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The A-Team

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You're at the top of the org chart, but you don't know everything. When you get in a bind, you need help from a team of these trusted advisers.

Lindsey Getz | April 21, 2011

A business owner alone does not a company make. As head honcho, you may want to try and do it all yourself. In fact, you may even feel like you’re failing if you can’t handle all the jobs that are required to run a successful business. But the truth is that wise business owners know when it’s time to delegate. You need a team of professionals backing you up.

Call them your A-Team. These folks are the go-to professionals who you can call in when the need arises.

In his early years, Mark Pendergast, owner of Salmon Falls Nursery & Landscaping, in Berwick, Maine, thought he could do it all himself. “When you’re just starting out on your own, and you’re a small business, you think you know it all,” he says. “But as you grow, you realize you need other people around you that understand certain aspects of running your business that maybe aren’t your strong points.”

That perspective is right on par, says Jeff Harkness, industry consultant and partner with Three Point Group, and the sooner a contractor realizes it, the better. “Business owners need to be honest and know their strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s important for a business owner to admit that he or she may be great figuring out which crews are going where, but not so great at handling the books or making the sales. That’s the time when you need to have a Rolodex full of key players.”

Judith M. Guido, chairwoman of Guido & Associates, says that she’s found most business owners who don’t already have a team of supporting professionals in place have avoided it because of financial concerns. “They have this perception that it’s expensive to pay for this type of help so instead they wear several hats and try to do it all themselves,” she says. “However, the opposite is actually true. In the end you may cost yourself more money trying to do all the jobs yourself – and, more than likely, may not be performing them as well as a professional.”

The ability to grow the business is also linked to growing your team, says Jim Huston, president of J.R. Huston Consulting. He says most contractors get stuck and can’t grow past a certain point. “They’re unable to build a team,” Huston says. “They keep trying to do it all themselves. You have to bring in strong team members who can help you grow. It’s like a high-performance athletic team. You’re constantly striving to get the best players on the field.”

But remember, any team is only as good as its leader – that’s you. Even the best team of advisers can’t help a dysfunctional business.

“Don’t view professionals as people you can just follow blindly. While you may turn to them for their expertise, in the end they are just another tool in your arsenal,” says Scott Hall, owner of Classic Landscaping, in Woodsboro, Md. “You’re the one calling the shots.”

So who do you need on your team? We talked to contractors and industry consultants to come up with a short list of must-have (and a few nice-to-have) advisers for green industry businesses of all sizes. On the following pages, we outline what to look for as you build your own A-Team.


The CPA
At the very least, your accountant should handle your taxes. A certified public account can get you the maximum number of tax deductions and also ensure everything is submitted correctly to the IRS. But a CPA can also be a year-long member of the team as not only an adviser but a financial records keeper. The key is finding an experienced professional.

Growth consultant Jason Cupp says one of his clients had to pay (literally) when the person he’d hired to do his bookkeeping made a critical error. The bookkeeper submitted tax forms to the IRS that mistakenly listed a company loan as income. Because of that error, the client had to pay additional income tax.

Cupp recommends finding someone who has their CPA license. “There are a lot of people who call themselves bookkeepers, but at the end of the day you want a certified accountant who understands accounting rules and regulations,” he says.

With taxes that’s certainly true; however, David Rykbost, owner of Massachusetts-based Dave’s Landscape Management Co., says his “right-hand woman” in the office is a former CPA who just didn’t keep up with the accreditation once she stopped working for a public accounting firm and started working full time for him. As office manager, she handles the books, but Rykbost still hires an accounting firm to do the taxes.

“They have touted many times they’re the best set of books they’ve seen,” says Rykbost. “Because everything has already been prepared so well, that saves the accountant a lot of time – and us a lot of money.”

With an accountant, the amount you can expect to pay is going to largely depend on the firm size, but Cupp estimates it could be anywhere from $50 to $200 an hour.

While a lot of business owners like to build a long-term relationship with their CPA, Jeffrey Scott, founder of the Leader’s Edge peer group consultancy, says he doesn’t see that as a necessity.

“Companies train CPAs all the time,” says Scott. “I’d definitely say that longevity isn’t nearly as important as competency.”

Hall says that finding the best person for his business included looking beyond the local options.

“Because of today’s technology and things like webinars, e-mail, and the instantaneous ability to get scanned documents back and forth across the country, we’re no longer limited geographically,” he says. “Our accountant is on the West Coast.”


The Banker
Your banker is your connection to important financial matters in the business – particularly loans and lines of credit. The banker doesn’t get paid anything upfront, instead they get paid in the deal. But growth consultant Jason Cupp says he encourages business owners to “shop the deal.”

“Definitely shop around initially,” he says. “Don’t just go with the first banker and the first deal they propose. And even once you do set up your financials, send them to bid at least every two to three years.”

Sean Lynam, business development and estimating manager for Urban Farmer in Thornton, Colo., says that in a down economy it’s especially important to negotiate regularly. “You just want to ensure you’re being financially responsible and moving forward in a way that makes sense for business,” Lynam says.

But with banking, forming a relationship can also be important. Robert Owens, owner of Landscape Management Services in Atlanta says he banked with a large national chain until his consultant recommended he try a smaller, localized bank. “They tend to be more personalized and get to know you on a first-name basis,” says Owens. “We got hooked up with the right bank and that’s been like gold to us. Small community banks are hungry and they not only want your business, but will work hard to retain your business.”


The Attorney
A lot of business owners make the mistake of thinking they only need an attorney if they’re being sued. But think of it this way: If you have a good lawyer advising on important business decisions and deals, you may never have to worry about a lawsuit in the first place.

Consultant Judy Guido recommends finding an attorney who is familiar with industry-specific topics, including H-2B and contractual law – particularly for snow removal where lawsuits are more likely. “In the green industry, there are quite a few issues that require dotting all the Is and crossing all the Ts,” says Guido. “And as our industry becomes even more regulated, that’s going to become more important than ever.”

Rkybost says he’s used a lawyer for various case-by-case scenarios. Reviewing certain snow plow contracts was a must, and he also consulted with his lawyer during a business acquisition. “I just felt more comfortable being represented and knowing I had legal documents in hand that would hold up in court.”

Cupp suggests going with a smaller firm where you won’t get “lost” in the crowd.

“I’ve also found that large firms will charge you to staple a document,” he says. “They’re a lot more fee-based. But a good attorney will educate you on when to bring him or her in, and when a situation is within your capacity to handle yourself.”

In terms of fees, Cupp says to expect a lawyer to charge anywhere between $150 to $500 an hour, depending on the size of the firm. He also recommends going with a firm that has associates available – lower-paid attorneys who can handle less important tasks.


The Marketer
The number one thing to look for in a marketing professional? Industry experience, says Jeff Harkness, a partner with the Three Point Group.

“You want someone who is familiar with the landscaping business, its background and its customer base,” he says. “I’d find a company that has done work with at least one other industry-specific company. But you also want to make sure they’re not working for a competitor.”

Growth consultant Jason Cupp adds that marketing work is “measurable,” so when looking at a firm or consultant’s past work, you want to see that they have measurable, verifiable results. He says the fees can range anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand depending on the firm, deliverables and marketing budget.

Harkness recommends going to the firm with your own budget already in mind.

“Just be honest and say ‘Our marketing budget is X this year, here’s some ideas we already have and would like to execute, and can you put together a program for us based on all of that?’” says Harkness. “I like to ask for a monthly retainer or a flat fee and try to stay away from an hourly rate.”

In the end, your marketing effort might not come down to just one professional. Classic Landscaping’s Scott Hall says he assembled a team of marketing professionals as he couldn’t find any one person to help in all the areas he needed. “You really have to know who you are as a company and also who you’re trying to reach when you’re doing a marketing campaign.”


THE NICHE PROFESSIONALS
OK, now that you’ve got your four key professionals shored up, you can focus on fleshing out the rest of your team with other niche areas of expertise. There’s no specific threshold for employees or revenue that mandates these folks – that’s up to you. But as you take a look at your business, you can see where they could come in handy.


The Marketer
The number one thing to look for in a marketing professional? Industry experience, says Jeff Harkness, a partner with the Three Point Group.

“You want someone who is familiar with the landscaping business, its background and its customer base,” he says. “I’d find a company that has done work with at least one other industry-specific company. But you also want to make sure they’re not working for a competitor.”

Growth consultant Jason Cupp adds that marketing work is “measurable,” so when looking at a firm or consultant’s past work, you want to see that they have measurable, verifiable results. He says the fees can range anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand depending on the firm, deliverables and marketing budget.

Harkness recommends going to the firm with your own budget already in mind.

“Just be honest and say ‘Our marketing budget is X this year, here’s some ideas we already have and would like to execute, and can you put together a program for us based on all of that?’” says Harkness. “I like to ask for a monthly retainer or a flat fee and try to stay away from an hourly rate.”

In the end, your marketing effort might not come down to just one professional. Classic Landscaping’s Scott Hall says he assembled a team of marketing professionals as he couldn’t find any one person to help in all the areas he needed. “You really have to know who you are as a company and also who you’re trying to reach when you’re doing a marketing campaign.”


A HR Specialist
You may already have someone coordinating everything from recruiting new employees, dealing with payroll or handling terminations. But even smaller businesses that can’t afford a full-time employee can have the help of an HR professional by outsourcing many of these responsibilities to an HR consultant.

An HR consultant can help the owner build a solid foundation for growth of the company, while steering the business clear of (sometimes unseen) risks and liabilities says Jean Seawright, owner of Seawright & Associates, a company offering HR solutions. “A good HR consultant can help an organization reduce risks, ensure compliance with employment regulations, save time and money, and have peace of mind when dealing with employee issues.”

As far as how much to pay, it’s going to vary based on the size and scope of your business. Some consultants charge by the project, by the hour or set a monthly retainer. Ask for specifics of what you’ll get for each level, and get a few estimates before you sign up.


An IT or Web Person
The web is largely the future of business – but it’s not an area that every small business owner understands completely. “Nowadays people Google everything,” says the Urban Farmer’s Lynam. “Anytime someone needs information, the first place they turn is the Web. You really have to have a website.”

Besides getting your website up and running and keeping it maintained, you may also consider an IT person to help with other technology-related business tasks – say, setting up servers, maintaining handheld devices and troubleshooting computer glitches in the office.

“In small businesses, owners wear so many hats. It’s important for them to recognize that utilizing technology is a wonderful way to take off several of those hats and become a more nimble and efficient organization,” consultant Judy Guido says.


A Board of Advisers
A board of advisers may differ from company to company. For some, the “big four” might already make up what could be considered a sounding board for business ideas and needs. But many business owners see the need to step beyond that. Huston says talking to a group of colleagues or an industry consultant is one of the best ways to get industry-specific advice.

Even knowing how much to pay an attorney or a CPA is a great question to pose to an advisory board. “You need to have someone you can get feedback from,” says consultant Jim Huston. “That way you’re not on your own.”


The author is a frequent contributor to Lawn & Landscape.