem, Oregon’s DeSantis Landscapes has been brewing compost tea to amend lawns for years. Now, Heller makes his own formula and will only sell spot weed treatment to clients if they agree to a healthy dose of the mixture each year. “We believe if you are selective and only spray where weeds are, when we come back with the compost tea, that will help restore the damage,” he says.
Not every effort works. Heller tried operating his suburban landscape business with electric mowers, blowers and edgers, but he couldn’t be competitive using that equipment. So he fuels up commercial mowers like everyone else, but strikes a green balance by doing all he can to make business operations efficient so he doesn’t waste gas.
“Besides farming, we are the only industry that engages in a practice to sequester carbon,” he points out. “A well-maintained lawn sequesters five times more carbon than ornamental grass, even with a dirty polluting lawnmower.”
For Heller, operating a sustainable company means striking a balance between doing good and doing well. He finds out what green services customers are willing to pay for, and he looks for ways in his business to improve efficiencies and run a lean operation.
For instance, Heller can service two or three city crews from one truck. The truck drops off materials at various sites the night before those jobs, and crews show up on site the next day via public transportation. (This is only natural for the New York City natives.)
“We take the philosophy that we’re saving the planet one property at a time,” Heller says, emphasizing that every effort counts. As Heller and his team continue to learn, they apply more green practices to the business. “We’re looking now at becoming a zero-waste organization, which is the goal of lean manufacturing,” he says.
Heller emphasizes that sustainability requires a commitment to learning – and doing. “We are always trying to figure out what is the next step and how we can do things better,” he says.
The author is a frequent contributor to Lawn & Landscape.
“We have had some luck, being that we have had work, but only one job at a time. We’re down to one crew in landscape and one in maintenance. It is really slow and we see the entire economy crashing around us. There is literally no work in Sacramento. Other friends of mine tell me that they cannot buy a job. How is the rest of the country doing?”
To get a true perspective on this contractor’s concerns, I’d also ask, “Where is the country heading?” The first question is fairly easy to answer. It’s the second one that’s a crap shoot. There are more mixed signals in today’s economy than in BP CEO Tony Hayward’s testimony before the U.S. Congress.