LEADERSHIP 2006: Gerry McCarthy

Features - Business Management

Gerry McCarthy’s membership in more than 25 associations and clubs has made him a well-rounded business owner.

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November 7, 2006
Mark Phillips

Gerry McCarthy was sitting in front of the local bank president in the late 1970s. Only 23 at the time, McCarthy had worked and saved a down payment on a house and was now in need of a mortgage.
 
The bank president, neatly dressed and clad in a bow tie, stared at McCarthy after the young landscape contractor asked for a $16,000 loan. The president would be hard to please. Never mind that McCarthy had $40,000 in cash to put down, more than 71 percent of the home’s cost.

LEADERSHIP 2006

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“He says to me – with his bow tie – ‘Mr. McCarthy, what do you do for a living?’” McCarthy recalls. “I told him I was a landscaper.”
 
The questioning continued. “He asked what I did in the wintertime,” McCarthy says. “I told him that I do snow plowing. He asked, ‘What happens if it doesn’t snow?’”
 
If it didn’t snow, there’s not much he could do about that, McCarthy told the bank president.
 
“He asked, ‘Well, how are you going to make your mortgage payments?’” McCarthy’s answer was simple: “Any way I can.
 
“It was obvious that he didn’t have faith in me, and I had to prove to him I could do it,” McCarthy recalls.
 
Gerry McCarthy loves green. Not money, mind you, but plants. Taking care of “anything green,” as he puts it, propelled him into a career path that led to Mac’s Landscaping in Stoneham, Mass., in 1975.
 
However, it all started with a mix of odd jobs, side businesses and listening to his mentors and the examples they set. It was bartending, painting houses on the weekends and making time for the craft he loves: keeping landscaping beautiful. This was the schooling that proved to be so valuable later in life.
 
McCarthy took an early stab at taking a leadership position when he sought the presidency of his local landscape association.
 
“But they thought I was too young,” he remembers. “They just didn’t think I was ready for it, which I really wasn’t.”

Fla 
Gerry McCarthy

McCarthy, though, is no stranger to hard work. During his high school years he hauled hoses from heating oil trucks through snow-covered lawns during bitter-cold Boston winters. He remembers Cubby Oil owner Dom Uglietto – whom he describes as “tough” – encouraging him to work harder on one particular night. During one New Year’s Eve, McCarthy told Uglietto that he wanted to go out to dinner that night. “He told me we’d get home early,” McCarthy recalls. By 6:45 p.m., the snow continued to blow and the cold was biting his face. But still, Uglietto barked they needed to work even harder to get the work finished.

“I remember he was just relentless,” McCarthy says. “He told me, ‘Come on, Mac. Let’s keep going. Let’s keep going.’ He was always pushing and pushing. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever met in my life. He never stops.”
 
McCarthy was very active in his church, even when he was young. At 15, he jumped at the chance to work with the church’s custodians on the grounds.
 
“I had a lot of pride in taking care of it,” McCarthy recalls. “That was the biggest thing – getting on one of those big riding mowers, and I would ride the mower to the top of the hill, and it just felt so good.” He parlayed that into a small mowing service around his neighborhood.
 
Following high school, McCarthy attended Wentworth College and received a degree in civil engineering. 

HIGHLIGHTS

    Name: Gerry McCarthy

    Company: Mac’s Landscaping

    Location: Stoneham, Mass.

    Career Highlights:

  • Member of the PLANET board of directors
  • Member of the GIE board of directors
  • Member, Knights of Columbus, Stoneham Rotary Club
  • Owner of Mac’s Landscaping, a professional landscape business that serves the Greater Boston area

“I had no idea that I wanted to go into landscaping as a career,” McCarthy says, “but I don’t know what it is – I just like the outdoors.” 

For a while, he worked for Landscaping by Schumacher. McCarthy estimates the company was generating $10 million in revenue at the time. He counts John Schumacher, the owner, as a mentor who taught him the value of hard work.
 
“One day, he told me, ‘I’m sending you up to Quechee, Vt., to do a job. You’ll be gone for a weekend,’” McCarthy says. That weekend turned into a summer. While being away from Christine, the woman who would eventually become his wife, was trying, he was resolute. “It was longer than I originally wanted to stay up there,” he says, “but I wanted to learn about the trade.”

Along with that hard work comes the preparation before you play the game, McCarthy says. “When I encountered difficulty over selling a piece of land I owned, I wanted to learn all I could about real estate,” he explains. “So, I took real estate courses, studied, and passed the test to acquire my real estate license in 2000. Christine is also a realtor and processes the payroll for the landscaping business. I help my wife conduct open houses. She taught me the other benefit of acquiring a real estate license – the power of networking. It helps me in landscaping as well.”
 
For McCarthy, working commercial jobs wasn’t as enriching as talking to people and taking care of residential properties. He recalls one job where his crew planted 60 trees in one day.
 
“There was just no fun to it,” he says. “Commercial to me is a lot different than residential. We are more of a design-build residential company and I’ve always liked that. I’m the type of person who likes to talk to people. I love meeting people all of the time.” 

GERRY MCCARTHY 
ON GIVING BACK
 


    Q. What does the term “giving back” mean to you?

    A. “Remembering to give back to the community is something that I try to do daily.”

    Q. Describe a situation where you feel you gave back to the industry or your community due to a cause or effort you believed in and how this im- pacted you in your career.”

    A. “Throughout my more than 14 years of coaching youth sports teams, I have tried to instill hard work in young athletes. I always tell them, ‘You don’t always have to win. You just always have to play your heart out.’”

    Q. What memorable quotes on giving back can you share that influence you in your day-to-day life?

    A. “At my son’s college graduation, a professor there said, ‘You learn, you earn, and then you return.’ I always remember that. We’re always learning. You’ve got to earn – you have to make money to keep it going. But to return is to give back, and I never really understood the full meaning of that until the last 10 years or so. When you do something, you don’t always have to look for a ‘thank you.’ Just do it for the cause, but don’t say someone should have thanked you for it.”

    Q. What is one thing you do to teach your employees the value of giving back?

    A. “Encourage them to join associations and be active in the industry.”

    Q. In your opinion, what are the top three things a lawn care operator or landscape contractor can do today to get the most out of giving back when they join various organizations or causes.

    A. “I’ve always been a club-joiner, a person who gets involved. Once I get in there, I really do a lot of work. So, if you get involved, remem- ber to do the work and then when you rise to leadership roles in those organizations, remember to give credit regularly to the people who are on your committee who are working their tails off to accomplish your goals.”

EARLY RISER. McCarthy’s comptroller comes into the office one day a week. “She says, ‘if your desk is messy, the work is coming,’” McCarthy says, laughing. “Everything on my desk is going to go to her desk eventually.”
 
Work starts as he rises at 5:30 a.m. each morning. McCarthy likes to keep the attire casual. He favors Izod-type shirts, blue jeans and sometimes khakis and a nice pair of boots. In by 7 a.m., he makes himself available to managers and crewmembers.
 
“If they have any questions, I’m here in the office and they can come in here and talk to me,” he says.
 
McCarthy then takes to his appointments, where he meets several prospective clients each day, often six days a week. Potential customers come in from referrals, phone books, signs on the company’s trucks and the Web. Each referral to the company is carefully tracked. Eventually, the paperwork piles up on his desk.
 
“I have two secretaries who come in during the week and they try to keep it somewhat neat,” McCarthy says. “I’m pretty clean – I’m not a total mess, but I know where everything is.” 
 
In between appointments with prospective clients, he visits jobsites. “I do an awful lot during the day – as a result, I sleep well at night,” he says, laughing.
 
McCarthy likes to keep a visual record of the work the company performs through lots of before-and-after photos.
 
“I’m very proud of our work,” he says. Son Keith, who graduated from Boston College with degrees in business administration and finance, works in the field for the company’s masonry division. Shawn, who graduated from Bryant College with degrees in finance and marketing, works in the construction division. “One thing I can say about my own kids is that they work hard,” McCarthy says. “You really have to put the time in to get the benefits out of it.”

LEARNING FROM MENTORS. A good leader listens to their mentors and learns from mistakes, McCarthy believes. This was a difficult lesson to learn when he opened a garden center in 1984. One of his mentors, Paul Mahoney, who owns Mahoney’s Garden Centers, a group of eight highly successful stores in Massachusetts, warned McCarthy against entering the market while being a landscaper. It would prove to be too much.
 
“I thought, if he can go into it, why can’t I?” McCarthy recalls.
 
McCarthy let his pride get in the way, and took Mahoney’s warning as almost a challenge.
 
“It didn’t work,” he says. “I found out it wasn’t my niche to try to run a garden center and be a landscaper. It was almost impossible to do both.”
 
Nevertheless, McCarthy continued operating the garden center for nine years and struggled.

“I just couldn’t succeed,” he says. “I just found out that it’s completely different and you need a lot of resources and a tremendous amount of money.” 

LEADERSHIP COMES FROM WITHIN

    To Gerry McCarthy, honesty is the cornerstone of any good leader. “And you have to have a really positive attitude,” he adds. “When something bad comes along, you have to deal with it and try to show good leadership.”

    Though he’s been in the business for more than three decades, McCarthy knows he doesn’t have all of the answers. It’s necessary to let the good ideas rise to the top, he believes. “We try to implement some good systems and procedures for our people – things that actually work and make sense,” he says. “A lot of times some people don’t like the systems. I tell them if they don’t like it and can create a better system, I’ll be glad to listen to their idea and we’ll make it work.”

    McCarthy believes a leader comes from within. “It comes with an attitude,” he says. “People either have it or they don’t have it. I think a leader is built on reputation. I think it has a lot to do with trust.” McCarthy acknowledges his past shortcomings and seeks to improve upon them. One of those shortcomings was how he used to communicate at work. “When I was younger, I used to yell a lot. I would never do that again today,” he says. “I take employees aside and I try to explain problems to them.” A mix of patience, maturity, and a commitment to understanding the situation has helped.

    He tries to remind his employees to remember to do the simple things first in order to make time for more important work. For instance, with several crews out in the field on any given day, failure to keep up on paperwork can be frustrating. “This is something that’s very simple,” he says. “I have a lot of crews out there and I don’t have a chance to check every single thing. It’s a very simple system, but it’s more complicated if they don’t do it.”

    A subtle reminder in McCarthy’s office lets employees know they can have everything he has. “It says, “If you want what I have, do what I do,’” McCarthy says. “I have a nice car, a nice boat and a nice house, but I worked hard to get there. I don’t think everybody sees that. And it took a long time for me to figure that out.”

    To McCarthy, leadership always means seeking realistic growth and keeping the business at a level that can be maintained. His sons often ask him why he’s not going for $10 million in revenue. “We’re not a very big business – we do a little more than $1.25 million,” he says. “And I have a very good living and a very good life. I really do work hard, and then I take my vacations. I know some people would want more and more, but I’m happy at the level I’m at.”

    When finding future leaders within his company, he assesses their strengths and weaknesses early on. “You have to do a profile to see what they’re good at,” McCarthy says. “There’s nothing worse than putting someone in a position where they don’t like what they’re doing. If you find someone who loves what they’re doing, you’ve found a good match.”

    McCarthy’s son, Shawn, says, “He’s taught me that you have to work from the ground up and that there’s a business side and a people side. And each of those complement each other.”

It wasn’t uncommon for the garden center to be in the black four months out of the year. “The other months, we were always in the red. It was tough,” he recalls. When it came time to sell the business, Mahoney operated the garden center until a buyer was found.
 
Mahoney’s leadership and work ethic impresses McCarthy. “It just amazes me to see what he has done over the years,” McCarthy says. “I’m amazed and I basically feel success is not always about money; it’s about happiness, too.”

McCarthy’s social nature explains his more than 25 association and club memberships and coaching positions over the years, including serving as past president of his local Rotary.
 
“We always ask how we are going to get the most qualified people,” he says. “Rotary is about service above self. If you serve your community, you’re going to get things ten-fold back. I try to encourage people to do that, so if they serve and do the best they can, somebody will notice it.” His travels with the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, the fraternal organization founded in 1638, afforded him the opportunity to travel to 20 countries during 16 trips. “I’ve traveled all over the world with them and I’ve learned an awful lot just by traveling and meeting people of different cultures,” McCarthy says.
 
It was through the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company that McCarthy had a life-changing experience – meeting Pope John Paul II. McCarthy recalls sitting with the pontiff during a private meeting in his library in Rome. “I was stunned; I was numb,” McCarthy says. He recalls touching and kissing the ring on his hand. “I just felt very, very privileged. It sent chills down my spine. It was something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
 
Traveling overseas has helped him in his business as well. “Education helps you to communicate with people,” he says. “That’s given me a lot of opportunities.”

McCarthy’s son’s college graduation also provided some unexpected wisdom. “A professor there said, ‘You learn, you earn, and then you return.’ I always remember that,” he says. “We’re always learning. You’ve got to earn – you have to make money to keep it going. But to return is to give back and I never really understood the full meaning of that until the last 10 years or so. When you do something, you don’t always have to look for a ‘thank you.’ Just do it for the cause. But don’t say someone should have thanked you for it.”
 
His father’s energy and excitement about the industry make his personality so infectious, Shawn McCarthy says. “He’s absolutely one of the most motivated people I’ve ever met,” he shares. “People love him. He’s so into the industry and he gets other people into it.”

FUTURE OF THE INDUSTRY. An important challenge faced by the landscape industry is the increasing language divide, McCarthy says. “We have a lot of Hispanic people working in this industry and we have to better communicate with them and learn the language,” he says. “I think we have to be bi-lingual.”
 
For the landscape industry to grow and prosper, young people must be shown  how they can make a career out of it, McCarthy adds. “I’ve survived all of these years, but it’s been tough in the winter time,” he says. “And if you don’t like to do snow plowing or something else, you have to make enough money in those eight months or so to last.”
 
Success in the industry is deeply rooted in education, McCarthy points out.
 
“I don’t have all the education that I wish I had,” he says. “Try to get as much education as you can. It’s so competitive these days. You have to work smarter rather than harder. I see a lot of guys coming in here – they have degrees and they’re very versatile. But a degree carries employees only so far. They have to learn the practical stuff, too. You’ve got to get your hands dirty a little bit.”
 
Anyone thinking about running their own landscaping business should take business management courses, McCarthy suggests. “The horticulture knowledge will always come,” he says. “I didn’t know the difference between an azalea and a petunia when I first started, but I learned.”
 
New contractors should not assume the money will continue to roll in, McCarthy adds. “It’s almost like that old story – they get a few dollars and they go out and buy a new truck,” he says. “And then they think they’re doing well, but they don’t put any money away. Then a few bad years come along and they’re not prepared.” McCarthy has experienced several recessions, all of which reminded him of how hard things can be. “They’ve got to be very humble about it and basically go in there and try to understand that they have to work hard every day.”
 
Government regulation will also continue to be an industry challenge, McCarthy says. “The focus of the future is that we’re going to have a lot of different things thrown at us, such as government regulations that we’re going to have to work with,” he says. “They’re always going to find problems with something, and we’re going to have to deal with them.”