Professionals in the landscape industry are typically categorized in one of two ways. You’re either a “plant guy” who’s had to learn about sales, management and finance, or you’re a “business guy” – an entrepreneurial type who’s accrued horticultural knowledge along the way.
Tom Shotzbarger is neither. Or he’s both, depending on which way you look at it. Though the general manager of Tomlinson Bomberger Lawn Care & Landscape in Lancaster, Pa., doesn’t fit into one of the typical green industry “types,” one thing is for sure – Shotzbarger is an education guy. And it highlights why his 34-year-long career in the green industry has been both fulfilling and successful.
“Tom only has one degree, but he probably has enough education to have two and a half by now,” says Joan Shotzbarger, Tom’s wife of 30 years.
In addition to continually pursuing his own education, Shotzbarger has been on the giving end, too, serving as an instructor at several community colleges and conducting talks and training sessions at countless industry events over the years. If you need evidence of Shotzbarger’s commitment to education, take a look at his signature. He lists his professional certifications after his name, which isn’t notable in itself, as it’s a common practice among professionals. But most professionals don’t have eight certifications flanking their names like Shotzbarger does. “He has to be the reigning champion in all of PLANET in professional certifications,” says friend and former colleague Fred Haskett, managing partner of U.S. Lawns West and St. Charles County in St. Louis. (See sidebar below to learn about Shotzbarger’s eight certifications.) “I have two and I thought I was doing pretty well,” says Haskett, jokingly.
Though the alphabet soup may seem like overkill, Shotzbarger doesn’t promote his certifications for self-serving reasons. Certification is one of his “causes.” He believes it’s one of the factors that will contribute to improving public perception of the green industry.
“A positive image for the green industry is critical, and things like more training, better education and professional certification help foster and improve the public’s perception that what we do is create and maintain the quality of life in communities,” he says. So when clients and peers notice the eight designations after his name, they ask about them. “It really adds value to not only my career but the whole industry.”
Continually seeking opportunities to better the industry and himself through education and volunteerism are the hallmarks of Shotzbarger’s career.
THE ROAD OUT WEST. Shotzbarger got his first taste of the green industry during his senior year of high school in Philadelphia. After three and a half years working part-time at a card and gift shop, he felt the urge to work outdoors. He asked around, and a friend of a friend got him a job with Liam Ferns Landscaping.
Shotzbarger enjoyed the job mowing lawns and continued to work there during the summers when he attended Haverford College in Haverford, Pa. At the time, Shotzbarger pursued a liberal arts degree, but he didn’t yet have a clear goal for his education. After two years he decided to put it on hold until he mapped out a future.
This is the fifth 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.
Though unsure about the type of degree he’d seek, Shotzbarger knew from his experience mowing lawns he wanted to work outdoors. Shortly after he married his wife, Joan, in 1977, the young couple moved across the country to Oregon, where Shotzbarger could pursue year-round employment in the green industry.
With the understanding that he needed a crash course in Northwest plant material, Shotzbarger sought employment at one of the Portland area’s best retail nurseries. Within a week he secured a job at Drake’s 7 Dee’s, a nursery and landscape services company.
During his 12 years in Oregon, Shotzbarger established himself as a student of the industry, taking horticulture classes at local community colleges and business classes at Portland State University. He also began his career as an educator in Oregon, teaching plant identification and landscape maintenance courses at Clackamas Community College.
It was here, too, that Shotzbarger got the opportunity of a lifetime – the chance to work alongside pathologist Alex Shigo, considered by many to be the father of modern arboriculture. The two conducted tree biology training sessions together in the early 1980s. “He looked to me as not only a commercial practitioner, but also as an educator,” Shotzbarger says. “Spending a week out in the woods with Al Shigo was a remarkable opportunity to learn about the whys and hows of trees and arboriculture.” He lists the privilege of previewing Shigo’s renowned book “Modern Arboriculture” as one of the significant accomplishments of his career. “It was truly an honor,” he says.
MOVIN’ ON UP. The foundation for Shotzbarger’s professional leadership style also was laid in Oregon. The credit for that feat goes to Bill Owen, owner of General Tree Service in Clackamas, where Shotzbarger worked for seven years.
Shotzbarger credits Owen with introducing him to the science of arboriculture and teaching him the value of a leader’s ability to own the decisions he makes. “There was an expression he used,” Shotzbarger recalls. “‘There are three ways to do things. There’s the right way, the wrong way and my way,’ he would say. I learned there was a black and a white in many circumstances, but occasionally you do what the boss wants because he feels it’s important. I learned an aspect of ownership – that the leader takes responsibility for the decision he makes.”
Shotzbarger has carried that lesson throughout his career, and it’s clear he’s done something right. After leaving General Tree Service to move back East, Shotzbarger changed jobs frequently – he just kept getting recruited. “Once I advanced my education and experience, it seemed a natural progression to change things up and I was getting offers on a regular basis,” he says. “I’ve always been one to follow opportunity.”
Follow he did. After a short stint in New York, Shotzbarger moved back to Pennsylvania, where over a nine-year period he worked as division operations manager for Ehrlich Green Team, as regional horticultural specialist for The Brickman Group and as general manager for McFarland Tree & Landscape Services.
These promotions presented some of the greatest challenges of Shotzbarger’s career, which he tackled in the way you’d expect him to – by pursing education. His first major transition was moving from a production role into a sales position. It required a whole new mind-set, and Shotzbarger became a voracious reader of everything related to sales. The next big change – becoming a general manager – was Shotzbarger’s motivation to complete his bachelor’s degree. This time around, at Albright College in Reading, Pa., Shotzbarger chose the field of organizational behavior – a key ingredient of which is learning about the interactions between people.
“One aspect of that is realizing more and more that life is not black and white – there’s an awful lot of gray,” Shotzbarger says. “I acquired a greater appreciation for other peoples’ perspectives.”
In 2001 he was recruited again by Tomlinson Bomberger Lawn Care & Landscape. President Clark Tomlinson remembers hearing about Shotzbarger for the first time. “One of our sales managers said, ‘Hey Clark, if you’re ever interested in being on the golf course a little more, I found a guy who could run the company in his sleep,’” Tomlinson says. “It was interesting enough, so I pursued having a conversation with Tom.”
Two years after than meeting, a consultant told Tomlinson and his partner Dave Bomberger it was time to hire a general manager. Tomlinson knew he had his man. He called on Shotzbarger to develop a job description for the position, and at the end of a several-hour long brainstorming meeting, he offered Shotzbarger the job. The company hasn’t looked back since. Shotzbarger doesn’t exactly run the $8 million-plus, full-service firm in his sleep, as he frequently works 13-hour days, but he does bring to the company a wealth of experience and the value of volunteerism.
Doing what a great general manager should do, Shotzbarger fills in the gaps for some of the owners’ weaknesses by applying his planning and organizational management skills, which have translated into significant growth for the firm.
“He’s very strong in budgeting and revenue growth,” Tomlinson says. “He helped us make a four-year plan to meet revenue growth. We put the plan together and it happened.” Tomlinson adds, tongue in cheek, “Surprising – you plan for something and it happens.”
In addition to his business and technical acumen, Shotzbarger brings to the company a strong value of integrity. “His integrity is unwavering,” Tomlinson says. “He’ll always ask, ‘Is this the right thing to do?’ The people who work under Tom are very aware they have a lot to learn from him.”
Shotzbarger understands that he’s in a position to make an impact. His leadership style is one of setting an example and guiding co-workers to make the right decisions, though it hasn’t always been that way. “Leadership isn’t something that’s a gift – it’s an acquired knowledge,” Shotzbarger says. “Over time, my leadership skills have improved, but they’re not yet to the point where they’ll ultimately be. But if my desk is neat, if I’m on time for meetings and pursuing a certain level of professionalism, than others learn it and get to practice it as well.”
Shotzbarger makes it a point to set the example, even on a seemingly micro scale. For example, he instituted the practice of calling Tomlinson Bomberger staff members “co-workers” and referring to customers as “clients.” “‘Employee’ sounds like a subservient position; ‘co-worker’ is more parallel,” Shotzbarger says. And he prefers “client” over “customer” because “customers walk in once, buy something and leave. With clients, you have an on-going relationship,” he says.
Though he says the results are intangible, there is something to be said for the company’s 85-percent client retention rate and 80-percent co-worker retention rate.
GIVING BACK. Shotzbarger calls himself an eternal optimist, and that characteristic shines through in most everything he says and does. “I feel I’ve been very blessed, with my wife, my children and the companies I’ve worked for,” Shotzbarger says. “I feel like I need to spread it around.”
Over the years, that’s exactly what he’s done. Shotzbarger sits on PLANET’s certification committee, he’s served as an official observer for the CLT exam and has given a number of presentations at industry-related conferences, seminars and training events. “One thing I love to do is training – whether it’s the technical or business end,” Shotzbarger says. “It gives me a chance to give back some of the knowledge and wisdom I’ve gained from many of my mentors, associates and colleagues.”
This year Pennsylvania’s governor appointed Shotzbarger to serve on the state’s Pesticide Advisory Board, a group of 17 representatives who advise the state department of agriculture. “I feel uniquely honored to have been chosen to sit on the board and represent our industry in a way that can have an impact,” he says.
Also this year, Shotzbarger served the first of a two-year term as the president of the Lawn Care Association of Pennsylvania and took the reins as committee chair for Renewal & Remembrance at Arlington National and Historic Congressional Cemeteries. He considered the opportunity to organize Renewal & Remembrance, the PLANET-sponsored national landmark beautification event with more than 400 volunteers, a privilege. “I was honored by [event founder] Phil Fogarty to be asked to step in where he was stepping down,” Shotzbarger says.
The industry should be thankful for one of Shotzbarger’s weaknesses – his inability to say no to volunteering for his passions. He’s so often called on to serve because he gets things done, Haskett says. “Tom can put a set of blinders on and just focus really aggressively,” he says. “He’s truly a remarkable person – he’s disciplined and passionate about anything he gets involved in.”