Shifting gears

Features - Formulas for Success

Closing out the ‘busy season’ brings opportunity to reflect, refresh and prepare for success in 2016.

November 24, 2015
Kristen Hampshire

After the last leaves are collected and the grass stops growing, there’s a seasonal shift in the landscape industry that can feel like found time. Depending on your location, that transition may last a few weeks or a couple of months. Of course, there’s never down time in running a business, but there’s a change of pace. An opportunity to shift gears for even a short while gives owners a chance to reflect, plan – or dig in and jumpstart an initiative, launch an advertising campaign, train employees. The list goes on.

This month, Lawn & Landscape spoke to three owners about how they spend this time during the season’s change.

Reboot and refresh

Winter is the busiest time of year for Daniel Currin, president of Greenscape in Holly Springs, North Carolina. Not because he’s out servicing clients or barraged with calls, but because he’s tucked into an office, planning and budgeting – closing out the year, dealing with taxes. “Just all of those decisions need to be made and finalized,” he says. “For me, spring and summer are actually slower.”

Strategic planning time at Greenscape starts in summer, and when the calendar shifts into fall, budgets are created. “Knocking out a first draft by Thanksgiving is always our goal,” Currin says. Then comes tax preparation, followed by a focus on hiring, advertising and other administrative to-dos.

This is not stuff Currin can do during the season. In fact, his management team has a “rule” for him, he says. “I’m not allowed to make any strategic implementations during spring or fall – so we really look at summer and winter as time to work on strategic initiatives,” he says.

Training efforts are also focused during summer and winter, when the landscape maintenance schedule eases up.

The office isn’t the only busy place in winter at Greenscape. The shop is bustling, says Josh Jones, fleet manager. Crews mow up until Christmastime, and then all mowers and equipment are brought in for refurbishing. Jones works from a detailed checklist: changing oil, checking safety systems (such as the strobe lights on all mowers), adjusting tire air pressure, and so on.

“We decide which mowers we are going to retire,” Jones says. Currin says the company takes advantage of some vendors’ end-of-year promotions, even if new equipment purchased won’t be put into service until spring.

They also determine how much more equipment is necessary to fulfill the company’s growth goals.

Though landscaping is a seasonal business, and because the grass does stop growing for some time during winter in the Carolinas, the sense of urgency for field duties wanes.

“We need to give ourselves and our employees some ‘change in season’ so they can find some work-life balance, because we run hard in spring and fall. If we did that year-round, we’d burn people out and this would be an unhealthy work environment,” Currin says.

Currin says the encourage employees to take their time off during the slow season. “That way, they are ready to go in spring and fall when we get that (customer) demand.”

Slow down with class

Rail City Garden Center is located in the desert of Reno, Nevada, a region going through four years of severe drought. Reno also charted some of the worst national foreclosure rates during the economic recession. So the notion of shifts, seasonal or not, or slow times in business take on whole new meaning. But business has actually been quite steady for Pawl Hollis, president of the retail garden nursery and full-service landscaping firm he started almost 20 years ago.

In fact, there’s only about six weeks during the year when the schedule actually winds down a bit. That time is dedicated to equipment repair, staging classes at the garden center, training employees and even handling a snow event or two.

Hollis wasn’t seeing people spend on enhancing landscapes several years ago, but that has “dramatically turned around,” he says.

“It definitely gets slower (in winter), but hopefully this year with snow and the construction work that’s coming in, we should stay busy.” Pawl Hollis, president, Rail City Garden Center

“We are also getting more inquiries on commercial landscaping and maintenance,” Hollis says. “Edible gardens have taken a big upturn and we do a lot of classes. We call it our Green College, and it includes sessions on how to construct raised beds, composting, pruning.”

Classes begin in February at Rail City. “It gives people something to do, and they’ll start ordering and planting seeds, or planning ahead,” he says. “We hope to get that first touch with them in the spring before they really have to do the work, then they remember we are here with the product or services they need.”

Rail City shifts into the education/pre-spring season at this time because while the calendar year is closing out, the company is still busy with holiday business on the retail side. “On the landscaping side, we do maintenance and construction until the end of November,” Hollis says.

Then, there’s a bit of a “seasonal shut down,” he says, adding that the time is dedicated to onsite construction at the facility, including landscaping there “because our facility is tied into the garden center so much.”

For roughly six weeks from mid-December through January, Hollis cuts down staff by about 50 percent. These employees are still on call for snow removal and other jobs, and during a heavy snow year they get full-time hours.

Those who stay on staff handle tree service, pruning and cleanup. Hollis is an ISA-certified arborist and the company offers a complete tree service. And, as long as there isn’t snow and the ground is thawed, construction can continue on customers’ properties. “We can still install pavers,” Hollis says.

For two solid weeks during the company’s slower time in winter, crews repair and service all vehicles and equipment. Every truck, trencher, grinder and other pieces of equipment goes through an assessment for proper operation and safety. “I can keep our main people pretty busy,” Hollis says.

Beginning in February, crews can perform pond cleanout services. By the first of that month, the company is ramped up for spring, budgets and marketing campaigns are planned, and customers are enrolling in classes in anticipation of warmer weather.

“It definitely gets slower (in winter), but hopefully this year with snow and the construction work that’s coming in, we should stay busy,” Hollis says.

Off-season staffing

January is planning time at Falling Leaves Lawn Care, and as the days grow shorter and fall cleanup winds down, Chris Wagnon, president, can focus on working on the business. In Atlanta, where the firm is based, snow events are rare and handled with some skid-steers and plows. And, while crews may be performing some pruning in winter, mowing stops for a period of time before February.

“We might not be in the field quite as much – but we are getting ready for spring,” Wagnon says.

Planning actually starts in the field with customer conversations, which happen in late summer/early fall, usually before the big leaf cleanup push. August is a slower time because of the sweltering heat – Turf just isn’t growing that fast.

During that time, and rolling into September and seeding/aeration season, Wagnon and account managers are conducting property walk-throughs with clients.

“Our relationships are huge, and, while I’m the president, I’m still responsible for about 45 clients who I try to meet with at least twice a year, if not three times,” Wagnon says.

Fast-forward to December, when the office quiets down and Wagnon can dig into planning and scheduling. He looks at mulch and pruning services that happen right off the bat in January, and handles marketing before the spring rush.

This year, Wagnon plans to do more advertising in January to recruit employees so he can staff up to meet a 15 percent growth goal. And rather than bringing in employees one or two at a time for training, Wagnon wants to stage an official kick-off date for the season, and a “big hire day” and group training prior to that.

Wagnon hopes this strategy will ensure cohesive messaging to crews and more continuity. And a “start time” on the calendar (Feb. 15) gives the company a goal date to work toward with hiring efforts.

Wagnon will ramp up marketing during slow times – so there’s really nothing slow about off-season at Falling Leaves Lawn Care. And he’ll use the time in between fall and spring busy seasons to build up the database of the company’s CRM software, which is linked to the company’s marketing campaigns. He’ll plan all of that marketing during year-end and January.

Meanwhile, services don’t halt in winter. “We try to get as much down for our recurring revenue clients in terms of pruning as possible, and we do lots of cutback and cleaning out beds – whatever needs to be done, whether it’s laying down pine straw or hardwood mulch,” he says. “About Feb. 15 people get the itch, and by March 1 it’s absolutely crazy.”

Wagnon’s planning process involves working backward from the problem. In this case, it’s labor (as with most landscape firms). “You have to write out a plan,” he says. “What is your ideal start time? How many folks do you need? How many hours do you want those people to train before the start date? Get it on paper,” Wagnon says. L&L