Own it

Features - Cover Story

How Yellowstone Landscape combined solid southern brands and their owners into one thriving company

November 28, 2016
Kristen Hampshire
From left to right: Jim Herth, vice president, business development; Brian Martin, regional vice president, south; Jim Sivils, regional vice president, Texas region; Tim Portland, CEO; Bill Dellecker, executive vice president; Brian Wester, regional vice president, southeast; Al LaLonde, CFO; Elise Johnson, vice president, human resources
© Alex Shelver

Two words cut to the heart of operations at Yellowstone Landscape, one of the country’s largest firms that has expanded gradually and intentionally through acquiring solid southern brands: Own it.

In essence, Yellowstone is a company of owner–operators who agreed to bring their businesses into the fold, but didn’t give up the keys when they sold. They saw opportunity to grow and, in some cases, become a better, larger version of what they were before.

Yellowstone performs the maintenance work at the Swan and Dolphin Resort in Orlando.
Photo courtesy of Yellowstone Landscape

“You can sell your company and then it becomes something else entirely, or you can become part of something bigger, and that’s the way we approach it,” says Bill Dellecker, who ran Florida’s Austin Outdoor, a platform company of today’s totally integrated Yellowstone Landscape.

Dellecker was at the helm of Austin Outdoor when the company was making less than $10 million in revenue. The company had a well-working infrastructure in place, but Dellecker wanted to see it do more.

“We grew dramatically from 2002 to 2007,” he says, noting that he saw an opportunity to reach higher-level clients.

In 2008, Austin Outdoor, along with BIO Landscape & Maintenance in Houston and Piedmont Landscape Contractors in Atlanta, became part of Yellowstone Landscape Group, which was then a holding company. (Piedmont was placed under the Austin name because of crossover customers)

When you ask people at Yellowstone what makes this company different than other conglomerates, they say it’s how each former owner is an integral part of the growth. “The fact that former owners have a voice, have an ability to share ideas and information – their voice is respected and their ideas are embraced … that makes a difference,” Dellecker says.

What has been a rather complex family tree to explain to customers and others is now a much simpler conversation with Yellowstone’s official rebranding in 2016. “It allows us to finally be that one name, that one voice – and it was the last step in the integration process,” Dellecker says.

All the heavy lifting that includes meshing cultures, aligning visions, creating and rolling out infrastructure was capped off in 2014.

Yellowstone’s decision to retire the Austin Outdoor and BIO brands, and unify under the corporate name is, perhaps, the recent headline. But the story is about a business of owners who see a future of growth.

“With our mix of former owner-operators and folks who have teamed up throughout the company, they’re all getting an opportunity to shine,” says Tim Portland, CEO.

Tracing the Tree.

When Yellowstone started in 2008, it was basically a holding company with two platform companies: Austin Outdoor and BIO. That meant a strong presence in Texas and Florida, and a whole lot of geography in between to fill.

So Yellowstone was the namesake and root of the family tree, and the two major brands formed a trunk for adding more branches. BIO and Austin Outdoor retained their names, adding the “a Yellowstone Landscape Group Company” tag to recognize the parent.

Then, over the years, came additional acquisitions and more branching out. Austin Outdoor bought Cornerstone Solutions Group in Florida and Perimeter Landscape in Atlanta. BIO acquired Texas Services in Houston and both brands continued to make smaller acquisitions.

The Yellowstone family tree grew, each new brand adding “a Yellowstone Landscape Group Company” to its name. By 2014, revenues were $95.7 million and financing partner Gridiron Capital sold Yellowstone to private equity firm CIVC Partners, a former investor in the Brickman Group.

Yellowstone’s main service is maintenace, while also providing, lawn care, installation and irrigation.
Photo courtesy of Yellowstone Landscape

Expansion was driven by finding partners who sought opportunity – owners who wanted to join the team, who were invested in helping to write the next chapters and who wanted to find place for their own people to continue growing careers.

“When you are talking about owners who nurtured and grew their businesses to a certain size, they are very worried about what happens with their people,” Dellecker says.

“As a business owner, everyone should be able to do what they’re good at. Some guys are good in the field. Some are good behind the desk.” Jim Sivils, vice president

“Our interest is having an owner who is engaged in the process of making sure that their clients they have cared for continue to stay happy and that their employees and team have opportunities that might not have existed before.”

That was the case for Dellecker, who went from running Austin Outdoor as an independent to executive vice president of Yellowstone’s operations, with a focus on recruiting. And, the same is true for Jim Sivils, who owned Texas Services when it was acquired by BIO in 2010. In 2012, he became regional vice president of Yellowstone’s Texas business.

“As a business owner, everyone should be able to do what they’re good at,” Sivils says. “Some guys are good in the field. Some are good behind the desk. Others are good in front of customers. I was the guy in the field, and I was better out in front of customers making sure we were doing what we said we’d do and taking care of employees and equipment.”

Texas Services had the sales and customer retention. “Yellowstone had better systems and processes,” Sivils says. “That gives you the ability to know your business and it’s a huge driving point. We were good at selling the work and performing it, but when it came to tracking, accounting and sharing data with account managers, we were a little soft.”

BIO was a larger Houston company than Texas Services, and Sivils saw an opening for his whole team to grow.

Overall, Sivils says the “fallout of key employees has been minimal” among all companies acquired by Yellowstone. “That has to do with the people who have passion to run their businesses,” he says. “The reason we have been able to grow and sustain the business is because our people are all in. They stay on board after acquisitions.”

By the time an acquisition deal was complete, both parties were fully invested in the future, Portland says. “You get to know the owner of the company you’re acquiring because you spend so much time with that person before you agree to do the deal and during negotiations,” he says.

Integration during the close and transition involves lots of reassuring clients and employees. “Many folks don’t know about the transaction and the process, and they are trying to figure out, ‘Is this going to be good for me?’”

The owners and employees who stay are passionate about their work. Owners who stay on board and commit to the next chapters are less focused on being the entrepreneur and more excited about the opportunities of aligning with a well-resourced corporation.

“We measure everything, so if we have former owners who are used to making every decision based on gut and have an intuition, we don’t want them to lose that,” Portland says. “But they do have to put our processes in place and get accurate information into our systems, and some can get a bit frustrated.”

The owners who do not thrive feel pressured and perhaps over-managed by the systems. The owners that succeed and move up into the Yellowstone ranks – as many do – embrace how systems give them real-time information and data they could not capture previously.

Yellowstone has provided maintenance services for the AAA national headquarters in Orlando, Florida, since 2011.
Photo courtesy of Yellowstone Landscape

Sivils says a number of his Texas Services team members are now managing business lines for Yellowstone. “We have been able to retain those guys and treat them like they should be treated,” Sivils says.

“That is what makes Yellowstone successful in Houston and across the organization. We retain people and let them act like owners.”

Portland says Yellowstone cares about five things: safety, customer quality, customer relationships, customer retention and profitability.

Talking safety with clients has been a competitive advantage for the firm.

“Safety is not the first thing on customers’ radars,” Portland says. “But whenever we bring it up they appreciate that we are focused on keeping our employees safe, and keeping their people or residents safe while we are working.”

Aligning infrastructure.

There are about 1,800 employees across 18 branches in Florida, Texas, Georgia and South Carolina. The attitude is one of – here’s your branch, here are the systems, here are core values by which Yellowstone measures success.

“Branch managers act as the CEOs of their branches,” Portland says. “We have crystallized around a very small number of values that we think are important, and we tied our system together to support that, and we drive the heck out of those (goals).”

A company of owners needs rules and systems to succeed at reaching those goals. A more formal way of saying it is, “alignment around shared priorities.”

That translates to infrastructure, and getting a full dashboard in place has been the focus for Yellowstone during the last five years, prior to the “final touch,” of rebranding.

“With the growth we were having, we had to put in place really effective information systems and have the ability to capture information and put tools in place to allow branches to operate and make good decisions, and for the company centrally to monitor and manage based on that information,” Dellecker says.

That meant rolling out an enterprise management system for collecting and measuring data.

“Otherwise, you end up with a lot of scattered business units, not a lot of cohesion in the way things are done, in the language of the business, the culture,” Dellecker says. “Information systems became a big deal.”

Were there problems? Not big ones, but the growth was demanding greater structure. “We don’t want any branch to be on an island and not feel connected,” Dellecker says.

With a company-wide information sharing system in place, branch managers can see how other branches handle issues. “They also have opportunities to come together at our annual leadership forum,” Dellecker says.

Because branches can tap into what is basically a company information bank, they can share best practices and measure their location’s success.

They can pass that information along to their teams so everyone realizes what they’re working toward.

The company’s landscape installation work at Jim W. Henderson Administration and Welcome Center at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, was completed in 2013.
Photo courtesy of Yellowstone Landscape

And a defined mission clearly answers that question, “What’s the point here?”

Creating and integrating systems at Yellowstone began in late 2012 and continued the first nine months of 2013. Then, systems were implemented and went live in early 2014 across all markets.

“You can sell your company and then it becomes something else entirely, or you can become part of something bigger, and that’s the way we approach it.” Bill Dellecker, executive vice president

So, do any former owners groan at the systems? Is it really that easy to go from autonomy to systems and infrastructure?

“For former owner-operators who have great business instincts and great guts, but have been operating without solid systems, once they see the information they can have it generally doesn’t take much convincing and they understand that (aligning) is all worthwhile,” Portland says.

Of course, putting processes in place comes with headaches. Like when a branch learns that its equipment might not meet the safety requirements, and must invest in newer machines.

“But when folks are brought in, they know what we measure,” he says. “And, we also say, ‘Here are some things that you are doing really well that we love and are going to keep on doing, and we want you to teach us how to do that and deliver that,’” Portland says.