Walk alongside clients; feel their pain; be the problem solver. A sympathetic mindset is ingrained in management at Andre Landscape Service in Azusa, Calif. In a market saturated with national conglomerates, where the bidding is tight and homeowners associations (HOAs), like any economically stressed client, feel budgetary pressure, Andre Landscape works to really relate.
The Andre team calls this understanding the client paradigm. And they’ve got the overworked, stretched HOA property manager profile down.
“They are professionals, mostly women, who are juggling this career, often a family life, and they have the HOA they manage and are dealing with evening board meetings and slews of homeowners’ calls that come in for this repair and that liability – they are really busy,” says Michelle Andre, vice president of marketing.
For HOA managers to take a chance on a landscape firm they don’t know is “huge,” she adds.
This is the barrier Andre Landscape faced when Michelle and her husband, Jeremy, started the business 20 years ago.
Today, 80 percent of the business is maintenance – most of that work is HOA. The remaining 15 percent of operations focuses on tree care and five percent is design/build.
But in the early days, the company consisted of a few residential gardening routes. The Andres, with lead-lists, pounded the pavement and got their hands dirty in landscape beds.
“Just building relationships is key,” Andre says. The Andres were newlyweds when they started the firm. They left fulltime ministry positions to begin this company and make a better living, she says.
The first day, Jeremy hit the ground running and returned home with the first 12 residential customers.
The “client paradigm” concept was not solidified at that point, but the idea of getting in at ground level with people and just “getting it” – their needs, their goals – has always been a strength of Jeremy.
A few ‘vital’ success factors
1. Managing quality. Layers of quality control keep the team on target with company goals. One aspect is Vital Factors Team (VFT) manager meetings that occur on a monthly basis. Equally important is quality control in the field.
Quarterly internal voluntary quality control inspections are conducted in three steps: 1) the owner reviews all properties; 2) the vice president of operations makes rounds; and 3) branch managers perform quality control checkups, using a report developed by the company.
2. Apprenticing for growth. When Jeremy Andre, president and CEO, considers expanding the business, he embeds himself in the discipline.
“He would donate his labor to professional tree care companies to learn from certified arborists how to do jobs correctly,” says Michelle Andre, vice president of marketing. Then, he started an arbor care division. The same pattern followed for commercial landscape maintenance. This approach goes back to the core of Andre Landscape’s business: building relationships.
3. Encouraging certification. All Andre branch managers are certified arborists. “Our clients get a lot of value out of that because when a branch manager goes on a job, he or she can recognize any issues and be proactive for the property,” Michelle says.
“By nature, he is such a people person, and he is very down to earth and humble, so he is received very well,” Michelle says.
As the firm has grown, the Andres have not lost sight of the understanding and ability to relate that has earned them valuable clients. When the company began branching into commercial 15 years ago, it applied the same approach in spite of the competitive market.
“Our goal was always to break into commercial, so we just kept learning and growing and building relationships,” Andre says, noting that early introductions to HOAs happened while volunteering in the professional organizations that property managers join. “You’ve got to prove yourself to earn their business when you have no name, no brand, no recognition. We have to really understand our clients’ paradigm.”
Goals and controls.
Layered management is the key to executing on that client paradigm. It’s one thing to understand how clients feel, and another to do something about it. Andre Landscape doesn’t stop at the feeling. Working alongside and ahead of clients is the key to maintaining HOA business in tough times, Michelle says.
“Property managers have a tremendous workload,” she says. “They might have 1,200 homeowners and only one assistant property manager. They’re fielding calls and problem solving, so we focus on being proactive. We don’t want to be the sub on the job that they have to constantly communicate with.”
This is possible because of the structure at Andre Landscape, ongoing performance reviews, and the low turnover in management. The internal structure looks like this: owner, vice president of operations, branch manager and account manager. Andre Landscape has four locations throughout Southern California. All leadership is part of the Vital Factors Team (VFT) at Andre Landscape.
Every month, managers gather for a monthly VFT meeting to discuss “goals and controls.” The company has adopted MAP management practices.
Andre Landscape sets monthly goals – managers sit around a conference table and “map” these out together. Those goals tie into productivity, relationship building, quality control, communication and responsiveness, which are the company’s core values. “As managers, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, so we create goals based on developing each person’s area of struggle,” Michelle says.
When the VFT reconvenes the next month, each manager shares a progress report, and a percentage (of completion) is assigned to every goal. It’s an accountability tool and a motivator. Andre Landscape has been conducting these VFT meetings for the last 10 years.
Perhaps the most significant take away from these meetings is how progress is accomplished when everyone collaborates and works toward shared goals. Also, there’s the idea that “two heads are better than one,” Michelle says. Bringing together managers of different divisions in one room provides a range of perspectives and experience.
While Andre Landscape’s structure is “dedicated but integrated,” in the respect that employees do not cross over divisions, this ability to connect through VFT meetings brings together the company’s disciplines so they can share ideas and learn from each other.
Creating a talent pipeline.
Relationship building goes beyond winning and keeping clients. Andre Landscape’s recruiting efforts are focused on ushering in talent over the long term. This is one of Jeremy’s areas of focus as owner, and he “is always building relationships with people from other companies in the industry,” Michelle says. That’s not because he’s hiring, per se, rather, he’s planting a seed, helping others to get to know Andre Landscape.
For years, Jeremy might meet periodically with another industry peer to talk about business, life or family – just to get to know the person better. “He establishes a relationship with them,” Michelle says. “Then, at the point when we need a key person, that is the person we hire, and that is the person who wants to come work for us because we have built a relationship with them for five, 10 years.”
Meanwhile, low turnover among managers and employees in the field helps secure client relationships. When HOA property managers can continue building a relationship with the same workers rather than starting from scratch every year or two, that’s better for business.
“Our clients tell us they appreciate that we do not have a high turnover,” Michelle says. “That translates to less work for our clients because our people are familiar with their property, their wants and needs, and they know how to work together well.”