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Leader of the pack

Supplement - 2013 Leadership Awards

Dennis’ 7 Dees’ David Snodgrass leads his family business and the green industry forward with a leadership style that inspires others to excel.

Lyndsey Frey | March 5, 2013

Editor’s note: David Snodgrass is the recipient of PLANET’s 2013 Lifetime Leadership Award. He won Lawn & Landscape’s Leadership Award in 2004.
 

The classic “Whistle While You Work” tune has been ingrained in David Snodgrass since he can remember. In fact, if you listen closely, you may hear a whistle emanating from him while he’s hard at work out in the field or sitting behind his desk as president of Dennis’ 7 Dees Landscaping and Garden Centers.

It’s a technique his grandmother, Florence Esch, taught her seven grandchildren. Growing up, she showed Snodgrass and his siblings how to properly hoe weeds and perform other landscaping tasks and how to have fun doing it by whistling right along with her. As the lyrics from the 1937 Disney classic illustrate, it taught Snodgrass to enjoy hard work by putting a positive spin on it.

“There is a whistle in me while I’m working, especially when I get out in the field, next to the customer, (doing) all the things in our industry that I grew up doing,” says Snodgrass, who witnessed Esch treating each grandchild fairly and equally, a lesson he practices with his employees today. “That’s where my passion comes from, just being out close to nature and watching things grow – always doing my best and surprising people with service.”

By age eight, Snodgrass was working for his father in the family business. His dad instilled in him responsibility, enthusiasm for the industry and the importance of optimism. It is that optimistic outlook that has helped Snodgrass achieve wild success throughout his more than 35 years of company leadership.

“It allows people to dream big and hold out for what’s possible, rather than argue its limitations,” he says.

But perhaps it’s not just optimism, but the combination of these leadership fundamentals, a fervent passion for the industry and his fearlessness toward hard work that has contributed greatly to his achievements.

Since acquiring a portion of the family business in 1977, Snodgrass and his team have grown the Portland-based company into a $25 million industry leader. What’s more, he’s been influential in moving the industry forward both locally, serving as president of the Oregon Landscape Contractors Association, and nationally through his presidency of PLANET in 2010, among other roles.

“To be honored to be president of the national association is definitely my proudest moment,” he says. “It is the big stage, and I looked at it as a chance to play big in the industry I love. The reward is, in my experience, greater than the monetary reward (of running a business). It’s the ability to make a difference in the ‘not-for-profit’ world.”

The family business can be traced back to 1927 when Snodgrass’ grandfather Bernard Esch started a one-man maintenance operation. Snodgrass’ father, Robert, eventually took over the business in 1956 and expanded it into several retail garden centers throughout the Portland area. In 1975, Snodgrass’ two oldest brothers, Dennis and Drake, took over the business and formed two different companies.

After completing education at Oregon State University with a major in business administration, Snodgrass partnered with his brother Dennis in 1977 to run the landscaping division. Nine years later he bought out all of Dennis’ business and brought on his two younger brothers, Dean and Drew, as partners.

What started at that time as a garden center with residential design/build services with four employees and $70,000 in sales has reached $25 million with 260 employees. Today, Dennis’ 7 Dees – named after the seven Snodgrass children whose names all begin with the letter “D” – now offers a full range of landscape services, along with four retail garden centers.

“Dave provides a big picture vision, which is clearly stated and shared with all in our company,” says Drew of Snodgrass’ leadership. “Open book accounting has gained trust for our stewardship and shown how we all share in making the company successful.”

Snodgrass exudes a leadership style that motivates and inspires others to put their best foot forward. He believes in his people and trusts what they can do. To him, believing in his people opens the door for excellence. Manager of landscape maintenance Jeff Rieger, an employee of more than 30 years, says Snodgrass gives his employees the freedom to think outside the box for new ways of doing business.

“He empowers people and then lets them go (do their job),” he says. “He sets the standard and you see how he treats his managers, which then frees you to replicate it to your people.”

As Snodgrass reflects on his career, he points to one challenge that stands above the rest: building a brand new headquarters. He admits it was difficult to determine when and how to pull the trigger due to the extreme expense and business interruption.

The previous “shack,” as he calls it, which didn’t even have operating toilets for several years, was inconsistent with the company’s outside image. They made it work, however, adding mobile offices as the company expanded. But eventually, a new space became a necessity and in the late 1990s, his dream office space was erected in its place.

Every employee was involved, designing their own space – down to the paint color and furniture – and offering feedback to the overall layout. The purpose was to tear down the walls between departments – literally and figuratively.

Today, the 18,000-square-foot space boasts an open concept with few closed offices, automatic flush toilets and a central conference room to promote collaboration.

“When I look at the payback of morale, giving our employees a sense of permanence and the positive public image … I really learned not to be afraid to invest in yourself, our employees and the future,” Snodgrass says. “Knowing what I know now, I would have built it a lot sooner. The payoffs far outweigh the costs.”

Snodgrass’ work is far from complete. Though Dennis’ 7 Dees’ sales have declined due to a slumping economy, he’s charged for new growth and setting an industry standard in safety and sustainability practices.

The company has set the bar high, receiving a safety award from PLANET just about every year since 1996 and incorporating environmentally safe practices on the job site, such as reducing reliance on chemicals, applying natural and organic fertilizers, and using energy-efficient equipment.

“I see my role as much as anything as being a steward of this company,” Snodgrass says. “The company’s been around since 1927 and it will be around another 100-plus years, long beyond me. So, I think it’s important for our attention to be on making sure we are strong and that we provide opportunity for future generations.”

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