16 lessons from Elite Grounds

From employee incentives to fleet management, find out how this Utah-based company is operating.

Elite Grounds is a $5.5-million company based in Pleasant Grove, Utah.
Photo courtesy of Elite Grounds

PLEASANT GROVE, Utah – Kris Ashby and Mark Minson have maintained a great working relationship since starting their company in 2003. The co-owners of Elite Grounds, a $5.5-million company in Pleasant Grove, Utah, met while working at Brätt Landscaping.

Ashby, general manager, loves the operations side of the business and Minson, CFO, loves the financial side, which makes for a great balance, Minson said. Brent Gurney became a part owner this past year.

Lawn & Landscape spent some time at the company while in town for the National Collegiate Landscape Competition, and here’s what we learned.

  • Elite is a commercial/residential landscape maintenance company but also provide snow removal, design/build and irrigation. It has 30 year-round employees and 90 during peak season and a service mix of 70 percent maintenance, 20 percent snow and 10 percent design/build and irrigation.
  • Minson said his role on the financial side is to explain and to get managers the numbers they need within a few days of requests being submitted. He also educates managers on the basics of understanding the numbers.
  • Elite has two sister companies. Ashby owns another landscaping company about 25 miles away called Spectrum. Minson owns Elite Repairs, which is on the Elite Grounds property.

    Elite Grounds hires Elite Repairs as a mechanic, but the repair company is also free to fix other equipment, including the competition’s. Spectrum and Elite Repairs were under the Elite Grounds umbrella, but during the Great Recession, they wanted to put their eggs in different baskets. “It didn’t put the burden on Elite Grounds,” Ashby said.

  • The company has a manager’s assistant position, which is used to help train recent college graduates (most managers have college degrees) to eventually become managers. Ashby said it takes two years training to be ready to become a manager.
  • Elite doesn’t have managers assigned to crews by service. So, there are no irrigation managers and no maintenance manager. Instead, each manager has crews that perform all the services Elite offers. Those managers have the autonomy to run those crews how they see fit. Each manager must have a maintenance and snow crew, but if one manager wants to add holiday lighting or build up the installation side, and it makes financial sense, that manager is allowed.

    “I want to let every manager grow their own group the way they want to,” Ashby said. “If they like construction, they can do construction.”

  • Managers check in with Ashby every day by 9 a.m. That can be in person, by phone, or, Ashby jokes, by smoke signal. “I don’t care how they check in,” he said. Ashby wants to know what is slowing the manger down, and how he can help.
  • Because he wants his managers to have their own style, one drawback to Ashby’s management style is having to communicate company-wide policies differently to each manager to get buy-in. One manager may respond better to one method of communication than another. “But that’s fun for me,” he said.
  • Elite uses two methods when ordering trucks. If they need more than five, then they can order them painted in Elite’s color, yellow. If they only need one or two replacements, they come in white, and managers are given those to drive. After a year or two when they start to show some wear and tear, those will be painted yellow and added to the job fleet.
  • “They aren’t passing responsibility off – can’t pass the buck for a bad hire.” – Kris Ashby, co-owner/general manager
  • One major change in the last year and a half was starting a human resources department when he hired his daughter-in-law, Kylee Ashby, who leads the department. Before Kylee, the company had culture-building activities like company breakfasts and company outings, but the company has grown to the point where Ashby and Minson didn’t have time to keep those organized and effective.
  • Kylee’s also involved in recruiting employees for field labor positions. One year when the company needed a lot of field labor they started a referral bonus program. Employees received a $25 bonus for every employee who lasted two pay periods (usually a month), up to 3 employees and $75. “Normally if they stay a month, they’ll stick around the whole time,” Kylee said. The employee who made the referral also received two raffle tickets for every successful referral. At the end of the season there was a drawing and the winners received prizes like an iPad.
  • In the winter, Elite pays an additional $1.00 per hour to each current employee for each qualified employee that they bring to help with snow.
  • Kylee’s desk is at the top of the stairs in the office so every employee has to walk by her every day. Ashby said that helps Kylee build a rapport with the employees, so when they have an issue, they can go to her.
  • If Elite orders five or more trucks, they come painted yellow. If not, the trucks are white and driven by managers before entering the fleet.
    Photo by Brian Horn
  • Managers are responsible for hiring workers for their crews. That creates even more ownership of each manager’s respective crews, especially if they make a bad hire. “They aren’t passing responsibility off – can’t pass the buck for a bad hire,” Ashby said.
  • All employees are given 11 sets of uniforms. Every week, the uniforms are washed by a company Elite pays. They can have any variety of short-sleeved or long-sleeved shirts, and pants or shorts, as long as they meet safety requirements.
  • Ashby spends no money on advertising, instead using his bright, yellow trucks and uniforms seen around town to serve as a method of marketing the company.
  • Five years ago, Minson’s major goal was to get the company’s cash flow under control. That involved building in more profit in job bids. He then used that extra income to pay of equipment and pay down other debts. “And then we were able to put away some and have a rainy-day fund,” he said.

Miimo makes its debut

Honda’s new robotic mower offers set-it-and-forget-it care for lawns. By Kate Spirgen

LAKELAND, Fla. – Honda announced its entrance into the U.S. electric market in April with the robotic mower Miimo. Introducing the mower at a press event in Lakeland, Florida, Honda showcased everything from its marine offerings to the HondaJet to their line of handheld landscape equipment and generators.

Miimo uses a boundary wire that can be installed either above or below ground to maintain lawns with a continuous cutting system. “Micro-computer sensors and wire keep it where it needs to be,” said Adrienne Hall, senior product planner.

The mower features a cutting width of 8.7 inches with a height range of 0.8 to 2.4 inches. “The blades go both ways, so the blade stays sharper longer,” said Nina Bryson, senior manager of marketing and marketing research.

Miimo uses a boundary wire that can be installed either above or below ground to maintain lawns with a continuous cutting system.
Photo by Kate Spirgen

Users can choose from three mow patterns and set up to five mowing zones. A seasonal timer allows users to set Miimo to mow more or less often, depending on the weather and growing conditions. It can handle slopes as steep as 25 degrees, after which it will shut down. The robotic mower cuts less height from grass more frequently and disperses the clippings, eliminating cleanup needs.

Miimo is available in two models:

The HRM 310 can mow for up to 30 minutes with a 22.2-volt/1.8 amp-hour battery. It will recharge in 30 minutes. It weighs 26 pounds. It’s ideal for up to half-acre areas.

The HRM 520 can mow for up to an hour with a 22.2 volt/3.6 amp-hour battery. It will recharge in 60 minutes.

It’s ideal for areas up to three-quarters of an acre. When Miimo reaches less than 30 percent battery life, it will head back to its charging dock to reload, and then head back out into the field.

Sensors keep the mower moving if it bumps into objects, and if lifted, an alarm will sound and it will shut down. A code set by the user will then be required to restart the mower.

The mower features a cutting width of 8.7 inches with a height range of 0.8 to 2.4 inches.
Photo by Kate Spirgen

Miimo has been available in Europe for several years and will be available for purchase in the U.S. in June at select Honda Power Equipment dealerships nationwide, excluding California.

Although it hasn’t been introduced yet to the public, Honda has run it through their “product familiarization program,” making it available to its staff and dealers.

The HRM 310 will have a price point of $2,499 and the HRM 520 will be $2,799. Both come with a two-year warranty.

California company self-imposes carbon tax

The funds will be used to support a local environmental organization. By Brian Horn

Luke Huskey will be the first to admit it – his company’s trucks and equipment are not fuel efficient. And Huskey says it’s hard for him to find fuel-efficient trucks and equipment that would meet the heavy demands of landscaping at his company, Greener Environments in San Luis Obispo, California. But as a firm that wants to be environmentally conscious, Huskey wanted to do something to offset the harm he felt the equipment was doing to the environment.

So Huskey and his wife, Melody, who co-owns the company, placed a carbon tax on the company’s net revenues to compensate for the use of gasoline-burning equipment. The carbon tax is calculated monthly at a rate of $25 per ton of CO2 emitted, with the accumulated funds donated at the end of the year to a local environmental organization.

“Our company has environmental stewardship built into its business model, but we always have had this ongoing frustration of not having options for fuel efficient trucks and machinery,” he says. “We are trying to work towards a healthier planet, but at the same time our trucks are getting 8 miles per gallon. It didn’t feel right to us.”

Along with the tax, The Huskey’s, standing far right, also give public recognition to places that support a healthy environment.
Photo courtesy of Greener Environments

Huskey calculates how much CO2 the company’s equipment emits by using the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s estimate of 19.64 pounds of CO2/gallon of gasoline and 22.38 pounds of CO2/gallon of diesel.

“At the end of each month we add up our total fuel usage and do the math to come up with the total CO2 emissions for that month and then tax ourselves accordingly,” he says. “The tax is then transferred into a separate account.”

They decided on $25 based on the average rates of countries and municipalities that have similar taxes.

“We determined that $25/ton was about the average of all the different tax rates we came upon during our research,” he says. “This rate will increase every year until we can reduce our carbon emissions to the relevant equivalent of 10 percent of our 2016 carbon emissions.”

The company may also use the funds to donate environmentally-friendly landscaping.

“We will use the money from our carbon tax account for the materials and labor costs of new sustainable landscaping for a suitable non-profit, school or public space,” he says. “If there is no suitable site for this, or if there is leftover money in the tax account, we will simply donate the proceeds of the tax to an environmental organization that is doing work that will offset the carbon we emitted that year.”

The carbon tax is calculated monthly at a rate of $25 per ton of CO2 emitted. Huskey estimates the tax will fall between $1,000 and $2,000.
Photo courtesy of Greener Environments

The Huskeys came up with the idea after reading a book by Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard, where he wrote, “The next step in our responsibility is to pay for our sins until such a time that we hope we can stop sinning.”

“With the high fuel usage of our operations in mind, I interpreted this as ‘Until we can get vehicles and equipment that don’t have a high environmental impact, we can at least offset that impact with a carbon tax,’” he says.

Huskey estimates the tax will generate between $1,000 and $2,000, and the company will not raise prices to offset the tax.

“We are trying to work toward a healthier planet, but, at the same time, our trucks are getting 8 miles per gallon. It didn’t feel right to us.” – Luke Huskey, Greener Environments

“We didn’t feel it was right to make other people pay for our self-imposed carbon tax, so the tax comes off of our net profits,” he says.

Along with the carbon tax, the company offers free hands-on classes in sustainable design, water catchment and drought-resistant landscaping, as well as certification through its Green Landscapes Initiative which gives public recognition to businesses, homes and public spaces that support a healthy environment.

The company also offers several e-books available for free download via their website on topics such as rainwater harvesting, tips on California-friendly landscaping, and how to avoid costly mistakes when landscaping at greenerenvironments.net.

Ask the experts: Safety training & checklists

Q: I was interested in learning what Maryland requires in terms of training before a new technician is eligible to be “on the road?” We have used the severely outdated videos in conjunction with some written material to satisfy what we thought to be the requirement up to this time.

However, we were hoping to revamp our training and onboarding program so that it is more up-to-date, relevant and fresh and wanted to ensure that we were still meeting Maryland state requirements.

© Aleksander Kosev | Dreamstime

A: I assume when you use the word “technician,” you are referring to your employees who load, transport, mix and apply chemicals, namely pesticides to turfgrass and ornamentals. The State of Maryland no doubt requires that these technicians be certified through EPA requirements, or that at least their direct supervisor is fully certified. State regulations differ and you may want to contact the Maryland Dept. of Agriculture or you could start by contacting your local extension office to get the latest information on testing and training resources, dates and sites. By using Google, you will find multiple resources for keeping your technicians up-to-date and safe.

Q: We were discussing at my company setting up a true fleet management and driver training program for new employees. I was looking around to find forms we could use for this program but have not found anything initially.

A: One option for driver training is the materials available from the National Safety Council (NSC) in Itasca, Illinois. Their programs are labeled as Defensive Driving Courses (DDC) and the training options are found on their website (www.nsc.org). Training sites in many areas should be available. If you have enough employees in need of training, your most economical option may be to hire a certified DDC instructor and conduct the needed training at your headquarters. Obviously, the sooner the better.

Q: My company is just starting to work on an AWAIR (A Workplace Accident and Injury Reduction) program and with that we are trying to find a pre-job safety checklist.

We have been looking online and not finding much pertinent to our industry that makes sense for us. Just curious if you have anything that might give us a starting point to work from so we don't have to start from scratch. Any information would be helpful.

A: I received your request for information on pre-job safety checklists and wanted to suggest that the new NALP Safe Company Program may have the resources you need.

In the updated Safe Company Program Manual, there are job site safety checklist, dispatch yard safety checklist and repair shop safety checklist forms that should be helpful to you for updating your hazard ID audits and providing guidance for your worker safety awareness and training initiatives.

There are other template audit forms available from safety specialists at several universities, but they are targeted more at farm machinery than landscape equipment. They could be adapted however, especially with PTO-driven equipment and with hitching of towed machines and mounting of front buckets on tractors.

Sam Steel, NALP Safety Advisor

Q: I’ve had residential clients for the last seven years; however, I’m transitioning to commercial clients now that I received certification as a Women Owned Business.

The profit margins seem different from residential, and there are a lot more requirements and rules I didn’t know about. Profit margins are smaller, certainly. How do I bridge the learning curve from residential to commercial clients? Cash flow is also an issue. Can a small, growing business handle this kind of work?

A: Being a woman owned business gets you the opportunity to bid, however it does not guarantee you work unless you are still the low bidder especially in the commercial landscape arena.

It is important for you to learn how to negotiate with suppliers in order to keep your costs down. You should ask for discounts from suppliers when you buy larger quantities of material for commercial jobs. You can also do change orders anytime you are asked to do something extra or that was not included in the scope of work you bid.

Rich Arlington, Arlington Lawn Care, NALP Trailblazer

Ask the Experts is brought to you in partnership with NALP, the National Association of Landscape Professionals. Questions are fielded through NALP’s Trailblazers, the industry’s leading company mentoring program. For more questions visit Landscapeprofessionals.org.

May 2017
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