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Who’s the boss?

Features - Cover Story: Top 100, Industry News

Spike TV's reality show "The Hiring Squad" plotted to find a new boss for Christy Webber Landscapes. It didn't work out so well.

Kristen Hampshire | June 6, 2014

Christy Webber | No. 33
 

If Christy Webber had it her way, she’d team up with Martha Stewart and “be the yin to her yang” as the female, rugged landscaper on the home and garden show. “She’s all foofy with gardening and I run trucks,” she says. “I’m sort of the guy she already has on the show except I’m a girl.”

The team at Christy Webber Landscapes in Chicago thinks that Martha and Webber would make a nice match, too. But that’s not exactly what rolled out on network TV last fall.

Webber’s television debut was no napkin-folding, hydrangea-planting, container-designing segment. It was high drama in “The Hiring Squad: Meet the New Boss,” which aired on Spike TV in October last year. The show trailer claimed that Webber was ready to find a replacement. It was time for the straight-shooter, former gym teacher – who turned a neighborhood lawn business into a $35 million empire to find a No. 2. That way, Webber could settle into the background a bit, enjoy her two young boys and wife. So, Spike brought in three candidates, who “tried out” to be the boss by working with crews for a week. Then, employees voted on the new boss. The network glossed it up as “putting power in the hands of employees by giving them the chance to choose their own boss.”

Sure, Webber would like for a highly qualified leader who’s a cultural fit to join the firm and help take over operations. “I would really love to have that someone,” she says.

“But it’s big shoes to fill. I started this business and I built this business, and I have my top 10 around me who have helped build this business – and that was part of the drama of the show.”

Webber never would have invested in a national search, she says. “I wasn’t going to pay for that.” But the network did. “I didn’t believe they would find anyone – and they found three candidates, who of course, had to be characters. They can’t just pick the right guy. They have to pick people who are going to be good on TV.”

In reality – not in reality TV – Webber was not actively searching on a national level for a replacement. And post-show, she’s not making any bold moves to move into the background at one of the largest landcape firms in the Midwest.

“It was like a game show,” Webber says. “It was silly. It was a bummer. Our big exposure to TV was a game show.”
 

Hair and Makeup.

The Hiring Squad concept was a brainchild of producer Justin Hochberg of “The Apprentice” fame. Before the premiere, he told media: “No one seems to listen to the 99 percent anymore. Bosses say they do, but they don’t. So what if you were put in charge of not only picking your boss, but the entire company was?” Ten years ago at Microsoft, Hochberg says he got to hire his own boss. His concept to give the “power to the people” sold the show to Spike TV.

But Webber is not your typical television star. Her opening remarks on the show go something like this: “I don’t speak the King’s English.” Indeed, that’s the case. “I never do anything by the book,” she adds.

That’s also true. “After 25 years, I’m ready to step back.” Well, that’s also the case – but she’s not exactly phasing herself out, and especially since the show produced three candidates that would never hack it at Christy Webber Landscapes.

Her team’s response to her “stepping back” on the show: “If you take away Christy Webber, there is no Christy Webber Landscapes,” one employee told the camera.

As for the three candidates rounded up, employees said one looked like Pee Wee Herman, another looked like “she’s worked the runway more than in an office” and the third, with a landscaping background, was a “middle-aged white dude who’s here to run for office.” From that point, the game of winning employees’ favor on the job site and Webber’s approval at headquarters was off and running.

None of the candidates was all that impressive, and none was a real fit. Webber says the decision ultimately came down to the “lesser of evils,” and Natalie (skirt, heels and a roofing background) joined the company for three months, paid by the network. Thanks to a starting salary around $120,000 a year, Webber says all the candidates were serious about winning.

This big hiring decision caused a series of “private” talks with the camera, where employees aired their grievances about the boss candidates. Webber actually asked each one to make a presentation to an important client, Soldier Field.

The network even changed the lighting in her building. “They had sneaky cameras set up, which freaked people out,” she adds. For the most part, employees played along and had fun with it. So did Webber – though she says the experience was exhausting, filmed in busy spring and cost the company $40,000 worth of overtime.

Meanwhile, there was some real tension with a couple of managers who felt betrayed by the idea of an outside search and a vote to take over a position they felt they earned and deserved. Once her managers realized that none of the candidates was really Christy Webber-qualified, they eased up.

As for Webber, she doesn’t just talk like she did on camera without being prompted. (Remember, no King’s English.) Those let’s-talk-about-the-candidates scenes were practiced. “I wasn’t who I am because every time I tried to speak up to the camera, they said, ‘You have to say it like this.’ I just gave up and stopped arguing with them. So, when I see myself on the show, I think you can tell it’s scripted … people on the outside don’t know that, but my staff knows.”
 

Steering the ship.

There is no replacement for Christy Webber. And that’s OK, because the business continues to grow aggressively. In fact, Webber has stepped back a bit and developed an organizational chart and hired vice presidents to oversee key roles in the business. “That has freed me up to be able to lean on those people instead of talking to 25 different people about everything,” she says, adding she didn’t make these changes for the show.

There isn’t a No. 2, per se, running all of operations – and Webber’s open to that when the time and person is right. But the company, indeed, is being steered by a team of hard-working, innovative leaders who have helped grow the firm right along with Webber. “This company is growing and diverse and strong, and I have so many bosses, and it’s great.”

This year, Webber’s company ranks 33 on the Top 100 list, but she’s not done climbing. “Our company has emerged, and it’s not because of the show,” she says. As for 2014, this is going to be the company’s “biggest season – ever,” Webber affirms, with a record amount of construction work.

Webber says, “If there is a bad economy out there, then there are 400 people over here who don’t know that.”

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