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Features - Interview

Pamela Stark shunned a degree in Math to play in the dirt. More than three decades later at ValleyCrest, she’s been able to merge both worlds – and is loving every minute of it.

October 17, 2011
Brian Horn
Pam Stark has worked her way up the ladder at ValleyCrest. Stark got her start working outside on job sites, and her experience in the field gave her the idea to suggest the company start a customer satisfaction program.

Pamela Stark was all set to major in math after graduating from high school. But something was eating at her. She questioned whether a career in numbers was what she wanted. After all, her mom and grandma were avid gardeners, and Stark had fond memories of buying plants with her mom and spending time in the garden. So, at the last minute, she decided on horticulture and hasn't looked back since.

"I went to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and graduated with honors with a bachelor of science in horticulture in 1975," Stark says. "Before I graduated, I met with what is now ValleyCrest's Northern California maintenance division – at the time it was actually called Green Valley. So, I ended up getting hired by them before I even graduated. Right out of college, I went to work for the company in Northern California and that was 37 years ago."

And she's been with the company since then. But throughout the more than three decades, she has had a few different roles with the company, and is currently the vice president of customer satisfaction, bringing her life back to the world of math.

"The first, roughly, half of my career I spent in operations and maintenance. So, I was highly involved with plants and taking care of landscapes, and I got that side of my passion taken care of," she says.

"Now that I've worked into the customer satisfaction side of the business, I'm dealing a lot in numbers, so it's kind of like the best of both worlds at this point."

Lawn & Landscape spoke with Stark about working in a male-dominated business for almost 40 years and how her current roles helps the company.

Thirty-seven years is a long time. Can you describe what it's like to have stayed with a company that long?

I call it "being a dinosaur," because I don't think anybody stays that long with a company anymore. It's been a series to me of different careers. I started out in the maintenance division in the field, just working as a gardener trainee/foreman. So, that was kind of one segment of my career. And then I was able to earn my way up to a branch manager position, so I became a branch manager of a slightly different branch in Northern Calif. The neat thing about ValleyCrest is because it's grown continuously over the years, if you have the ability and the attitude that you want to grow and do different things, you throw your hat in the ring and if you're qualified and there's a position you'll get the opportunity.

So, I was first working in field operations and then became a branch manager in a different area in Northern California, and then I threw my hat in the ring and said, 'I want an opportunity to be a branch manager if we open up a new branch.' I was able to then make a big move from Northern California to Palm Springs and I started a branch from scratch with a million dollar maintenance job in the middle of summer. I had to hire about 50 people, get our equipment, get everything ready and roll on to that job.

That was kind of a seven-year segment there. Then I proposed to the company that we start the Customer Satisfaction Program because after working in maintenance for close to 20 years at that point, I knew there was something going on in the maintenance customer's head that made them either decide that they loved you and were going to keep you and be loyal, or for some reason they didn't like you and they were going to fire you.

Even though it sounds like a long time to be at the company, I've moved around a lot geographically and in terms of positions.

What has been your most challenging role?

The first day of being a gardener in the field 37 years ago was as scary as can be because back then, you didn't see women doing physical labor in commercial landscape companies. At least to my knowledge you didn't. I was the first woman that actually stuck it out in the field in the company. I was getting a lot of challenges especially from the crew I worked with because they didn't know what it was going to be like having a woman on the crew.

Eventually, when I became a crew leader, and I remember I'd have people stopping me on the job when I was working with a crew, because I worked right along with them, and they'd say "Oh, this is interesting, is this your husband's company" or something like that. I'd say, "No, this is my job and I chose to have it." So, that was actually the most challenging time. It took a couple of years for everybody to get it that I could pull my own weight, contribute and do a good job.

Was that insulting to you?

I guess it was insulting. I don't know. It's funny. I know it was just pretty intimidating for me to say 'I can do this. I can show that I can keep up with everybody and do just as good of a job.' I think they've done studies now where they've proven that women are really good on operating equipment and things like that. We've come a long way, but I've taken a lot of pride in the work that I did, and eventually earned the trust of my crew and my customers and the management of the company.

Has the industry really come a long way with accepting women on the job?

Absolutely. I really do believe so. I really think things are much different today. ValleyCrest has a lot of women that work in the field in all of our divisions and have been very successful. They love it. But again, it's the kind of person – if you like that active, out there, moving around, multi-tasking, constantly making decisions, as opposed to sitting at a computer screen. It takes that kind of a person.

Let's talk about your current position. How would you describe it?

At the highest level, I provide accurate and reliable feedback from our customers to all levels of operations so that they in turn can ensure that they are creating the highest levels of customer satisfaction, and through that then ensure that they are building strong and loyal customer relations. My primary role is to make sure I am gathering feedback from customers that is actionable and that will drive growth and improvement in our businesses because, basically, we exist because we have customers.

The more customers we can grow and keep, the better we're going to be in terms of a company that is moving forward.

The way that I do that has evolved. At the beginning, we were actually mailing surveys to customers, so it's evolved now and we have a great relationship with a third-party, independent business-to-business research firm, and they actually do phone call surveys to all of our customers. We are getting an unbiased, independent method of gathering customer feedback, and then we roll that information into reports that we provide to every level of our operation.

Everybody from the division president to the senior leadership, to branch managers, to foreman and frontline employees, they all are getting that feedback in a way that they understand. Either, We're doing a great job, do more of this, or here's an area where we're trending in the wrong direction. We have low customer satisfaction and it's not moving forward and therefore we need to make some changes.

Are you getting the reports and looking at them?

The division presidents get the actual survey themselves and review them as do all the parties that own that customer relationship. We take the information with our business-to-business research firm and we roll that into some standardized reports that allow us to see globally how we're doing across divisions, and we can drill down to branch and drill down to account manager or project manager and see how they are performing in their customer satisfaction. I personally see that the reports are accurate and useful, and then I help to translate what we are hearing from the customer into tools and best practices that then allow the operations to better manager and train their employees.

Do you talk to division managers about what to do better?

I do a lot of one-on-one stuff, like I'll be able to zoom out and look across all of our branches and maybe there is a branch where they are not performing well say for maintenance and new job start-ups. Then, I can get with division leadership and either do kind of a one on one with that branch or suggest that we bring them in for some training.

One of the neat things we do is we use the customer information in all of our training programs, and ValleyCrest is really good at employee development and training. We have specific segments designed for each of the levels of employees that we work with for training. For maintenance account managers, they are an important level for us in managing our operations and managing our customer relations. We have special segments that we bring them in regionally to be trained on how to develop loyal customer relationships, and that information is coming from what we're learning ... from our customers.

What is the key to getting employee buy-in to improve?

Because we do a lot of research with customer satisfaction results, we're able to tie our construction and maintenance levels of satisfaction into the likelihood to repeat business with us or likelihood to renew, and also likelihood to recommend. We know it makes sense. Basically, there is no argument. We know highly satisfied customers are tied to benefitting our company.

Then, we've included customer satisfaction in a lot of our operational incentive programs. We'll have foreman bonuses, and account manager incentive programs and some of the at-risk compensation has a customer satisfaction piece tied to it. That helps keep the focus at the front line and all the way up. They understand part of their job is to ensure that they're performing to the customer's satisfaction.


The author is an associate editor at Lawn & Landscape. He can be reached at bhorn@gie.net.