Leadership can be hard to quantify. But when you see it, feel it or are inspired by it, you realize exactly what leadership is.
If someone asked you to describe leadership, you might say leaders are committed. Leaders are actively involved in their industry. Leaders run businesses that are successful in the eyes of both their customers and their employees. And leaders – quite simply – can motivate and bring people together.
The “recession years” have forced many lawn and landscape professionals to redefine their businesses and streamline their operations to increase efficiency and maintain profitability. It has not been easy, but leaders find a way to take care of their customers their employees and their businesses.
Syngenta is proud to sponsor Lawn & Landscape’s Leadership Awards, which highlight the innovation and perseverance lawn and landscape professionals display year in and year out.
As a business partner to the lawn and landscape professional, Syngenta strives to provide the products, tools and resources lawn care operators need to be successful.
The many resources Syngenta invests each year on R&D result in a line of innovative turf products designed to deliver quality results. And we will continue to invest in research to make residential and commercial turf healthier and the job of the lawn care operator easier.
This year, you’ll hear more about the latest herbicide from Syngenta: Tenacity® herbicide. With its proprietary active ingredient, mesotrione, Tenacity can be used both as a pre- and post-emergence herbicide to selectively control 46 weeds and grass species, including nimblewill, crabgrass and bentgrass. Tenacity can be applied at any time, even at seeding.
Syngenta also features a line of fungicides including Heritage® G and Headway® G fungicides. Both products offer curative and preventive control of key diseases in lawn care such as brown patch, dollar spot, pythium, anthracnose and others.
Syngenta is poised to introduce three new products in 2012 specifically designed for the lawn and landscape professional. Stay tuned for more news on these introductions.
It is no secret that the past few years have been challenging in this industry, but there is great hope for a bright future – and it is a future Syngenta is committed to help improve for all the customers and organizations we serve.
Syngenta is proud to support organizations such as PLANET,® RISE (Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment)® and Project EverGreen that are assisting professionals in unifying the industry.
You don’t think it will happen to you. A partner wants out and drains the checking account before filing bankruptcy.
A large contractor holds up thousands of dollars of your pay with no remorse.
A business you’ve been servicing for more than a decade starts another LLC and dupes you out of pay.
But you’ve got to consider these worst-case scenarios. Because they do happen – to people like you. “Get an attorney who understands the type of business you are in,” says Matt Caruso, president, Decra-Scape, headquartered in Sterling Heights, Mich. (Caruso was ripped off $10,500 by a contractor who eventually settled on paying 80 cents for every dollar owed.)
And be sure legal contracts are water-tight and leave no room for creative interpretation. The Winlands in Zanesville, Ohio, learned this the hard way when an old partner took advantage of the checkbook.
This month, Lawn & Landscape spoke with three firms who shared how those worst-case legal scenarios can play out in the real business world and how to protect yourself.
Lien law and order
The 68-acre outdoor lifestyle shopping complex was complete, tenants had occupied the high-end storefronts and were paying rent. But Matt Caruso, president, Decra-Scape in Michigan, was still waiting for $60,000 owed to him for the expansive hardscaping work his team performed.
“It was disheartening to see people walking in and out of stores knowing that the company was sitting on sixty grand of your money,” he says, noting that the project totaled in the neighborhood of $600,000 and that leftover past-due money was held up in “retention.” Essentially, the company paid 90 percent of every invoice Caruso filed and held the remaining 10 percent until the end of the job.
But there was no check in the mail.
“We got to the tail end of the job, and the payments stopped all of a sudden,” Caruso says, noting that he turned in a pay application for the job because projects of that size require draws for work performed.
Caruso had closely followed the paperwork protocol these large contracting jobs require. Before the start of the job, he sent the client his notice of commencement. And upon completing the job and not receiving that retention pay, he filed a claim on the lien. “Once your last day your labor has touched the ground is over, and after 90 days passes, if you don’t put a claim in on your lien when you haven’t been paid in full, you start to get into some muddy waters,” he says.
Lien laws can get tricky, and Caruso emphasizes that landscape companies that work on large projects like this one with multiple contractor-players involved should “watch their backs” and understand lien law. Otherwise, your company could get duped out of hard-earned pay.
“From a contractual standpoint, (the client) was likely hoping that we were not privy to (the law) and they were hoping to take advantage of us,” Caruso says.
Caruso confronted the client and was invited to their offices to discuss the matter. “I walked into this grandiose conference room and here come all the suits and ties trying to offer me 25 cents on the dollar to go away,” Caruso says of the paltry settlement proposition. He declined. Then he sought further counsel from his attorney.
After back-and-forth negotiating, Caruso eventually settled for 80 cents on the dollar. His attorney suggested that after a yearlong wait, Caruso accept the offer. Otherwise, he’d end up spending that money on attorney’s fees in court.
Caruso lost $10,500 on that job. “That’s not chump change,” he says. But ultimately, given the economic slump and slow pay trend of other clients, he felt he had no choice but to settle.
Lien laws are there to secure a debt the property owner owes to another person – in this case, Caruso. They’re a protection, but only if you use them. “I had all my i’s dotted and t’s crossed, which is why I got paid 80 cents on the dollar eventually,” Caruso says.
Partners and crime
When the partner that R.D. Winland started his first landscape company with back in college wanted out, what seemed an amicable request fast rolled into a drained checking account, bankruptcy and three years of stress.
All this happened right before the economy really took a dip.
“I had first rights to buy him out, or we could find someone else to buy him out 50/50,” R.D. Winland says of the somewhat loose partnership agreement that was drawn up between him and his buddy. Winland was the field man, managing operations and delivering the service. His partner was the sales leader who also managed the books.
Before giving the partner an offer, Winland figured out the worth of the company minus its debt. Then, he put an offer on the table. “The next thing I know, I’m being sued,” Winland says. But worse, in the midst of meeting with an attorney to deal with the lawsuit, the partner drained the checking account. There were no check-signing limitations requiring both partners signatures in their casual partnership agreement. That was a big mistake. Winland filed a countersuit that persisted for six months before the partner filed personal bankruptcy. So the case was essentially dropped because the bank takes precedence in situations like this. “We sat there for almost two and a half years waiting for the bankruptcy to go through court, and bank trustees, who oversee the procedure, came to us to see if he could get some assets out of the business,” Winland says.
The trustees determined that the partner indeed had ownership in the company. But they never asked the Winlands to give up any assets. Meanwhile, the partnership was still intact legally. And that is still the case today. “We filed for a dissolution instead of going back to sue him for what he stole,” Winland says. That process is in the works.
In the meantime, Winland faced a credit lock-up when he approached banks to get working capital because of the partner’s bankruptcy state. “No one wants to allow you to have a line of credit to purchase materials that you need to do long-term projects,” Winland says.
So Winland started a new business with his wife, Stephanie, as partner. They realigned their marketing by giving the company a new name but keeping the logo similar to the old one. “We want people to identify with the good things we have done in the past,” Stephanie Winland says. “We are in a small town, so reputation is everything.”
The Winlands communicated with customers about the name change, leaving the partnership battle out of it. “We put a letter out to customers and vendors saying we are realigning our business and marketing efforts to truly describe our line of work (with a new name), and it’s a positive direction for the company,” she says.
The lesson learned, Winland says, is to think twice before you bring on a partner.
Client use and abuse
For 15 years, Lawn Managers in St. Louis, had served as the lawn care subcontractor for a large maintenance firm in town – a several-million dollar outfit that only focused on landscape maintenance. The big firm sold lawn care services to its customers, turned the business over to Lawn Managers and paid Linda Zweifel and her then-partner directly. That business generally amounted to $200,000 in commercial work each year for Zweifel.
Last year, the large firm seemed to be growing exponentially. “They kept getting more and more accounts and having us bid on them and start to service them,” Zweifel says. “I thought it was strange that they were taking on so much work. Then, they started falling behind in payments.”
Lawn Managers’ 60-day payment policy went by the wayside. The big firm hadn’t cut a check for 120 days. Zweifel wanted to stop doing the work – better to lay off a couple of employees than put the business in financial jeopardy. But her partner wanted to keep their guys busy. They continued to do more work, driving the bill owed to them up to $150,000.
Zweifel placed phone calls, doing her best to collect. “They said, ‘We’re having a rough time, we’ll get it to you next year,’” Zweifel says. But by the end of the seven-month season, Lawn Managers was owed $185,000. The big firm would send scant payments of $3,000 here and there, barely chipping away at the balance. Today, Lawn Managers is out $122,000 and that doesn’t count operating costs. Plus, because Lawn Managers runs the business on a cash accounting basis, it couldn’t claim the $122,000 as a loss on their tax returns.
Meanwhile, the big firm had started another LLC, and Zweifel believes its unusual surge in business was an effort to falsely build up revenues in order to eventually sell to a large national company. “They used us for all of their chemical apps, knowing they weren’t going to pay, and they made it look like they had so much revenue going through them and capital to back it up,” Zweifel says.
That big firm is still in business. Zweifel sees the trucks on the road – their old name and logo were removed, but she can see where the signage was stripped from the vehicles. “They are still out there working, even though they ripped us off for $122,000,” she says, fuming.
Lawn Managers took the issue to court and found 10 other companies waiting in line to get their money, too. “There is nothing we can do to retrieve it,” Zweifel says of the money.
Zweifel says the LLC and fast growth were red flags, and Lawn Managers should never have allowed a large customer to run such a big balance. She says there are really no legal repercussions, and so now the focus is on driving the core business, not being a subcontractor for someone else. Lawn Managers is embarking on a website project to enhance its Internet marketing.
The end lesson: Don’t get brushed off by the bigger guy, she says. “A lot of businesses have working relationships with other companies and think, ‘Well, they always paid us in the past. They will pay us,’” Zweifel adds.
The author is a frequent contributor to Lawn & Landscape.
Phil Allen describes a moment when he knew he had found his sweet spot as a green industry educator. It happened while he was guiding a group of students from his arboriculture class on a snowshoe hike to the largest white fir tree in the world, which happens to be close to Brigham Young University’s Provo, Utah, campus.
Allen, a rugged outdoorsman who calls wild plants his friends and the rocky-desert of southern Utah his home base, can be found most weekends climbing cliffs, running miles on scenic trails and hiking the region’s extreme landscapes.
“I’m teaching all my classes in rooms without windows this year – I need to have my outdoors time,” says Dr. Allen, program leader for the landscape management degree at BYU.
Allen and the students began this particular hike at dusk, edging up a steep mountain trail in the cold. The conditions weren’t cushy. “But there is always a lot of laughter and camaraderie,” he says.
After ascending the mountain, the group arrived at a large, clear meadow a few hundred yards from the fir tree. It was dark. “The stars were bright and everyone looked up and became silent, even reverent,” Allen says. “As I looked around these students – kids I have really come to love – I knew that I had the most perfect job on Earth.”
During these times, Dr. Allen is Phil, says Charley Schreiber, 29, a senior at BYU. Experiencing Phil in his essence invariably occurs while communing with nature, or taking it on with wild abandon by foot, bike, kayak. And, students get to know Phil during hands-on activities, such as participating in PLANET’s Student Career Days.
“He loves to teach, to help people improve,” Schreiber says. “When you get to see him outside of the classroom doing what he loves, his passion is real. He’s not just talk.”
The stuff Allen does in his spare time (like cycling the French Pyrenees, backpacking the 217-mile John Muir Trail and going on 50-mile trail runs) involves taking the great outdoors to an awesome level. When asked how he spent a day off, he shares that he took a nine-hour hike up a mountain near an ecological restoration plot. “The view from 10,000-plus feet was spectacular,” he says. Now refreshed, he was ready to return to the classroom for winter semester.
Allen brings this passion for the outdoors into the classroom where he helps to raise future leaders of this industry.
“As educators, we have to understand that this is not just about horticulture anymore,” he says. “In the green industry, there is prime opportunity for people who combine horticulture with people skills and business knowledge.”
For Allen, his purpose as an educator comes down to this: “We’re putting as many students as possible into an industry that we love.”
Growing leaders. Before returning to his alma mater to teach, Allen thought about his own teachers, and the handful that had changed his life.
“They were the ones who were super-difficult,” he says. “But at the same time, they combined that challenge and rigor with the belief that I had potential.”
So Allen drives students to dig deeper. “He pushes me to learn more, to understand more and be a better person when it comes to the career I’ll have when I leave BYU,” Schreiber says. “He wants us to be prepared.”
This desire to prepare – to really give students an industry edge before they don the cap and gown – is exactly what compelled Allen to take a serious look at the BYU landscape management program and retool it. Allen draws parallels between remodeling the program to meet today’s green industry demands and the book “Good to Great.”
“In our own program, those were the same steps we took: determining what we could be the best at, and shedding the rest,” he says. “We focused on that (accreditation) and we’re passionate about the industry.”
PLANET’s accreditation is the only nationally recognized endorsement for universities with landscape/horticulture curricula. Only a handful of nation’s schools have earned the recognition.
The designation comes as much from the school’s students as its professors and administrators.
“They want to see what your (student landscape) club is like, they want to see what your students are involved in,” Allen says.
What they found at BYU was a group of engaged students who get their hands dirty, work alongside campus grounds crews and learn how to succeed in the field.
|Phil Allen shares his passion for the outdoors with students.|
That’s because Allen focuses on giving students experiences that will help them make choices about their career and learn from the best. For example, Allen’s arboriculture students can join the campus tree crew, led by a world-class arborist who was the International Society of Arboriculture’s man of the year. “The kids become qualified to pass the ISA’s certification exam, and we have 100-percent passing rate on that exam,” Allen says, proud.
BYU also has the only program where students complete PLANET’s landscape industry certified manager exam before graduation. “We did that as a capstone exit exam to measure their progress in the different sections of that exam,” Allen says, noting that he’s working to improve the passing rate each year.
Meanwhile, at BYU’s business school, there is a dedicated faculty position for landscape management. They graduate with a business minor. “That is what industry professionals have told us they would like to see in kids if they are going to have a lifetime career in the landscape industry – they need a business backing,” he says.
Allen’s “kids” leave the university ready to work. “Even in a down economy, every one of our students who has pursued employment has found it,” Allen says. In a way, this is Allen’s grade. And it’s outstanding.
Perhaps that’s because Allen dives right into the trenches with students as they learn. “He is a master motivator,” says Greg Jolley, a landscape architect professor who has watched Allen interact with students for the nine years they have worked together at BYU. “He is not afraid to go out and get his hands dirty with the students and help them learn.”
At PLANET’s Student Career Days, the BYU team usually places, and in 2011 the students took first place. “Our No. 1 priority at Career Days is to network,” Allen says. “We would share every bit of study material with any other school that wants it. In fact, we are working with PLANET to put that on their website. We are successful, and we have a system that works – and we are willing to share that with anyone.”
Meanwhile, Allen puts his own industry knowledge to the test, challenging himself to constantly learn and grow as a professor. He took and passed the landscape contractor industry certified exam (LCIM). “Even though he has his Ph.D., he has learned the business of this industry,” Jolley says, adding that he is a tireless advocate for students.
He tries to show them what the world can offer. “Most weekends, Phil is probably on a hike with a student or group of students, usually in the mountains somewhere around Utah,” Jolley says.
Allen shares this same enthusiasm for nature with members of the industry. The people in this industry are what make teaching its future leaders, and working alongside its professionals, so exhilarating for Allen.
Horticulture is about plants and people. “Take the people out of it and you have botany,” Allen says.
Balancing nature. At Rock Canyon, an ecological restoration with a trailhead next to campus, Allen has been working to re-introduce the region’s natural habitat. It’s a 64-acre expanse with rugged rock-climbing cliffs. Allen brings in volunteers to plant wildflowers.
“A lot of people have powerful changes in their lives by working in nature,” he says, sharing that individuals serving court-ordered volunteer hours have found inspiration in the work. They are, in every sense, planting new seeds. “Just seeing that there is something (to do) other than what got them into trouble is a great experience,” Allen says.
|Phil Allen retooled BYU’s landscape management program to better prepare students for life after school.|
The Rock Canyon project was born out of some demonstration gardens Allen and colleagues at his local chapter of the Native Plant Society created. The city of Provo contacted the society and Allen suggested that a trailhead next to campus needed restoration. Eventually, an agreement formed between the city, BYU and forestry services.
It’s a work in progress, always will be. “It’s exciting watching the transition – it will never be completed,” Allen says, noting how the support of volunteers is keeping the project in perpetual motion.
A similar ongoing pursuit takes place at home, in Allen’s yard. It’s about one-fifth of an acre in size, but 150 trees grow there among countless wildflowers. It’s a canyon landscape that thrives on the little rain the region receives, and a little help from a run-off system he engineered for the roof. There is only one plant in Allen’s front yard that requires watering.
“I never have to mow it,” he says of the property. “I can prune it when I have time and tidy it up as needed.” Allen’s setting an example, but he keeps his preference to a show-and-tell level. “I am not a fanatic about saying this is the only way to landscape,” he says, adding that his goal is to find ways to balance natural resources with natural spaces.
“We need to develop approaches (to make) our landscapes really part of us, just more natural.”
Because when man works against nature, as Allen can prove, the result is an environment off balance.
For instance, when Allen was hiking through a forest of old spruce trees – the nine-hour excursion that preceded the semester start – he came to the end of the forest. “There was a sharp delineation of where you had forest, and then no vegetation at all,” he says. “I’m sure there was at one time, so something changed dramatically at that intersection that was beyond the limits of nature.”
Allen draws a lesson from this: Plants tell you their limits. We just have to listen – and show respect.
Planting a seed. Allen takes these philosophies back to the laboratory as a working seed scientist. His research focuses on seed performance in adverse conditions and he’s prolific in his reporting. He has published 58 scientific articles (so far).
“Every time you see a majestic oak tree ... they start with a tiny acorn,” he says. “I have a passion for understanding these miraculous little entities.”
Seeds have to survive in Utah and persevere through an irreversible transition from organism to growing plant. Timing is everything.
And “good” seeds can help control invasive populations that cause environmental detriment. In particular, Allen and his team have garnered a couple million dollars in funding to develop a biological control that can be applied to landscapes to control cheatgrass, which takes over semi-desert regions where wildfires are prevalent.
“We have a fungus that basically eats the cheatgrass and we call it the ‘Black Fingers of Death,’” Allen says. “It consumes seeds by putting up these fingers – fruiting structures that are black fingers and indicate the seed (of the invasive cheatgrass) has been killed.”
Allen hopes to reintroduce this native plant through ecological restoration.
This desire to preserve and appreciate the world around him is a driving force for Allen. And his ability to express at BYU his spiritual relationship with the living environment is incredibly fulfilling, he says. “There is a connection there,” he says, relating how the pure awe one can experience in nature suggests there is something more to all of this.
That connection is all part of the balance Allen finds when he is hiking, biking, just silently soaking in the great outdoors.
“When you are creating and managing beautiful landscapes,” Allen says, “I think you are contributing to the glory of God.”
The author is a frequent contributor to Lawn & Landscape.
Finally, after five years of doom and gloom, there’s some good news coming from the housing industry. So says a January 16, 2012 front page story in USA Today entitled, “Housing outlook is more upbeat: Experts predict a turnaround is near.” The article goes on to say that while the “Recovery is expected to be slow, and home prices are widely expected to fall this year,” it is a recovery nonetheless. Existing home sales are expected to rise 12 percent, and construction of single-family homes are anticipated to increase 37 percent. All of this adds up to robust pressure on stocks as the article goes on to say, “The S&P 1500 homebuilding index is up 38 percent since mid-October, vs. 7 percent for the S&P 500.” While things may be turning around, read on and find out how to avoid falling victim to another housing crisis.
What Happened? In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I worked with a number of landscape companies that primarily installed landscapes on new home production lots, models and common areas (streetscapes, small parks). New home sales were booming and there seemed to be no end in sight to the good times. One Southern California home builder, in particular, predicted that it would build and sell 500 homes in 1990 ranging in price from $300,000-$500,000. It built 500, and sold fifty.
A company that I was tracking saw its installation revenue plunge from an average of $120,000 per month in January 1990 to less than $20,000 per month by July. It happened just that quickly and, like the current recession, no one saw it coming.
Recently I worked with a number of clients in this market. Their story is eerily similar to that of the early 1990s. Three landscapers in the Southwestern U.S. completed hundreds of new home lots each month. Many more new home permits were being approved, as there was plenty of work for everyone. Unexpectedly, it all but dried up within a few months.
A new single-family housing development in the mountains of Colorado, where new homes were selling for $400,000–$500,000 in early 2008, saw production literally stop overnight. Thirty homes, in various stages of construction, were abandoned by contractors. Stacks of sheetrock, buckets of nails and hundreds of roof trusses littered the site. Four years later, not much has changed.
Many landscape contractors who did not have a diversified base of maintenance and service work to supplement their installation base went out of business. Many more suffered greatly as cash flow dried up in conjunction with their vanishing construction backlogs. In desperation, many contractors jumped into maintenance and service work. New to the market, they could not compete based on their record for quality of work. So they competed based on being the lowest price in town. Quality and margins were sacrificed as a feeding frenzy mentality intensified.
Lessons learned. The primary lesson from all of this is diversify, diversify, diversify. In football they say, “If you live by the blitz, you’ll die by the blitz.” It’s the same in business. If you live by installation alone, sooner or later, you’ll probably die by installation alone. Diversification isn’t easy but if you’re going to avoid the pitfalls of recessionary cycles, diversify you must. Too many contractors focus on doing only the type of work that they enjoy. Installation contractors usually do not like maintenance or service related work. They thrive on the “rush” or the chaos of doing installation jobs. It’s just the opposite for most maintenance contractors and service providers. They prefer predictability to chaos. However, the smart thing is to do both.
Conclusion. The contractors in the new home landscape installation market that I recently met with have all weathered the current economic storm. They’ve widened their product mix to include much more maintenance and service work. For some, it has been a very painful adjustment. Most are attempting to achieve a 50/50 installation versus maintenance book of business.
I tell my clients who are primarily focused on doing installation work that the first thing to disappear in a recession is installation work. You may not like doing service or maintenance work but it will make you money in a down economy. I also tell them, if it’s excitement that you want, remember, if you’re making money, you can always buy excitement.
JIM HUSTON runs J.R. Huston Consulting, a green industry consulting firm. See www.jrhuston.biz; mail email@example.com.
Last year, I spent about 75 days on the road. That’s about a week each month traveling to trade shows, conferences, contractor offices and manufacturer events. My editors were gone for another 25 each.
Apart from racking up frequent flier miles and learning a lot more than we ever wanted to about the surreal nature of pre-packaged sandwiches sold in airport kiosks, all this travel helps me and my team do one thing very well: understand the landscape industry, identify our readers’ problems and figure out what they need from a publication like Lawn & Landscape.
Having great reporters and editors with boots on the ground across the country helps us bring original and independent stories from the industry at large to each of our readers in many ways. And while we cover events like the GIE+EXPO and Next Level University on Twitter, our website and then, later, in the print edition, each medium is limited in its reach and scope. Tweets tend to disappear fast and the printed magazine comes out too long after the events to have any immediate impact.
But now, thanks to our talented team of developers and designers, we’ve got an even better way for you to get the latest, most up-to-the-minute news, product announcements and multimedia from us.
This month, in partnership with our sister publications in the nursery, greenhouse, garden center and golf course industries, we’ve launched the GIE Media Horticulture News app. It’s a clearinghouse for breaking news, industry updates, feature stories, the latest products and videos from our crack team of editors on the five markets we serve.
So now, you have access to breaking business news in the landscape industry, updates on tree and shrub diseases from our nursery team, turf science updates from the golf editors, retail insight from our garden center editors and seasonal color insight from the greenhouse group – all in one place, updated 24/7 and right at your fingertips.
The first phase of the app launch works on iPhones and iPads, and we’ll expand its functionality to work on Android devices later this year.
It's the next iteration of innovation from GIE Media – you do already have the Lawn & Landscape app, right? Download it for free on iTunes or your Android Market. You’ll be glad you did.
– Chuck Bowen