Big elk and black ice

Big elk and black ice

There’s a fine line that separates persistence from brute stubbornness.

May 13, 2015
Jim Huston
Industry News Jim Huston

Jim Huston

It was 3:08 a.m. and a few degrees below zero when I drove out of Jackson, Wyo., in late January. The day before, I had just wrapped up facilitating a brainstorming meeting for 18 landscape companies from all parts of the U.S. It was a diverse group comprised of commercial installation and maintenance, residential design/build and bid-build, fine gardening and fertilization companies.

Everyone was there to share best practices and to learn from one another. It didn’t hurt that we were in a setting surrounded by the Grand Teton Mountains and some of the best skiing in North America. Because I couldn’t sleep, I decided to get an early start on the 450 mile trek to my home in Grand Lake, Colo.

Two things on the road constantly occupied my mind as I drove into the darkness – black ice and big elk. Either one could spell disaster. The good news as I drove south on US 189/191 was that the road was dry and I was aware of the potential danger.

What you don’t know.

As I drove, it struck me how teachable and willing to learn the brainstorming meeting attendees were. Sure, there were strong egos there but everyone participated, asked questions and contributed their feedback and ideas to the group. Like hungry trout scouring the water’s surface for freshly hatched flies, these men and women sought out new ideas, strategies and techniques that would improve both their management acumen and their bottom line.

They knew that there were things that they did not know but they were humble enough to admit it and press on as they sought out the wisdom found in the shared knowledge and experiences available to them.

Willing to learn.

As I sped south on US 191 toward Rock Springs, Wyo., I saw a sign warning that elk were in the area. Years before I had totaled one rental car and seriously damaged another by hitting deer weighing less than 200 pounds on I-80 in Pennsylvania (Sorry, Hertz). I wasn’t about to repeat the experience with an 800-pound elk. I slowed from 60 to 40 mph and, sure enough, 20-30 elk were grazing just feet from the road.

Passing the herd of elk, one company from the brainstorming meeting came to mind. There were two owners. I’ll refer to them as Dennis and Steve. One and a half years ago, they brought me in to work with them. They were great guys who did great work in the field but they were making some serious mistakes with their estimating. They closed out 2013 doing more than $1 million in design/build sales. Unfortunately, their bottom line showed that they were barely breaking even.

We created a budget for 2014, re-calculated all of their rates and computerized their estimating with The Bid Suite (TBS) software package.

Like those hungry trout mentioned earlier, they started the 2014 season with passion and energy. This wasn’t new. What was new was that now they were armed with knowledge in the form of sound pricing methods.

Steve and Dennis increased sales in 2014 by 40 percent to just shy of $2 million. More importantly, they showed a 15 percent net profit after all their bills were paid and they both received a reasonable salary. The key was that both Dennis and Steve were teachable as they faced their shortcomings and sought out better business practices.


I arrived safely home just after noon. Thankfully, I paid attention to the signs along the road, made adjustments and hit neither ice nor elk.

The Psalmist states, “Rebuke a wise man and he gains knowledge. Rebuke a fool and you only get your words thrown back into your face.” It’s a wise man who challenges his most deeply held beliefs and belief system with wise counsel and rational objective scrutiny. Many, perhaps most, men hold onto areas deep within themselves where they still believe in unicorns and leprechauns of one sort or another. Similarly, I’ve found that there’s a fine line that separates persistence from brute stubbornness.

It seems to me that the vice evolves into virtue when creativity is allowed to enter the equation. The trick is to discern when one stops and the other begins – when you’re being the neurotic or when you’re being the psychotic. I don’t want to get too personal, but which are you?


Jim Huston runs J.R. Huston Consulting, a green industry consulting firm.;