What is it about your company that makes it wonderful? You get up every morning (hopefully) excited to greet the day’s challenges and opportunities because it’s your name on the trucks and the deeds and on the bank accounts.
But what about everyone else who rolls through the door fuzzy and stiff, clutching a cup of coffee and gassing up their mowers? What makes your landscape company better to them than the dozen others in your town?
If you don’t have an answer, then you’re going to have a lot of guys heading down the road when your competition gets a big job and trots out a quarter-an-hour raise to the guys who just yesterday were munching on your doughnuts.
And, more importantly, what’s keeping your crew leaders and account managers sticking around? Don’t bet on free bakery and a pot of coffee to inspire devotion.
Every year, we publish a list of the biggest companies in the industry. And while it’s a worthwhile project, it leaves out one of the most important (and hardest to define) parts of a company: What makes it different.
That’s the question we tried to answer with this month’s cover story. We tracked down some of the best companies to work for in the landscape industry. They aren’t necessarily the biggest, but they’ve managed to get a handle on a few very vague concepts like company culture, like the perception of management.
They use concrete tactics to control those blurry things, and you can, too. A demonstration on chainsaw safety will make your tree crew feel like you care about them getting home with all their fingers still attached. A free dinner every week will make your maintenance division feel appreciated. And divvying up a full quarter of your company’s profits every year will make your whole team feel pretty damn good about where they work.
And then it builds. You’ve got a core group of employees that act like evangelists, and they find other people to come to work. Then you‘ve got more. It’s not easy and, yes, it costs money. (And, yes, doughnuts should still be a part of it.)
The companies we profile this month each spend well into the six figures on training, bonuses and other rewards. So turn to page 50 and find out how you can turn your company into one of the industry’s best places to work.
– Chuck Bowen
Save water, save money
Water restrictions don’t have to dry up business. Landscapers are realizing the bottom-line benefits of offering a product that genuinely reduces the water requirements of turf and plants. Read our whitepaper on moisture management and find out how you can save money and save water. To download the full whitepaper for free, visit bit.ly/ecologel. All you need to do to register is give your name, email and company name.
Here’s a snippet from our whitepaper on water management:
After installing landscapes on commercial properties, the real challenge began for Michael MacLeod and his business, Precision Landscape Maintenance, in greater Orlando.
“The properties we maintained were starting to show drought stress shortly after installation,” he says, noting how water restrictions in his county have intensified during the last few years.
MacLeod would talk to the water management boards of homeowners associations, his primary client base, to find out if there was more he could do for the property. But usually, he ended up having to go back to customers with bad news. “It’s difficult to tell a client, ‘Work with it,’” he says.
And that’s no way to retain business either. “We had to find an alternative,” MacLeod says.
Speaking from experience
For the latest Bionutrition Today newsletter, we spoke with Greg Kershaw, installation/ maintenance manager at McDugald-Steele Landscape Architects & Contractors in Houston. Kershaw has been practicing organic lawn care for 20 years, so he can remember when it was just a novelty.
“When I began using them 20 years ago, it was because I wanted to focus on getting the soil health at an optimum level so the plants would be able to perform as well as possible,” he said. “Over these 20 years, I have proven to myself that when you create and sustain a healthy soil, you not only create the healthiest plants, but you also conserve water and spend less money on pesticides and fertilizers.”
In addition, we also caught up with Frank Crandall, owner of Frank Crandall Horticultural Solutions in Rhode Island, who broke down the basics of bionutrition and organic lawn care. We also go beyond lawn care and interviewed Camilla Warden owner of Camilla Landscape Design in Brookfield, Conn., about use of organic practices in design plans. Visit bit.ly/bio0812 to read all three stories from the August edition of Bionutrition Today.
Out of the Ashes
Wildfires can be devastating, regenerating, fear-inducing and awe-inspiring. They reveal heroic feats as well as scarred hillsides. The latest issue of L&L’s sister publication, A Garden Life, examines the many faces of wildfires, including the personal stories of those who face the flames to protect us, the Earth’s response to the blazes – both good, and bad – and how you can safeguard your home and landscape to the best of your ability if you’re in the path of a fire. Visit bit.ly/outofashes or go to bit.ly/AGLsub to download the complete issue of A Garden Life on your iPad or your Android tablet.
Here are some links our followers and friends found the most intriguing across our social media platforms.
Local lawn care business temporarily closed due to theft
Xtreme Lawn Care in Tennessee had to close while the owner looks for more than $35,000 worth of equipment.
Social media tools can boost productivity
Small businesses are using technology to help them operate more efficiently in an increasingly competitive environment.
Thanks to a grant from OSHA, PLANET has launched a safety training program.
ValleyCrest’s Richard Restuccia reviewed “Watershed,” the latest documentary of water in the American west.
Beetle released to combat invasive weeds
A foreign insect is being introduced into Texas, and it just may save the local ecosystem.
Join the club
If you are ever on the job annoyed thinking about all those business owners on summer vacation, then this should make you smile. According to a Manta survey of more than 1,200 small business owners, nearly half of those polled say they won’t have time to take a vacation this summer and almost 60 percent say they’re working more this year than they did last year. According to recent research from CEB, one-third of self-employed persons (i.e., small business owners) work more than 50 hours per week.
And even those who can get away will be glued to their phone checking email and keeping tabs on the office. Seven in 10 small business owners will be checking email/work documents from their mobile device while on vacation; however, 60 percent say they can enjoy their vacation more because of their mobile device and business applications.
Your customers are spending…
… in retail locations. And that’s a good thing, right? Retail sales edged higher in the month of July – breaking three consecutive months of declining growth – demonstrating that consumers are gaining some semblance of confidence this summer.
According to the National Retail Federation, July retail sales (excluding automobile, gas stations and restaurants) increased 0.8 percent seasonally adjusted from June and 1.2 percent unadjusted year-over-year. July retail sales, released today by the U.S. Department of Commerce, showed total retail and food services sales (which include non-general merchandise categories such as automobiles, gasoline stations, and restaurants) increased 0.8 percent seasonally adjusted month-to-month and 4.1 percent adjusted year-over-year. If it were unadjusted it would be 3.4 percent.
There are positive signs that small business lending is gaining momentum among large and mid-sized banks. The Biz2Credit Small Business Lending Index, a monthly analysis of 1,000 loan applications on Biz2credit.com, revealed that approvals in July 2012 by big banks (more than $10 billion in assets) improved for the second consecutive month to 11.3 percent from 11.1 percent in June 2012.
This figure is the highest approval rate by big banks since March. But small bank lending dropped slightly to 47.4 percent in July 2012 from 47.5 percent in June 2012. This figure however is still up two and a half percentage points from 44.9 percent last July.
Credit unions’ July 2012 loan approval rate dipped to 54.6 percent, down from 55.8 percent in June. The figure represents the lowest approval rate for credit unions since August 2011, when the figure stood at 54.2 percent. Some credit unions have reported that they had reached their lending limit, which currently is 12.25 percent of total assets.
The Equipment Leasing and Finance Association’s (ELFA) Monthly Leasing and Finance Index (MLFI-25), which reports economic activity for the $628 billion equipment finance sector, showed overall new business volume for June was $8 billion, up 9.5 percent from volume of $7.3 billion in the same period in 2011.
Volume was up 29 percent from the previous month. Year-to-date cumulative new business volume increased 14.5 percent.
Credit approvals increased to 78.7 percent in June from 78.3 percent in May. Sixty-five percent of participating organizations reported submitting more transactions for approval during June, down from 75 percent in May.
Total headcount for equipment finance companies increased slightly from the previous month, but declined 2.6 percent year over year. Supplemental data show that trucking and construction led the underperforming sectors, followed by small and medium-sized enterprises.
There’s a first time for everything – the first sale, the first expansion, the first mistake and maybe even the first award. To help gain insight into the successes and lessons learned by successful business owners, every month Lawn & Landscape will talk to companies who have surpassed those milestones and have become some of the newest members of our Top 100 list.
What has changed most about your company since it was founded ten years ago?
We rely on technology much more. That’s the single most important thing that has changed. It has allowed us to streamline our operations, become more profitable and communicate better. We’ve introduced electronic estimating, contracts and work orders, and begun communicating with customers through technology.
To what do you attribute your success and growth as a company?
Aggressive sales, trying to do our work better and cheaper than our competition and thinking outside of the box.
Did you plan to grow the company this big?
Actually, we lost a quite a bit of business during the economy’s downturn. But since then, we’ve streamlined a lot of processes and maintained profitability through the recession. As a result, we have come back up in sales. I believe that has made us a little more profitable then we would have been otherwise. And did we intend to grow this big? Yes we did.
Many business owners talk about the importance of finding the right people. Can you offer any advice from your experiences?
It is hard to recruit good employees. You have to do the type of interviews that allow you to understand who it is that you’re hiring. If you make a bad decision, you need to correct it as quickly as possible. So if you hire somebody who can’t fill the role and do a good job at it, it’s not fair to them or to you to maintain that relationship.
In building this company, what are some of the bigger or more difficult decisions that you’ve had to make and how did you deal with them?
One of the bigger decisions we’ve had to make is whether to do all of the work locally or step out to other markets. You have to determine how you want to run your business so that you know how to deal with government regulation, for example. You have to determine the cheapest and best way to run your business through technology and outsourcing.
What mistakes have you learned from most in your career?
We tried opening up some garden centers. And as it turns out, we probably could have made them successful but we didn’t have the skill set to run them correctly. So we shut them down – they weren’t profitable. That would be a good example of us dipping off into something that’s related, but is really a different business altogether. I guess the lesson that you learn is you need to stick to your knitting.
Is there any other advice you can give leaders who want to grow their companies?
Well, there’s a lot. I would say understand the finance and accounting and business very, very well. I would set budgets and manage my budgets. I would understand where your sales come from. I would make sure you have systems in place that allow a good workflow and communication for work orders, contracts and proposals. I would make sure you have the right people in place to manage all of these systems.
I would also have a way of understanding whether or not your employees are doing their job and doing their job well.
Is there anything else you can add about your business or the industry in general?
We are facing a lot of hits, and we still have a housing market that is in the doldrums. Even though interest rates are low, people aren’t buying houses. Also we had so many suppliers go out of business during the downturn that we are going to face some material shortages.
At your service
Rising Sun Maintenance applies a jack-of-all trades’ mentality to its maintenance business.
The other day, a customer called Dave Lawrence, owner of Rising Sun Maintenance in Dorset, Vt., and said, “I can’t get my car started.”
You’re thinking: This client obviously called the wrong number – surely, she meant to call a car repair shop.
“I joked with her and said, ‘Why don’t you just call AAA?’” says Lawrence, who handles requests from clients, many of whom own vacation homes in the town, that range from package delivery to opening the front door to let a plumber inside. So, no, the client did not mean to call AAA. “She said, ‘They’ll take hours to get here and you can be here in five minutes,’” Lawrence says.
Lawrence grabbed his starter bag and off he went to jump the client’s car.
This is part of the total service Rising Sun promises its customers. Aside from landscape maintenance like mowing, snow plowing and gardening, the 30-year old company coordinates a concierge service for customers. “We handle everything from boiler cleaning to pest control, alarm response – basically everything you can think of that has to do with the property, we handle,” he says.
That doesn’t mean Rising Sun staff does everything. But the company serves as the point of contact, expediting other service providers to a home if staff can’t handle the request. Most of the time, Lawrence or one of his 15 employees can manage the situation. Rising Sun offers pool and spa maintenance, for example. But if a pool has a more serious issue, like it needs a heater, he’ll call a pro to get the part.
Rising Sun takes full-service seriously – and owners who say, “You can’t be everything to everyone,” might balk at the company’s do-it-all mentality. But it makes sense to Lawrence, and it’s the only way to be in his region, where the population between the two villages he serves is less than 10,000.
Rising Sun’s high-end and everyday clients respect and trust him to such a degree that they call on his company to take care of things – everything having to do with property maintenance. It has always been that way. “We cover all the bases,” he says.
Read more how Rising Sun succeeds at being a full-service company. www.lawnandlandscape.com/newsletters
A ‘good’ sign
Dave Lawrence uses Rising Sun to help enrich the community and raise money for local charities.
The sign hanging at Rising Sun Maintenance’s entrance, located on prime property on a thoroughfare most everyone drives coming and going, is a real eye-catcher in the community. The green, wooden post-sign with the company’s green and yellow colors is surrounded by landscape and lit at night.
It’s not the Rising Sun sign that’s unique, rather the message board that hangs below it. Anyone can donate $5 to Rising Sun’s charity (currently the Community Sharing fund through a local church) and have their say on the message board – birthdays, anniversaries and special occasions.
The sign has been up for decades, says founder Dave Lawrence. The charity changes from time to time. This is just one way that Rising Sun gives back to its community. “We do a lot of community pro bono work, as well,” Lawrence says.
Lawrence, who serves on the local planning commission, volunteers Rising Sun to maintain the village green at the town historical society, for example. “We give back to our community as much as we can.”
A husband-and-wife duo drives success with a strong marketing program and goal setting.
Marty DeNinno grew up in the landscaping industry. Following in the footsteps of his father, he became part of his dad’s family-owned business. But there came a point where DeNinno and his wife, Liz, who also became involved in the DeNinno family business, started recognizing things they’d do differently if the company was their own. Those ideas ultimately prompted the husband-and-wife team to go out on their own and start something brand new. More than four years ago, the DeNinnos launched Pinnacle Irrigation & Nightlighting and in that short amount of time have grown it to more than a half-million-dollar business.
They say their success has a lot to do with a strong focus on marketing and their partnership as a husband-and-wife team. After deciding to leave the family business, the couple had some very specific ideas about how they wanted to run their own company.
Liz, who now serves as vice president of the Haddonfield, N.J.-based company (with Marty serving as president), says they believe strongly that you cannot work on your business if you’re in it, and that was something that wasn’t previously happening. “Marty was constantly in the truck and on the job with everyone else,” Liz says. “We’ve built our business in a much different way. We’re basically a marketing company that sells irrigation and night lighting.
“We really put a lot of focus on marketing and promoting our business and to do that, you have to spend time in the office. Marty goes out to the job site when he has to, but he also recognizes the importance of building the business and driving new sales.”
Still, it’s not always easy being the “new guy.” Even though Marty had 25 years of industry experience, Pinnacle was a brand new name to customers.
But Marty and Liz were unwilling to come in as lowballers just to get jobs. “We have always had a high service standard, and we didn’t want to be the cheapest guy out there, even though we were a new business,” Marty says. “We wanted to focus on high quality service as a company philosophy.
“We decided to keep our service standards high and not try to compete with everyone out there.
“Our goal was to establish a strong reputation in the industry. I’ll admit we saw some jobs slipping by us simply because we hadn’t built a long-term relationship with customers or didn’t have a well-known name.”
But we still saw growth as word began to pick up that we did a high quality job.”
Read how Pinnacle sets and meets goals and sign up for the Water Works e-newsletter at www.lawnandlandscape.com/newsletters.
Good as gold
Marty and Liz DeNinno, president and vice president, respectively, of southern New Jersey-based Pinnacle Irrigation & Nightlighting, say that their two referral programs have been highly successful in driving new business. Existing customers are encouraged to refer both brand new installation customers and service customers and, in return, are rewarded for their help.
As part of the company’s customer referral program, if an existing customer refers a new installation, they’ll get their next service for free – such as the winterization of their sprinkler system. If an existing customer refers someone for service, they’ll get their next service at a discount. And those referrals can be accumulated. “We have one customer that lived in a development and referred three of his neighbors,” Liz says. “He ended up getting 30 percent off his next service charge because we gave him 10 percent each time he referred someone.”
Liz says that if a particular customer really goes above and beyond in referrals, they’ll sometimes throw in extra rewards. “We had a new installation client that ended up referring us to two other customers and helped us get those jobs,” Liz says. “He was already a new customer himself so on top of giving him a future free service, we also sent him a restaurant gift certificate. When warranted, we’ll send out gift cards as thank-yous.”
Some clients get really motivated by the incentive, says Marty. “We have one customer that has never had to pay for a winterization yet,” he says. “To us it’s a win-win. It’s keeping that long-time customer happy and he’s continuing to bring us new work.”
A smooth operation
Constant communication plays a big role in pulling off design/build projects.
Communication is the key to running a smooth landscape and design/build operation where architects and crews work in harmony. Equally important is defining processes, keeping promises and meeting deadlines.
At Snow Creek Landscape Architecture – the sister company of Snow Creek Landscaping – housing the two firms in the same building ensures that everyone involved in a project is within arm’s reach.
“With our landscape architect at our main office, we are able to make contact with him on a daily basis,” says Tim Boone, president of Snow Creek Landscaping and co-partner of Snow Creek Architecture in Arden, N.C.
Here are some ways that Snow Creek keeps its design/build projects running efficiently and effectively.
Meet early, meet often. Every design/build project starts with a pre-construction meeting, and weekly production meetings held on Fridays ensure that the job stays on track. Prior to breaking ground, the landscape designer works with the client to determine the design intent. After the operations manager prices out the project, everyone meets and confirms that they’re on the same page.
“Our designer is at that pre-construction meeting along with our operations managers and the crew leader, and we go over the expectations for the job and the amount of time that is contracted,” Boone says. Discussing these details early and often ensures that expectations are met from the very beginning, and along the way.
Track hours. Snow Creek knows where each project stands in terms of production hours, so there are no surprises when billing time arrives. Production hours are tracked daily, Boone says. “Those hours are reviewed at Friday production meetings, and the designer and operations manager are present.
“We know if there are any issues that arise on the job and if there are any times that need to be scheduled out, such as a designer choosing hardscape materials or if design changes are required,” he says.
Run an open house. When designers, operations managers and crews “live” under the same roof, they work better together, if you ask Boone. Employees in Snow Creek’s gardening division share feedback from client properties with designers, and vice-versa. “That’s what we call the full-circle approach,” Boone says.
Continue reading how Boone run design/build projects and sign up for the Business Builder e-newsletter, visit www.lawnandlandscape.com/newsletters.
Customer service is a top priority at Snow Creek.
Snow Creek works to exceed clients’ expectations, and since the firm’s high-end clients are accustomed to premium service and they commission the type of destination landscapes desired in a vacation home, customer service is first priority.
Sometimes, that means creating a satellite office. “What would happen is we would have key clients who wanted us to do their landscaping, and it would be a considerable-sized landscape,” Boone says, noting that the company has expanded “as clients invite us.”
For example, when a project site was more than 45 minutes away from Snow Creek’s home office in Arden, Boone crunched the numbers to determine whether setting up a satellite made sense. “The key is to have a project that is large enough in that new area – and to have a multitude of projects that are higher-end, not just a small, $10,000 job,” he says.
If enough duty calls, Snow Creek will consider planting an operation in that new location. Currently, the company’s only satellite office is in Cashiers, N.C., about an hour and a half drive from its Arden headquarters.
But clients today aren’t investing quite as heavily in brand-new projects as they once were, and Boone says the gardening division of landscape management crews is getting more business lately. “Our jobs are a lot smaller now, and we are really focused on existing clients who may not be building a house, but they want to add landscaping to their current home,” he says.
A systematic approach
Streamlined processes have helped this lawn care company grow.
Jonathan Rigsbee of GrowinGreen in Kernersville, N.C., prides himself on having cutting-edge knowledge of the latest products and treatments in his industry. Since launching his turf care business in 1999 with a sole employee out of a 10-by-10 office, he has grown the small start-up into a $1.75 million powerhouse that services Greensboro, Winston-Salem and points beyond out of a large, sophisticated headquarters.
Given such growth, it seems a bit ironic that one of Rigsbee’s most heated arguments with a former business partner occurred over whether to buy a computer. “I was actually against it and my partner was for it,” he says with a laugh. “We were running systems on hard cards and ledgers back then. I had more of a technical background and thought that we needed other stuff; he worked in the office.”
Needless to say, times have changed a bit since then. Today, Rigsbee has outfitted all of his trucks with computers. He’s also rolling out a program to give salespeople tablets and printers so they can write estimates in the field without ever coming into the office.
“Technology is probably one of the biggest things we now look at to be more efficient,” he says. “It’s a way to get more out of the trucks, people and assets we already have.”
These two anecdotes illustrate well what Rigsbee has learned over the course of more than two decades in the industry. His passion for turf care is evident in his constant quest to service his customers with the latest treatments. He’s also a savvy, analytic business owner who knows when to step back to gain a more complete, aerial view.
“The key, really, is to develop systems to run the business,” says Rigsbee, who also balances his intense work life with being an active family man. The North Carolina native has four children and is actively involved with coaching their sports teams. “You’ve got to work on systems and not always in the business, and that’s hard.”
In the past 12 years, balancing day-to-day growth with effective systems has propelled GrowinGreen to new heights.
Three years ago, the company moved to a larger headquarters midway between Winston-Salem and Greensboro, and that has allowed it to expand its market share while making forays into fresh, new territories.
It has also introduced a new green biological program and developed a successful employee training program.
GrowinGreen invested in a $26,000 state-of-the art application mixing system. Read about it and sign up for the newsletter at www.lawnandlandscape.com/newsletter.
GrowinGreen started wrapping its vehicles with its logo, phone number, website and other graphics several years ago, Rigsbee says the marketing technique is among the best investments in branding his company has ever made.
“It stood out and everyone noticed,” he says. “Our cars and trucks had a NASCAR theme, and that helped because NASCAR is very strong here. Being a smaller company, it helped us with branding. I would get constant comments on it.”
Wrapping vehicles is definitely not cheap, yet Rigsbee calls it a longer-term investment that more than pays for itself over time. Wrapping one car costs about $2,800, while wrapping a truck costs $2,000. The wrap lasts about four years, yet the graphics take a beating through constant use of the vehicles. Owners can address wear and tear by hiring someone to make periodic repairs to the wraps. “We have a contract to have all of the vehicle wraps touched up for $1,000, and they patch them,” Rigsbee says. “All of the damage to our trucks is on the same spot, right on the passenger side where there’s low-hanging branches. It turns out that it’s a lot easier to throw some more wrap on it than it is to have it painted every year.”
Wrapping vehicles is among 12 different advertising methods Rigsbee invests in each year; others include radio, Internet advertising and Groupon. Though it’s often difficult to determine where leads come from and distinguish between marketing and branding, vehicle wrapping definitely falls into the latter category, he says.
“Radio ads and wrapped vehicles are the two biggest things that create brand recognition.”