At the tail-end of 2013, with the holidays looming and many businesses in near hibernation mode after plugging away all summer and fall, Capstone Landscape Management was doing the exact opposite of “winding down” the calendar year. Account managers – everyone on the team, for that matter – reached out to customers to find out if there was any more work they could do before ringing in the New Year.
Capstone had a goal to reach $101,000 in sales in December so the company could finish off the year at $1 million. This ambitious number was more than double its 2012 December sales of $49,000.
Derek Gracely, co-founder with his wife, Heather, of the Taylors, S.C., firm says, “We literally called all of our clients and said, ‘We are so close to this million, is there anything you can do to help us out? Is there any project you are thinking about that we can do for you before Christmas?’”
Many of the clients Capstone serves are also entrepreneurs, business owners or CEOs and leaders at companies. They could relate to Gracely’s desire to hit the million-dollar revenue landmark. “At some point, they had been there,” he says.
The result: Capstone raked in $106,000 in sales in December, beat its $1 million goal and celebrated in January with a client event complete with a dunk tank. (Team members had plastered fliers all over the office joking that Gracely would get dunked if the company hit $1 million, and the spirited owner happily agreed – even on the 30-degree January party day.)
How Capstone University keeps employees motivated to learn
How do you launch a training program – or, in the case of Capstone Landscape Management in Taylors, S.C., a “university” that promotes higher learning within the organization?
The answer – with a consistent message, concrete tools and leaders who set a good example.
Capstone University is a way for employees at the firm to learn more, get paid more and advance in the company.
Co-owner Derek Gracely implemented the concept as part of an overall initiative to improve operations.
Here are some tips from Gracely on starting a training system that pays off.
“With this growth milestone, I felt like it was the first time I saw our entire team mesh and come together to make some huge, outlandish things happen,” Gracely says. “And it took every single person from entry-level sales all the way up to the leadership team to pull this off.”
Never stop hustling.
Thriving on calculated risk has been the secret sauce in growing Capstone, which started in March 2007 when Gracely was given a 1990 truck with 290,000 miles on it, a used lawn mower and a backpack blower. He wanted to start his own business. He was working a corporate job at the time, and Heather was a teacher. A week after the opportunity surfaced, Gracely put in his two-week notice, and his boss said: “I’m not going to make you work the two weeks, but I’ll pay you for it because you’ll need all the help you can get.”
That was the seed money for Capstone. “Our first week, we had no clients, no money and I had a condo, and Heather had a house, so we were doing whatever it took to make money,” Gracely says, relating how he dialed every number in his cell phone, reaching out to friends he hadn’t talked to since college or earlier.
When a high school basketball coach Heather knew from work called for an estimate – and asked for pricing on an irrigation system, French drain and sod – Gracely wondered if he was in over his head. “I said, ‘Heather, do you have any idea what a French drain and sod is,’” he says, laughing.
A learn-as-you-go approach and passion for jumpstarting the fledgling business kept Capstone above water, barely.
The same week seven years ago when Gracely started the business, he proposed to Heather. Then after their first summer, and eventually securing 30 maintenance contracts, she decided to leave her full-time education career and go into business with Gracely. More risk, more secure income to replace.
Then, the business added a truck, eventually bought a building – outgrew that facility and, fast-forward to 2013, invested in another facility to accommodate its expansion. “We haven’t stopped hustling,” Gracely says.
The keep-climbing attitude at Capstone extends to the firm’s training efforts, and, in particular, a program launched last year called Capstone University (see sidebar for tips on starting a similar program.) It’s part of the company’s efforts toward improving operational efficiency. “We are trying to create a learning environment,” Gracely says.
Capstone University is a training program tied to the pay scale and driven by 17-plus “certifications” employees earn through hands-on and some book training. Each certification represents a rung on the ladder and is rewarded with a dollar value – a bump in hourly pay. And, a chart displaying every team members’ name and their certifications clearly spells out where each person stands.
“Hourly rate can cause a lot of internal controversy,” Gracely says. “And, we have lost employees because they thought they were worth more, and what we overlooked in complacency happens. So anyone can look at this board and tell how much everyone makes. Instead of trying to hide that, we make it completely public.”
The very first certification an employee earns is the “new employment” certification, which involves understanding how the business works – a basic orientation. There isn’t a formal test, but new hires are assessed by their respective managers to earn the certification. From there, they can move on up the ranks: Gardener 1 and 2, Crew Leader 1 and 2, followed by three stages of account managers and a range of certifications pertaining to specific services, such as irrigation.
Cross-training is a priority. “The idea is, by the time you pass the crew leader certifications, you can be a crew leader in any division at the company because you will be well-versed in all of those skills,” Gracely says.
Account managers are responsible for guiding their teams through certification; and a new hire that begins at “zero” can become a crew leader within one year. “The system works even if you have never done landscaping before,” Gracely says. Meanwhile, Gracely works to keep managers motivated by involving them in annual planning and asking them to consider their own yearly and long-term goals. Last year when he met with managers, each expressed a goal to see the company reach the $3.5-$4 million-mark within five years.
That will take some risk, some growing pains – the type of business discomfort that keeps Capstone fresh and competitive. The new facility will poise the firm to take on this growth, and the volume of maintenance contracts signed last year mid-season is a security backing Gracely’s 2014 revenue goal of $1.7 million.
“If we just maintained exactly what we had on the books from last year, we’d do $1.3 million – so we really only have to sell another $400,000, which is not out of sight for four account managers,” Gracely says of the ambitious 70-percent growth target. “It sounds outlandish … but it’s really doable for us.”