Top 100 - Taking Action

Top 100 - Taking Action

Features - Cover Story

These owners aren’t messing around when it comes to the futures of their companies. Read on to find out what they are doing.

June 20, 2012
Kristen Hampshire

All the companies on Lawn & Landscape’s 2012 Top 100 list are successful and have made a lasting mark on the industry. But this year, we wanted to feature a few who weren’t just sitting by and hoping for growth, or only making slight moves to grow. In the pages that follow, we’ve highlighted companies going the extra mile with ideas to successfully build on past achievements, and in the process, setting themselves up for great opportunities for years to come. By Kristen Hampshire


Putting people to the test

James River gave managers an Enneagram personality test, and that has changed the working dynamic and allowed for productive personnel change-outs.

By digging deeper into what makes leaders tick, James River Grounds Management has made some dramatic personnel swaps in the last year. A salesperson now works in finance. A landscape designer moved to sales and outside business development. An estimator shifted into the IT department.

The Enneagram Test, a personality testing tool, helped the company put the right people in the right place.

“It helps us identify personality traits and strengths much more easily than trial and error – the old way,” says Maria Candler, CEO of the Glen Allen, Va.-based firm.

“Part of our company culture that is very important to us has been a focus on people and giving them a lot of flexibility in their areas of responsibility,” she says, adding that now, the Enneagram gives James River a supportive tool to make more informed decisions about who does what at the company.

The Enneagram is a journey; it’s a lengthy test that measures personalities on nine different scales. “It’s really about learning what gets in your way with all relationships, professional or personal,” Candler says.

And knowing how one responds in certain situations – a client meeting, a workplace disagreement, in stressful times – has changed the way managers respond and communicate with one another at James River.

For example, Candler identifies herself as a 1 on the Enneagram scale. That’s a “Reformer” who is rational, self-controlled and perfectionistic. “That, in my business life, has served me fairly well because as a result, we are a company that is very focused on continuous improvement because of my natural inclination to work to get better,” Candler says. “But if that behavior doesn’t have a filter and goes unchecked, I can come across as someone who is impossible to please.”

Now that Candler knows where she and other managers fall on the Enneagram, she cracks through communication struggles.

Take a 5 person, The Investigator, who is intense, cerebral, innovative, secretive and isolated. This person tends to overanalyze. “They get stuck,” Candler says. “If you need to move forward with a decision, you have to be aware that you can’t overanalyze everything.”

Candler tells the story of a 5 manager who seemed emotionally detached and “always in his head,” and definitely not interested in chitchat. Pair that 5 with a 2, The Helper, who is caring, demonstrative, people-pleasing and persistent. “The 2 thinks the 5 hates him, but really, the 5 doesn’t know how to respond to this person who always wants to chitchat and be social. So, when they realize, ‘Wait, it’s not me,’ they don’t take situations personally. And that changes their working relationship.”

In another instance, an account manager (a 2) was working to develop a relationship with a client (a 5), and they could never click. The client wanted a quick update on the progress of the account, that’s it. The account manager wanted to make small talk.

“When our employee realized he was approaching every human from his own perspective of what he thought people wanted from him, he realized that was wrong,” Candler says. “Now, he comes in, gives the man the information and interestingly, all of a sudden, they are starting to have a more natural rapport.”

Candler learned about the Enneagram through a consulting firm called Transform, a referral from colleague Scott Jamieson, a vice president at Bartlett Tree Experts. He told Candler about a program that changed how his management team works together, and Candler was interested.

The timing couldn’t have been better. Last year was one of the most important, and difficult years for the business in its history, Candler says, citing challenges pleasing clients who want more service for less money and internal stress: employees’ significant others were being displaced, there was an overriding feeling of uncertainty.

The Enneagram has helped people discover who they are in the midst of all this. And, ensuring that managers are in the best positions where they can perform and succeed, everyone is happier.

Of course, the process takes work and dedication, and Candler gave managers no time limit to finish the test. Some completed it in weeks, others took a year or longer. The company started administering the tests two years ago.

In addition, James River has provided support tools to help employees work through the Enneagram. Regular webinars highlight the personality types. A section on the company intranet features videos of employees talking about their “type,” how they came to realize who they are and what it means in the context of their position with the company.

“An employee can go online and listen to a personal experience that has been helpful,” Candler says. The site also provides links to downloadable audio books about the Enneagram and other resources.

So far, the company has given The Enneagram to managers, starting with the executive team and extending down to branch managers.

Candler would like to roll the test down to the crew level, but that will take time. The company employs about 275 workers year-round, and the Enneagram isn’t a quick quiz that can be filled out during a job interview.

But the way Candler has worked the Enneagram into company training improves the take-away. For example, in a training session on time management, Candler can add, “If you’re a 5, what you need to be careful of is that you tend to get stuck in the information.

“There is a lot of work that needs to be done when you get real about yourself and what gets in your way each day,” Candler says. “But that makes the Enneagram empowering.”


Merging maintenance

Yellowstone Landscape Group defines the anatomy of a perfect acquisition with the purchase of Cornerstone Solutions Group’s maintenance division.

Culture, strategy, operations and finance – these are the four areas Yellowstone Landscape Group analyzes before it acquires a business. And when a prospect measures up on all of those levels, it’s a perfect fit.

Such was the case for the maintenance division of Cornerstone Solutions Group, a 30-plus year company with a strong reputation in the Tampa Bay, Fla., market. Austin Outdoor, a division of Yellowstone, saw Cornerstone as an opportunity to deepen volume in existing markets it served and expand to a metropolitan area where the brand had no presence.

Click the picture above to see the full Top 100 List.

So the two joined in 2011, and then began the work of integrating Cornerstone’s maintenance firm with Austin Outdoor, which had grown in the past couple years as Yellowstone integrated its other southeast businesses under the Austin Outdoor brand.

“The acquisition did two things: It opened up the west central Florida market to us, and it added business to two other markets (Jacksonville and Orlando) that were already significant and extremely important to our business in central and northeast Florida,” says William Dellecker, president of Austin Outdoor.

Upon acquiring Cornerstone, its Jacksonville and Orlando branches transitioned to the Austin Outdoor brand name. But the Tampa and Sarasota branches remained Cornerstone Solutions to preserve the brand recognition and assure clients of continued, quality service. “Cornerstone already had an established name in those markets,” Dellecker says, adding that the Austin Outdoor brand brings Cornerstone customers in those areas more resources: design capabilities, technical and horticultural programs, human resources and training.

“We were telling clients that we will have more resources than ever before and we’ll have the same people, the same name and still be able to provide the same value,” says John Faulkner, owner of Cornerstone and now part of Yellowstone’s leadership team. Austin Outdoor didn’t purchase Faulkner’s other Cornerstone Solutions businesses – general construction and installation. They just didn’t fit into the conglomerate’s service portfolio, which is dominated by maintenance (90 percent).

Another reason maintaining the Cornerstone name in Tampa and Sarasota was important, especially to Faulkner, who wanted his remaining businesses to continue benefitting from maintenance leads – clients who want installation projects completed. “Going forward as the owner of the other companies, I wanted to make sure who I teamed up with understood that we are in those other two businesses and (those businesses) rely on the maintenance company to have success,” Faulkner says. “From my standpoint, I have to work harder than ever to make sure we don’t drop the ball and that we provide good service so it doesn’t have an affect on the company Yellowstone bought or the two companies I still own.”

Cornerstone was the largest acquisition for Yellowstone to date; Cornerstone’s maintenance division would bring 50 percent more revenues, Faulkner says.

So to spread the message of a unified company, and a true, team effort, Yellowstone toured its locations six weeks following the closing of the acquisition. Yellowstone President Ed Schatz, Dellecker and Faulkner delivered a sort of state of the union for the company.

“We talked about where we were as a business, how we are growing and what we are doing, including the Cornerstone locations that are new to us,” Dellecker says. “Our goal from day one was to ensure that there was complete integration in our philosophy and the way we approach things and the way work is carried out for the benefit of clients. Having John Faulkner’s involvement has been critical.”

The cultural fit between Cornerstone and Austin Outdoor is what made the transition go so smoothly, Dellecker and Faulkner say. And operationally, it’s business as usual – except business is more robust.

Faulkner explains that Cornerstone’s maintenance division had grown so fast over the years, the operation was stretched as far as it could go in the resources and equipment categories.

In fact, the company had maintained its 2006 revenues even during the 2011 recession year, “which is kind of unheard of in this business,” Faulkner says. “So what we’re doing is telling people we’ll have more resources than ever before.”


Succeeding in transition

A five-year plan eventually put Ted Hofer in the lead seat as CEO of Spring-Green Lawn Care.

Ted Hofer grew up and around the family business, Spring-Green Lawn Care. But as a young college graduate, he took a different path in the franchise world, choosing instead to purchase a UPS store. But when his father, Tom Hofer, began planning retirement, a solid transition plan and good timing brought Ted back into the business five years ago to see through the succession.

“When Tom got to retirement age, there was uncertainty about what would happen when he retired, and there were franchise owners wondering what would happen to the business and the future of Spring-Green,” says Ted Hofer, who officially took the helm as CEO in July 2010.

Now, that’s progress

After 35 years in business, Spring-Green Lawn Care isn’t tossing confetti or rolling in the band. (They may wait until their 40th for that.) Instead, CEO Ted Hoffer looks at the birthday as an opportunity to remind employees and franchisees that Spring-Green is focused on moving forward.

Marketing and technology are the two areas where the business has drastically progressed in the last decade, and efforts continue. “We feel we can make our biggest differentiation from the competition by our marketing and technological capabilities and our ability to get that out to franchise owners,” Hofer says.

In particular, Hofer speaks of the company’s direct marketing efforts, especially during the spring sales season. Spring-Green has implemented a marketing tool to help franchisees deal with the onslaught of phone calls that result from the company’s mailers.

“Ten to 20 years ago when we did a lot of telemarketing, we had huge phone banks and all the franchisees had someone come in at night to manage their telemarketing,” Hofer says. That’s not the case anymore. “But we do send out all this mail, and we still need people to answer the phones when sales calls come in,” he says. “A lot of our franchisees might not have someone working in their offices.”

To support franchisees during the heavy sales season, when direct mail drives calls to their offices, Spring-Green provides franchisees optional access to a centralized call center. That way, Spring-Green can handle inbound calls for franchisees that are busy out in the field. “Technology is helping us maximize spring sales,” Hofer says.

That’s something to celebrate.

So the planning began in 2004, when Hofer’s father approached him about coming into the family business. “At that point, I was either going to expand my UPS franchises or move on to something else,” Hofer says. The decision was easy. Hofer joined Spring-Green in 2005 on what became a five-year grand tour of the company’s total operations before his father stepped down.

Getting to know each working part of the business was critical to running the business, and Hofer began in the area where he was most experienced: franchise development. He worked for two years starting up and supporting a new franchise – the company now has 75 across the country.

Having worked on the franchisee side at UPS, Hofer brought that perspective to his role of helping those new Spring-Green upstarts get rooted. But he learned a lot along the way. “My personal experience had been that you start up a new business and you put 100 percent into it, and that’s your life,” he says, noting that he was in his mid-twenties when he bought his UPS franchise. He was single. He had the luxury of time that was all his.

“With a lot of our franchisees, they have families and other things in life,” Hofer says. “And watching them start up a new business while maintaining a certain lifestyle and trying to accomplish their goals and dreams from a support standpoint was an interesting challenge that I hadn’t really thought about that much because my personal experience had been so different.”

Next, Hofer went on to work at Spring-Green’s company-owned franchises in Chicago – multi-million dollar operations that run quite differently than the one-man startups. “That got me a better idea of what it takes to manage a team,” he says.

All the while, Hofer and his father met – about twice each year – and discussed their progress on the transition plan. “This is one timeline we felt comfortable with, and each year I was getting the experience I needed,” Hofer says of the five-year goal.

And his father stuck to his side of the bargain: As Ted Hofer gained more responsibility, Tom stepped back. Hofer admits he was skeptical that his father would be able to separate from the business, even gradually. “I thought, ‘You’re not going to be able to do this,’” he says, adding that the business was his father’s whole life. “But he committed full-force.”

Gradually, Hofer worked his way through the company operations, including franchise development, marketing and accounting. By year five, he was managing day-to-day operations. “When it got to the point where the transition happened, we had lunch that day, but there was nothing really different in the daily operations, and that has continued,” Hofer says.

His father, serving as chairman, visits the office periodically. “He has certainly taken a step back, and is thinking of the business more from the perspective of a shareholder,” Hofer says. “He looks at the financials and asks questions when he needs to, but his actual physical presence in the building is rare. He is stepping back and really enjoying life.”


Owning up to responsibility

The Greenery’s employee-owned business model drives morale, quality and customer retention.

Employees at The Greenery in Hilton Head, S.C., think like owners, because they are. All team members, from supervisors to field workers, benefit financially when the company performs well and earns profits. That’s because six years ago, The Greenery moved toward an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) so the longtime owner could retire and give the company back to the people who helped him grow it.

“We feel that if you are going to keep good people, you have to provide them with opportunities,” says Lee Edwards, CEO. “We have always grown the business in order to keep good people – not necessarily because we want to be the biggest, but in order to be the best, you have to keep good people.”

The Greenery began investigating ways to continue rewarding its people for their dedication and service to the company. The ESOP made sense because the business could hold on to its brand integrity and keep its people.

Edwards’ father, who founded the company, remained president of the company during the transition to ESOP, and brought on a consultant to help implement the plan. The first step was creating a trust – a trust that “borrowed” money and bought out the owners’ stock (Edwards’ parents) in the business. “Over time, the profits of the company are used to pay into that trust to pay the note on the loan,” Edwards says. Stock is distributed to employees as the loan is paid down. “No employee had to come to the table with a check to buy out the company, and that would be especially difficult, if not impossible, when you have several hundred employees,” Edwards says. The firm employs 390 people.

Adding firepower

The Greenery’s sweet spot is resort and high-end commercial properties, but there was a missing piece the company wasn’t capturing – military bases.

“Rather than going out and learning to start the process of getting that business on our own, we figured it would make more sense to bring someone on board who was experienced in that,” says Lee Edwards, CEO.

So in 2011, The Greenery acquired a small company in its market that shared The Greenery’s employee-centric philosophies and already had deep relationships with military clients. The owner continues to work at The Greenery. “The owner and I have known each other for years, and have been competitors in some areas,” Edwards says.

Meanwhile, that company’s employees have stayed on board. “The way he said it to his employees was that by bringing his company into our company, he can offer them more of a career rather than just a job,” Edwards says.

Stock ownership distributions are weighted according to the pay scale, so an employee that gets paid $50,000 per year will get twice the dividends as someone who makes $25,000. But everyone gets a kick-back, and employees can begin participating within 18-24 months of joining the company. After working there for four years, they are fully vested in the stock plan, which essentially works like a retirement vehicle.

“Over time, as the company becomes more valuable and profitable, those stock certificates become more valuable, and the idea is that when someone reaches retirement, they can start taking distributions,” Edwards says, adding that an employee who leaves the company can allow their stock to grow or roll it into another type of retirement account.

Once employees saw the dollars adding up behind the scenes, they immediately bought into the plan. “When a guy who is working on a crew looks at a stock certificate at the end of the year and sees that he has $5-7,000, as far as he is concerned, that is found money,” Edwards says.

Meanwhile, the ESOP gives The Greenery a competitive edge. The company logo and literature remind people that of the “employee owned” status. The firm’s tagline is: Employee Satisfaction = Customer Satisfaction. “We are big believers in that,” Edwards says.

When the company is facing a big week with deadlines to meet, Edwards says the team pulls together. “People have a better work ethic, and we have a better safety record,” Edwards says. “That leads to being more efficient and profitable. All of those things make us a better company.”

And customers notice. “They see it,” Edwards says. “Happy employees do better work.”