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Matt LaWell | January 14, 2011

Tom Jones bought LandArt Cos. in Wausau, Wis., with a handshake and next to no money in his pocket.

In 1974, when Tom Jones was fresh out of college and still in his early 20s, he wondered what to do with his life. He entertained the idea of law school but, after so many years in the classroom, he bristled at the thought of three more years there. Then he remembered his summers. He had spent the last six out in the sun with the landscape crew. That could be a nice thing to do. So he talked with his old boss, who told him that a man up in Wausau, Wis., with three daughters might be interested in selling his business. Tom hopped in his car with a friend, drove the 200 or so miles north from Milwaukee and managed to buy a business from “Old” Ed Blackford with a handshake and next to no money in his pocket.

But that story has been told a time or two.

What has not been written about Tom, his brother Paul and LandArt Cos. is how, after more than seven decades in business – and almost four with Tom at the helm – it has found some of its greatest success during the most troublesome times for small and medium businesses in every industry. In 2008, the Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce recognized LandArt as the Small Business of the Year. Two years later, when other businesses were forced to trim budgets or jump deep into survival mode, LandArt remained steady, and even saw a bump in some of the numbers. The formula, Tom says, is simple.

“We’ve got a good reputation around town,” he says. “We’re trustworthy, we do good work and people still come here.”

There has to be more to it than that. Right?

There is, of course.

Outside of the quality of their work – everything from design and construction, to regular maintenance and seasonal services –  managing partners Tom and Paul focus on customer service and competitive bids. But not how you might think. Not how you might focus on those things, either.

When dealing with customers, they want to deal first with their own employees.

“Treat your people well,” Tom says. “I remember we went to a Wisconsin Landscape Federation meeting, just a local chapter. I was real young at the time, and one of the older guys said, ‘You want to run a good business? Go out and hire people and beat ’em like a rented mule. As soon as they’re tired, you go out and hire somebody else.’ That was exactly the opposite of what I thought. You treat your people as well as you possibly can, and that helps how they treat your customers, and how they respect you and their whole outlook toward the company. It will show up.”

“Only if our employees are properly compensated and rewarded for performance can they give our customers the service we insist they deserve,” says Paul, who joined LandArt in 1979 when his sons were young and he wanted to spend more time with them and less time with his job at a multinational company. “Really, we do put the employee first.”

And when it comes to bids, they never want to put in an offer too low. Better to price yourself out for a round than to lose money.

“We’re not going to give anything away,” Tom says. “People who are going to bid low, they can spend all spring long doing their low bid jobs and we’ll see what comes along. They’re kind of fouling the well they have to drink out of. I don’t know if they realize it, but they’re lowering their standards to the point where I don’t know if they can make money doing it.”

Tom compares the matter to baseball cards and free agents. When he was a kid, he collected Topps – hundreds of cards, including five signed by Hank Aaron, all later tossed unwittingly by his Dad. “We would trade cards,” he says, “and I wouldn’t want somebody who was batting .259 with nine home runs. When I traded cards, I wanted Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. Today, you watch some of these teams fighting over a pitcher with a 4.90 ERA – and you wonder why they’re offering him a five-year contract for $35 million.”

Point is, if you can afford to wait for the Cy Young Award winner on the free-agent market – or at least wait for the dependable front-of-the-rotation starter – you should. There is no sense in chasing free agents – or jobs – that will only hurt you later.

If that sounds like a simple formula for the complex problem that has been the national and international economy during the last couple of years, well, it is. But Tom and Paul have been through this before. Their business, after all, is 73 years old, and they have been in charge for 37 of those years. They remember other recessions, and they remember that they got through them just fine after some early struggle. Perhaps that is the luxury of an older, more mature company with a solid customer base.

But they had to earn those customers somehow.

 

This is one of three stories that ran in Lawn & Landscape's Business Builder newsletter. To continue reading about LandArt Cos.:

Smooth transition: Tom and Paul Jones offer ideas to discuss when creating a succession plan.

Lessons learned: The managing partners at LandArt share advice from nearly seven combined decades in the business.

 

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