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Keeping score

Supplement - 2013 Leadership Awards

He’s a dedicated coach, a fearless entrepreneur and a tireless worker. Rob Palmer is successful because he hasn’t met a risk without measuring it first.

Kristen Hampshire | March 5, 2013

Top: Rob Palmer went from being a sales representative to starting his own company, Weed Pro. Bottom: Weed Pro donated $3,000 to Blessing House, a children’s crisis care center.

When in doubt, Rob Palmer returns to the numbers. He’s an analytical guy. He eats up stats. Case in point: He knows that the $14,000 direct mail campaign he launched his first year reeled in 200 customers who have spent a combined $871,000 with his company, Weed Pro. And, willing to admit his losses, he knows a failing promotion in 2011 cost him nearly $70,000 and attracted just 50 customers. Plus, it will take him a good five years before he can break even.

Palmer’s colleagues might call him complex. “You can see the coach in me,” he says, revealing that he’d quit landscaping tomorrow if The Cleveland Cavaliers or Los Angeles Lakers would hire him. He has coached basketball at every level, from kindergarten to high school varsity teams.

“I don’t accept the statement that is written – I want to redefine it, change the play, make a tweak, call a time-out, assess where I’m at now and make a change,” Palmer says of his leadership style.

Palmer applies his tenacious personality to growing Weed Pro, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. When asked about milestones, he shrugs off the fact that he’s reached any at this point, despite cruising past revenue markers and nurturing a talented team. “Maybe I’m like that athlete who always has to have the feeling of (what’s next) to motivate me,” he says. “The milestones that I see, that I put out there, I have yet to achieve.”

No effort escapes the careful calculation of Palmer, who says, “That is what I bring to the table – the analysis and the entrepreneurial spirit. I have no fear to try something as long as I’m measuring the results.”

Jerry Schill, a 2012 Leadership Award winner, and his brother grew up with Palmer and served as investors of the early Weed Pro. They’ve known each other since childhood. “Rob was always the consummate overachiever – it didn’t matter what he did or where he was, he always ended up being in charge, always,” says Schill, owner of Schill Grounds Management in North Ridgeville, Ohio. “He may not have been the best, but by God, he made everyone around him better for it. His passion for being the best made everyone that much better. He really sets the tempo.”

Palmer was working at Lesco as a market sales representative covering northern Ohio when he caught the entrepreneurial bug. He began attending industry trade shows to stock up on knowledge he could pass to his customers, who were lawn care and landscape firms. “I wanted them to grow their businesses so they could buy more fertilizer, more seed, more product,” he says.

In the meantime, Palmer began considering the advice he was learning and then passing to his customers. Why not put this knowledge into practice? “I think the trade shows are where my curiosity began and eventually led me to the fact that, ‘Hey, I can do this on my own,’” he says. “I’ll put my money where my mouth is and instead of saying to landscapers, ‘Try this, or do that,’ I’ll make a go of it.”

The tough part about this decision was that Palmer knew he was shaking up what was a stable household. At the same time, his wife left her career as a school teacher in a great district to stay home and care for their three children. “We went from comfortable to uncertain,” he says of the entrepreneurial leap of faith. “It all worked out … we had saved a lot and were able to get through those first three to four years. It was the best decision I ever made.”

Right away, Palmer began making big decisions for the then fledgling business. “As soon as I got the letter back from the state saying, ‘You have a TAX I.D. number,’ I then spent $21,000,” he says. But of course the move was calculated. Palmer decided to invest $7,000 in a software system before he had a single customer. “I said, ‘When I have 10,000 customers, I’m going to need this,’” he says. And, that year, he grew the company from zero to 500 accounts.

The remainder of that financial move was spent on the direct mail campaign that was responsible for bringing in 200 of those customers. (Those are the 200 who have spent a collective $871,000 in 11 years, according to his records.)

Palmer has continued to make calculated risks over the years, Schill says, “The initial goal was to be the premiere lawn care provider in western Cuyahoga and Lorain Counties, and in a matter of 10 short years, the business went from $70,000 to almost $4 million. That’s because of Rob and his direction.”

Schill says Palmer has an ability to “rise above and focus on what’s important – what matters.” And Palmer learns from his mistakes. “You’ve got to have a short-term memory on some of this stuff, and that’s what he is really good at,” Schill says. For example, when the $70,000 direct mail campaign bombed a couple of years ago, Palmer says he realized a $20,000 return. He expected to get closer to $200,000 in business. It didn’t work, so he shook off his disappointment and moved on.

Palmer has been married to Melissa for 16 years. They are the parents of Abigail (14), Elias (11) and Robert (9).

Now, he’s in the process of ramping up search engine optimization on his website, blogging and focusing on cultivating organic online leads.

Palmer doesn’t make the same mistake twice. “That’s why I win,” he says, adding that his passion for what he does drives him forward. He leads Socrates style. “That requires you to believe what you believe, and fight for what you believe,” he says, adding that employees at Weed Pro get this opportunity, too. “They know that by working here, they will be heard, and often their ideas will be implemented.”

Palmer helped start a peer group two years ago, and this engagement with other landscape professionals has changed the way he strategizes.

He’s still the coach, still the guy who’s willing to make a risky play if it will tip the score in overtime. But his playbook is, perhaps, more tried-and-true.

“Our peer group brings together unique perspectives, and a lot of our goals have been crafted by talking and listening and sharing thoughts and ideas with other companies,” Palmer says.

Specifically, Palmer has eight goals for his company that drive its growth in the areas of: customer attrition, net promoter score (NPS), customer referrals, new customer sales, net customer count, net profit, revenue and employee engagement.

He’s shooting for slam dunks in these areas. For example, Weed Pro wants 75 percent of its customers to come from referrals. Right now, that rate is at about 20 percent. But social media will make reaching this lofty number possible, he says. “If our product is actually good, then we should be able to ‘socialize’ our brand, and that’s the difference between today and 10 years ago,” he says.

Along those lines, Weed Pro aims for a 75-percent NPS. This rating answers the basic question, “How are we doing?” Think call-in surveys on store receipts and other opportunities for customers to rate you after the sale, and before a cancellation. “These are people who would be willing to recommend your company to friends and family,” he says.

Managers are responsible for defining a few objectives in their departments each year that will help the company achieve these goals. “So, they are working on developing their plans, as well,” Palmer says. And if a plan is good, he’ll give it a whirl. “It’s not always my ideas that wins,” he says.

All this planning pays off. Weed Pro is growing strong and Palmer says he hopes the business will eventually be one that his people retire from after 30 years of service. That’s the golden trophy he’s working toward. “I want to establish Weed Pro as a company that can offer permanent careers to people,” he says.

This game plan wouldn’t surprise Schill. “Rob is tireless – he loves his family, he loves what he does, he cares deeply about the environment and his customers, and that combination of things is going to make him successful for many years to come in everything he does.”