2004 LEADERSHIP AWARDS: Jack Robertson

Features - Business Management

Superior customer service and marketing know-how is the name of the leadership game for Jack Robertson.

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December 30, 2004

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Jack Robertson  Photo: Terry Farmer

While passing through Springfield, Ill., a customer might get the urge to stop by the inviting office of Jack Robertson Lawn Care, which is complete with hunting trophies on the walls and a fireplace. Depending on who has control of the radio, the customer might hear some oldies-but-goodies wafting through the air or sports talk radio. However, whether customers are dropping by for a free rain gauge or looking for the man behind the business – casually clad in a polo shirt and shorts – they best arrive before the clock strikes 5 p.m.

Name:JACK ROBERTSON

Company: Jack Robertson Lawn Care

Location: Springfield, Ill.

Career Highlights:

• Bought Lawn Medic franchise in 1977 from brother-in-law

• Dropped the franchise 10 years later in 1988 and began working as Jack Robertson Lawn Care

• Has been a member of the Professional Lawn Care Association of America for more than 20 years and has served on its board of directors

• Earned an agronomy degree from Western Illinois University

 

"I come in and troubleshoot whatever I need to troubleshoot from about 9 a.m. until 5 in the afternoon," says Jack Robertson, owner of his self-titled lawn care company. "A typical day for everyone here – we’re out of the office by 5 p.m., even in spring when it’s busiest. I want to make sure everyone’s got a life and we’re not doing this until 8 p.m."

To Robertson, there is no better place than Springfield, Ill., to live life. He grew up there and earned his agronomy degree at Western Illinois University, Macomb, Ill. His older brother and sister, Joe and Judy, also both still live in the area and they see each other often. Robertson describes his hometown "as Midwest as Midwest gets," and says he feels fortunate to work in an environment that he has grown up in. All these years later, with the majority of his business being conducted within 5 miles of the office, Robertson continues to provide the community with top-notch lawn care and extraordinary customer service.

FATHER FIGURE. Robertson is both a father at home and at the workplace – although he might not be aware of his "double duty."

"His nickname around here is ‘Dad,’" admits Debbie Reid, office manager at Jack Robertson Lawn Care. "He doesn’t know that. I’m sure he’d get a kick out of it though."

Robertson’s lawn care staff is small, with around 10 employees. Senior Service Managers Brian Cox and Mike Harris have been with the company for more than 20 years, and Reid is approaching 10 years. Robertson says finding good labor is never easy and having a staff he is able to work with is a blessing. But he really gives his employees no reason to leave, because taking care of his employees is just as important to him as taking care of his customers.

"It’s really a fun office to work in," Reid says. "After nine years, you really get to know somebody, so we’re all pretty relaxed together. We’re a family. I’ve had some bad jobs in the past, but you just can’t beat a good working relationship and a good personal relationship combination – you just don’t find that anymore."

Something else that might be hard to come by these days is a manager who will tell an employee to take off early to make it to their daughter’s dance recital or their son’s baseball game. But family is the No. 1 priority in Robertson’s book, and he exercises that philosophy at the workplace. "He is extremely family oriented," Reid declares. "He very much believes that if your kids have a ball game, then that’s where you need to be. He would never tell anybody they can’t have time off to be with their family."

Robertson sometimes even makes the decision to take time off for his employees. Reid says, on occasion, Robertson will come into the office and "be in a mood" where he’ll say, "We’re going to lock the doors today and go have some fun." Robertson, who owns a couple of family farms in the area, will take his employees out to do anything from fishing to snowmobile racing. Reid recalls the time she caught the biggest fish while out with all of the guys and, even though she is a self-proclaimed "farm girl," Robertson has shown her a new skill. "He taught me how to shoot a gun," Reid admits. "It scared the tar out of me, but it was fun."

Fun is what Robertson is all about. He and his wife, Debbie, of 25 years and their two children, Andy and Samantha, utilize the farms to hunt and fish together. Robertson says they are an "outdoor family" and that it’s a love for the outdoors that has him traveling around the country to turkey hunt in the spring or pheasant hunt in the fall. His son and daughter were exposed to the outdoors from an early age, but only Andy continues to be "an avid outdoorsman."

"Today Samantha probably prefers the mall to the woods, but the outdoor environment was brought to her early on," Robertson says with a chuckle. "At some point we might get her back from the mall again."

COMMON SENSE SUCCESS. When asked if he knew much about business when he first started in 1977, Robertson immediately fires back, "Heck no!" As he started to realize college might end someday, he remembers that he began to pay closer attention to what his father was doing and he "has been learning since Day 1." Robertson bought the Lawn Medic franchise from his brother-in-law before graduating from Western Illinois in 1978. At that time, lawn care was a "fledgling industry" and he credits both Western Illinois and the University of Missouri as influences for him embracing the opportunity to get into the industry.

"I studied fisheries and wildlife at Missouri, but the opportunities in that field didn’t exist the way I wanted them to," Robertson recalls. "So I went back and pursued agronomy and agriculture at Illinois. In the late 1970s that was a big boom, and that’s how I ended up getting into lawn care. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with agriculture but it really fit with lawn care."

When Robertson first started out, he learned an invaluable lesson from his father – his most influential mentor. Robertson was living at home and the phone for the business rang into the house because, as he says, "that’s how you started out, right?" He came home one day after selling a few accounts and was flying high. "I told my dad, ‘Things are pretty good today,’ and he said, ‘They are?’ and I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘If things are going so well, you need to go back out there.’ It took me a second to realize what he was telling me, but what are you doing home if things are going so well? So if things are going well, stay at it. That was really important to me – it made a lot of sense."

Robertson stuck with it, although he admits he made a lot of mistakes the first several years. But those mistakes allowed him to see what he wanted to do differently in the future. In 1988, he dropped the franchise and went with Jack Robertson Lawn Care. It was a growing company, as he had purchased two or three smaller companies by then, and today he considers his company a homegrown medium-sized business.

For 28 years, Robertson says he and his employees have done the best job they could, and with 28 years of consistent growth, they apparently have done a lot right. "Knock on wood, we’ve never had a down year," Robertson says. Perhaps one of the most important things to keep in mind when running a successful business is to use common sense, and Robertson learned that early on. "Common sense applies to most everything that we do," Robertson explains. "In our industry, this isn’t microsurgery. What we do, the homeowner can generally do on their own. Do the kind of job that you would want done for you. Respect the customer and do the job in a timely fashion."

JACK ROBERTSON SHARES HIS LEADERSHIP SECRETS

1. What is your favorite book on leadership and why is it your favorite?

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… And Others Don’t, by Jim Collins. It says a lot about leadership. It reinforces many of the things that I thought I was doing. There are a lot of new, innovative ideas, like making sure the people underneath you feel like they’re leaders also – which in our case, they are. To me, this business is successful because we’ve all worked together as a team. We all have our own certain thing that we do and that’s how we get things done.

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

My biggest mentor was my father, just in growing up and watching him. He was self-employed, so as a child I observed him on a daily basis. I knew what I saw him doing was probably going to be what I would do when I got older. He passed away several years ago, but learning some of the subtle lessons he taught me – those are things that have lasted a lifetime for me. One lesson my dad showed me early on is when it comes to managing money, make sure you’ve always got money to manage. It’s easier said than done. I’ve always saved and understood why I was saving. That’s carried over into the business.

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

One way is you give them opportunity. A leader will give employees opportunities to make decisions themselves. I think it’s important that they have the feeling that they can make a decision. And I’m going to stand by that decision because I’ve entrusted them to do that. We can always talk about things and make adjustments if need be, but it’s an important thing to do. You need to, as a leader, go ahead and do things the best way you know how, and you have to encourage others to do that, too.

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

I think being a leader is nothing more than being a director. Certainly, a leader leads by example, but I think a leader is a director within the organization, sharing with his people how he wants things to go. A leader tries to grow and improve daily.

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

1. Have goals and objectives. Here we work to make the lawn look its very best with the products we have and to make customers happy at the same time.

2. Give people opportunity and authority. I think I’m a leader because every team needs a leader. But I also think I’m a partner and a teammate as much as anything. I’m working with them. They’re not doing the same thing I am and I’m not doing the same thing they are, but we make the team work. We try to make all the pieces fit together as best as we can, and I think you need a leader to make that happen.

3. Take chances. I think, as a leader, you do need to step outside the box and take chances every once in a while. Sometimes you might fall on your face but at least you tried. There are things we’ve tried to sell here that I thought would be good and they’ve just flopped. But the bottom line is that you took the chance and went outside the box a little bit.

4. Know when to lead and when to follow. When I was on the PLCAA board of directors, I think I was a good listener because I was interested in what other leaders had to say. At that point, I’m a follower. They certainly led other operations differently than mine, so I was just listening and following.

5. Start with good people. That’s not always the easiest thing to do, but we’ve tried our best. We don’t work to the point of burnout, and because of that, people tend to stay with the job for a longer period of time. Good people will find ways to get work done.

 

This seemingly simple strategy might come from the fact that Robertson expects good customer service himself. Jennifer Remsberg, lawn care and landscape market specialist at Bayer Environmental Science, Montvale, N.J., says one of Robertson’s pet peeves is how technology has, in some ways, removed the intimacy of customer service.

"It’s about his relationship with the customers – technology just gets in the way of that for him," Remsberg explains. "Why would he send a customer to a Web site or voicemail when he can talk to that customer himself? Jack is not an old fogey, a stick in the mud or a ‘technology-is-bad-I’m-not-going-to-progress’ kind of guy. He’s just so incredibly protective of the value of the relationship that he has with his customers. If there’s a perception in Jack’s mind that technology could come between him and his customers, you’ll have to fight hard to convince him that ultimately it will be a good thing."

Fighting Robertson is just what Reid has done over the years. As for introducing technology into the company, Reid says, "He doesn’t, I do. He fights me tooth and nail on that issue. Very slowly, we’re getting there – he’s come a long way."

In the past few years, Robertson has added such technology as voicemail, e-mail and a Web site, but "customer contact is still what we’re always trying to create." He and his crew encourage customers to stop by the office, which customers often do to pick up the free rain gauges Robertson distributes as a token of appreciation.

"We get to say, ‘Thank you’ in person," Robertson says. "Many times they’re not home while we’re doing the work. If a customer stops in the office, A) they know we’re here when they have questions and B) we’re able to say, ‘Thank you’ and that we appreciate their business."

Realizing the importance of customers is perhaps why Robertson "jumps when a customer says, ‘Jump,’" Reid explains. She says Robertson likes to show off the office when customers come in. He will take them around and talk about things, trying to find out a little bit about them. While customers more than likely remain with Robertson for more reasons than a free rain gauge, the extra effort on Robertson’s part gets them into the office.

"We’re giving them no reason to change to someone else. In this very competitive business, I see we have an advantage to doing this," Robertson says. "It would be like going to the doctor’s office, never seeing the doctor and only talking to the nurse. It’d be real easy to change doctors then. But when you see the doctor, you’ll stay."

SERVICE WITH A SMILE. Although Robertson has a "tough exterior," Reid says they joke around a lot and he’s a real sweetheart. Robertson’s easygoing, caring demeanor helps him serve his customers to the best of his ability, and even after all these years, he still is perfectly satisfied with what he does.

"I really don’t get bored because of the people," Robertson admits. "On a daily basis, I enjoy dealing with the customers, lawns and people in general. I think I’d be bored if I didn’t do it. I know I’d be bored if I didn’t do it."

Obviously he has been doing it right from the beginning, because a handful of original customers are still utilizing his lawn care services almost three decades later. Robertson’s company has a retention rate well over 90 percent, which he proudly declares as one of the best in the industry. Retaining customers is no easy task, but, as Robertson points out, "without them, nothing else happens."

The fact that customers are necessary for there to be a business is a valuable lesson that Robertson has taught Remsberg. She is impressed by how Robertson, an "astute businessman," gives his customers his utmost attention and does not take them for granted. "Even before the marketing buzzword of ‘customer retention’ came about, Jack was retaining his customers," Remsberg recalls. "And his customers are incredibly devoted to him."

Remsberg said she is willing to bet the percentage of customers who have been with Robertson since the beginning is the highest in the industry. His "open door policy" at the office in Springfield, Ill., allows a somewhat more intimate relationship with his customers, and Remsberg says there’s probably not one of them who he doesn’t know.

"He recognizes they are more than just customers – they are people, with their own likes, dislikes and things going on in their own lives," Remsberg says. "He has taken all of that and has created this incredibly successful lawn care business."

Part of that success comes from how Robertson interacts with his employees. He says he is more understanding thanks to all the situations he has encountered in his 28 years of business, and if he has a job to do, he’s going to do it – period. He tries to get that philosophy to carry over to his employees, and Robertson says it does not matter if he has worked with someone for 24 days or 24 years – customer service is always the top priority. "You don’t put the customer off until next Friday if you’re going to be in the area," Robertson explains. "I think everyone on the team understands that you take care of the problem – you don’t let the problem go on. To me that’s just basic business. It doesn’t mean you’ll please everybody, but it sure means you’re going to try."

SMARTER IS BETTER. After 28 successful years, Robertson knows a thing or two about the industry. While he says he thinks the industry is more intelligent than it used to be and will continue to gain in the future, he admits that it really hasn’t changed much.

"We’re still applying fertilizer the same as we did 28 years ago," Robertson says. "We’re just smarter about what we do. Just fertilizer isn’t the fix today as it was years ago. But the way we do business – I don’t know that we’ll really be doing it any different. It’s still a matter of getting down to the basics and taking care of the customers."

Robertson says an improvement in the industry over the years has been customer education. One way Robertson tries to keep his customers educated is through his in-house monthly publication, Turf Times. He and his staff evaluate the newsletter weekly to see what information needs to be added and updated. Robertson says the point of the publication is to tell customers about potential problems before they occur, which keeps the customers in the know.

The continued education of himself and his staff also is important. "If I have a question about what database system to go with or whatnot, I’ll pick up the phone and call people I know," Robertson says. "A leader is able to do that, they have that network available to them. I’m not shy. I can pick up the phone and get the information I need, and that helps me manage and lead my team."

Robertson says he runs his business a bit different than many others, but it has been successful for him. He does not expect a 70-hour work week from his employees because he feels that is too big of a demand. As long as they get things done and get it done in the "proper fashion," Robertson says that is all he can ask. "We don’t work to the point of burnout," he explains. "Just give good people opportunity and they’ll make things happen."