Marty Grunder looks back and forth across the roomful of faces – all members of the Ohio Landscape Contractors Association attending the group’s annual conference.
He stands confident, in a deep navy suit, crisp white shirt and royal blue tie – a color that complements his distinguishable auburn hair and freckled face, a look Grunder often describes as “the guy who sort of looks like Conan O’Brien.” He tells stories with his hands, bringing them together at key moments and then apart to ask questions and firmly chopping one into another to make a point. This afternoon, he’s telling the story of Charles Kettering, the inventor of central air conditioning, the
electric starter and the automated vehicle
“Charles Kettering was one of those once-in-a-lifetime dudes,” says Grunder, the founder and president of Dayton, Ohio-based Grunder Landscaping Co. and landscape consulting firm Marty Grunder! Inc. “Only one person in the U.S. has more patents than Charles Kettering, and that’s Thomas Edison.”
In 1919, it took 37 days to paint an automobile, Grunder tells the group, which was a major frustration for Kettering, so he put 19 engineers to work on improving the process. Many months later, those engineers shared their plan with Kettering – they were excited to report they had reduced the vehicle-painting process to 30 days. “Kettering looked at them and thought somebody was kidding,” Grunder shares. “He slammed his hand on the table and said, ‘An hour’s all it should take to paint an automobile – what’s wrong with you people?’ At that, a young engineer let out a little cackle and a smile. Kettering memorized his name and face and went to work to come up with his own quick-drying paint.”
Three short months afterward, Grunder explains, Kettering invited the young engineer to lunch, insisting he drive. “An hour and five minutes later, after finishing their meals, they left the restaurant,” he says. “The young engineer scanned the parking lot and, feeling confused and embarrassed, admitted he couldn’t find his car. ‘Isn’t that your car?’ Kettering asked, pointing to a nearby vehicle. The young engineer said, ‘It looks like mine but mine isn’t that color.’ To that Kettering replied: ‘It is now.’
“You can do anything you want to do,” Grunder tells the group, explaining the point to his story. “If you have a goal like Mr. Kettering did, even when everyone else thinks you’re crazy, don’t deviate from that. Because, as Mr. Kettering said, ‘The only thing that’s ever changed the world is a human being.’”
Grunder hasn’t racked up patents that rival those of historic American inventors, and he’s the first to admit his message is “simple stuff,” yet there are many in the landscape industry who would say Grunder is a human being who’s changed their world.
“Marty’s message isn’t something you haven’t heard before,” shares longtime industry colleague Randy Tischer, owner of Green Valley Sod Farm in Sugarcreek Township, Ohio. “But what Marty does is actually push you to do something about it. He calls me up once every other month to check on me. He always asks how things are going and how he can help.”
From what Tischer describes as a “freckle-faced, scrawny kid” who came to his father’s sod farm with a green, beat-up pick-up truck, a magnetic landscaping sign and a dream to an owner of a $4-million landscape business and a successful speaking and consulting company, Grunder is one person who keeps his promises – to other people and to himself.
DO WHAT YOU KNOW. Operating tractors and running landscape equipment was second nature to Grunder, who grew up on a 5-acre farm in Sugarcreek Township, Ohio. And growing up in a home without air conditioning meant summer days were spent outdoors. “We were always told to go outside and do something,” Grunder says.
In 1984, Grunder bought his first mower – he was 15 years old. His plan was to mow lawns to earn money to pay for his University of Dayton college education. Though he had a tractor his father, Martin Sr., would let him borrow to drive around town and attempt to sell his mowing services, the large, beat-up machine with its chipped paint, rust spots and Chevron tires wasn’t something customers wanted on their lawns. “Three customers told me they would let me cut their grass if I had a smaller mower, so I told them I had one and went home and told my mom I had to get one,” Grunder says. “We were on our way to Sears when we passed a garage sale advertising a mower for $25. That was my first piece of equipment.”
Taking care of what he had – that was one of the first lessons Grunder learned from his father, who never took his cars to the garage for repairs or called someone to install a basketball court on their property. Instead, the civil engineer would figure out how to replace brakes or mix concrete himself. “He could build and fix anything,” Grunder says.
From his mom, Mary Ellen, Grunder learned the simple art of saying “thank you,” which he still uses in his business today by consistently thanking customers for their business. “My mom would make us write thank-you notes to people who gave us toys and gifts before we could play with them,” he says, adding this instilled in him the importance of this simple gesture of appreciation.
If there’s one thing Grunder is not, it’s a benchwarmer – he likes to be an integral part of the team. Though he was a good athlete when he was in grade school, high school competitive sports didn’t suit him. “I love baseball,” Grunder says. “I had a great arm and a good glove and I could run fast. But I was small and I couldn’t hit. If you can’t hit, you really can’t play. I just wasn’t good enough.”
As a result, Grunder gravitated toward activities he was good at – landscaping. By his senior year, he “was making more money than any other kid in high school,” he says.
Business moved fast. By 1990, as a senior at the University of Dayton, Grunder’s company was grossing more than $300,000 in revenue and a story about his business appeared in The New York Times.
TAKE ADVICE, GIVE ADVICE. By 1995, Grunder Landscaping had won several local small business awards – the Dayton Business Reporter Small Business of the Year Award in 1993 and 1995, and Grunder himself received the Dayton Business Reporter Executive of the Year award in 1993, and the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Ohio Young Entrepreneur of the Year and Midwest Young Entrepreneur of the Year, both in 1995.
As a result of this recognition, Grunder was asked to speak at a seminar for aspiring entrepreneurs at the Dayton Convention Center. “The school guidance counselor wanted me to tell my story to the kids,” Grunder explains. “I prepared a whole speech.”
But he didn’t realize what he was getting himself into – when he walked up on stage, he looked out onto a room of more than 500 people. “I was so nervous, my palms were sweating and my heart was racing,” Grunder says. “I was bobbing back and forth like a mercury bird. I started to speak, and a gentleman in the front row was nodding his head, which told me I was doing a good job, so I started to relax.”
When Grunder was finished, the students rewarded him with a standing ovation. “Wow,” Grunder says, describing his reaction to the rush of the roaring applause. “That was fun. Instantly, I wanted to do it again.”
That’s when Grunder launched his consulting career with Marty Grunder! Inc. What drove him to take this on, in addition to running a landscape business, was his growing fervor for sharing his story, experience and advice with listeners.
“Marty has a love for landscaping, but a passion for public speaking, working with landscapers and helping them grow their businesses,” Tischer says. “He loves motivating and pushing others.”
While Grunder felt confident in his abilities with each new speaking opportunity, he still thought he could improve. At 25, he hired speaking coach Dottie Walters. “She watched me speak and gave me suggestions on my cadence, story telling and told me what to do with my hands,” Grunder explains. “Where she helped me most of all was with my mind. I was a 25-year-old shy speaker when she met me and then a year later I believed what I had to offer was valuable information. She instilled a sense of confidence in me.”
Walters also encouraged Grunder to write a book. At the time, Grunder Landscaping was a $1.5 million business – “it’s neat what I do but no one is going to line up to buy a book about it,” Grunder thought. “She said, ‘If you were to ask a roomful of people how many of them have cut grass and got paid for it in their lives, I’ll bet most hands would go up. So you have a common ground with a lot of people. Why would you think you couldn’t write a book about what you’ve done?’
“I said, ‘OK, I’ll give it a shot,” Grunder continues.
Grunder started writing the book and was more than half-way through when the copy sent to a publisher in Traverse City, Mich. burned up with the office during a fire. Grunder didn’t have a backup. That same year, Grunder’s father passed away unexpectedly. Grunder scrapped the idea of writing a book.
One year later, Grunder thought, ‘My dad didn’t quit – I’m not going to either.” Two months later, the book – The 9 Super Simple Steps to Entrepreneurial Success – was finished. The book won the 2003 Independent Publisher Book Award in the business/career category. Today, Amazon.com users describe it as “a four-year degree in 194 pages,” “a roadmap to success,” and a page-turner that could “start an epidemic of infectious enthusiasm.”
Tischer says this deftly describes the contagious positive emotion Grunder’s work drums up in others. “Earlier this year, I attended his boot camp in Tampa,” Tischer shares. “And Marty had a few folks get up and talk about their personal stories and how they fixed problems and were able to take challenging situations and turn them around and make life better for their businesses and families. And as people were telling their stories there were literally teary eyes all around me. It’s not often when a 45-year-old grown man gets teary-eyed, but these people were really moved and it just goes to show you how much they feel Marty has done for them personally and professionally. You don’t see that often and it just got me. This guy really means something to these people.”
NEVER QUIT. In addition to a passion for his work, if there’s another key trait Grunder has that can be attributed as a primary reason for his success, perseverance would have to be it.
“To be frank with you, I’m a pain in the ass and I like getting my way,” Grunder admits. “If I see something I want, I try to figure out how to get it.”
Grunder especially embraces this character attribute when it comes to engaging with professionals he admires.
Take Frank Mariani, for instance, the owner of 35-year-old and $30-million-plus Mariani Landscape.
Grunder’s wife, Lisa, is from the Chicago area. In 1989 when Grunder was courting Lisa, he read about Mariani in a city magazine. Mariani Landscape’s Lake Bluff, Ill. headquarters were right around the corner from Lisa’s parents’ home. “With Grunder Landscaping, I wanted to create a smaller version of what Frank created with Mariani Landscape, so I decided I had to go meet him,” Grunder says.
Grunder thought he could reach his goal by having Mariani’s wisdom on his board of advisers. “I asked him 10 times to be on my board before he said yes,” Grunder shares. “I finally got him to agree to be on my board when I sent him a plane ticket to encourage him to come to a board meeting. I told him if he didn’t think he could help me and also learn something, he didn’t have to come. To my surprise, he said OK. Now when someone asks, ‘Do you know Frank?’ I’m proud to say he’s on my board.”
Mariani has been on Grunder’s board of advisers for six years. “In the last 10 years, nobody has meant more to me in this industry than Frank Mariani – the amount of time he’s spent with me has been remarkable,” Grunder says. “I get emotional just talking about the guy.”
Another huge mentor for Grunder is John Maxwell, the author of 17 New York Times best selling books on leadership. “I started listening to his books on tape 10 to 12 years ago,” Grunder says.
Finally, Grunder got up the courage to “drop him a note and tell him what a big fan I was and I’d love to meet him sometime. Three months later, his assistant calls and says John is flying into Dayton in a month and would love it if I had lunch with him. After the lunch I was invited to his seminar. And in front of 6,000 of my hometown folks he brought me up on stage and told my story. I was shaking. That’s how our friendship started.”
Grunder respected Maxwell’s message so much he wanted his consulting landscape companies to see him, but $75,000 in speaking engagement fees were too high for this group to afford. “So I called last year and asked if I could bring some people to see him and hear his message. I told him we couldn’t afford $75,000, but we’d come to him and bring enthusiasm. His assistant told me he had a really busy schedule and she wasn’t sure if it was realistic. A couple days later, she called me and told me John likes me, so he’ll do it.”
This August, Grunder and 12 of his colleagues traveled to Chicago for a four-hour personal lesson from Maxwell on his five levels of leadership. Grunder says: “I could go on and on about what John has meant to me, both personally and professionally; suffice to say, many of my ideas come from John.”
STAY TRUE TO WHAT’S IMPORTANT. When you own two businesses, having a solid family life is important, which is why Grunder can’t help but list his family as a tremendous positive influence.
Grunder met his wife, Lisa, when he was a senior at the University of Dayton. He graduated with a business degree in 1990 and they married in 1993. The couple has four children – 14-year-old Emily, who Grunder says is very personable not unlike Lisa and himself; 12-year-old Katie, who has Grunder’s desire and is very tenacious; 10-year-old Lily, who Grunder says has Lisa’s good looks and is “everyone’s friend;” and 7-year-old Grant, who Grunder describes as “a character with a hint of my hair” in a strawberry swirl amid blond tresses.
“I learn so much from them,” Grunder says, sharing a story from a conversation he had last year with his son, Grant, who was 6 years old at the time. “I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He responded, ‘Nothing.’ Oh my goodness, I thought… the son of Mr. Motivator doesn’t want to be anything when he grows up. I can’t take this. I have to spend some time with him and push him and have him be more focused on goals and have a plan.
“Then,” Grunder continues, “I realized he was only 6. We parents all want what’s best for our children. We want to see them grow up and be successful. We want to brag to our friends about the accomplishments of our kids, and we hope they will be more successful than we are. At the end of the day, success is about being the best you can be at whatever you are doing. Part of what shapes us are all those experiences we have as kids. Grant will have plenty of time to figure out what he wants to do; right now, his time is best served being a kid and forming positive memories about his childhood. I will set the best example I can for him, and I know he will turn out just fine.”
Laughing, Lisa says, “this is where I come in to remind Marty that his kids are not his employees.” While running a home with four children and a husband who owns two businesses is like “conducting an orchestra,” Lisa says Grunder bends his schedule regularly to coach girl’s basketball or be at the table for family dinner nights – he makes sure weekends are dedicated to family. “Our favorite thing to do on a Saturday night is hang out with the kids,” Grunder says.
At the same time, he has high expectations for his children. A chore checklist where dad and child sign off on completed tasks earns them allowance. No chores, no allowance. “He wants them to learn the consequences of their actions,” Lisa says. “He is bound and determined to make sure they know their dad’s accomplishments are not theirs. They have to make their own way. God forbid they say they are bored – Marty will have something for them to do in no time.”
And the Grunder children know this full well. Dad’s personality is complete with “a lot of energy,” Lisa says. “He can’t sit still. His mind is always working. He’s a dreamer and is extremely optimistic. He thinks about what he wants and makes sure he does what he needs to do to make it happen. He motivates and expects a lot out of people, and I think the kids pick up on that.”
Thinking about his children makes Grunder feel reflective. “When I started Grunder Landscaping Co., I didn’t know what life was all about. I certainly did not have a vision that Grunder Landscaping Co. would be what it is today; I just wanted to cut grass and get paid to have fun. Today, as I am 40 years old, I realize what a blessing it is to own my own business, the freedom it gives me, and the opportunities.”
One day, “after I was almost 3 miles from home, my wife called to tell me Grant woke up, came downstairs and asked where I was – she wondered if I wanted to come back to give him his hug,” Grunder continues, explaining that normally none of his kids are downstairs as he leaves for work but when he yells “goodbye,” Grant runs down the stairs and jumps into his arms to give him a hug. “I thought quickly – let’s see, I have a staff meeting at 8:30; at 10:15 I have to record a commercial for community service I’m doing; I have to get that big job I sold processed; I have to get my head on straight with the sales leads we have; and I have to prepare for a trip to Orlando to speak to a group of entrepreneurs. Man, this would take an extra 20 minutes. But, who cares. And I turned my truck around and went back home to give Grant a hug. The best part about running my own business is I can turn my truck around and go right back home when someone calls. I’m my own boss and, yes, not everyday of being an entrepreneur is easy or fun, but most days are great and they’re especially great when you know someone loves you and still wants to give you a hug.”
Grunder admits he wonders about what the future will be like for his children. “I just want to be able to set a great example for them,” he reiterates. “I hope they watch dad work and focus and do things over that didn’t work out. I hope they take these lessons with them in life.”
Considering the countless landscape contractors who have listened to and learned from Grunder’s message, he has nothing to worry about.