Here are some things that could ruin you this year: You get sued for a million bucks because a retaining wall collapses. Your top salesman steals half your clientele for his own company. INS deports your entire production staff in April. The EPA shuts down your facility due to a report (maybe bogus) of improper storage of chemicals. A crew member gets injured or killed on the job. Hurricanes. See also: fires, floods, tornados, earthquakes. All your managers quit in the off season.
I know. I’m a regular ray of sunshine this month. It’s the curse of a journalist to be drawn to stories of pain and sadness. Just keep reading.
We’ve written about all those things in Lawn & Landscape before, and how contractors responded to tragic and catastrophic events. Our message with all those stories has been that while these events stand out, they aren’t that rare.
I never made it to the Boy Scouts. I can’t start a fire with just twigs or build a canoe out of duct tape and neckerchiefs, but I’ve always liked their motto: Be prepared.
Now, some might say that you can’t really prepare for a list like mine. A lawsuit can (and often does) drop right out of the sky to ruin your day.
And while you can’t make someone not sue you, you can have a good lawyer, a great insurance policy and a solid foundation of cash reserves. You can’t make your favorite ops guy not quit, but you can build a pipeline of talented managers who can step in and step up when you need them to. You can’t guarantee that your H2B workers will come through again this year, or that the health care law won’t change.
All those disasters are things you can’t control. All you can do is prepare for them, and hope they don’t happen.
In our latest State of the Industry Report, we asked what the top concern for contractors was and for the first time in many years, stress was in the top five.
After successfully leaning out their organizations and taking on more work for themselves, owners have started to crack under all the pressure of trying to do more work themselves and continue to grow.
And while running a landscape business is inherently stressful, undue stress is something to watch for. Stress is a real thing – as real as a heart attack. It’s easy, especially if you have as active an imagination as I do, to think about those tragic and terrible things in my list.
So, and I say this a lot here in my column, but I’ll say it again: Don’t worry about the things you can’t control. Plan and prepare for the things you can.
– Chuck Bowen
Q: How do you leverage the Landscape Industry Certified designation in your branding/marketing efforts?
A: The way my company markets certification is by using compelling comparisons that can help you rock the certification message to your customers.
Certification is one of those items in your toolbox that can really propel your company to the next level and beyond. Once certification was achieved, we marketed it throughout all of our advertising and company info. We would specifically use phrases like:
- You would not go to court without a certified lawyer.
- You would not send your kids to a school without certified teachers there.
- You would not go into surgery without a board certified surgeon.
Why would you trust one of your most expensive investments like your home to anyone other than a certified landscaper?
We continually emphasize this critical message to our customers. And, we share how we market our certification with colleagues at every opportunity. We’re proud of our certification, and this distinction gives us a competitive advantage and a higher professional profile. Marketing the certification message is an essential part of our business plan and permeates throughout our company communications.
Truly, what good is earning a credential if you don’t promote it with a clear-cut message that everyone can understand and relate to? Let the media, customers and colleagues know that you and your staff are certified, and tell them why it’s important to hire certified professionals.
Richard Arlington, Rich Arlington & Associates
Q. I am looking for an electronic way to track equipment repairs and expenses, and to have a history for the life of the equipment. Does anyone have knowledge of a software program or a formulated excel sheet that can meet this purpose?
A: I recently met with the owners of a company that had recently purchased, but had not implemented, a software tracking system, MowerMeter. This system schedules preventive maintenance and tracks all repair costs with YTD numbers and is available to all managers at any time.
This information gives all managers a full picture of the technical costs of operating and maintaining their fleet of vehicle and equipment. The system also provides the cost of operating individual vehicles or a single piece of equipment. This information is helpful, especially as equipment ages or become costly to maintain or repair.
As the company uses the software to its fullest it will be able to easily schedule maintenance, track repairs, and schedule replacement of equipment and vehicles at the most efficient and least costly time. The company is planning to schedule replacing equipment at predetermined time periods before costly repairs reduce its profits. Productivity will increase as new equipment replaces older, less efficient equipment.
Shop labor expenses can be better evaluated, controlled and reduced by using this software tracking system.
Using the system will help this company increase business without increasing cost.
Rick Cuddihe, Lafayette Property Maintenance
Have a question for the experts? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
The touch-and-feel factor is a huge time saver when closing sales on landscape installation projects. Pictures can only do so much. When clients can see the hardscape material, experience a water feature, listen to outdoor audio and take in an outdoor kitchen environment, they’re faster to sign on the dotted line. “It shortens the selling time dramatically,” says Pete Bryant, president of Southern Exposure Landscape Management in Summerfield, N.C.
Anyone can take a stroll through the acre-and-a-half landscape. A winding path leads visitors through a dreamscape of possibilities: outdoor kitchens, water features, lighting displays, plantings, pergolas, fire pits, fire places, pizza ovens and, of course, patios. There are 5,000 square feet of hardscape pavers on the lot.
“We put a lot of money and time into it, but it is really paying off now because it distinguishes us from the competition,” Bryant says.
“Specifically, Bryant estimates spending about $25,000 on outdoor construction of the displays – labor, base materials, bedding sand, mortar, fuel, etc. Vendors contributed a large amount of the materials. And the payback is a closing time that’s twice as fast as before the displays were created.
“Customers can come here and see everything there is to be offered in the way of hardscape,” Bryant says, adding that the materials on display also educate clients about what the company offers.“Our goal with the plants here was to create an arboretum where anyone can walk through and learn about plants.”
Attracting vendors. Bryant hatched the idea for Southern Exposure’s landscape displays while he was hunting for properties for his business more than five years ago.
His business had outgrown the home-based operation. “From 7:30 a.m. until 5:30 at night, we took up the whole street, trying to back trailers out of the driveway,” he says.
Digging into DIY
Helping customers do the work on their own can lead to more sales.
When Southern Exposure first opened its location, visitors who perused the outdoor living displays wondered if there was a way they could replicate some of the features at home. Rather than turning away an interested prospect, owner Pete Bryant began to consider do-it-yourself options.
“We were starting to create our own kits,” Bryant says. He and his team designed some kits and were working on ways to produce and market them – kits for benches and fire pits. But then the kit market sort of exploded, and Bryant figured, Why replicate what already exists? So he switched gears and began talking to vendors who supply kits.
“We are new to the retail game,” Bryant says, adding that his design/build firm is not the cheapest bidder in the area. “We know that. So the kits that homeowners can build themselves if they are handy have gotten us into a different market. We can get in the door and sell them the product.”
Many times, homeowners call Southern Exposure and ask for help installing the kit. This is a lead-in for more work, Bryant says.
“We have a fairly large amount of knowledge we like to share with people who are interested,” Bryant says. And those who are interested generally come back for more.
When he found the sizeable city lot and historical building, he imagined how the business could evolve with greater visibility.
“The property is located at a four-way stoplight, so people have to stop and look at what we are doing,” he says of the prime downtown location.
The traffic could possibly support a retail division, Bryant figured. And as Southern Exposure began to build its displays, and attract new and different vendors, some of them makers of DIY kits, the retail aspect of the business slowly evolved.
But what Bryant focused on first was building the ultimate outdoor landscape on site so visitors could see it, like it, buy it.
This required reaching out to vendors for materials donations. While Bryant’s staff, now numbering 21, could manage the labor involved in building the patios and kitchens and pergolas, the cost of creating the caliber of display Bryant had in mind would be prohibitive without vendor support. “We would not be where we are today without our vendors,” Bryant says.
But getting the first vendor on board wasn’t an easy task. Bryant presented his plan to major hardscape dealers, who were initially skeptical.
So Bryant did more legwork. “I invested time in our designs and took it back to vendors,” he says. Vendors were sluggish to agree to give away materials since everyone asks.
But Bryant became a certified installer with the manufacturers whose products he carried, namely Versa-Lok, Belgard and Techo-Bloc.
“They knew we were going to be serious about hardscape and it wasn’t just a side item for us,” he says. “We have a separate division dedicated to hardscape and there are very few companies in our area that do that.”
Bryant knew once he got one vendor on board that others would follow. “We didn’t want to pin vendors against one another, but we knew once (the project) was in the ground, they wouldn’t want to be the only ones not there,” he says.
“But getting that first person on board was critical – they had to trust us that we were going to turn around and give them business in return for materials,” he continues. “So it was really critical to set up a good relationship.”
Bryant attracted his first vendor by offering the supplier banner placement by Southern Exposure’s display. Bryant would link the supplier website to his own. “We tried to figure out cross-promotional strategies,” he says. “That’s how it all started out.”
And then the vendor participation snowballed. Today, Bryant has about six vendors represented on site.
For clients, this means rather than visiting various residences where Southern Exposure has completed projects to see examples of their work, they can literally shop at one stop: the company headquarters, right in town.
This convenience makes all the difference when closing sales, Bryant emphasizes. In the past, a $50,000 job that might have taken three to four meetings and up to three weeks to close is now taking one or two meetings.
“We don’t have to send them to several different jobs to look at materials and ideas – they can get that in our 1.5 acre showroom,” Bryant says.
“The property has become somewhat of a community landmark because of its unique layout, busy location and building with historical significance,” he says.
“We have entertained the idea of renting (the property) out for functions, as well….” Bryant says. “But we haven’t done that yet.”
Photos courtesy of Southern Exposure Landscape Management
Save the ladder and forget the numerous handheld units that take up space and rob time from crews. Richard Finch, the owner of Green Acres Lawn Care in Lafayette, La., doesn’t need them. He has a single “multi-use” tool on board.
Handheld equipment that offers a single motor and multiple choices for the working “head” save him time and money while improving productivity and safety. “You can edge out parts of gardens, or you can edge out rock areas where a weed eater couldn’t swing it,” Finch says. “It’s safe. You can cut weeds out of large areas. The purpose is to save me time – and therefore, it saves customers money.” These labor savers are just one tool in a landscaper’s box of harder, smarter working equipment.
Labor savers. Multi-use equipment gives landscapers a single power source and several options in the form of interchangeable tool heads that fit on the motorized unit. Finch says the real win is passing that value down to customers.
He can charge less and better compete in his market by using this type of labor-saving equipment. “The advantage of using a multi-tool head is only having one engine I can put the different attachments on because that saves money,” he says.
“And, it saves space because I’m not buying three permanent units.” Finch says it takes no longer than 15 seconds to swap out a tool head. So if one of his crewmembers is on the job and needs to switch from using an edger to a pole saw, he can simply trade the edger head and attach a chainsaw extension. This also saves using a ladder for the job. “If a bush is more than 5-feet tall, you’d normally get on a ladder and use the (trimmer) tool,” he says.
“That takes more time, plus it’s unsafe. With the attachment, I can put on the extended hedge trimmer tool and the head articulates at an angle. So I can stand on the ground and walk along, and cut the top of that hedge off.”
And anytime Finch doesn’t have to worry about safety or take more time on a job, he is making more money.
Power savers. Alongside this alternative to typical “stick” machines is cordless fare. Battery equipment today is on par with fuel guzzling counterparts if you ask John DeFilippi, owner of Ecological Lawncare in Boulder, Colo. “I’m very excited about the (cordless) power equipment today because it’s commercial grade,” he says. “It is better equipment, better built, more durable, more powerful and has better battery run times.”
DeFilippi’s firm cares for about 4,000 square feet of turf area using exclusively cordless, electric equipment.
“We recharge the batteries with solar and wind power at our facility, so that is a zero-emission process,” DeFilippi says. This year, the company moved to exclusively cordless handheld equipment because of the models available today from the manufacturer he purchases from are commercial-grade, he says.
“The only constraint you have is battery run times, and we keep extra charged batteries on our service vehicles,” he says. “We can also recharge batteries off of our service vehicles with a power inverter.”
I just completed a consulting trip to Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana where I worked with approximately 35 landscape entrepreneurs, all under $3 million in annual sales.
These individuals had put it all on the line believing in the opportunity that America offers. They had created a business and hoped to improve their lot in life.
They all were keenly focused on improving themselves, their operations and their bottom lines. Their backgrounds varied but they all were taller because they stood on the shoulders of the generations who went before them.
You could not find a better sampling of the American spirit than this group. Some had been blessed this past winter with an abundant snowfall. Others were blessed because they happened to be in a good market. All were blessed because they weren’t born lazy.
Admittedly, some were doing better than others but all were doing reasonably well considering the economic climate of the last five years. They were also looking forward to a new year – a new opportunity. Here are some of the things that we worked on during my visit this year:
We also reviewed company benchmarks and made sure that expenses were in line with revenue for the various divisions.
It was an arduous process, one that I’ve repeated thousands of times with clients over the last 25 years. In an attempt to improve their operations and bottom lines, these entrepreneurs spent numerous man-hours analyzing every aspect of their businesses, from top to bottom, in order to ensure that they were being as efficient and as effective as possible. In short, they wanted to maximize their profitability – their bottom line.
They were getting their financial house in order. Their reward for doing so, especially the past five years, was to stay in business and survive the worst economic recovery since such statistics have been kept.
There is no reason why your company cannot grow in spite of an anemic economy. However, you have to do your homework and adequately prepare for the future.
The entrepreneurs that I worked with in the Northwest have proven that preparing for the future really pays off.
The revenue from all of the entrepreneurs that I will work with this year totals about $200 million. The federal government spends just under twice this amount every hour. As a percent, this is .000000074 of the federal budget. Assuming an irrationally optimistic percent waste factor, our federal government wastes this amount every three hours.
What makes America great? It ain’t politicians and bureaucrats. It’s the men and women who have a dream and believe in the opportunity that America provides. It’s the readers of this magazine, the small business entrepreneurs who constantly strive to improve their businesses, operate more efficiently and be more competitive with the resources under their control.
The federal budget is 13,500,000 times larger than the collective $200 million budget for all of my 2013 clients. Do you think that government bureaucrats spend 13.5 million times the amount of hours my clients spend ensuring that their operations are efficient, balanced and effective? No way. If they did, we’d have no national deficit, a balanced budget and a booming economy. Now you know what makes America great.