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Losing a pioneer

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ValleyCrest CEO Roger Zino remembers the late George Morrell.

Roger Zino | January 22, 2013

This past fall the industry lost one of its pioneers with the passing of George Morrell. I had the privilege of working with him at ValleyCrest and want to share some perspectives that I feel are truly worth remembering about George. While there are many things about George that I could write about, in this note I will focus on his leadership passion, his love of great horticulture, his intense commitment to people development, and finally his grit.

Passion: My first in-depth conversation with George occurred in 2004 during our acquisition of the Omni Landscape Group. I remember sitting across from him at the restaurant, listening to him update us on the state of the business, and thinking- “Damn, this guy has passion for this profession!” He simply could not stop talking about satisfying customers, doing great work and developing people. He had an intensity about him where you could literally feel his heart rate race when he talked about a successful project of someone whom he had mentored. At the end of the day, the one impression I had of George was that he always cared.

Horticulture: He was a horticulturist who became a businessman out of necessity so he could practice his craft. He really never was a businessman in the traditional sense but make no mistake about it, he had a love for producing great landscapes. Gardening mattered to him. His company defined the standard for technical excellence in the Atlanta market. He invested heavily in developing great seasonal color, irrigation and agronomic practices and by doing so, redefined the standard for great commercial landscapes in the Georgia market. His company was not the cheapest. In fact, they were probably the most expensive the majority of the time, but he had a loyal customer base who appreciated his commitment to excellence.

George did not want to compromise on price. Instead he insisted he would support his price with the great work his team performed. He believed he produced the best value, but he never could have produced that value if he didn’t have the financial resources to invest in the people who could deliver excellence. He understood cause and effect. Let me suggest that this is a good reminder for those of us in the business today. Racing to the bottom on price, is not the way to build a great company; investing in resources and competing on producing the best work is a much better way to go.

People: The only topic that seemed to get George’s metabolism racing equal to his discussion of great gardening, was when he talked about developing people. At one point in his time with our company, he came to us to request that he spend his time riding with account managers and helping them develop their capabilities. While he could have sat at the strategy table at any level of our business, what he wanted to do with his experience was to help the next generation develop their passion for our world by being with them where it mattered most- in the field where their customers and their guys were. He believed in people and he loved being in the field.

Grit – the dictionary defines grit as a “firmness of character, an indomitable spirit.” George had this and more. Diagnosed with an extremely serious form of blood cancer almost 20 years ago, he never let it stop him. He continued to work every chance he had and outlived his forecasted lifespan by multiples. He was far tougher than any of his doctors gave him credit for. I remember him telling me about the rituals he did to stay healthy. It did reveal a human spirit that inspired all of us. He may have been dealt a tough hand of cards, but he was going to play every hand he could until they shut the tables down. George was tough in an old world way that I know we all wonder if we are strong enough to emulate, and dream about being skillful enough to pass on to our children.

In addressing our regional management team about four years ago, he talked about how glad he was that he chose the landscape profession as a career for himself. He described it as “nourishment for the soul.” We are so glad George was at peace with his dedication and commitment to the landscape management business. We all certainly benefitted from his leadership and are grateful for it. And, to the extent that we can live the principles that George lived by, we will all be able to nourish our souls by upholding the true values of the gardening profession.

To read an obit on Morrell, click here.

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