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Landscaping by the numbers

Features - Cover Feature: The Technology Issue, Industry News

Taylor Milliken mines his company’s data to grow the bottom line.

Julie Collins | August 13, 2014

Like so many green industry entrepreneurs, Taylor Milliken, president of Milosi in Hendersonville, Tenn., kept a lot of vital business information in his head. And on white boards. And legal pads. And in Microsoft Word and Excel documents. The informal system meant a lot of double-entry and, sometimes, a lot of scrambling to find necessary information.

One day, shortly after maintenance division manager Chris Williams came on board, he asked Milliken for a list of properties that required winterization. As Milliken pulled out a yellow legal pad and wrote down all of the property names by memory, they joked about the fact that they might need a new system. And, Milliken then realized, they did.
 

Smart shopping.

The transition didn’t happen overnight. In fact, the Milosi team began looking for software four years before they ever made a decision on which one to use. Milliken did some trial runs of different software but, at that point, nothing he tried fully met his expectations.

“They might do really well in one area but fall short in the other. Nothing filled all of our needs. Plus, we weren’t really ready for the software at that point,” he says.

But in early 2012, as the full-service residential and commercial design-build and landscaping company continued to grow – and as software options improved – it was time to make a decision.

Milliken’s team decided that Boss LM was the best fit for the company’s needs and, after spending most of 2012 in discussions with the Boss sales team, Milliken signed a contract near the end of the year. One of many business management software options on the market, Boss LM consolidates all business systems in one place and displays key business data via performance dashboards. The cloud-based software is available on any web-enabled computer, smartphone or tablet.
 

A careful transition.

Getting to the point where the company was ready to transition to the new software took time. Milosi began implementation in winter 2013 but didn’t go live until the spring. The implementation process required customizing the software to match company services, properly entering information into the system and training employees on how to use the software.

Milliken admits there was definitely a learning curve – especially for a company that hadn’t ever used business management software. That inexperience also made it tricky to set up the software on the front end. “When we were getting it set up, I had to predict how we were going to use it,” Milliken recalls. “To be honest, I didn’t know because I hadn’t used it before. There are things I would change now in how we set it up, but it takes a tremendous amount of resources to go back and make changes afterward.”

Cost considerations

A full-service business management software like Boss LM can cost a pretty penny, which, Taylor Milliken of Milosi says, is one of the biggest challenges of taking the plunge. Different software companies set up pricing in different ways – some charge by monthly subscription, others base fees on the number of users, some require a flat one-time fee and then charge extra for training costs and technical support.

For Boss LM, Milliken paid a one-time deployment cost and then pays a monthly fee based on a percentage of the previous month’s gross sales. In other words, Milliken explains, “the larger your company gets, the more you pay.”

Megan Lowe, sales and marketing coordinator, says some of those changes revolved around how the company inputted some of its services. For example, the company offers mulching up to two times a year. But if someone only gets it once, the software doesn’t know whether it was in the fall or spring.

“Now we wish we would have set up separately for fall and spring,” Lowe says. “There are just some little tweaks we would make knowing what we know now. We would've changed some wording.” She says inputting chemical application also posed a problem.

“We put all the chemicals in and estimating takes forever,” she says. “If you have five chemicals, you have to price them all individually. I just went in yesterday and took all the chemicals out and it's just one lump item for chemical application.

“So we put all this information in there, but now we need some of those things simplified, and some things we didn't do enough detail on and now we need more detail now. We did the best we could at the time knowing what we knew then.”
 

Daily use.

Crew leaders, field supervisors, sales staff and management all log into the software each day. The interface is customized for each user so, for instance, administrative staff will see the area of the software they access most frequently – purchase orders, invoicing and payroll.

Lowe spends a considerable amount of time on customer relationship management, so she uses the software to qualify leads, identify the value of the lead and assign it to a salesperson.

Operations managers primarily use the software for scheduling crew and technicians. Business development and sales people use the software to produce bids and estimates for customers. Meanwhile, account managers run reports for job costing, renewals and enhancements sales.

Milliken pays particular attention to the profitability and efficiency of his crews. “We’re looking at efficiency ratings because they tell you how close you are under or over your budget on a given day, week or month,” he says. Efficiency ratings are posted in the shop every Tuesday. “It’s a transparent way of telling crews and staff how they’re doing. It’s a weekly scorecard.” In addition, Milliken regularly accesses a variety of reports – particularly to examine the year-to-date budget versus actual costs, as well as to look at gross margins and hourly rates – and also hops into the software to approve tickets for billing purposes.

The “issues area” is a key feature used by a number of team members. If a customer calls with a special request for a property, an employee can enter it as an “opportunity” in the system and assign it to a team member so it is addressed in a timely manner. The same holds true with a complaint – the concern gets assigned to the appropriate account manager, and the issue can be tracked until it is resolved and then saved for future reference.
 


 
 

Big benefits.

One of the biggest benefits of the business management software, Milliken says, is how easy it is to access key information quickly “We used to spend a tremendous amount of time reconciling an account to find out of it was profitable,” he says. “Now we have an abundance of stored data available to make decisions on.”

The big change has been the ability to streamline operations and get everyone on the same page. Before the software, employees estimated in Excel, and each person estimated and packaged their bid a little bit differently. Now everybody uses the same proposal.

“Company-wide it has streamlined the information,” Lowe says. “Once the contract is signed, before we went live with Boss ... if someone had a maintenance agreement ... I would go into Excel and manually create every ticket to be scheduled. Now all you do is hit accept and it's ready.”

Milliken says the software has revealed where the company is making money and which crews are the most profitable. “In the past, I didn’t really know whether I was making money or not until I got my profit and loss statement,” he says.

“Now I’m able to look daily, weekly, monthly – whenever I feel like it and can see how we’re doing.” As a result, Milliken says he can forecast and plan more effectively. “If we’re hitting budgets and bidding projects based on the correct margins, we’re able to make money. I think the transparency it has provided has increased profitability and allowed us to focus more on our areas of inefficiency,” Milliken adds.

For instance, Milliken’s team discovered that crews were consistently coming in under their estimated pruning hours. “That’s an area we found we can actually tighten for upcoming bids and estimates,” Milliken says.

At the same time, the company also found it was under-bidding hours for aeration and overseeding, so they now add time to those bids. This more accurate job costing has been a boon to the company. “It allows us to get more aggressive on certain services or tells us we need to put more time into other services if we are constantly going over or under,” Milliken says.

Information culled from the reports also led the Milosi team to realize irrigation installation was one of the company’s least-profitable services. “It caused us to take a real hard look at whether that’s a service we want to continue to offer,” Milliken says. “We’re still offering it, but most of our irrigation installation is now bid as part of a larger construction project where we’re able to bundle it as a package and make a higher profit, rather than as a standalone service where we’re bidding against other irrigation contractors.”

Data mined from the software has also helped rein in material costs by documenting when crews are coming back to the shop with leftover mulch, for instance. “If the salesperson bid 50 cubic yards of mulch and they get out there and it only takes 35, we have a place to document it so we don’t order 50 again the next time,” Milliken says.

Milliken has found that the software makes planning for upcoming services easier in terms of estimating man-hours and purchasing needed materials in bulk, too. “We can go to the vendor and ask for a bulk price rather than buying as we go,” Milliken says. “By buying pine straw in bulk, we have more control over our material and save money on overall material cost.”

 


The author is a freelance writer based in Lincoln, Ill.

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