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Tips from the top: Phil Catron, CEO, NaturaLawn of America

Departments - Top 100

Chuck Bowen | August 12, 2013


Catron at company headquarters in Maryland

While in college I had to take a personality profile exam that supposedly would give me direction in my life pursuits. There were two very clear areas I was advised to stay away from: agriculture and business.

I was recruited by ChemLawn to help open up their East Coast expansion in 1976. At the time, I know it’s hard to believe, but I had fairly long hair, it was almost down to my shoulders, and I had full beard. I was a very conservative hippie.

Gary Seitz was interviewing me and said, “Our operation here is short hair, no beard.” And I told him, “You guys are more interested in the pretty face, not what someone can bring to the table.”

So I went back home and told my wife and my very good friend, who is one of our franchise owners now, the story, and both of them said, “What are you, stupid? You can grow your hair back. This sounds like an opportunity of a lifetime.”

ChemLawn taught me a lot about business and myself. They gave the regional offices so much autonomy. We were 26-years-old and we’re handling millions of dollars of business with no formal training. You learned the business from the ground up: What does a truck produce and how does payroll impact that?

When I got the job I was living in New Jersey and my wife was pregnant, and the plan was that I would move down to Maryland and when the baby was born, I’d move him and Debbie down. Well, as fate would have it, our son was born with spina bifida.

He was paralyzed from the neck down and had severe brain damage. So I called up Gary and said, “Gary, I’m not sure when I can move down. Here’s the situation.” He said, “Well, OK. Do you have insurance for that?” I did, but it didn’t cover this.

So he called me back 20 minutes later. He says, “Look, I just spoke with Dick Duke. We’ll pay all your medical bills and I’ll put you on salary as of today. You move down whenever you can.”

Now I hadn’t worked for him even a day. They didn’t really know who I was, what I was gonna do. I make no bones about it: We eagerly took that philosophy to NaturaLawn.

I had designed what would become NaturaLawn in 1978. I brought Beecher Smith in as a partner. We worked at ChemLawn together. We were a very good team and, quite frankly, it wouldn’t have been as successful had I even attempted to do it individually. We were Cheech and Chong, Laurel and Hardy.

Beecher was a man I trusted with my life, my wife and my wallet. When I would freak out, he would calm the waters.

We missed our first-year projections literally by half, but we were actually profitable our very first year: We made $9,000.

Once I was contemplating a serious business issue early on in our history. The timing on what we needed to do was critical. One of our employees, an original member of NaturaLawn and a lady who is as kind as anyone I have ever known, spoke up and said, “Well, I think we should ….”

I cut her off at the knees at that point and said, “Kelly, I really don’t care what you think, we need to ….”

It was at that moment as I looked into her face and saw the deep hurt my comment had made.

Concentrate on the single most important aspect of your business: your people. If you take care of your employees first, they will in turn take care of your customers. Then your customers will take care of your business by buying your services and ensure your profitability. L&L