Life in the big city

Life in the big city

Features - Maintenance

Expansion into a larger market is prompting Jay-Crew to re-evaluate its do-it-all approach.

May 20, 2013
Kristen Hampshire
Jason Brooks is still deciding if his ideal client is in the residential market, or somewhere else. Photo courtesy of Jay-Crew

It’s time to answer that question: What are we really good at?

For 18 years, Jason Brooks, who founded Jay-Crew in college and grew it to a $3 million-plus maintenance and design/build firm, recognized that his hometown had limits. Muncie, Ind., was not growing – in fact, the town has lost about 15,000 people since he started the business. So in order to expand and be successful, Brooks modeled Jay-Crew to do all and serve all. “In Muncie, we had to become everything to everyone in order to grow and survive – that was a necessity,” says Brooks, founder and CEO.

Recently, the company dipped a big toe into the Indianapolis market. Then, Brooks decided to dive in by hiring a full-time landscape architect/salesperson to build a book of business there. This geographic move is driving Jay-Crew into its next phase as a dynamic, growing landscape firm – and forcing Brooks to do some soul searching surrounding the company’s focus.

“It’s hard to be great at everything, and when you study successful companies, they have a focus in one area,” Brooks says. “That doesn’t mean they don’t get into other services to support their core business, but…”

Maintenance has always been the core business at Jay-Crew, though the firm has diversified over the years and offers design/build, irrigation and lawn care services. The idea is to be “the only outdoor expert you need to know.”

But Brooks is realizing that he may want to fine-tune this mission for his Indianapolis operation. And in the meantime, he’s sharpening his team and building a stronger organization by involving everyone in the process.

Profitability and people.
Brooks muses over the possibilities for Jay-Crew this year and moving forward. It’s an exciting time, and this geographic expansion is breathing fresh air into the business – taking it somewhere that Brooks never imagined when he started the company while attending Ball State University.

“I had a lot of clients build up, and I always knew I wanted to start my own business,” Brooks says of the early days. “I guess I had a passion for what I was already doing, and I had an opportunity to start a business.” The opportunity came because a property management client Brooks was tending to hired him to take care of its entire portfolio. This amounted to about 80 properties. “That gave us the initial mass, right off the bat,” says Brooks, who, at the time, was working at a golf course while moonlighting as an independent landscape contractor mowing lawns.

Hire ground

You’ll need to interview more than once to get a job at Jay-Crew.

Rather than three strikes you’re out, it’s three tries before you get in at Jay-Crew. Going back to the adage, “Hire slow, fire fast,” Jason Brooks, founder and CEO of Jay-Crew, has learned to string out his interview process – and he added an important peer evaluation component that improves the onboarding process. After the first and second round interviews with Brooks and key managers, the prospective employee sits down with the team at Jay-Crew that he or she will work alongside if hired.

Brooks offers question suggestions, but this interview is powered by his people. And he leaves the room. “Then afterward, I ask the staff for feedback,” Brooks says.

“This third interview is the final cut – we want to make absolutely sure the person is a good fit,” Brooks says. By the time a candidate is hired, he or she is completely prepared to start the first day of work with no surprises.

“Before, I used to hire someone and think, ‘If it doesn’t work out, I’ll let the person go,’” Brooks says. “What happens is you end up surrounding yourself with a lot of mediocre people who aren’t doing anything bad enough to be terminated – but they aren’t great either.”

That infusion of accounts allowed Brooks to make his business official (and full-time) in 1996. That first year in business, Jay-Crew raked in about $90,000 in revenues, and the following year the firm grew to $225,000. Year three rang in $450,000 and by year seven, the firm was pushing $1 million.

“The growth was crazy,” Brooks says, though he did press pause for about five years after the firm hit $1.5 million to steady the ship. He was also growing a family. And, he was learning to hire the right people.

Building a team of trusted leaders has been critical to Jay-Crew’s ability to make significant business investments today – namely, recruiting a lawn care pro to head up a new division and expanding into the Indianapolis market. Kevin Kellermeyer is lawn care manager at Jay-Crew, and he came to the business after a 30-year career owning a company and working in corporate at Scotts Lawn Service. “I didn’t want to add lawn care unless we could do it right,” Brooks says, noting how Jay-Crew had always subbed out that work.

Today, Jay-Crew employs one full-time lawn care technician who manages a full route. “That was our goal for the first three years (of that service), and we’d like to multiply that up to two, three or four technicians,” he says.

Now, Jay-Crew can leverage those lawn care and maintenance services. “Our customers who are only getting lawn care services are getting our newsletters and marketing materials, and they are buying mulching and planting and everything else,” Brooks says.

Beyond hiring a lawn care specialist so the company could widen its net in the Muncie market, Brooks re-examined his hiring process overall and made some important tweaks. “I really slowed it down,” he says of his system for bringing on new people, which involves three steps: An initial and second interview with Brooks and key managers, followed by a third meeting with colleagues the prospective employee would work with at Jay-Crew. “If you go on to hire that person, there is already buy-in from the rest of your staff,” Brooks says.

Self-examination and expansion.
Hiring a full-time salesperson to focus on the Indianapolis market helped Jay-Crew secure footing in the city, which is about an hour drive from his Muncie home base.

The company has since hired another employee to work this market, and now Brooks wants to set up an office so his Indianapolis salespeople aren’t working from home.

“We are keeping our options open,” Brooks says of whether Jay-Crew will lease or buy a spot in Indianapolis. The firm purchased its Muncie headquarters about seven years ago – a major milestone – giving it 6,600 square feet of building space on 4 acres, two of which are fenced in. “It’s not a high-visibility location, but because we don’t do any walk-ins or retail, that wasn’t important to us,” he says.

Meanwhile, Brooks and his team are answering some tough questions about the business and where it is headed tomorrow – and this is a good thing, if you ask Brooks. For one, they’re identifying the ideal client. “We have a picture of who our ideal client is – what they say, what they like, what they value,” Brooks says. This person values loyalty and honesty and relationships, “those kinds of things.”

Is that customer residential or commercial – maintenance or installation? Brooks is not quite sure yet. But consulting sessions with a facilitator are helping him and the team nail down some of these finer points of business – and that includes a revamped mission and vision. What Brooks has learned the most so far is how much this exercise actually means to his people. Their involvement is building a more cohesive team. “One session, I was actually sick and they kept going on without me,” Brooks says of one brainstorming session. As for what’s next: Brooks says this re-energized vision will continue to trickle down and spread out as Jay-Crew continues its geographic crawl. “The decision to tap into Indianapolis has been exciting and great for our business – it’s not the only source of excitement around here, but I feel like that move is driving our future growth.”