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Professors don’t know everything

Features - Maintenance, Industry News

Even though Brian DuMont was told as a college freshman landscapers won’t make any money, he stuck with it and now runs the $17 million Yard-Nique.

Kristen Hampshire | March 31, 2014

When Brian DuMont founded Yard-Nique during his last year in North Carolina State University’s landscape horticulture program, he thought if he could grow his company to a team of five, then that would be big. Real big.

This year, Yard-Nique surpassed 300 employees and revenues neared $17 million in 2013. Growth has doubled since 2007 – even during the recession years. In spite of losing builder business, Yard-Nique boomed through the economic bust.

“It’s a little different than what I envisioned,” DuMont says of the company’s evolution from a college startup to a five-location company serving Raleigh, N.C.,’s Research Triangle area and beyond.

“I’ll never forget sitting in the classroom my freshman year, and a professor told us, ‘If you are in this profession to make money, you might as well walk out of the door right now,’” DuMont says, noting that the average annual salary in 1993 was about $21,000. “I was never in it for that.”

Though DuMont’s passion for the business was not factored into that salary estimate, in 17 years, he has grown jobs for a few hundred people who share his love for the industry – people on board with Yard-Nique’s “full speed ahead” culture.

“I went after amazing people, that was my key to growth,” DuMont says. “I attracted key employees, and there were a lot of them out there. That has allowed us to continue to grow.”

The fact that a bulk of the company’s growth occurred during the recession is due to this hiring strategy – investing in talent when it was available, expanding market reach to diversify. “We took a totally different approach in 2008,” he says.
 

Building diversity.

The Raleigh, N.C., area was somewhat buffered during the economic downturn because of the Research Triangle.

When other markets were down and out, DuMont’s commercial maintenance clients were not backing off their service. “HOAs and commercial outfits are not going to stop maintaining their facilities,” he says.

Meanwhile, the building rush that had fueled Yard-Nique’s installation growth for several years prior to 2008 pretty much froze. Then, 35 percent of Yard-Nique’s business was new landscape installation for builder clients. “It was like, overnight, someone turned off the switch – they quit building,” DuMont says.

Diversification was the strategy. “We had no choice,” he says. In 2008, Yard-Nique had its only “flat” year, and even then there was an oh-so-slight revenue uptick. DuMont figured $300,000 profit, about 1 percent growth.

“We were happy with that,” he says. “I was happy to walk away after that year and say, ‘We’re still around.’ That was a win.”

A meeting of the minds

Each year, Yard-Nique hosts a management retreat where structured brainstorming and future planning is the agenda.

“We talk about the positives and negatives of the previous year, what we are going to do differently, and what we want to be,” says Brian DuMont, president and CEO of the Raleigh, N.C.-based firm.

“We talk about our vision and mission statement – and are we in line with that?”

Fourteen employees attended the 2014 brainstorming meeting, including all department heads, the human resources director, CFO and six employees who are “key assets” to the company. He will also identify a “rising star” or two.

Here’s how Yard-Nique pulls of a successful brainstorming event:

  • Draft an agenda. While the idea is to hold an open forum for ideas, DuMont makes sure the event stays on track by creating an agenda that is distributed in advance.
  • Keep an open mind. Listen. Soak in the feedback from participants. The purpose is to gain many different perspectives.
  • Take action. DuMont’s managers are responsible for communicating what goals were set at the meeting to their teams. “Once we get back, we make sure that information is translated to all levels,” he says.

But it wasn’t good enough. DuMont and managers hunkered down. The plan: Go after more market share – go after more builders.

“In 2006, you couldn’t landscape (new builds) fast enough,” he says. “They were building homes so fast, it was crazy. We couldn’t take on more than four or five builders because they were throwing us so much work.”

But when the economy slowed and building “paused,” Yard-Nique could expand its portfolio of builder clients. “We could reach out to more of them because most had cut their production by a half, if not three-quarters,” DuMont says.

So rather than about five builder clients, Yard-Nique today works with 30 to 40 different firms of various sizes. Some are small custom outfits, others are national names.

Now, after five years of plugging away at project diversification, Yard-Nique’s maintenance/install mix is back to where it was before 2008: 53 percent design/build and 47 percent maintenance.

Residential maintenance just doesn’t fit Yard-Nique’s business model or company size these days, DuMont says. Meanwhile, commercial maintenance (that includes HOAs) continues to stay strong. “That is what got us through the slow time. It was always a good sector for us, and we have continued to grow that.”

Meanwhile, residential design/build is back in Yard-Nique’s repertoire since two years ago, when the company brought on a residential sales specialist. She joined full-time in 2013 and her focus is solely design/build for homeowners.

After a seven-year hiatus from this service, the niche needed a personnel lift to get it rolling. “I said, ‘If we are going to do residential design/build, we are going to do it right,’ so that is why we brought on a professional to really revitalize that piece of the business,” DuMont says.
 

Wins in retention.

With consistent annual growth, even during recession years, and a fast-expanding staff, DuMont recognized that customer retention can suffer unless quality is carefully managed.

Last year, DuMont realized that his maintenance account managers were maxed out. “At times, as we continued to grow, we got more properties and put more work on those account managers,” he says. There’s a fine line between “more work” and stretched too thin.

“It took us about six months to dissect the problem,” DuMont says. The company analyzed its customer retention rate. DuMont aims for 5 percent – the industry standard, he says, is roughly 10 percent.

“For me, when I see 10 percent attrition, it’s like, ‘Time out: What’s going on here?’ Is the problem isolated to one manager? Is it isolated to one division, one branch?’”

Last year, DuMont decided that while the company’s customer retention was not suffering per se, quality could erode if something wasn’t done to address account manager workload. So, the company invested in hiring two more account managers.

Then, DuMont divided the book of work evenly among the new team, freeing up the managers to spend more time with their clients.

“The expectation is that we’ll have better customer service and an improved customer retention rate,” he says.

“It will be a win-win, and that is what we are driving for in 2014. So far, the plan is going well for us.”

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