2004 LEADERSHIP AWARDS: David Snodgrass

The industry’s leading safety advisor has transformed a family business into a multi-million dollar operation.

David Snodgrass  
Photo: David Papazian

Never one to take the easy way out, David Snodgrass strategically positioned himself behind the starting line of the 2002 Portland Marathon with the eight-mile-minute runners. Snodgrass, who was making his first marathon appearance, had never run any faster than a nine-minute per-mile pace during the previous six months of training.

Snodgrass, 50, philosophized that the faster runners would motivate him to move quicker. The plan must have worked because Snodgrass shaved 20 minutes off his four-hour target and finished in three hours and 41 minutes. That same drive and intensity has helped Snodgrass grow his Portland, Ore.-based Dennis’ Seven Dees Landscaping and Nurseries into a $20-million enterprise.


COMPANY: Dennis’ Seven Dees Landscaping and Nurseries

LOCATION: Portland, Ore.


• Chairman of the Associated Landscape Contractors of America’s (ALCA) Safety/Insurance Committee

• Member of ALCA’s Board of Directors

• In 1977 bought landscape division of Dennis’ Seven Dees Landscaping along with brothers Dean and Drew from older brother Dennis

• In 1994, president of the Oregon Landscape Contractors Association

• In 2001, moved into 19,000-square-foot office and warehouse space

• Reached $10-million revenue mark in 2002

• In 2004, David, Drew and Dean bought Dennis’ Seven Dees Nurseries, which comprises three garden centers, from Dennis

"I learned two things: anybody can run a marathon, and I can do anything I set my mind to do, and I really do believe that," Snodgrass says. "The only obstacles in life or in business are the ones you place in front of yourself. If somebody else places it in front of you and you’re determined and enthusiastic, the obstacle goes away because you focus on what you want to do."

And keeping focused isn’t always easy when you’re working with your two younger brothers. Dennis’ Seven Dees Landscaping and Nurseries is a family business that is an offshoot of a one-man maintenance operation that Snodgrass’ grandfather started in 1927. Snodgrass’ father, Robert, eventually took over the business in 1956 and expanded it into several different retail garden centers throughout the Portland area. By the late 1950s, Robert and his wife, Meryle, had seven children – six boys and one girl –whose names all begin with the letter "D," hence the name Seven Dees.

In 1975, the two oldest brothers, Dennis and Drake, took over the business and formed two separate companies, Dennis’ Seven Dees Landscaping and Drake’s Seven Dees Landscaping. Two years later, after graduating from Oregon State University with a degree in business administration, Snodgrass and his two younger brothers, Drew and Dean, bought the landscape division from Dennis. At the time, the company had nine employees and $70,000 in revenue, according to Snodgrass, who is the company’s president.

The company now has 170 employees, and Snodgrass projects 2004 revenue at $20 million. In May, the three brothers purchased the garden center from Dennis and now control the company’s landscape operations and nursery.

Dennis’ Seven Dees has grown exponentially since its inception in 1977, and Snodgrass says he sees that trend continuing with the addition of the garden center, which is expected to add $4 million in revenue this year. The company’s services include residential design/build, commercial construction, landscape maintenance, irrigation and lighting, and Snodgrass says he may soon add interior landscaping to the company’s service resume.

Just three years ago, Snodgrass says the company made its most important move in its 48-year history. For years, the company operated out of a 1,000-square-foot "shack" that was used as a shop and modular office trailers in an industrial zone. The facility was so primitive there wasn’t even a bathroom. Employees had to use an outhouse, Snodgrass recalls. After 10 years of discussions, the company finally moved into a 19,000-square-foot office and warehouse complex.

"Now it has that consistent message – we are who we are outside the gate and inside the gate," Snodgrass says. "We have a sense of permanence – we’re not here temporarily."

GRANDMA’S GARDEN. From the time he was a child, Snodgrass knew he had a green thumb. Snodgrass credits his grandmother, Florence Esch, for teaching him the basic fundamentals that led him to a successful landscape career. Grandma showed Snodgrass how to properly hoe weeds and how to have fun doing it, he says.

"As a kid, you’re just churning up weeds, and there’s no pattern to it," Snodgrass explains. "She stopped me and said, ‘No, here’s how you do it. You hoe your way forward, and you take every weed as you go.’ What that taught me is there’s a right way to do everything, so throughout my career I’ve stopped and done a little bit of planning before I jump in and do it."

Another valuable lesson Snodgrass learned from his grandmother was to whistle while he worked, he shares. "She was always happy working and whistling or singing, and she taught me that work can be fun and should be fun, so we were always whistling while we worked," Snodgrass recalls.

Grandma also taught Snodgrass about fairness, he says. When Snodgrass’ parents were busy trying to run the business, Esch helped raise the seven children and never showed favoritism toward any of the siblings. "If she gave one of us 6 cents, she gave all of us 6 cents," Snodgrass says. "She did not treat any one of us differently. I look at all of those three lessons, and they’re all parts of my business philosophy."

Snodgrass’ father says his son is a "true leader" because of the way he treats people. "He treats everybody fairly, and he’s forthright, and he looks for the good side in everybody," says Robert Snodgrass.

If Snodgrass wasn’t pulling weeds with his grandmother, he was often doing it for his father. By the time he was 8, Snodgrass was working for his father for 5 cents per hour (though his father says he paid his son 10 cents an hour), which Snodgrass says taught him responsibility and started his career.

"I’ve tried to teach the boys the importance of hard work," Robert Snodgrass says. "You work hard and you play hard, but you must work hard first – they’ve all had that same attitude toward life. Whatever David sets out to do he finishes, and he does it to perfection."

BROTHERLY LOVE. Working in a family business can be a challenge, especially when sibling rivalry comes into play. When Robert Snodgrass, 84, turned the company over to Dennis and Drake, the two oldest brothers split the company into two separate businesses. "I guess that’s the competitive part of it," Snodgrass says. "They each took a store and went their own direction."

Despite this natural tendency to outdo each other, Snodgrass says, working with his brothers has been a positive experience. "I like my brothers, and our relationships are good on a personal level. I think business with brothers has those challenges."

All of Robert Snodgrass’ grown children still go on family vacations together and maintain close relationships. "They all have their own businesses, and each has a mutual respect for one another," he says. "They just seem to get along beautifully, and each one respects each other’s success."

Snodgrass characterizes himself as optimistic and aggressive, while Drew is more cautious and Dean is more conservative. But Snodgrass says these differences can be an asset to the business. "In one sense, that could hold back the aggressive person, but in another sense, that offers a good balance so everybody contributes, and out of the mix, you then plot a balanced course."

In recent years, when the economy faltered and business wasn’t as strong, the three brothers began playing the blame game, according to Snodgrass. "When things go south and you’re looking at losing money – that’s something we faced during that period and it tested our relationship for sure, but really, when I look back at it, it could have been avoided," Snodgrass says. "We needed to have more regular communication."

Dean Snodgrass, who is vice president and a business partner with David, agrees that communication is key. "It’s really not much different than a marriage," he says. "You have to commit and care enough and take time to talk."

Working with family sometimes makes it easier to express opinions and feelings that you normally wouldn’t with those unrelated to you, which can work in positive and negative ways, Snodgrass says. The three brothers improved communications by holding weekly meetings and laying out each person’s roles and responsibilities, according to Snodgrass. The executive team then discussed the company’s goals and made sure they were all on the same page.

SAFETY FIRST. At work, Snodgrass’ family extends beyond his brothers to the entire staff, he says. Keeping 170 employees happy requires a great deal of trust, according to Snodgrass. "I believe people will do the right thing if you give them freedom," Snodgrass explains. "I believe in people, and I believe they’re capable of doing great things."

Snodgrass has discovered that leading such a large staff is easier when employing a team-management philosophy because more input equals better decisions, he says. "If you have a team of five, that’s like five times the potential that you could do if you were just sitting at the top," he says.


1. What is your favorite book on leadership?

I’m not so much a reader. I’m more hands on and learn from experience. Though I guess I really have enjoyed Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People. I think every one of those principles are great principles, and there are some real secrets to success in there. I also read Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. They help to substantiate what you believe in or what you think is good business practice, and it’s good to hear it from an authority or somebody else in an organized way.

2. Who has been the greatest influence on your leadership style and what did he or she teach you?

There are a lot of heroes in my world. My dad has taught me a whole bunch about being optimistic and loving the industry and dealing with people. My leadership style is really team management and working through people, and I don’t know where I got that. I think I always knew from the start that I wanted to play big, and I knew that my formula for playing big meant that I needed to work through people so I’ve always had several sales people. I’ve always had a sales staff rather than most companies that start off as the owner and the sales person.

3. How do you develop leadership skills in your employees?

A lot of our managers and sales people have been through Dale Carnegie’s leadership class and that offers some good training. I think leadership is a big part of our company, and we let people play at the top of their game and that forces them to be leaders because that’s where leaders operate. People are responsible for career development for others under them and that kind of forces them into a leadership role.

4. What has been your biggest challenge of being a leader and how did you overcome that challenge?

Growing up I really was uncomfortable in the public or being the center of attention, so I knew that in order to be a leader in a strong, successful company you needed to be visible, you needed to be able to stand up and speak like a leader and you needed to be able to inspire people. There are things you just have to do in order to be effective, so I guess I was just driven or committed to have a successful company and to play big I had to figure that out and overcome it. So that’s the reason I went to my first Dale Carnegie leadership and public speaking class because I said, ‘Hey, I need to work on myself and to gain comfort,’ and that class really made a huge difference in my life.

5. In your opinion, what are the top five foundations of being a leader and why are they important?

1. You have to be optimistic. I think that brings energy to the cause and to the group and you can bring people up or you can bring people down. You can build a company up or you can build a company down. If you’re negative, then you’re going to have a negative impact on people.

2. I think a leader needs to be concerned but not worried because worrying will kill you.

3. I think you need to believe in people and believe that they come to work for the right reasons. You need to believe that they want to grow, that they want to do well. And most importantly, believe that they have incredible potential to do great things and you have to see that in others because they don’t see it themselves. I think a good leader can shake that out of them and show them they have the potential to do great things.

4. I think you need to be passionate. This means you have to throw yourself at serving the client and being efficient completely without holding back.

5. Have pride because that is what motivates and really inspires people.

His management style differs in some ways from his father’s, according to Robert Snodgrass. Snodgrass is more skilled at delegating authority than his father, Robert Snodgrass concedes. "He could see my shortcomings, and he wasn’t going to be that way," Robert Snodgrass says. "He is very good at delegating."

Snodgrass has faith in his entire workforce, which is 70 percent Hispanic, he says. The company’s field laborers are 90 percent Hispanic, the foreman positions are 60 percent Hispanic and the office staff is only 5 percent Hispanic. But Snodgrass says one of his goals is to move more Hispanic employees into management positions.

The company offers English courses instructed by bilingual staff members to its Spanish-speaking employees. This opens up more opportunities by removing the language barrier that often prevents Hispanic workers from moving up, Snodgrass explains. The company also involves Hispanic employees in company operations by having them lead meetings. "We want them to participate at a management level in our company, and there’s some resistance to that," Snodgrass says. "It’s part of their culture. They don’t want to reprimand or control their fellow Hispanic workers, but they get past that, and you just have to keep working to move them up."

In addition to advancing employees within the company, Snodgrass adds safety to his priorities list. As the chairman of the Associated Landscape Contractors of America’s (ALCA) Safety/Insurance Committee, Snodgrass’ job is to help create greater awareness in the industry about safety measures and procedures.

Snodgrass is considered the "minister of safety" within the landscape industry, says ALCA President Kurt Kluznik. "If there’s any one thing David is known for it’s his passion for safety," Kluznik says. "He was just a natural fit, and we were really looking for somebody to take our safety program to a higher level, and David’s done just that."

Snodgrass developed the STARS Safe Company Program, which is a safety training and awareness program that asks ALCA members to sign a "Pledge of Honor" to move the profession toward safety excellence. Participants are asked to comply with all Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards, to investigate and document all accidents, to encourage other companies to become ALCA STARS members, and to share best practices with fellow STARS members. Safety consciousness not only protects employees but it’s cost effective, according to Snodgrass.

Fewer workplace injuries translate into higher efficiency by having reducing sick days and lower insurance premiums, Snodgrass explains. The company’s record for consecutive days without a time-loss accident is 1,876 days, according to Snodgrass. The company issues verbal and written safety instructions in English and Spanish for all employees.

INDUSTRY GURU. Snodgrass isn’t considered just a leader for his team at Dennis’ Seven Dees Landscaping and Nurseries but for the entire green industry. Whether via his Web newsletter or through his efforts with ALCA, Snodgrass offers opinions and advice on critical issues facing most landscape contractors today.

Keeping up with industry trends is critical for any contractor seeking the type of success Snodgrass has accomplished. Snodgrass suggests contractors step out of their companies and see the "big picture" and manage their companies with that overall vision in mind.

He recommends contractors read trade publications and Web sites, such as OSHA’s, join industry organizations and attend conferences to stay informed on the latest issues.

"If you’re not reading, if you’re not out there in touch with the bigger industry and the trends," Snodgrass says, "then you’re going to be working in isolation and your competition is going to have an easy one up on you because it’s so readily available."

November 2004
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