When Hurricane Andrew devastated most of South Florida in 1992, many of the area’s TruGreen branch managers found themselves in desperate situations. Julie Jesse, then manager of the Ft. Lauderdale branch, received countless calls from corporate managers who were mainly concerned with the disaster’s impact on company revenue. Tired and frustrated, Jesse then received a call from Erica Santella, region technical manager of the Orlando branch, who asked what she could do to help. Twelve hours later, Santella arrived in Ft. Lauderdale driving a trailer loaded with the equipment and supplies Jesse needed to get her branch back up and running.
“Her response was amazing,” Jesse says, adding that the two women barely knew each other at the time. “When everyone else was concerned about revenue, Erica was concerned about the people.”
Thinking of others comes naturally to Santella. Whether it’s spending her days off shopping for new materials to better train 24 branches worth of crews, to adopting homeless dogs (she and her husband, Noel, have taken in more than a dozen over the years) to donating platelets to the American Red Cross as often as she’s allowed (she recently hit the 55-gallon mark and is aiming for 100 gallons in the next decade) she is ready and willing to help when and wherever she is needed. “People in the industry call her if there’s a problem because they know she’ll always be there,” says Jesse, who today is Santella’s best friend. “She’s approachable and she’s reachable, and that’s an important part of leadership.”
LEADING THE WAY. Many who know her agree that Santella’s accessibility is one reason she is such a respected leader in the lawn care industry. Other reasons are her patience, fairness and her ability to communicate and get things done. “Her personality is very effective when it comes to communicating,” says Kirk Hurto, vice president of TruGreen technical services. “She can decide the right thing to do and then convince others why it’s the right thing to do. They’re confident in the decisions she makes because they know she has their best interests at heart.”
But unlike some leaders who influence others with force or even intimidation, Santella leads with a level-headed hand and realizes that you can attract more bees with honey. “There are some leaders who have very boisterous, driver personalities,” Hurto continues. “Erica knows how to get other people to work with her because she’s more of a coaching leader than anything else.”
Santella’s leadership capabilities span beyond crews and colleagues and into her day-to-day dealings with clients, association members, industry volunteers and politicians. In addition to her role at TruGreen, she is also extremely active in the quest to protect Florida’s water quality and quantity. In fact, she says her participation in writing the Florida reference book “Green Industry Best Management Practices,” which she describes as “the bible when it comes to water quality,” is one of her biggest career accomplishments to date. Santella was chair of the project, a joint effort between the Department of Agriculture, the University of Florida and various water management districts.
Being an effective communicator is important when interacting with such a wide variety of people – especially high-profile people to whom time is always a factor. “A professor I had during my graduate studies stressed that good writing does not have to be difficult to read. It should be easy on the eyes and get the point across in as few syllables as possible,” Santella says. “Members of local governments have so much on their plates – what do they want and need to know about slow vs. soluble fertilizer? You have to be able to boil it down for them.”
Santella credits the bulk of her leadership capabilities to what she’s learned from Jesse over the years, and both women agree that their roles at TruGreen brought them together and put them in the positions to learn from each other. “Leaders used to be the hard-nosed men, but these days they can come in many different forms,” Santella says. “True leaders have to be respected and there is a big difference between fear and respect.”
This is the final article in a weekly series that recognizes six green industry leaders. Lawn & Landscape, along with Bayer Environmental Science, honored these professionals at a reception Oct. 26 at the Green Industry and Equipment Expo in Louisville, Ky.
Read the welcome letter from Bayer Environmental Science's U.S. Green Business Director Neil Cleveland.
Being a respected woman in a male-dominated field can be difficult, and even intimidating. But if you’re good, you’re good, and true expertise is a gift whether coming from a man or a woman. “It’s hard to be a woman in this industry, especially 20 years ago when Erica started out,” Jesse says. “Clients expect a man to come and help them with their problems and here comes Erica – but she has no trouble getting down and dirty with the best of them.”
Santella’s minority status in the industry has never really bothered her, she says, even though it spans all the way back to undergraduate school when she was usually the only female in her classes. “I never felt intimidated when I was the only woman in a class,” she says. “In fact, I wondered why more women didn’t enter this field.”
GETTING THERE. As a young girl growing up on the Southwest side of Chicago, Santella’s first love was animals, but severe allergies directed her attention to the next best living thing: plants. “She always loved plants and took a real interest in the yard,” says her mother, Rita Miller. “And she always had some sort of project going, like nursing a sick bush until it was healthy again or planting a patch of gourds just to watch them grow.”
She attended undergraduate school at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, where she “floundered though and dabbled in several majors,” including computer science, forestry and botany before finally settling on agronomy. Santella’s parents were strong proponents of education and expected all of their children (Santella is the third of four) to attend college. However, what they studied while they were there was strictly up to them. “My dad was a chemist and my mom was a math teacher – I was bound to be a geek,” she jokes. “They just assumed all of us would go to college, but there was never a time I was told, ‘Oh, you don’t have an agricultural background, why are you going into that?’”
To earn money during college she took a job performing field work for a soybean breeder where she gained an appreciation for applied research. Upon graduation, she responded to an advertisement for a research associate at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville where she could work full time while earning a master’s degree. “I applied, got the job and headed West with my two dogs, my fish and whatever else fit into my Buick Skylark,” she recalls.
For five years, Santella worked under Professor John W. King, who “hired her when all she had was potential.” Here, she and the three students working under her experienced the gamut of the lawn care industry – she ran turf plots, worked with spray equipment and learned about mowing, irrigation and weed control. In addition to her station in Fayetteville, she also had one in Little Rock, and worked at both while earning her master’s degree in agronomy.
Santella loved her work in the applied research field, and swore to many she would never leave it. After graduating from the University of Arkansas, she began searching for a job with a chemical company that would allow her to continue applied research – a tall order considering there were few companies that offered that type of work, specifically for lawns and ornamentals, back in 1983. ChemLawn, the company’s name prior to its 1992 merger with TruGreen, was one such company, and Hurto hired Santella as a research associate in Douglasville, Ga. Soon after, she was transferred to Orlando, Fla. to help expand the company’s Florida market.
In the late 1980s, Hurto suggested Santella take on the position of region technical manager, a job that initially focused on the training of employees. She accepted and has worked at TruGreen in that position ever since. “Once I began to do training with our branch’s employees, I was hooked,” she says. “My mom was a teacher, so maybe it’s in my blood.”
Though she certainly had the educational background and the “genuine interest” in the line of work, Hurto says Santella was a quiet and rather shy person when she started at ChemLawn 24 years ago, which is ironic when thinking about the fairly public position she’s currently in. “She was so focused on the research and she thought that would be her primary goal,” he says. “When I first suggested she take on the role of region manager, she was reluctant to the idea. I still tease her to this day because she can’t imagine not doing the work she’s doing now.”
COMMON GROUND. What Santella does now varies considerably from day to day. “While the title has not changed, the responsibilities certainly have,” she says. “Training still remains a key job, but the regulatory process has also entered into view.” For example, in a week’s time, she’ll conduct field visits, perform regulatory work, track chemical use, meet with county commissioners, lead safety training meetings and determine the cause of a client’s patchy lawn. Other times, she’ll participate in state and local association meetings to discuss current water and fertilizer regulations. The one predictable day of the week, Monday, is usually reserved for “catch-up type work.”
“Training is her forté,” Jesse says, and it currently takes up about a third of Santella’s time. Knowing how important well-trained employees are to the future of the industry, she strives to come up with innovative ways to make learning interesting and fun. Her mentor program combines online, visual, hands-on and formal classroom training to provide new employees a well-rounded educational experience.
Santella’s array of responsibilities requires her to interact with people from all walks of life, her favorite aspect of the job, she says. “Everyday I learn from the people around me – whether it’s the guys in the warehouse, a company president, a client or a politician,” she says. “Plants are a big part of it, but the people part is what I enjoy most.”
All of this diversity, combined with controversial issues like pesticides and water use, means conflict is almost inevitable. Santella has dealt with her fair share of opposite-minded individuals, but never lets it interfere with her mission. “When you’re sitting across the table from a Sierra Club member discussing pesticide use, some people ask why I even bother,” she says. “But my mother always said that when you’re working with people with very diverse viewpoints you must find some common ground.”
Like her mother, who was active in Chicago’s civil rights movement in the 1960s, and her grandmother, who fought for a woman’s right to vote, Santella knows that her efforts are works in progress, a philosophy that has been particularly helpful when dealing with city, county and state regulatory agencies. “You have to take your successes as they come and build upon them – there is no point where you have ‘won,’” she explains. “Digging in your heels and being bitter and ornery won’t get you far. If my mother could work successfully with a racially polarized group on the Southwest side of Chicago, we can work through our issues too.”
Despite all she does, Santella is the last to take credit for any of it. In fact, she gets a bigger thrill out of seeing a newcomer participate at a meeting for the first time or find the courage to speak up and share an idea. Perhaps this is a reflection of her once reserved ways. “I wish I would have learned earlier the value of speaking up when you have an idea,” she says. “It sounds strange now, but I used to think to myself that my ideas were weird and not of any value. Then one of two things would happen – either someone else would bring up the same idea or after the meeting someone would say, ‘Why didn’t you say that earlier!’”
Miller agrees that her daughter’s presence has always been strong, yet silent. “Erica’s quiet, but once she talks, it’s worth listening to,” she says. “I imagine that’s how she is during meetings too. She doesn’t talk just to have the floor.”
Hurto says this ability to let others have the floor is part of what makes Santella such a successful leader. “She gets people to open up because they know she’ll listen to what they have to say,” he says. “The nature of her personality has won over many people who were once averse to trying new things, and her can-do attitude has helped people become better at what they’re doing.”
After all these years, Santella still strives to be better at what she does – and sometimes forgets when to stop. “We live a few hours apart but we make the effort to get together once every few months,” Jesse says. “On these days she’s supposed to take the day off, but, really, she’s always working. She is so involved in her career and in the industry that sometimes it’s hard to separate herself from it.”
But Santella has clear ideas of what industry professionals like herself need to do to direct the industry where it needs to go in the future. One of the first tasks at hand is improving the training and education of industry employees, she says, stressing the fact that math and interpersonal skills are just as important as application skills. Santella adds that the ornamental side of the industry also presents a huge challenge for those who are unfamiliar with all the different terminology. “People tend to learn lawn care relatively quickly and then become afraid of trees, shrubs and palms,” she says. “We need to think of them simply as other plants and build upon our knowledge of grasses.”
The pesticide debate and water use restrictions will continue to plague the industry in years to come, Santella says, and everyone needs to be prepared to do their part. “I’ve heard that 10 percent of the population is at the extreme ends of any debate, and our debates are no different,” she says. “As an industry, we need to target our efforts to the middle 80 percent of the population to better inform them about the value of what we do.”
Nobody is more aware than Santella that these feats can’t be accomplished by one individual. But she is living proof that one individual can inspire and encourage others to think, participate and contribute to a common cause. “Erica’s a real example of someone who knew her own strengths at an early age,” Miller says. “I’m very proud of her professional accomplishments because they are all hers.”