School of yard knocks

Leadership Awards - 2015 Leadership Awards

Chris Davitt never graduated college, but he was a guiding force behind the success of Ruppert Landscape.

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October 8, 2015
Brian Horn

He may have just been hitting puberty, but 12-year-old Chris Davitt had no trouble hitting his prospecting goals.

Actually, he was exceeding his goals. By a lot.

The pre-teen and other neighborhood kids were tasked with handing out fliers advertising then 18-year-old Craig Ruppert’s upstart lawn mowing business.

“We had, like, six of us in the back of the pickup truck,” says Davitt, now 55, who retired as president from Ruppert Landscape based in Laytonsville, Md., in 2014 after 34 years with the company. “Craig would let us off on the sides of the street and then he would pick us up a few blocks later and take us to the next neighborhood.

“Well, we all had to count our fliers. And between some of these sessions, Craig would get me up in the cab and say, ‘You delivered 263. The next guy delivered 180. Keep going.’ And these other guys didn't know why I was running and just trying to deliver two for their every one.”

But to Davitt, whose older brother was friends with Ruppert and mowed with the group, it was a no-brainer: He was in control of how well he could do something. That type of drive was something Ruppert noticed right away.

“Part of the reason I invited Chris to come was I wanted to set the base for these other guys,” Ruppert says. “So, Chris was jogging or running to get it done because he wanted it. That’s just one little early example of Chris’ hustle.”

To Davitt, who still serves as an advisor for the company, those early trips with Ruppert and the other kids set the tone for the culture that drove Ruppert to success.

“Thinking back on it, we were going to outwork everyone,” Davitt says. “That was our strategic plan, but perhaps we didn't know what a strategic plan was. And what Craig would do is make hard work and the dirtiest of the jobs sort of honorable. If you outworked someone and you got dirtier than they did, then that was a real badge of honor.”
 

If it ain’t broke.

Davitt liked working for Ruppert so much he continued doing it part-time and seasonally through college where he was shooting for a degree in business administration. By his late teens and early 20s, he was managing a crew made up of 30 year-olds.

“You have to have a moxie, and a confidence and the ability to take risk to put yourself out there,” Ruppert says. “Chris demonstrated that early that he didn’t have a fear of leading, which is often what limits us.”

While Davitt genuinely enjoyed what he was doing and was darn good at it, he intended to finish college. All nine of his siblings graduated with a degree, but with every lecture and term paper, Davitt knew higher learning wasn’t his calling.

“I was not working hard at it at all,” he says. “I realized I had to change things and it was time to do something well. And I was learning more about business and people management that the exciting things were happening at work.”

After three years at Frostburg State University and one semester at the University of Maryland, Davitt decided to focus fulltime on Ruppert. He was doing so well at the company that not even his parents could question his decision.

“By the time I committed to Ruppert, I was married, I had a kid, and I was progressing in the business and the business was growing,” he says.
 

Inventing enhancements

If you’ve ever used the term “enhancements” in the industry, you can thank Chris Davitt.

At least that’s what Davitt, Ruppert and former Ruppert CFO, Ken Hochkeppel say. And in the mid-1980s, when they coined the term, there was no Internet or Twitter to find out if someone four states over was using it. So, when the company started using the term, they had never heard anyone else use it.

Davitt hired Hochkeppel to run a division they then called “extras” – essentially, jobs that a current client needed that didn’t really warrant a maintenance or design/build manager handling, like removing a tree stump. Hochkeppel wanted a better name for it, and came to Davitt was a list of 30.

“The second thing he had on his list was the Enhancement Department. I said, ‘Hoch, that’s it. That describes it exactly as it is,” Davitt says. “We are enhancing their landscape.”

And the rest is history.

“I had never heard it before used in the industry, so I do believe we were the ones who coined the phrase,” Hochkeppel says. “I guess you can say we chose it together, but he was the guy that picked it.

Bad first impression.

Bob Jones, vice president of Ruppert Companies, has a great respect and appreciation for Davitt. But that wasn’t the case the first time the two met. Or the second or third time.

Hailing from Ohio and getting his green industry start in the Buckeye state, Jones decided to take a job as a division manager at a landscaping company in Philadelphia. But after seven months, that didn’t work out, and going back to Ohio wasn’t an option.

“I’m kind of a proud person and didn’t want to go back to Ohio with my tail between my legs and ask for my job back,” he says. So he took a job at Ruppert as an assistant foreman – a job below Jones’ skill level and one with hefty paycut.

Jones eventually worked his way to a promotion, but didn’t get the raise he was promised. Davitt told Jones he was getting paid more than he should, and if the promotion failed, Davitt wanted to move him back into his old role. That didn’t sit well with Jones.

“I thought, ‘Who was this guy telling me that I’m getting paid too much?’ So, for the first four years of my employment at Ruppert, I didn’t like Chris very much – maybe because I thought he was undervaluing me and didn’t appreciate what I was capable of doing,” Jones says. “Chris always thought I was a field guy.”

Jones says he eventually became close with Davitt when the two moved over to Ruppert Nursery in 1999 after TruGreen Landcare bought Ruppert Landscape. “We joke about it these days,” Jones says. “I just didn’t like him, but for the wrong reasons.”

 

Learning from mistakes.

But the situation Jones describes is something Davitt admits was a problem in his early days as a leader. He was quick to give up on people if they didn’t fit a position perfectly.

“You see there being one way to do things, perhaps you put people into categories of this person doesn't get it because they're not approaching it the way I would,” Davitt says. “I think there are people perhaps I couldn't reach earlier in my career because things were too absolute for me. And over time, you get tolerance and you get understanding, like, ‘You know, I didn't think that was going to work. And I didn't think that person had it.’ And, in fact, they did.”

Davitt says it was a move away from this type of management style that allowed the company to grow. The leadership team began attending Dale Carnegie management courses, and they brought on a consultant to help.

The consultant, Clyde Vadner, drilled home that communication is the responsibility of the sender. Davitt came from the perspective of “I told the person. They should have gotten it,” he says. Vadner, who had a merit award named after him at Ruppert, countered that if they didn’t get it, then it was Davitt’s fault.

“Initially it was, ‘Get out of here. I'll tell ya whose fault it is,’” Davitt says now with a laugh. In the late 1980s, the company began to track turnover, and to Davitt’s surprise, people didn’t always leave because they couldn’t hack it.

“In the early 80s, when you were turning over people, you thought you were working hard because it meant you were setting a high standard,” he says. “But in fact you're setting a high standard and you're not doing a good job as a manager if you're turning a lot of people over.”

Though the company did begin to focus on systems to help guide employees, it was leadership’s overall shift in managing that allowed them to jump from a company pulling in a few million dollars to one opening branches, resulting in new revenue streams.

“We couldn't have crossed that hurdle without really understanding management, trusting people, developing people, and everything that goes with that,” Davitt says.

Eventually, even Jones began to see Davitt as a strong leader.

“The best managers and the people who excel the most run to conflict, run to the hard issues, versus trying to avoid them,” Jones says. “If there was a tough issue, Chris was generally in the middle of it trying to figure it out.”

Jones grew so close to Davitt, he even sought him out for work and life advice. “We used to call him the Ann Landers of landscaping,” he says. “Chris had a great way of looking at everything and still does.”