I found myself in Maryland last summer and swung by the Ruppert Cos. headquarters in scenic Laytonsville. Driving out of downtown Baltimore and into the Maryland countryside on a sunny day in June, you feel like the entire world is just rolling hills and horse farms forever and everything is perfect.
If you ever have a chance to visit with the Ruppert crew, I highly recommend it. The company uses its headquarters – a cluster of neat LEED certified buildings set on immaculate lawns next to the company’s nursery operation – as a place to host parties and entertain large groups of clients. It’s a landscape shop dressed in its Sunday best.
Ruppert’s president, Chris Davitt, gave me a tour of the place at his only speed – fast. He’s tall, and his long legs took steps two at a time up and down and through all the buildings and around the grounds and answered all my pesky questions in his slow Mid-Atlantic drawl.
Davitt helped start Ruppert Landscape with Craig Ruppert more than 30 years ago. Together, they grew the business, sold it during the buy-ups of the 1990s and then started it again in 2003.
But to talk to him, Davitt seems just as excited as a guy who just started his first business. His eyes still gleamed as he showed me the green roof testing Ruppert is doing, the company’s new aluminum-body trucks, and introduced me to some of the next generation of managers and foremen.
Davitt announced last month that he’ll retire at the end of the year, so I called him up to talk about what he’s going to do next, and what he’s learned after 30 years and starting two very successful landscape companies with Ruppert.
“A good handshake is stronger than any contract out there. That look in the eye and feeling right still outweighs all that,” Chris told me. “I think we were able to teach it a little clearer the second time round.”
And what about advice to smaller contractors or guys just starting out?
“The limiting factor to anyone comes from within,” he says. “I don’t think there are structural problems that prevent people from being successful. It’s people’s approaches to the problems that prevent them.”
The world is full of things you can’t control. So this month, stop thinking about the bigger guys and the smaller guys, and think about the company you’re in – about your own guys – and what you can do to improve that.
– Chuck Bowen
Landscape designers spend years perfecting their craft, studying plants and working with various types of materials.
They hone their project management skills and planning techniques. But that’s only part of the job, says Scott Cohen, president of The Green Scene in Chatsworth, Calif.
“Half of our job is marriage counseling,” Cohen says. He wants a fire pit where the guys can hang out with cigars. She envisions a romantic outdoor fireplace where the couple can sip Chardonnay. He’s focused on the barbecue setup and is satisfied with a modest dining area. She wants seating for 20 and plenty of room for grandkids.
“We are put between couples often,” Cohen says. “The husband wants one thing, the wife wants another. Meanwhile, we spend years becoming proficient at what we do for a living, but how much time do we spend becoming a therapist to resolve these issues?”
For the past four years, Cohen has been studying the soft stuff – specifically, bonding techniques, body language, listening skills and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).
That’s how people “get” what is being communicated to them. Do they need to hear the message, see the idea, feel the concept or touch the actual materials?
Hang on to customer complaints, and learn from them.
Scott Cohen, president of The Green Scene in Chatsworth, Calif., has seen his fair share of bloopers and blunders. Here are a few of the mistakes he’s seen:
1. Covering weep screed. The purpose of weep screed is to drain moisture from porous walls, such as stone, stucco and wood. When landscapers mistakenly put soil directly up to weep screed, they don’t allow water to drain away from the walls. “This can sometimes introduce water into the walls,” Cohen says, adding that the moisture can create mold issues.
2. Separating concrete and hardscape. When a landscaper pours a patio up against a home, there should be a separator – a felt or foam strip that allows concrete to move independently of the structure (home). “When that is not done, the concrete has trouble shrinking and expanding and we get cracking and heaving problems,” Cohen says.
3. Construction over clay soil. “Clay soil is expansive when wet,” he says. “It will shrink and expand depending on the moisture in the clay.” Landscape contractors must take this into account when building surfaces such as patios. The surface should be moistened first.
Cohen wants to get past the jittery first date and move into the getting-to-know you stage. And his design process depends on this trust-building process. The client relationship directs the project and ultimately determines the results.
“No matter how far away from high school we get, we are still in high school,” Cohen says. “People hire who they like, and they like people who are like them.”
The psychology of the sale. The design questionnaire is a project primer and an ice breaker, and it helps Cohen figure out not just what a client wants, but why.
“Anyone can design for the landscape,” Cohen says. “I’ll sometimes meet a client who walks me into the backyard and says, ‘What do you think we should do here?’ But I don’t know that answer until I have spent an hour talking to the couple about their desires and tastes, their style preferences, their plans for entertaining.”
Cohen asks where clients like to vacation. How did the couple meet? What are their motivations for this landscape?
“I have a single client whose angle is to make sure his house is more fun to hang out at than his ex-wife’s.”
The goal may be as simple as to make the family happy. But Cohen doesn’t know this until he does some digging – he must find out exactly what will make the clients swoon.
Cohen knows how to fast-forward that relationship.“You ever meet someone who you bond with instantly?” he asks. “Well, that isn’t usually by accident.”
That connection is because of how people communicate with each other – whether or not they speak the same language, essentially. This is the crux of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP,) which Cohen has been studying with a therapist. Some people are visuals, others are kinesthetic. Some are emotive, others are aural – they need to hear, listen. “None of us are one or the other, but all of us have a preference,” Cohen says.
For example, in an exchange with a client, Cohen may ask, “Do you see what I mean?” and the client responds: “I hear you.”
“We are not speaking the same language,” he says, “if you say, ‘Do you see?’ and the client says, ‘I hear what you mean.’”
Trust pays off. By scheduling regular, standing meetings with clients, Cohen can continue nurturing strong relationships with the families he works with and streamline communication.
At least every two weeks, he sets a day and time with clients – every Tuesday at 5 p.m., or every Friday evening, for example.
Meetings always occurs when all parties are able to attend, and usually that’s after work.
“If it’s after 5 o’clock, we may have a glass of wine and talk about what’s going on with the project,” Cohen says. “Sometimes I have a lot of things to go over with a client. Other times, I have nothing to go over and it’s an opportunity to touch base and make sure they are happy with the service and to keep the bonding experience going.”
Not only do these meetings strengthen connections and ensure that all concerns are addressed and questions answered, but the scheduled time keeps Cohen focused on existing clients. “With pre-set meetings, we are guaranteeing that we have time set aside for each client and we are not just pursuing new business,” he says.
Also, these meetings tend to spur new ideas and project add-ons. This was not Cohen’s initial intention, but clients often catch the “might as well” syndrome.
“If we’re having a glass of wine in the back yard, admiring the space, getting close to the end of the project … and we say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we had outdoor speakers and some great classical jazz playing in the background? Wouldn’t that enhance this experience?’
“So then, we are adding a $4,000 outdoor sound system to a job that we might not have,” Cohen says.
Projects tend to grow in scope, and that’s not because they aren’t properly estimated or due to cost over-runs. “People add things as their confidence builds in our abilities,” Cohen says.
Meanwhile, Cohen keeps the relationships going well after project completion. Projects are photographed at each stage, and Cohen returns after plants have matured to capture a final portrait of the work.
Plus, the photographs are filtered into a series of landscaping books Cohen has authored on topics ranging from high-end pools to outdoor kitchens and, the latest, petscaping.
“Our next job always comes from our last job,” Cohen says. “We work to keep in communication with clients, because down the road, there will be others in the neighborhood that want similar work.”
Photos courtesy of the Green Scene
When Josh Schmieder was 10 years old, he wanted a four-wheeler like it was nobody’s business. His parents told him he had to work for it. So, in fact, earning the cash for that bid-kid big-wheel became his business. “I started mowing the neighbors lawns,” he says, sharing a story that sounds familiar to many industry vets who remember their first taste of fresh, green entrepreneurship.
For Schmieder, founder and president of Josh Inc. Lawn Care and Landscaping, which opened its new design center in Honeoye Falls, N.Y., in 2011 the lawn mowing became much more than a summer job or a side gig to earn some bucks. He did in fact round up the money for that four-wheeler – two of them, actually. (“I bought a couple of used ones that I fixed up and sold for more money so I could buy the four-wheeler I really wanted,” he says.) And then he realized, “I really liked making money.” He wasn’t quite 14.
Next, Schmieder had his eyes on a pick-up truck. He had two years to stockpile funds before getting his driver’s license. So with this goal in mind, he kept moving. His mom, who home schooled Schmieder and his siblings, supported his venture and would drop him off at jobs in town while she ran errands. “My parents were always encouraging my sisters and I to start little businesses and make our own money,” Schmieder says.
Turns out, Schmieder was quite good at that. And so he bought his truck – and a trailer and mower. “And I thought, ‘If I buy a bigger mower, I can make more money,’” he says.
That’s how the bug bites. Schmieder kept itching, kept earning, kept growing. And when he was ready to go to college, his parents told him he had some bigger bills to pay. “I decided I could make $8,000 to $12,000 in a summer (mowing lawns),” he says. So at age 17, Schmieder got his DBA business designation.
Then came the summer after Schmieder earned his high school diploma, and he enrolled for a three-month intensive horticulture and landscape course at Cornell Cooperative Extension. “I didn’t know weeds,” he says. “I just knew how to mow lawns. So I thought, if I’m going to work my way through college doing this, I need to know some basics.”
During that time, Schmieder decided to interview for a landscaping job at a larger firm in his area. He was told he was too young to operate equipment, but he could be on a mulching crew. That wasn’t going to fly for a young business owner who already had a customer list and truck-trailer outfit. That’s when the “aha” hit.
“I thanked the owner and walked out, and that was the real turning point where I made up my mind that I was going to be the best in the region and this was what I was going to do for my career,” Schmieder says.
Today, the company is a $2-million firm with 30 employees, including three full-time salespeople/designers, a full-time mechanic, an operations manager and professional crewmembers.
“We continue growing and working toward our vision of being leaders in the market,” says Schmieder, 28. “We’re focused on defining our ideal client and focusing on what we do best.” And for Josh Landscaping, Inc., that’s building outdoor living spaces and providing a high-end landscape care service.
Risk for reward. Schmieder remembers selling his first big hardscape job. It was the second summer he was in business fulltime as a landscape professional, and he was fresh off training from his supplier when he was invited to bid on a fairly large residential project. It was a waterfront property on the Finger Lakes, and Schmieder jumped at the opportunity. He was 19 years old.
A simple statement can separate you from the competition.
Why brand a pledge like this? President Josh Schmieder says when the firm put up the last version of their website in 2004 (a new version is rolling out this spring), the team discussed how the company could set itself apart from the competition. The JOSH Pledge was one way to do that.
“We were a small company with a handful of guys working for us at the time, and the common perception in the industry of small companies was that they are unprofessional, poor quality, not following through,” Schmieder relates.
Basically, Schmieder made a list of all those industry stigmas and sought to turn them upside down. “We said, we will make the industry weaknesses our strengths,” he relates.
By putting this on paper, Schmieder is confirming the firm’s commitment to quality and customer service. This is an important sales tool, he says. “We wanted to distinguish ourselves from the stereotypical mowing company.”
With the website redesign, Schmieder is not sure if the phrase JOSH Pledge will live on. But the tenants will. And the same principles of quality and customer services apply since the company has evolved to providing full landscape care service and building outdoor living environments.
“I have always built my company on the priorities of delivering high-quality work and customer service, and making sure our clients are 100-percnet satisfied (within the terms of the contract) when we are completed,” Schmieder says.
“I did the estimate, and our supplier rep, who had walked us through installing our first garden wall, helped us with the estimating,” Schmieder says. “It ended up being a $30,000 project, and when I presented it to the client, they liked what they saw.”
Schmieder was only a few months into his hardscaping service. “I walked back to my truck from that lake house and it hit me, ‘What did I just do?’” he says. That feeling would set in many times after that as the company grew. And that has always been a good thing. “Growing my company has always been my drive and ambition,” he says. “I have always taken risks. I want to give the best customer service and the best quality. My parents instilled these values in me when I was little, so this experience was a representation of what would take place in years to come.”
Schmieder is the type of owner who meets a challenge, takes it on, and then says, “Next.” Of course, the ability to focus on these new challenges has required some soul searching. He had to decide what new business was a fit for Josh Inc., and what to leave behind. And, after recognizing that he could not compete with the mow-and-go get-ups that charge as little as $25 to cut a lawn, he made the decision to cut loose his basic mowing jobs about five years ago.
Schmieder sent letters to those mowing clients explaining his company’s decision to focus on a higher-end “full landscape care” service. He coordinated with another area contractor who took on those accounts. “We did write in the contract that if he failed to (properly service) those accounts we had the right to step back in,” he says. And that was indeed the case when some clients were unhappy with the “replacement” service.
Schmieder was able to convince those clients to choose the full landscape care service, which includes mowing, full bed care, pruning mulch, basically maintaining the whole property. It’s more of a specialty service, he says. And it better complements the more profitable design/build offerings.
The decision has freed up the company to focus on its passion: creating outdoor spaces. Leaving behind the mow-and-go business that Schmieder essentially founded his business on was a relatively smooth transition because the firm had already shifted from 80 percent maintenance to a lesser 40 percent.
Today, maintenance is about 30 percent, with 70 percent of the business focused on designing and building high-end outdoor living environments. “That is what we love doing,” Schmieder says simply.
Front and center. JOSH Inc. quickly outgrew the family garage and eventually moved into a few barns, with one 12-by-20 foot outbuilding serving as the office for Schmieder, his salesperson and key administrator. It was a cozy setup. “We were doing about $1.2 million in sales and we just couldn’t grow anymore,” Schmieder says. “We were too far out of our market area where we were doing 90 percent of our work.”
Schmieder had his eyes on a Ford dealership property in Honeoye Falls, N.Y., a nice suburb in the Finger Lakes region. The town is 20 minutes from both lakes, and 20 minutes from other suburbs where the firm was selling lots of work. But the price tag on the dealership was hefty at about $400,000.
Eventually, the real estate went to auction, and in February 2011, Schmieder closed on it for half the price. “It had always been my vision to have a design center,” he says of his plan for the property. And that is exactly what has evolved in the last two years.
In summer 2011, Josh Landscaping, Inc. relocated its operations to the dealership. They continued interior renovations that year, and began on phase one of the outdoor displays, which will provide a show-and-tell experience for clients and prospects. Now, the offices provide a spacious conference area for meetings and curbside visibility that is driving more business in the door.
“Image and branding has always been a huge part of our business,” says Schmieder, who earned his business degree at night while working his landscape firm full-time during the day, and selling jobs after-hours. “People would hear our name and know who we were from our marketing pieces and radio ads, but now we have a physical location right on Main Street in Honeoye Falls,” he says. “That has given us more credibility.”
The firm continues to grow at a rapid but controlled clip, and Schmieder feels a loosening-of-the-purse in 2013 that is translating to more business. “This is looking like a really good year,” he says.
Meanwhile, with the new location and a talented staff under its roof, Schmieder is sharpening the company mission, vision and defining the core values that help the company reach those ideals. “We want to define that ideal client and really stick to the services that we do best,” he says. “And, we are working on our culture and making this an awesome place to work.”
Photos supplied by Heads Up Landscape Contractors
Last month, I touched about estimating systems, but this month I want to get detailed on a couple. So far in 2013, I’ve been in 25 states and have benchmarked the operations of more than one hundred green industry contractors.
These contractors have me review their budgets. During this process, I am looking for areas where the systems (estimating, job costing and accounting) that these clients are using contain mathematical errors and false mathematical assumptions.
They realize that if their systems contain such errors today, it will cost them jobs and money in the future. Such errors need to be identified and fixed.
As I have stated in this column many times, the primary objective of any cost estimating system is to calculate all of your costs accurately. In order for a contractor to wrap his or her head around their business, they have to accomplish three things regarding their work (projects and services): 1. Price it right. 2. Produce it right. 3. Produce enough of it. The first is about cost estimating. The second concerns job costing and the third concerns sales volume. You can price your services and projects correctly, produce them correctly (as you priced them), but it’s all for naught if you do not have enough volume.
Estimating systems usually break down when calculating the equipment and general and administrative (G&A) overhead costs to include in a bid for projects of services. This last January, a landscape contractor and I had a robust discussion regarding his MORS estimating system.
He argued that it was more accurate than my G&A overhead per labor hour (OPH) system. He had bid a $5 million project that would comprise about 25 percent of his work for the year.
Using his MORS system, he marked up his costs for materials, labor, equipment and subcontractors by predetermined percentages (normally 10 percent, 35–95 percent, 25 percent and 5 percent, respectively) in order to calculate the amount of G&A overhead to include in this rather large project. He then added net profit to these calculations.
I pointed out that whenever you use percentages to calculate and allocate your G&A overhead costs to your bids, you are automatically making a mathematical mistake. He disagreed. He then went on to admit that the MORS system calculated and added almost 50 percent of his overhead for the year on a job that make-up only 25 percent of his budget. Put another way, the MORS estimating method calculated and added six months of G&A overhead to a three month job.
He just made my case for me. His MORS method did to this job what it did to the contractor in the northwest 20 years ago. He then went on to tell me that he also calculated this job using my OPH system and it put far less G&A overhead on to the bid – three month’s less. Duh! End of discussion.
The MORS estimating method did to this contractor exactly what I said it would do. It adds too much G&A overhead to some jobs and adds too little to others. Occasionally, it gets it right. And guess which jobs you get – the ones you underprice.
In order to more fully understand the mathematical errors contained in the six most popular estimating systems used in the green industry today, send me an email and I will send you a free copy of my audio book, “A Critical Analysis of the MORS Estimating System.” Doing so today will help you prevent cost estimating mistakes tomorrow.
JIM HUSTON runs J.R. Huston Consulting, a green industry consulting firm. See www.jrhuston.biz; mail email@example.com.
Self-described C student Larry Ryan took his experience in the food industry and applied it to turf care to grow one of the largest landscape companies in the Midwest. Thanks to a smart hiring process and employee ownership, the company has grown by leaps and bounds.
I’ve been very blessed. I’m a C student on a good day. But I find that you don’t have to be the brilliant student. It’s that old cliché: A students become professionals and B students go to work for C students. There’s some truth to that, because C students still have something to prove in life.
I have a brother two years younger than me. Both of his degrees – bachelor’s and masters – are in literature. We both started our businesses 26 years ago. We’ll do $24 million this year. He’ll do about $2 billion. In fairness, he’s in brokering truck freight and factors receivables all over the hemisphere. But that English thing – that ability to communicate well – I wasn’t good at it at all.
A friend dragged me to a Toastmaster meeting one morning. It scared me to death. The only thing that scared me more than giving a talk was admitting to my friend that I was frightened. I stayed in the club for eight years.
I’m a paranoid speaker, by which I mean I practice a lot. My weakness, that fear of speaking, turned out to be a blessing.
My family was in the food business, and I moved to Kansas City to open a chain of pizza stores. I started with one and grew it to eight stores over a period of eight years. That’s what taught me business. I learned to read a financial statement, build a spreadsheet and hire great people. Those things are the foundation of our business today.
I had worked for the guy that started Pizza Hut, Dan Carney when I was 25. When I was 27 and working for a tree business, I decided I wanted to start my own tree care company. I called Dan and told him my plans. His advice was to work for other people – learn on the other guy’s nickel until you are 30 years old. That was great advice.
I started my company in 1987. I had no customers and really no background in turf. So the first year I grew to 300 accounts, then grew to 600 accounts by myself. It was a nightmare. You’re hand-writing every ticket, answering every phone call, depositing every check. It was absolutely a nightmare.
We don’t have a problem finding employees. Our issue is finding out if they’re the right people. If they don’t have any personality, we don’t want them. I want to get along with them, and I want them to get along with our customers. We used a company called Selection Research to help our hiring process. They taught us that each person is a unique collection of talents – you are who you are and you can’t change. So we hire for gifts and not for weaknesses. We look at 10 to 20 resumes for each position.
We lose most hires in the first year. One of the great opportunities is that the work is hard. The fact that it’s hard really separates out people. We’re glad that it’s hard to find good people. We rejoice in that, and we’re willing to pay the price.
We created an environment that creates opportunity. Employees own 90 percent of the company. I own 10 percent. We did that in 1998. We have over 30 people that have more than $100,000 value in our company.
Peter Drucker said the purpose of a business is to create jobs. Turning employee ownership over has made us create a job where I’m not more important than other people. It’s made me look at my job like I’m another employee in the business.
Learn horticulture, but study business. Mimic success of other companies. You don’t have enough years to learn everything yourself; that gets you 80 percent of the way there.