Ask 10 landscape contractors what their biggest problem is and 11 of them will tell you it’s labor. Ask those same 10 guys what they’re doing to help fill the labor pipeline with smart, talented people to hire, and you get what feels like 100 blank stares.
Turf and landscape programs across the country are under threat from budget cuts and dropping enrollment. Santa isn’t going to deliver quality employees for Christmas. You have to go find them yourself.
Here are four key points to drive home to potential employees.
Bottom line is this: Landscapers have a real, tangible impact on the world. Take just the companies on our Top 100 list. In 2011, they grossed $6.8 billion and employed more than 62,000 people. That doesn’t count the thousands more families they’ve supported, or the impact they’ve had on the communities where they work.
So, this winter, call up your local vocational school, high school counselor or FFA adviser. Ask to speak to the group about what a great career a company like yours can provide. Offer to give students and their parents a tour of your shop. Tell them about the benefits and opportunities that are available to their kids if they choose to become a green industry professional.
If you want good people, you have to go out and find them. Landscapers have a great story to tell, but nobody’s going to tell it for you.
– Chuck Bowen
Q: I have a current customer who is a manufacturer of cigarettes and is experiencing problems with cigar beetles. What can be done using plants to minimize the invasion?
A: The dreaded cigar beetle loves two things in life: cigars and heat. These pin-head size insects are always hungry and can turn paper into, well, dust. Their life cycle is only a mere 12 weeks, but in that time, they can do a great deal of damage. Dried plants are their favorite thing to feed on, so keeping landscape plants healthy can be one way to minimize the invasion. Otherwise, science is still trying to engineer a tobacco plant that is resistant to this dreaded pest that is already resistant to so many pesticides.
Q: I am working with a prospective customer that has a music festival premise that is used as a national cultural facility for musical events and local theater productions. Currently, this customer has large plants that are in good condition placed at the front of the building. I feel there is a better use for this entryway and would welcome suggestions on approach and plant types for outdoor use.
A: The easiest approach to take, without seeing any renderings, photos, or chatting, is to use plants that have a welcoming fragrance and color. Your color selection could be reflective of the country colors or a bright warm contrast in pots around the larger plants that may already be planted around the building. Since many of the activities may take place at night, white blooming plants and variegation shine bright through the darkness. Good luck with that prospect.
Kathryn Rudnyk, Monrovia Gardens
Q: How do I know if my hourly rates are just right or too high for my market?
A: I learned that this company had an almost 100 percent closing ratio for “qualified” leads. We looked into the company’s finances and learned that the owners were not paying themselves nearly enough. The markup on materials was substantial, so my answer to their question was “You are not charging the client enough.” It may be either your rates are too low or you are not charging for all your time.
As we dug in further, we learned that the owner was not charging enough for his own time. He billed himself out at the rate of his employees, which is not enough. We also learned that he was doing run-around work on projects that he was not billing for.
We decided that this company’s next step should be to re-calculate its hourly rates: do a budget, project the sales and hours sold, including owner’s hours. (The conversation, and math, was a bit more complex than this.)
So, overall, first you need to know if your rates are right for you, then you need to know if your clients are buying you at your rates (closing ratio) and lastly, you want to know what the market rates are. However, this is less important in the residential market unless your closing ratio is poor. (But even then, this is not necessarily important.)
Jeffrey Scott, The Leaders Edge Peer Group
Q: How do I find a competent manager to work under the owner?
A: Besides recruiting from other companies, first look within your company for a proven employee who wants to move up, and start training him or her.
Another option would be to get connected with your local two- and four-year horticulture and agriculture programs. Sign up to teach a class at the sophomore and junior level. Let the students get to know you and build bonds with the teachers. You could set up an intern program, which would provide a good source of bright students.
It could also help you plug into the alumni network, where you could find more experienced alumni looking for opportunities. This business owner loved teaching, so this was a natural fit for him.
Jeffrey Scott, The Leaders Edge Peer Group
Have a question for the experts? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
When Peter Bugden looks back on when he first started his Nutri-Lawn franchise in Nova Scotia, Canada, 20 years ago, he feels as if he had access to a powerful magic wand. With a wave of his spray gun nozzle, he could make the weeds simply disappear.
That “magic wand” was chemical lawn care, of course. Bugden never advocated blanket spraying and chose Nutri-Lawn in part based upon the company’s earth-friendly approach, yet he used pesticides daily to spot treat weeds on jobs.
That was before the city of Halifax implemented a pesticide ban in late 2000. The organic products that were recommended by local environmental and health organizations didn’t kill bugs, so his customers began dropping like flies.
The near term result was a steep plunge in Nutri-Lawn’s business and customer base – Bugden lost one third of his customers within the lean, trying years following the ban.
Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. After several years of retooling, Bugden has flipped this dire situation around and all but doubled his customer base in a few years.
“I thought, ‘Maybe we’re attacking the new world of lawn care in Halifax as if we still have the magic wand,’” Bugden says.
“We began to finally accept that there was no such thing as the $250 lawn care program anymore, not that’s going to make the homeowner happy. They’ll be happy with the price maybe, but not the results.”
Bugden began to refocus on employee training, customer education and developing his knowledge of a new slate of chemical-free products to achieve the best possible results.
A positive environment
When employee morale was down, Peter Bugden knew he had to make changes.
Peter Bugden knows just how important it is to maintain strong employee morale, so it irked him to no end when he saw people crossing the street to avoid his workers. The owner of a Nutri-Lawn franchise in Halifax, Nova Scotia said these harsh incidents led employees to feel like pariahs, and productivity suffered as a result.
When the incidents occurred, a pesticide ban had just been passed in the municipality of Halifax. Nutri-Lawn had stopped using pesticides for spot treating weeds as soon as the ban became law, yet in the case of pesticides, Bugden said, perception is reality.
“The perception of lawn care companies in our area was low, even though we didn’t use pesticides anymore,” he said. “The guys felt bad about what they were doing.”
Yet over time, Bugden addressed the problem of low employee morale by hiring new workers who were able to cope with the pesticide ban, teaching his employees about new products that were permitted, and helping workers to better educate customers.
“We tried our best to make it a fun place to work and make them feel good about themselves,” said Bugden. “We used it as an opportunity, and as a result, our employees started feeling better about their work and their customers.” Bugden cited the example of a new employee who started working at Nutri-Lawn in 2008. He recently surpassed $1 million in production and sales with the company, and this spring Nutri-Lawn threw a celebration to mark his contributions to the company.
“We’ve been fairly successful at minimizing turnover, and now I’ve got a great manager here,” he said. “My philosophy is, ‘Give the customer more than they expect, and do it with a smile.’”
“Our customers now understand that they can have an attractive property that’s not 100 percent weed free,” Bugden says.
“Our lawns are probably healthier than they were 10 years ago.”
Business obstacles. Although he does not support the pesticide ban and believes that it is based on poor science, Bugden said that Nutri-Lawn’s growth shows how firms can accommodate increased concern about chemicals and adapt and thrive without using them.
In a lawn care environment in which pesticide use remains a hot topic, that’s critical for companies seeking to remain on the leading edge of chemical lawn care management.
Back in late 2000, it wasn’t just the pesticide ban that made Bugden’s work tougher, but the fact that Halifax had the authority to ban use of pesticides but couldn’t prohibit the sales of them.
“Halifax didn’t have the authority to implement a sales ban, so customers could walk into the hardware store and purchase (a banned product) – but theoretically they couldn’t apply it,” says Bugden, hinting that many customers still used pesticides, knowingly or unknowingly.
“If we got caught using pesticides, we’d lose our business.”
Products advocated by health and environmental groups simply weren’t as effective – Bugden started using a product made out of sugar beets – and Bugden lost many loyal customers who were unhappy with the ban’s effect.
“The inspectors would ask if you had tried to spray soap on your lawn, or they’d say that you didn’t really have an insect problem, so they weren’t going to issue you a permit,” Bugden says. “We lost credibility with our customers, and it was very frustrating.”
Beyond chemicals. After struggling with poor sales and customer defection for several years, Bugden said that the light bulb finally went on in his head in 2007. By then, many of his longtime staff members had left the company and even the industry out of frustration with the impact of the ban. It dawned on Bugden that it was time to hit the restart button his business.
Gradually, he began to focus on honing his techniques in a new, pesticide-free world. “We started looking at proper lawn care – things like aeration, PH control, using the alternative products we had more frequently, overseeing top dressing,” he said. “Customer satisfaction increased as we began spending time with them.”
Bugden attributes part of his success to the fact that many of the longtime staffers had left the business, and his newer staff members “couldn’t remember the good old days.”
He began spending a lot of time on employee education and training, carefully tying these efforts to an increased emphasis on customer service and overall education.
“If you can’t give a customer the same type of lawn they’d expected many years ago, then it was important that you provide them with the very best service possible,” he said. “As a result of this, our referral business really started building up again.”
Nutri-Lawn’s corporate programs amplified Bugden’s targeted efforts at increasing customer retention. “The company started putting emphasis on the Net Promoter Score system, and we got a little fanatical about it,” he said. “If one of our clients gave us a good rating or comment, then we’d celebrate it and make a big deal out of it.”
Bugden said his growth can also be attributed to the fact that customers have evolved, too. Whereas once homeowners might not have tolerated the presence of one yellow dandelion, they are now getting more relaxed about seeing the occasional weed.
“People are more aware of how to get the lawn that they want without pesticides. Are they 100 percent weed free? No, but they’re better than a do-it-yourselfer lawn.”
Keeping it fair. Nova Scotia implemented a province-wide pesticide ban in 2009, and with that new law came the sales ban that was missing in 2000.
That helped the lawn care operators who were competing against do-it-yourself homeowners applying pesticides illegally. “That ban made more sense, because at least we have a level playing field now.”
Bugden admitted that he and many other lawn care operators in Canada were a bit taken aback when the initial pesticide ban was first implemented in late 2000. He remembers attending public hearings in which the room was packed with supporters of the ban. Because lawn care operators were disorganized, he said, they had little input.
Nonetheless, he’s happy to report that he’s not simply in compliance with the law today, but actually growing within the confines of a ban that had once sent his business into a death spiral.
For the past four to five years, Nutri-Lawn has seen 20 percent annual growth, and he’s now considering the possibility of opening a franchise in the U.S. market.
“The states are seldom behind Canada in anything, but I’d say they are 10 years behind Canada on pesticide regulation,” said Bugden, who warns U.S. operators to remain involved so that any pesticide regulations put in place are based on science.
“My advice would be to pay attention to what’s happening,” he said. “Try to be a good source of information to the municipality or state government. Try to be organized.”
You can read more Growing Green newsletters at www.lawnandlandscape.com/newletters.
I asked our esteemed editor, Mr. Chuck Bowen, to give me a page in our final issue of 2012 so I could introduce myself to you and the 73,000 others who receive this publication every month. Given that Chuck and his team are tasked with producing nearly a thousand pages of original content every year, he seemed quite happy that the new guy was willing to take one off his hands.
First, I really am honored to be the new publisher of Lawn & Landscape, the industry’s flagship publication for business success. What exactly does a publisher do? Well, in my case, the job description is simple: Don’t screw up a good thing.
I’m not being flip when I say that. Lawn & Landscape has been the top publication in this market for decades. We have been number one in advertising sales since the Reagan administration. Year after year, we have the highest readership among the many magazines that serve this business. We have walls full of national writing and design awards. We created the Top 100 concept, the State of the Industry Report and the Benchmarking Your Business study. We launched the first media website in the market in 1996 and we have been the first to offer other digital innovations like e-zines, content-rich e-newsletters and mobile apps.
In short, Lawn & Landscape is an institution in this community and we will continue to lead, grow and innovate because that’s what you demand.
I’m new to Lawn & Landscape, but I’ve been in the green industry for four decades. My primary focus has always been golf (I also serve as publisher and editorial director of our sister publication Golf Course Industry), but my involvement in the turf business has helped me understand just enough about the world of lawn care, landscape contracting and the related disciplines to be dangerous. Now, as I learn more about your world and shortly after returning from a great week at GIE+EXPO, I have a few observations:
On that last point, I’m pleased to announce that Lawn & Landscape – which has always been the industry’s leading source of reliable data and research – will expand that commitment in 2013 with a landmark study of consumer attitudes about professional landscaping and lawn care. We’re partnering with a leading consumer research firm, Trone Brand Energy, to ask thousands of homeowners why they do or don’t use professional services, which services they would value most and, most importantly, what messages would make them more likely to hire you.
The findings from this study will give you – our readers – new tools to grow your business.
And, finally, we’ve always prided ourselves on being at the forefront of technology. One example: we offer the only mobile media app in the industry. More than 30,000 of you have downloaded it to your phones and iPads and the feedback has been awesome.
Well, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Next month, we’re going to release Version 2 of our mobile app, and I humbly suggest that it will blow your mind. Get ready, because your favorite publication is about to come to life before your eyes.
So here’s to 2013! May it be as prosperous and exciting for you as we think it will be for Lawn & Landscape.
Billy Goat Dust-Free Debris Vacuum
The pitch: Billy Goat takes litter and leaf cleanup to the next level with the new 33-inch QUIETVAC.
- The new debris vacuum uses a cyclonic filtration and new dust-sock technology in the collection system to cut down on dust in dry conditions. It also runs quietly, at about 84.5 decibels.
- An optional on board hose kid expands to 10-feet allowing better reach when transitioning to clean between shrubs.
- The large capacity turf bag holds 51 gal. and loads/unloads with a two-latch bag system.
For more information: www.billygoat.com
CORE Hedge Trimmer
The pitch: CORE Outdoor Power released a handheld blower and hedge trimmer, both equipped with GasLess motor technology.
- The CB420 handheld blower (pictured) weighs 11 lbs. and produces winds up to 110 miles per hour.
- The 12-lbs. CHT410 hedge trimmer has run-times of up to 90 minutes.
- CORE Outdoor Power is also introducing the Quad Power Pak, which is compatible with all CORE products and functions as both a back pack, offering users four times the run time, and a mobile charging system.
For more information: www.coreoutdoorpower.com
Ditch Witch SK Line
The pitch: Ditch Witch has introduced two new compact tool carriers to the SK line.
- Replacing the SK650, the Ditch Witch SK750 and SK755 offer upgrades including design improvements, productivity enhancement and operator comfort.
- Includes 800 pounds of lift capacity, 81-inch lift height, 30 percent more ground clearance and a high-drive track system featuring bolt-on sprockets, wide track rollers and replaceable spindles.
- The SK series has an optional single-level joystick and a two-way auxiliary control foot pedal for the attachment.
For more information: www.ditchwitch.com
John Deere Z900
The pitch: The Z900 series of zero-turn mowers from John Deere gives contractors three choices: The B series, which has essential features at a cost-conscious price point; the M Series for large fleet owners in need of efficiency and the feature-rich R Series for those who want it all.
- The B Series offers a large fuel tank and professional-grade seats.
- The M Series has fuel-injected engines, Mulch On Demand decks and diagnostic capability.
- The R Series offers a hydraulic cross-porting system, and a Break-N-Go foot pedal start.
For more information: www.deere.com
Mean Green Walk-Behind-Mower
The pitch: Mean Green Products introduced its new WBX-33 lithium-powered commercial walk-behind.
- The 36-volt electric mower comes at a 33-inch deck, running on one lithium energy module for about a 2-4-hour running time at 4-5 miles per hour per charge.
- The mower runs at 73 decibels and 16 hp.
- Each lithium energy module weighs 50-70 lbs. and lasts up to 1,500 charge cycles.
For more information: www.meangreenproducts.com
Vermeer Brush Chipper
The pitch: With the ability to chip heavily branched material up to 9 in. in diameter, the Vermeer BC900XL can be used for line clearing and general cleanup needs.
- The BC900XL features a large 9- x 14-in. feed opening to help boost productivity by reducing the need to trim heavily branched material before feeding it into the chipper.
- A 33-in.-diameter disc rotates at 1,400 rpm.
- Two shear bars also have two usable edges to help extend wear life.
For more information: www.vermeer.com