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From wreaths to water

Features - Irrigation, Industry News

A company that started in the industry making holiday decorations has grown to drive water conservation education.

Lindsey Getz | July 7, 2014

The Mickman’s family involvement in the horticulture industry dates way back to 1934 when “Grandma Mickman” made a wreath and 12-year old John V. Mickman sold it. Grandma Mickman continued to make and sell wreaths until she was 90 years old. And although the company got its start in Christmas wreaths – a component that is still a strong part of the business – it eventually grew into a full-service landscape company.

In 1975, John V. Mickman’s sons (John S. and Chris) decided to start Mickman Brothers Landscaping, and by 1976 had also launched a Lawn Sprinkler division. Today that sprinkler division has grown into a large, successful irrigation division managed by Jeff Sutter, who is also now the company’s general manager. Today Mickman Brothers has five divisions that operate separately, yet truly complement one another.

Over the years, Sutter has seen the company grow vastly. When he joined Mickman Brothers in 1982, he was working as a service tech and since that time has held a number of different positions within the company, ultimately becoming irrigation division director and then general manager for the entire company. Sutter says that adding various divisions over the years has allowed the company to become more diverse and increase sales opportunities to enhance the landscape projects they were already doing. In other words, the departments go hand-in-hand.

“Each division operates as a separate profit center and is responsible for its own sales goals, labor and profitability, but ultimately they do all work together to deliver our quality products and services,” Sutter says. “Even though we have separate crews, they work closely together and interact.” In addition to the landscape and irrigation departments, Mickman also has a full-service retail garden center. In 2007, the company also introduced an irrigation design/consulting division which concentrates primarily on the design side. And most recently, Mickman introduced a landscape care division which is a high-end specialty treecare and plant maintenance division. “That division offers a service that is an excellent opportunity to enhance our landscape division by offering a high-end maintenance service to our existing clients,” Sutter says.
 

Keeping with the trends.

These days there’s no question that water conservation and efficiency are the biggest trends in irrigation. With so many new products coming out, Sutter says the company has recognized the importance of keeping up with what’s out there.

Retail rules

In 1986 the Mickman brothers opened a garden center to complement their already-existing landscape and irrigation divisions. While many landscape and irrigation companies have tried their hand at garden centers and nurseries, it often proves to be a difficult venture. But Mickman Brothers has found continued success. General Manager Jeff Sutter shares some tips on how to succeed in retail.

Know what you’re getting into. A lot of landscape contractors assume that because they know about plants, they could run a garden center. “It certainly helps to know a lot about plants, but the retail business is just so different from contracting that I would assume that’s the main reason many get over their heads,” Sutter says. “It takes an entirely different set of management skills.”

Blend skills. What makes a garden center successful is the combination of retail savvy and horticultural expertise, Sutter says. Unfortunately, many contractors come into the business with just the horticultural background. That’s not to say it’s not an important component. “The horticulture expertise and technical knowledge is what’s going to set you apart from the box stores,” Sutter says. “The key is to also blend that with retailing.”

Cross-market at all times. Mickman Brothers is constantly cross-marketing their services. Having a garden center is a prime opportunity. “It’s a great opportunity to talk face-to-face with a customer about our other divisions and the variety of services we can offer them,” he says.

“We really believe in education and spend a lot of time going to seminars, watching webinars, and even developing in-house training programs to ensure all of our employees are also up to date,” he says. “We are serious about staying on top of the latest technology by trying out new products and learning how to market them to our customers.”

Since the general public is not very well-educated on irrigation efficiency, Sutter says they view that as an opportunity. “We have in-house training where I educate our field techs on how to educate the customer,” Sutter says. “To really educate a customer well starts with educating the tech. We teach them not to just bombard the customer with technical information but how to explain things in layman’s terms so that they truly understand.”

Sutter says the company puts together a curriculum for employees and will have sit-down classes where they learn exactly how to talk to a customer. A number of topics are covered in those classes. “We teach the staff to educate customers on the importance of proper design or how to schedule their irrigation controllers,” Sutter says.

“When we ultimately do talk to the customer it’s usually a one-on-one, sit-down discussion. We may bring in product samples and have them hold an actual part, but the main thing is selling the design. We need to ensure that our techs can teach the customer the importance of a good design and actually discuss what can go wrong if a design is flawed.”
 

Overcoming challenges.

Like many companies, Mickman Brothers has faced its share of hard times since the downturn in the economy. While lowballers have always existed in the industry, Sutter says it became more of a challenge during the recession. But he says the company’s refusal to lower its standards has helped give them an edge.

“Lowballers cut cost by sacrificing design or performance. So instead of trying to compete with that, we educate our customers about how we offer superior design and products that don’t cut corners,” Sutter says. “You have your opportunity to go in the door and present yourself – as does the lowballer – but the difference is that you need to sell your concept and your brand and convince them of why it’s worth more. Hopefully price doesn’t become the main subject of the conversation.” But Sutter feels that the company’s diversity is what has really set it apart. And that comes down to its five separate divisions that as a whole offer the customer a complete array of services.

“Only a handful of the competition in our area has the ability to offer such a wide variety of services and also has a garden center,” Sutter says. The garden center has brought a lot of benefits to our other divisions. For one, it has allowed us to be very visible within our community.”

In fact, Sutter says the garden center is the “face” of the business within the community itself. “Our contracting divisions are all over town and though we work with many clients within the community, they may never actually come face-to-face with our buildings and offices,” Sutter says.

“But with the garden center as our retail presence in the community, they come in and see us. They get to know us. That helps us become truly a part of the community and it certainly also drives business to the other divisions.”

Although employees are specialized within their own division, Sutter says all employees are trained to be able to successfully cross merchandise. “When my irrigation tech is face-to-face with an irrigation customer, a big part of his job is to be able to mention other services we can offer them,” Sutter says. “He needs to be able to say ‘I see you have this tree that could use some pruning’ or ‘Have you ever thought about rejuvenating your landscape?’

“Everyone is trained enough in the other divisions to be able to sell the concept. We have to be able to take advantage of already being on a customer’s property to cross-merchandise our other divisions.”

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