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Features - Irrigation, Industry News

Elizabeth River Landscape Management started subbing its irrigation work, but finally gained the confidence to bring it in-house.

Lindsey Getz | May 2, 2014

After establishing themselves as a reputable grounds management company handling lawn maintenance, more and more customers began asking Elizabeth River Landscape Management for irrigation services. But the Suffolk, Va.-based company president Jason Fawcett wasn’t willing to jump into the service cold turkey. He’d built a strong reputation on experience and trust. So he began subbing the work out under the company umbrella. By the time the company reached $750,000 in service work, Fawcett knew it was time to take the service fully in-house.

“We purchased another irrigation service company in our market that was a close competitor,” Fawcett says. “That has really helped grow our irrigation department. Since bringing the service under our own roof, we have hired our own staff and slowly built things up.”

But like so many others, Fawcett admits that hiring can be a challenge. Since the downturn of the economy and the loss of so many jobs, there has been no shortage of individuals looking for work. But finding skilled employees is a different story.

“Irrigation is a very specific industry and good irrigation techs can be a challenge to find,” Fawcett says. “That’s true of other positions as well, though. Finding employees who are exactly the right fit for our organization has been tough – from service techs all the way to managers. So we keep it lean with good quality people.”

FORE!

When Jason Fawcett, president of Elizabeth River Landscape Management in Suffolk, Va., had the opportunity to get involved with golf course management, he decided to take the leap.

“The golf course business is a truly different beast and poses a lot of unique challenges,” he says.

Although there’s been a steep learning curve, Fawcett says they’ve definitely learned golf course management is a strong fit for the business.

The course the company took over has 36,000 rounds of golf played on it each year.

In a matter of only 60 days, Elizabeth River has moved the C-minus graded course forward. It’s now B-plus.

“I’m still learning more about the many facets of the business,” Fawcett says.

“While you can mow any client’s property at three p.m. in the afternoon, you certainly can’t do that with a golf course. You have to learn how to put your mowers through tee times and learn how to accomplish hand-watering greens. All of this needs to be done while they’re playing golf.”

Fawcett attributes much of the company’s success to having a key employee on board who has worked at a course.

“There is just so much to manage – from the sandtraps to cutting and rolling the greens,” he says.

“But we’re learning with a lot of his help. We now have three other golf courses that have made aggressive moves to sign up with us because of the work we’ve done so far.”

Fawcett says hiring individuals with “common sense” has been a key to success. “That sounds so obvious but the fact is, you can’t teach common sense,” he says. “You can teach a lot of skills, but we want people who can also solve issues on their own. We give them the tools they need to allow them to step outside the box. That also means being accepting of the fact that they’re going to make mistakes.

“We empower employees not to be afraid to try something – even if they’re going to mess up. In the end, they learn from what they do and that makes us all stronger. We don’t look at mistakes as a problem – we look at them like a solution.”
 

Always evolving.

As a company that has a foundation of commercial grounds management work (it’s approximately 70 percent of their business), it’s not uncommon for a variety of other jobs to “piggyback” from their grounds work. Over time, Fawcett says the company has aimed to become a one-stop shop. “When we started Elizabeth River, we were really just doing basic maintenance like mowing,” Fawcett says. “But as more and more clients began asking us to do more services, we started hiring subs so that we could offer more.”

While subbing has been a great way to grow the business, Fawcett says it’s not without problems. “One of the problems with giving work to subs is that they don’t always uphold your standards,” Fawcett says. “So we’ve tried to bring everything under roof and offer clients package deals. We find that clients like the idea of making one phone call that handles all of their needs.”

Bringing the irrigation division fully in house has definitely evolved it. Today Fawcett says he keeps the division evolving by taking a proactive approach to water-savings technology. “In our area there aren’t a lot of companies showing interest in water savings,” Fawcett says. “In fact, many systems are installed without even using rain sensors.

“But we’re trying to educate the customer that a rain sensor may involve a little investment but you will easily get that money back. We’re definitely trying to take the lead with water savings.”

But Fawcett says getting the customer on board poses another challenge. “For so many years customers have just been focused on getting water to the site – and not really caring how it’s done,” he says. “The fact is that most people don’t think much about how much water they’re using or where it’s coming from. They don’t understand the dynamics of proper coverage – just the right amount of water to percolate the ground and infuse into the soil. But there are so many things that can come into play.”

Change comes down to educating the client, Fawcett continues. “We need to explain why we’re spending $5 per nozzle when there’s one that’s 98 cents,” Fawcett says.

“The clientele needs to understand just how much water savings that can equate to or they’re never going to agree to spend the extra money up front.”

In general, Fawcett says that he’d like to see education ramped up across the board. “As an industry I believe we do need to do a better job of educating the public about water conservation,” he says.

“Use resources already out there – like your distributors – to get those educational tools and educate yourself. And make sure that the people you’re sending out in the field are also properly educated. Only then can you really move forward with educating the clientele.”

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