I’m a nerd. I know, it’s hard to believe, what with my glasses, bookish nature and job as the editor of a magazine, but it’s true.
Ray Bradbury is one of my favorite authors. I attended one of his readings as a pre-teen and imagined myself piloting rockets for the next decade. Would you like to discuss the possible outcomes of a Marvel vs. Street Fighter tournament? Excellent. Settle in. Perhaps we could listen to my collection of They Might Be Giants albums after.
But in my mind, being a nerd isn’t something that requires a working knowledge of HTML 5 or an encyclopedic knowledge of the cast of Star Trek (though those certainly do add to your street cred). Being a nerd, to me, means that you get excited about learning new things, and have an innate desire to figure out how things work. Those things can range from the mythical to the mechanical, the scientific to the super-natural. A nerd always has his eyes and ears open, and loves sharing what he’s learned with other like-minded individuals.
When I meet someone who isn’t excited to learn new things, I know I’ve met someone who I likely won’t need to talk with again. I mean, if he’s not learning new things, what else are we going to talk about?
And I think a lot of business owners – especially the ones we’re profiling this month in our technology issue – are nerds. (Sure, you, the one reading this, are really tough and probably not a nerd.) But lots of other owners fit into my definition: They’re excited to learn new ways to improve their business and new approaches to solve their problems. They have lots of questions for other owners. They’re curious.
This month, we’ve gathered some great stories of curious owners who are using technology to solve their problems. Taylor Milliken is using software to track which of his crews makes the most money each day. That’s nerdy. Scott Neave is using advanced web development to gather the best leads for his team 24/7. That’s nerdy. The Noon brothers have brought together a suite of technologies to make their sales staff super-efficient and super-profitable. Nerds.
So I say to you now: Come, join us and learn and be excited to learn new things. Embrace your inner nerd.
he purpose and process of gardening and cooking run parallel. There’s the concept of creating a finished product – an indulgence, an impression, a sensory delight. There are tools to complete the job and a timeline to follow.
Both occupations deal with perishables. So when Lise Goedewaagen, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who had been working as a career chef for more than two decades, sold off her catering business and decided to enter a Master Gardener program, the segue was surely a shift – but not a complete departure from her kitchen roots.
After cutting her teeth at a local landscaping firm, Goedewaagen started Outdoor Environments in 1998. “Catering is a lot like doing a landscaping job,” she says. Her Dutch father gardened, and she remembers first being exposed to the intricacies of plants while spending time with family in England when she was about 10 years old. “The Secret Garden is still one of her all-time favorite books.“You set up a menu, you find out what the clients like and you put together your ideas. Then you go back and collect the tools you need and you get prepared, you do the job, clean up and go home,” she says.
The materials are different, but the intentions, for the most part, are the same – to deliver pleasing results tailored to clients’ tastes, on schedule.
Launched with hindsight
After running a successful catering business in New Milford, Conn., called Food For Thought, Lise Goedewaagen hung up her apron and picked up a garden trowel. Going into business for the second time by opening Outdoor Environments in nearby Gaylordsville, she brought with her some entrepreneurial lessons learned.
Stay organized. “I developed these habits of list-making and scheduling and planning as I am working toward a goal,” Goedewaagen says. “Whether planning a menu for a party or a landscape installation, everything has to click along at just the right moment.”
Pass the buck. “I try to delegate as much as I can to my crews so they feel they are really a part of what is happening,” she says. “That way, they feel like they have something invested in the company, and it just helps me to get jobs done better.”
Cater to clients. Goedewaagen looks for ways to bring more value to clients’ properties and to deepen relationships. “I’m always looking for ways to offer more services to my customers – I want them to trust me to the point where they would give me the keys to their homes to watch over things,” she says, relating that she has started to get into a bit of caretaking since many of the properties she cares for are vacation homes.
Know your niche. “I just wanted to do gardens,” Goedewaagen says of her business plan. And as for the retail shop, “I’m not trying to be a big garden center. I have no desire to do that.”
The fresh start suited Goedewaagen, who has grown her Gaylordsville, Conn., business from a tiny seed to a busy, multi-faceted business that includes a design/build service, a retail component, flower arrangements and wreaths, fresh vegetables and a growing maintenance service – though her property care does not involve mowers.
Sowing a passion.
Goedewaagen had simply burned out in the kitchen. She was raising a family at the time and the grueling hours caused conflict – working nights, weekends. You’re on duty when others are celebrating holidays. “I had been my own boss for a long time, and I had people working for me – I’m used to being in charge,” Goedewaagen says of her decision to eventually launch another business in a new industry. “I thought, OK, now what do I do? I have always loved gardening and I love being outdoors.”
After completing the Master Gardener program, she landed a job at a large landscaping company near New Milford, Conn. A friend of hers was performing some drainage work at her house. Goedewaagen told him about her career change and he offered her a job on the spot. “I didn’t have a clue what was going on,” she says. “I was totally out of my league there. But I learned as much as I could and I worked really hard.”
At the same time, Goedewaagen began a two-year landscape design program at the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y. After a few years, she felt prepared to strike out on her own again. “I just jumped in and went for it,” she says. The first few years, she only provided gardening services.
“My customers trusted me and my business grew. I started doing small installations and I needed help, so I hired one person and that turned into two and three,” she says.
Hers is a family business of sorts, with two Ecuadorian brothers and one’s father-in-law, along with her own son. Her boyfriend, Brian, helps out, and her daughter also helped before moving away. Not just anyone can perform the work gardening requires: clean-up, edging, mulching, pruning and fertilizing, along with installations and minding the health of plants.
“I am observant and I really stress this with my crews, to really look at the plants and see how they change and if there is anything going on … if you see an insect or disease issue, it’s really crucial to recognize it and address that right away,” she says.
Her team members have a natural knack for living things. “They just seem to get it.”
Cultivating niche offerings.
Four years ago, Outdoor Environments expanded to the point that Goedewaagen could no longer run the business out of her home. She rented a commercial building on Route 7, a couple of miles from her house and a main artery through town. “I realized I’ve got this spot. Let’s do something with it,” she says.
She began setting plants out in front of the building – specimens she had grown, extras from jobs, a hodge-podge. “People started coming in and it kind of took off,” she says.
Just 10 percent of the overall business is retail, but the shop offers a venue for local artisans who sell their wares there – gifts, art, soaps and more.
A thriving floral business is based at the shop and a demand for holiday wreaths from Outdoor Environments has escalated to where that four-week push at year-end mimics the catering party hustle.
The container planting business has also really taken off. “People love it, and it’s fun for me,” she says. “It’s easy for people to have a little container garden for themselves as a way to garden on a small scale.” This offering has evolved into a niche for the company.
With the 40-plus client gardens Goedewaagen’s team maintains, most customers also get containers. She has also begun offering floral design and centerpieces for parties.
Meanwhile, Goedewaagen nurtures a love of organic vegetable gardening, keeping a garden at home, one on the property with her shop/office and another in town nearby. She sells the bounty at a roadside stand by her shop.
If she could, she would quit everything and farm organic foods – “It would be hard to make a living selling tomatoes,” she says. “But that is what I love to do.”
To be sure, Goedewaagen’s business is diverse – sprouting out in all directions, but rooted in gardening. While she considers the danger of spreading herself too thin, the joy she derives from the shop and its many offerings, along with the intentional overlap of those services, gives people many ways to “reach” Outdoor Environments. “I think the more I can offer, the more business will be generated,” she says.
Her community and family have been generously supportive of her venture. “Without them, I would be absolutely nothing,” she says. “All of the people here in our little town, and this area, come to me and support me with their business.”
Our State of the Industry numbers show that this most recent snow season caused an influx of revenue for contractors and the financial future is just as bright.
In April, to best benchmark and identify industry-wide trends, we conducted the 2014 State of the Industry research via SurveyMonkey, an online survey portal. We queried business owners and top managers from throughout the United States and Canada who were pulled from our circulation list. In addition, we interviewed professional snow and ice managers to gain first-hand insights on how the previous winter affected the client relationships, and how subcontractors have been used.
Winter 2013-14 will be remembered as a hectic, but profitable, time for snow contractors that not many predicted. On average, contractors reported that their snow revenue rose from roughly $690,000 for winter 2012-13 to $893,914 last winter. Likewise, plowable events for winter 2013-14 rose to 22 (up from 12 events last winter), and deicing events logged in at 29 (up from 19 the previous winter), according to the data.
More than half (54 percent) of contractors anticipated winter 2013-14 would be a “normal” winter, with only 10 percent predicting extreme winter conditions. Those surveyed cited the inability to predict the weather as the top business challenge.
Read on to get the lowdown on how the industry fared last season, and where it's headed in the future.
Market competition seems to have leveled out coming out of last winter. Just less than half (46 percent) of snow and ice managers report elevated levels of competition in their markets compared to 66 percent the previous year. Likewise, those reporting they had just the right amount of competition increased to 29 percent, an 11 percent increase over winter 2012-13 data.
Snow and ice managers are an optimistic lot. The majority anticipate continued growth into winter 2014-15 and beyond. However, a mild or inconsistent winter could dampen that positive outlook, which contractors cited as their No.1 major business challenge.
Looking ahead to the next 5 years
Editor’s note: This article was adapted from Huston’s new book “Job Descriptions for Green Industry Professionals” to be published this fall.
It was Friday afternoon in early May. The season had just gotten in full gear. Bill walked into Dave Rykbost’s office. Dave is president of Dave’s Landscape Co., near Boston. Bill was 50 years old and had worked for Dave for many years as a residential construction foreman. Bill blurted out, “Dave, if I don’t get a $2 an hour raise by Monday, I quit!”
I arrived at Dave’s office shortly after Bill’s pronouncement and asked Dave how the week was wrapping up. He said, “It just turned to &^%&.” He then recounted the episode.
I queried Dave with some questions. First, how much revenue did Bill’s three-man crew generate per year? Second, how were his workmanship and his ability as a crew leader? Third, how was his attitude? Dave told me that Bill’s crew, without subcontractor revenue, generated about $450,000 per year.
That’s $150,000 per man per year and well above the industry benchmark of $100,000. Dave then went on to explain that Bill was great both as a crew leader and in his workmanship. Customers loved him and he needed minimal supervision. He didn’t forget things and he did things right the first time.
That was the good news. The bad news? Bill had a terrible attitude. It hadn’t always been so. Somehow over the years, Bill’s attitude went south. He was an excellent employee except for this shortcoming and it made his life and the lives of those around him miserable.
Like a frog in a kettle of cold water with a fire underneath, no one notices the temperature rising until it’s too late and the frog gets cooked. That’s what happened to Bill. He “cooked” himself and no one noticed. Dave gave Bill the $2 an hour raise but he quit anyway. Go figure!
A common tale. I cannot tell you how often I’ve seen this exact scenario play out. A good, long-term employee gradually turns sour. It gets to the point where the employee poisons the company atmosphere. Everyone walks around like they are walking on eggshells. Everyone knows not to piss off so-and-so or all hell will break out. No one takes the initiative to deal with the person and their attitude.
Eventually, the employee makes a scene and then quits. In the worst-case situation, disgruntled employees actually do harm to themselves and their fellow workers.
The concept of attitude is often hard to grasp or define. Attitude is subjective and often lacks clearly defined parameters.
Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart had a similar problem defining hard-core pornography. Although he had difficulty clearly defining what it was, he retorted with his famous phrase, “I know it when I see it.”
The challenge is for us to take what is subjective or intuitive and clarify it.
No tolerance. Staff members who get sick or have physical ailments often call in sick. They know that it’s better for them and often other employees to stay home and recover. This is legitimate for a couple of reasons.
First, they will probably not be very productive at work. Second, they may spread what they have and infect other workers with their illness. In like manner, it is a wise thing to do the same with attitude.
If you come to work with a bad attitude, you are going to infect other employees and productivity will, in all likelihood, decrease. The “disease” will be infectious. It will spread and have a negative impact on the company culture.
I believe that the best way to counter bad attitudes and their effect upon your organization is to be proactive and deal with the issue head-on. First, identify what the standards are regarding attitude(s) in your company. Make them explicit.
Second, include these standards in your company employee manual, job descriptions and employee contracts. As philosopher John Dewey once said, “A problem well defined is a problem half solved.” Third, lead by example and display the attitudinal qualities that you want everyone in the company to exhibit. Fourth, teach your managers and staff to do the same.
Make it known throughout the organization that attitudes are very determinative and thus very important. Fifth, hold everyone accountable to these attitudinal standards. Sixth, reward those with good attitudes and punish those with bad ones. Make them use a sick day and take the day off until they recover. You could also give them a day off without pay. By making attitude(s) explicit – clearly defined – you’ve taken the first step toward creating not only a high-energy company but also a high-production company as well.
Cool down. The concept of attitude is a slippery one. It’s hard to define and harder still to quantify and measure. Like pornography, it may be hard to define but you know it when you see it. Make having and displaying a positive attitude, like any other skillset, a part of your job descriptions.
It should and must be a part of your company culture. Like someone with the flu, people experiencing a bad attitude should call in “sick,” otherwise they might infect the whole company.
What’s your DNA? We’re talking about branding – the cultural makeup of your company, your vision and values, and how you go about telling the world about it.
Haven’t thought about it lately? Then, perhaps the owners we talked to this month will provide a compelling reason why examining that first impression – the “look and feel” you send out to the public, from prospects to potential workers – is worth the time and money. Maybe you’ll discover, like James Rose of Perfect LawnCare in Williamstown, Ky., that renaming your firm is reinvention.
“I couldn’t get accounts the way I wanted because when people called, they thought the company was just me and it wasn’t a team,” he says.
His business went by James Rose LawnCare, founded when Rose was 10 years old. It was time for a fresh image that showed the years of expansion and professionalism. He chose Perfect LawnCare because of his father’s advice to, “Do everything right the first time and make sure it’s perfect.”
The rollout of Rose’s new brand was a complete re-launch of his company.
“I was scared to death,” he admits, “but I knew I had to grow or die.” Growing meant evolving his brand.
This month, Lawn & Landscape spoke with companies that staged a complete brand refresh to find out why, how and what’s next for these evolving firms. All of them share one thing in common: The courage to ask, “Who are we, really?” Then, they created a strategy to get real, and to get more business.
All in the name
A last name like Pickel sticks out from the bunch, but Michael never considered slapping his moniker on the company until he realized that most of the phone calls his office fielded were mowing requests. His company, which was named LawnScapes, does so much more.
So Pickel began surveying his customers, asking them: “What do you think of when you see the name LawnScapes?”
Pickel wanted to know how clients referred to his company when they talked to others. He was surprised to learn that they called his firm “Mike Pickel’s company.”
“I used to think that you didn’t want your name on your company because it seemed arrogant, or there wasn’t that much creativity involved, but for this area, it makes a lot of sense,” says Pickel, who grew up in Landenberg, Pa., where his company is based. He’s involved in the community – and people know his family.
Meanwhile, while batting around this idea of a name change, Pickel attended a conference where an industry consultant asked him (without knowing about Pickel’s name-change ideas), “Did you ever consider changing the name of your company?” LawnScapes just wasn’t a fit, he suggested.
Pickel didn’t jump to change the name immediately.
“My biggest concern was how it would affect our business,” he says, relating that he was concerned that the call volume would drop off.
To address that, Pickel decided to launch the new company name during Memorial Day weekend.
“In the Northeast, you can lose contact with customers from January 1 through March 1 when business is slower,” he says. “It’s hard to get people engaged in lawn care when there is snow on the ground, so we didn’t want to do a name change on March 1 and confuse a lot of folks.”
Pickel used winter and early spring to prepare for the launch. That included recruiting a design firm to rework the logo. He decided to change the name and keep a signature leaf image so clients would still recognize the company. Web developers shifted the existing site (remodeled to include the new name) to the new URL, and new team dress was ordered. Signage was purchased for trucks, and Pickel saved two-thirds of the cost because of his prior experience applying adhesive signs for a printing company.
On Memorial Day weekend, crew members volunteered in shifts to help change out signs and remove old LawnScapes logos from vehicles and the building. The following Tuesday, the company officially became Pickel Landscape Group.
With a name like Pickel, people recognize the person behind the operation. “My family has been in the community for a long time so everyone knows me,” he says.
Now, Pickel gets more referral business because his company name aligns with his family’s reputation in the area. This has resulted in work such as installations for charter schools and large development projects.
“We are the busiest we have ever been, and we are getting calls from the type of clients we want to get calls from,” he adds.
A postcard campaign resulted in 15 calls, five solid leads and two large jobs amounting to $45,000 in sales. A similar campaign last year with the old name resulted in two calls and no business.
“All the growth we are seeing is directly related to the name change,” Pickel says.
Pickel sent a letter about the company’s name change to clients and prospects, one a former marketing executive. Pickel asked her why she had not responded to his ad pieces in the past, and she said, “To be honest, in January, February and March, I get several postcards a week – Lawn Busters, LawnScapes, Lawn This and Lawn That. Nothing really sticks out.” Pickel does.
“With a last name like Pickel, it would be silly not to leverage that,” Pickel says. “And, I’ve had nothing but positive results.”
Refreshed and focused
“It’s hard to have a great business that does everything,” says Adam Jackson, partner in Nature’s Turf, which transitioned from a business rooted in landscaping into a dedicated turf care firm this year. He points to Lawn & Landscape’s Top 100 List: “The top 15 are focused businesses,” he says. “You focus on one segment to make the business run well.”
Nature’s Turf was founded as Nature’s Nursery and Landscape Company, which evolved into Nature’s Landscape Services in 2004 when Jackson’s father bought out his former partner and focused on landscaping rather than the competitive retail garden center business. The company offered traditional maintenance and design/build services. “We rode that to the peak of the housing market here in Atlanta,” Jackson says.
At its largest point in 2007, the company’s revenues were about $2.5 million, with 50 employees. Then, Atlanta suffered a drought and the housing market collapsed.
“That affected our sales on the construction side,” Jackson says. But that same year, the company had purchased a small turf care business that had served as a loyal subcontractor for years. Its strong recurring revenue helped maintain the company during tough times.
“Turf care seemed to be the only thing that was working, and it was working so well that we stopped doing landscape installation and traditional lawn maintenance and are 100 percent focused on turf care now,” Jackson says.
The transition to total turf care was more of a slow creep. By 2012, Jackson said he felt the pressure to rebrand the business. One year later, he mustered the courage to launch a complete corporate identity change. The new firm did a handful of landscaping jobs in fall 2013, but now it refers that work to other trusted businesses in the area.
The change was a significant effort, involving a marketing firm out of Atlanta that helped the company decide on a new name and brand. “We ironed out the logo and tagline, and trademarked all of that and redid the website and all of the signage,” Jackson says.
The rollout on January 1 resulted in more brand clarity, Jackson says. Beyond that, the business is more strategic now. All marketing and training is centered on turf care.
“We wanted to build a business that was more recession-proof with more recurring revenue,” Jackson says. “We were so sensitive to the economy before and the business cycle that the business was unsustainable because you have to let all your key people go anytime there is a slowdown in the economy.”
Jackson says the only mistake the company made was not doing this sooner. “I would have done this three years ago, but it took years to decided to take the plunge,” he says, adding that this new direction veered away from the company’s roots, at first making it more challenging to pull the trigger on the rebranding.
But the rebranding has not only resulted in laser focus from a strategic planning perspective, but it also has motivated employees.
“It has been positive for team members because they feel like they are part of a business that is growing and on the upswing,” Jackson says, noting the new uniforms and signage, along with the modern fleet the company maintains. “They feel like they work for a company that is getting better each day.”
Revealing a brand DNA
“It’s not just the story, it’s how you tell it.” This inspirational one-liner, along with a crowd of hand-written ideas, notes-to-self and reminders, cover the windows of Ken Hutcheson’s office at U.S. Lawns headquarters in Orlando, Fla. It’s a new space – the company left the building it inhabited for 89 years and shuffled up the street to a facility that, Hutcheson says, “matches our brand DNA.” The stretches of windows (that managers use as marker boards), and messaging, are one example of the openness and honesty that wraps around a redefined mission to deliver 100 percent customer and employee retention.
“We’ve had unprecedented growth over the past five years, continuing on the heels of growth for many years, and we were at the point of 260-plus offices and thousands of customers – and somewhere around 12,000 family members that our company was impacting,” Hutcheson says.
The sheer volume of business, geographic spread (covering 44 states) and franchisee expansion creates “critical implications.”
“We must deliver a consistent, replicable customer experience, and equally important because we are in the service industry, we have to also deliver that consistent employee experience,” Hutcheson says.
U.S. Lawns had always been operationally focused, Hutcheson says. “But to really take your business to a different level, an exponential level, you have to deliver a full experience,” he continues.
That experience was fading out – or at least it was difficult to clearly define when there were so many people involved in the U.S. Lawns brand, from clients to franchise owners and employees. Longtime members of the U.S. Lawns team spoke the language. But new operations in places farther away from home office – well, Hutcheson wasn’t quite sure.
A rebranding initiative was necessary to establish consistency, set the bar high for customer and employee experience, and prepare the company for future growth.
“First, we had to figure out not what we wanted to be, but who we really are,” Hutcheson says. U.S. Lawns brought in some branding consultants who embedded themselves in the business. “They went on the road and interviewed customers and employees, they became stalkers in our office, attending meetings,” he says.
Then, the team presented some key words and phrases that described what they saw, U.S. Lawns’ brand DNA. The messaging must reach several audiences, including U.S. Lawns’ three business sectors – franchisors, franchisees and strategic accounts. And the many circles of people the company touches – home office, employees, franchise owners, customers, prospective clients and the communities where U.S. Lawns’ people work.
Some of the phrases on the list included: improve your community, improve your life, competitive camaraderie, disciplined, stable, responsive, Americana and, most importantly, 100 percent customer, employee and franchisee satisfaction.
So with the brand defined, how do you launch it? How do you get the newest U.S. Lawns franchise owner up to speed on the brand, the service promise and the culture in 140 characters or less?
Rebranding involves visuals, but equally important are tactics. From a visual perspective, U.S. Lawns changed its theme color to blue, and with that came new uniforms, truck logos, fresh marketing and more. It worked with partners in the uniform business and truck financing to assist franchisees as they made the switch. The message was communicated at every level, from owners to gardeners in the field, from customers to community members.
Hutcheson thought the rollout process would take two years. It was completed in six months, thanks to “competitive camaraderie.”
But, he stresses, this is a journey. “Our greatest challenge now is to keep that momentum,” he says. This will be accomplished by introducing more tactical brand-focused initiatives – an employee retention program, tools to elevate the customer service experience, a mission to “be the best place to work.”
A rebranding initiative is successful if it changes lives. “You can’t do this for personal satisfaction,” he says. “It has to be a project that will change the life of the prospective customer, that employee, the home office, employees and the owner.”