In 1999, a lot of the industry’s “national players” were rolling up regional operations across the country and beginning to dominate the marketplace. It would seem like a bad time for a small landscape company to get its start, but Jeremy Saylor found a way to use those national roll ups to his advantage.
“As many of the big players began taking over accounts in the area, it was all about business,” Saylor says. “Some companies liked that – but many missed the personal relationship. So that created a big opportunity for us. I tried to capitalize on that by stepping in where those relationships were lacking.”
From the start, Prestonwood has been a full-service company with a focus on being able to meet their clients’ needs. But, like many companies, they have had to sub certain services until they could grow them large enough to bring in house.
“We do some basic work ourselves but we do sub out a lot of the tree care and that’s largely because it’s such a specialized service,” Saylor says. “We have a really wonderful partnership with our sub and haven’t had to bring that service in house – however it is something we’d like to do down the road.”
The irrigation division also began as subbed work, due to its specialized nature. “We had an excellent sub that we were really happy with but one of the best decisions we’ve made as a company was to bring the irrigation in house,” Saylor says. “The biggest reason is having full control. Even with a great sub, you really can’t fully protect your brand unless you’re controlling the service from top to bottom. Bringing irrigation in house gave us that ability.”
It also allowed Prestonwood to become more competitive in pricing. Saylor says it also allowed management to get a good grasp on training – and encouraged them to stay on top of the latest irrigation trends in regards to laws, water use and where technology is headed. “And staying on top of that ourselves enabled us to go out and better educate the customer as well.”
As the irrigation division grew, an irrigation manager was brought in to oversee the entire department. Saylor says his best advice to other business owners would be to look long and hard to find the right person to manage any division you’re looking to bring in house. “Hire someone with a good grasp of irrigation and excellent communication skills if you’re looking to bring that division under your own roof,” Saylor says.
Since hiring a division manager, the irrigation portion of Prestonwood has seen rapid growth. “When I started, there were five trucks, each with one crew member, but now there are six trucks, each with a crew member and a helper,” says Jesse Congleton, the irrigation manager.
Push for paperless
Regular system checks are a priority at Prestonwood, yet with the paper system the crews were using, it was easy for reports to get lost or ruined. Plus handwriting wasn’t always easy to read. As a company that has moved to smart irrigation and keeps up with the latest technology, management knew there had to be a better way.
“I was talking to my brother, who works for United Healthcare, and he told me about Access (Microsoft Database software),” says Congleton. “We found an Access database designer who completely customized a program for us.
“The techs in the field are doing their reports through the program and I log on each morning and export all of that into an Excel file. It’s sped up the process for everyone. For instance, it used to take our office manager all day to type up everything from the paper reports and create invoices. Now it takes minutes.”
Congleton says that because crews are essentially using the same form they were on paper, the learning curve has been easy. Instead of writing things out, crews are just using drop-down menus or typing data. And Congleton is also using the system to generate bids. “I walk the property with my iPad and enter the quantity of each item we need,” he says. “It used to take me anywhere from one to five hours ... now I can create a proposal in less than 30 seconds.”
The company has big plans for the future of the system. “It started as a simple idea to go paperless and has turned into so much more.”
Every month, each technician does inspections on 60 to 80 properties. “It’s so important that we’re keeping up with them,” he says. “Without those inspections, you can’t keep the system adjusted for seasonal requirements such as wind, rain, plant growth, water rationing and more. Checking our properties monthly is built into the maintenance contract. We ensure that the systems are running properly and doing their job. With temperatures often exceeding 100 degrees and very little rainfall, you need to make sure those systems are running efficiently – especially during periods of water rationing.”
With the large stretch of area that the team covers, one of the biggest challenges they face is keeping up with those increasingly restrictive watering laws that can vary from district to district. “Depending where the property is located how much you can water – and when you can water – may vary drastically,” Congleton says.
“You could be in a town that borders another and the restrictions may be totally different. So keeping up with the exact regulations isn’t easy but we’ve done a great job by showing the days we can water on our irrigation schedule as well as our weekly maintenance schedule. It’s not just the irrigation division that needs to stay informed, but our maintenance crews as well so that they’re not showing up to a property that we’ve just watered and mowing it wet. We keep everything very well-scheduled.”
Congleton admits that the restrictions have been challenging but they’ve found opportunity within the restrictions. “We’ve tried to look at what opportunities it can present,” Congleton says. “For one, it differentiates us from the competition because we do such a good job scheduling watering and staying on top of regulations that our clients aren’t getting fined by the city or making local citizens angry.”
Congleton says the restrictions have also given them the opportunity to help customers better understand conversions from spray to drip – and other retrofits that conserve water and save money. “While the restrictions have been a challenge, they’ve also really driven our drip conversions and in the past three years we’ve done quite a few,” he says. “It’s created the opportunity for us to talk to our customers about smart irrigation.”
One of the ways the company has done their education is through “lunch and learns.” Congleton will go through a slide show that discusses long-term cost savings for smart irrigation retrofits. “We like to try and do these for larger group settings so that we can educate a large group at once,” Congleton says. “Even if it’s a company that’s not currently working with us, we like the opportunity to get in front of them and display our expertise.”
Since the company got its start, the movement toward conservation as a whole has probably been the biggest game changer. “That’s the direction the entire industry has moved,” Saylor says.“We’ve made it a priority to stay on top of the latest technology. Water restrictions have made it a necessity that we stay ahead of the curve in our area.”
With a focus on adapting to adversity and finding opportunity in challenges, Prestonwood is positioning itself to continue to evolve with the times. And their focus on the latest technology and their move toward smart irrigation will no doubt be a continuing force driving their success.
Photos courtesy of Prestonwood Landscape Services