2004 LEADERSHIP AWARDS: Lou Kobus

Features - Business Management

Your friendly Virginia dirt farmer shares stories about how his ‘date with fate’ a la Casablanca got him into the green industry and how time in the military taught him the essence of true leadership.

Subscribe
December 30, 2004

Fla
Lou Kobus   Photo:Walter P. Calahan

The life of Lou Kobus, Jr. – president, Village Turf, Mount Vernon, Va. – reads like the pages of an epic novel chock full of good, old-fashioned moral obligation, yet alive with the comedic dance and wisecracking dialogue of Casablanca.

In fact, Kobus, 56, can reminisce about how when he was a youth and traveled with his parents, Lou, Sr., and Eleanor, they would dress for the occasion – in a suit and tie and a nice skirt and blouse – vs. today’s travelers in sloppy shorts-and-t-shirts in one moment, and then share the story of a dance competition at a recent Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show in Baltimore, Md., where the music of Big Willie and the Hubcaps guided him toward victory during the next. "I’m not a wallflower, and I’m not a follower," Kobus maintains proudly, "but I’ll admit that I can get drunk, obnoxious and loud."

Then it’s back to recent traveling tales, one in particular where he used his intimidating 6-foot-5-inch, 270-pound frame to hold an overanxious man back, so a "little old lady" could take her seat on a Southwest Airlines flight.

From comedian to nice guy to agronomist, Kobus freely admits he’s an opportunist, seizing most of the chances with which he has been presented – even those others may have shied away from – and the result is a rich life woven with stories that have not only shaped him into the leader he is today, but that no one expects to hear being told from a man known to his industry peers as "your friendly Virginia dirt farmer."

‘WELCOME TO THE FIGHT.’ Lou Kobus was born on May 24, 1948 in St. Michael’s Hospital on High Street in North New Jersey at 11:52 a.m. – "just in time for lunch," he says.

In 1959, his family moved from Newark to Union, N.J., where Kobus went to Livingston Elementary and then Union High School, graduating in 1966. Growing up, Lou was close to his Grandfather Kobus, a falconer and naturalist who kept birds and grew perfect roses with tender care. "My true appreciation of outdoor life and growing things came from him," Kobus says.

Name: LOU KOBUS

Company: Village Turf

Location: Mount Vernon, Va.

Career Highlights:

• Master’s degree, civil engineering, Rutgers

• Master’s degree, agronomy, Virginia Tech

• Director, Professional Lawn Care Association of America

• Member, Associated Landscape Contractors of America

• Member, Sports Turf Managers’ Association

• Member, American Nursery & Landscape Association

• Member, Southern Nursery Association

• Director, Virginia Agribusiness Council

• Director, Virginia Turfgrass Council

• Legislative Chairman, Virginia Green Industry Council

• Member, Virginia Tech Landscape Contracting Advisory Council

• Member, Virginia Tech Turfgrass Advisory Council

• Director, Virginia Nursery & Landscape Association

• Legislative Chairman, Virginia Sports Turf Managers’ Association

• Member, Northern Virginia Nursery & Landscape Association

• President, Mount Vernon Citizen’s Coalition

• Member of the following fraternal organizations: Knights of Columbus; Master Mason; Shriner, Kena Temple; Scottish Rite; York Rite; Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks; Fraternal Order of Eagles; International Order of Odd Fellows; Veterans of Foreign Wars; American Legion

Other big influences for Kobus as a child were his Uncle Stosh and Aunt Lottie Iwineski. Uncle Stosh was a baker who worked for Wagner’s Pies, and an outdoorsman like Grandfather Kobus. "My Uncle Stosh and Grandfather Kobus were the ones I fished and crabbed with, and who taught me early on how to cook, clean and sew with the help of Aunt Lottie," Kobus says.

Kobus’ brother, Jimmy, who is currently the Dean of Students for five schools in Council Bluff, Iowa, is just shy of two years younger than Kobus, and would accompany the crew on these outdoor adventures.

Jimmy joined the Marine Corp. in 1967, and Kobus joined shortly thereafter in 1969 after receiving his bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering from the University of Wisconsin, "because the country was calling and that was the thing we felt we had to do," Kobus says, reminiscing about how his Uncle Stosh didn’t say much about World War II specifics but would often talk about the whole experience in glowing generalities, sharing stories of being the lead scout for Gen. George Patton’s tanks, earning two silver stars and one bronze star during combat, and how it was important for a person to have strong Americanism.

However, the Vietnam War wasn’t easy on Jimmy or Lou. "Jimmy lost some high school buddies and I lost two college friends – one during the first week I was there," Kobus says. "Jimmy also got shot up a bit and had Malaria, and I’m about 30 percent disabled from my military operations."

But the ever-optimistic Kobus moves on. After serving as an enlisted marine for seven years, Kobus was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1975. During his Marine Corps. career, Kobus became the facilities maintenance officer of several major commands and the facilities engineer at Marine Corp. Headquarters. For a decade of this time, Kobus was stationed in Japan, where he learned to speak fluent Japanese. For the U.S. Marine Corp., Kobus also played four years of international rugby, which took him to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, China, Germany, France and England for games. Kobus calls himself a "halfway decent player," and he continues to play the sport now in Virginia for what he calls "the old man’s league."

‘OF ALL THE GIN JOINTS IN THE WORLD...’ Some could say that Lou Kobus’ future in the green industry was predicted long before he really knew what he wanted to do with his life. For instance, next to his high school yearbook photo, one can see that when Kobus grew up he wanted to be a "good agriculturist." And despite the fact that the nickname for his Union High School sports team was "The Farmers," Lou didn’t get into the green industry until the early 1990s.

On Nov. 1, 1992, when he was 42 years old, Kobus retired from the Marines. "I did my 23 years and quit," he says. "I could have continued to work for the government, but I grew bored to tears of the endless stream of paperwork. I felt that I had more to give and offer. I was tired of traveling. You get to a point where you want to put down roots."

That year, on Thanksgiving Day, opportunity knocked. Kobus was having dinner with his family when his Uncle John and Aunt Joyce Brown from Virginia announced that they were retiring from their $70,000-landscape business, which they called Brown’s Landscaping. The business was originally established on the Eastern Shore of Virginia in 1647 by Johannes Wise. As the family business grew, the operation was moved to Prince William County in 1856.

Kobus immediately offered to buy the business. He moved it to Fairfax County, renamed it Village Turf and incorporated the company in May of 1993. "I realized that I wanted to get back out there and grow things and this just seemed like the best way to do it," Kobus says.

As in each chapter of his life, Kobus didn’t take the job of running a landscape business lightly. He jumped in with both feet without fear, first taking courses at Virginia Tech, earning his master’s degree in agronomy in 1993, where he credits his success to two professors – Rajandra Waghray and John Shoulders, an entomologist and agronomist, respectively, "who took care of me," Kobus explains. Then he joined every major local and national landscape association, becoming a truly active member.

For instance, in 1998, as legislative affairs chairperson for the Virginia Turfgrass Council, Kobus played a key role in gaining monetary support from the state to do a Virginia Turfgrass Industry Economic Impact Survey, shares Erik Ervin, turf specialist and assistant professor, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va., adding that Kobus even helped to gain continued funding for a follow-up survey in 2005.

"Lou has made sure that the landscape and turf industry has a voice with the governor and state legislature when policy that directly affects the landscape industry is being considered," Ervin says. "He’s really kept us on the forefront of being proactive rather than reactive when drought or nutrient management regulations have come through. He’s also funded a couple of research projects with me, looking at taking landfill soils and turning them into beneficial topsoils. Overall, Lou has had a huge impact on our industry and our state."

Today, Village Turf is a $5-million business, offering installation, maintenance, lawn care, tree and shrub care and other services, such as drought management and revegetation, to 50 percent government, 30 percent commercial and 20 percent residential clients.

In addition to Village Turf, Kobus also started Southern States, a retail store with a full-service nursery that caters to farm and home and garden customers, as well as Clay Outdoor Power Equipment, a sales and service dealer offering a complete line of outdoor equipment, including repair and replacement services. As Ervin explains, "Lou is quite the entrepreneur – he’s always looking at new products and new ways to make old products useful again."

‘PLAY IT AGAIN.’ Though Kobus’ tall, initially intimidating frame can give passersby a Humphrey Bogart-esque, "I stick my neck out for nobody," impression, once Kobus smiles and shakes your hand, you realize he’s there to help.

Conventional wisdom says that military units are most likely to succeed in the field when they follow strict command-and-control procedures – when they operate within a rigid, top-down hierarchical organization where officers issue orders and the grunts on the ground swiftly and unquestioningly obey and execute those orders.

LOU KOBUS SHARES HIS LEADERSHIP SECRETS

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

My favorite book is Lee’s Lieutenants by Douglas Southall Freeman. It is an in-depth study of the officers of the Army of Northern Virginia. As a general, Robert Edward Lee was a very broad-brushed, big picture guy and Jackson Stonewall was his Chief of Staff, so it was actually Stonewall putting the orders together to the brigade commanders and then down to the lieutenants who implemented the plan. To me, it’s idealistic and romantic that Lee had this grand plan and the details went down to each level and the plan was carried out. It’s the same for a CEO in a large company. The leader has an objective and it doesn’t mean anything to anyone until someone goes back and says, ‘This is what the boss wants and this is how we’re going to do it.’ That’s a specific leadership style that works.

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

My leadership style comes from my Grandfather Kobus and was honed by my military influences. Grandfather Kobus was a naturalist who grew award-winning roses. My brother and I spent a lot of time with him and he taught us how to treat people and how to work hard and play hard. The military taught me the importance of leadership by example.

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

I believe in leadership by example. I can’t expect my employees to be on time if I’m not there 30 to 45 minutes early watching them punch in. Of course, employees are going to make mistakes. We go over these mistakes together in an action report and talk about what they could have done better. This is the best way for them to learn.

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

My biggest challenge has been recognizing the difference between leadership and management. Leadership is thinking creatively to permanently solve a problem, while management is quickly taking care of the problem at hand without fixing the big picture issues. For instance, if you need to get more employees, the manager would go see if they could get some temporary employees from a temp agency while a leader might have his supervisors check the local high schools or get a list of people getting out of the military or check with the unemployment commission and go from there.

Leaders are also creative – they talk to the school board, they teach classes, they do some plant remediation. They plan for the future every day.

5. In your opinion, what are the top five foundations of leadership?

1. Practice leadership by example.

2. Never lose your cool.

3. Do your homework. Learn as much as you can about your industry.

4. Know your numbers. Learn how to use a computer and have all the areas of your business available from a PC anytime, anywhere so you always know the status of your business.

5. Remember why you’re doing the job.

But according to Kobus, that’s an outdated leadership model. The leaders who will wage successful campaigns of any kind will be those who marshal "creative solutions in ambiguous circumstances," he says. "Everybody’s got to know how to be a leader."

In Kobus’ opinion, the best way to be a leader is to be a good example and embrace the "work hard, play hard" philosophy.

For instance, if an owner is tardy to work everyday and his clothes are wrinkled and covered with dirt and coffee stains and his paperwork is illegible, sooner or later he’ll find that his employees’ work quality also will decrease. "How can you inspect and lead the troops if you always come in late looking like a soup sandwich – unshaven and unprofessionally dressed?" Kobus asks. "How can you instill professionalism this way or establish a business identity? You can’t make your employees work 12- to 14-hour days if you leave early everyday to play golf. That doesn’t motivate or inspire people. You have to set the standard."

Kobus’ theory is that employees will be motivated if they feel their leader is a part of the team. Kobus shares a story from his military days to make his point. "When I was an officer for the Marine Corp., I was always the last to eat because I stood on the serving line making sure my team got the right servings," he says. "Respect is a two-way street. If your employees see that you will go out there and dig holes alongside them, then they will dig in their heels and work hard too."

Kobus doesn’t deny that "leadership is a lonely position," but he maintains that this is the price of achieving true business success. "You have to worry about your mission and the welfare of your men and equipment," he explains. "As a leader, you make decisions that aren’t popular and that don’t make people happy, but once the mission and its objectives are defined, that is your
No. 1 goal."

And when seeking out future leaders among his 60 employees, Kobus looks to a lesson his Grandfather Kobus taught him. "My Grandfather Kobus used to say, ‘You’ll dig up a lot of coal before you’ll find a diamond,’" Kobus explains. "People are either on your team or off your team. The bad guys surface real quick. I’m impressed when I notice people looking ahead – further down the road than their 5 p.m. beer, like when they get the trucks ready for an oil change when its due without being told first. That impresses me. Seeking out the true leaders in your organization can take some time, but many times they surface just as quickly as the bad ones."

‘HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU.’ Other than a brief 13-month stint at marriage, Kobus remains a bachelor, referring to his two loyal companions – Turf the Wonder Dog, a 5-year-old, shaggy, blonde Briard, and his buddy J.D., a 3-year-old black Labrador Retriever, whose initials stand for "not Jack Daniels, not John Deere, but Just Dog," Kobus explains – as his immediate family. These dogs, particularly Turf, can be seen trotting at Kobus’ heels when he’s on jobs "checking to make sure that when we’re installing turf the brown side is down and the green side is up," Kobus jokes, calling Turf his company’s security guard.

Today, Kobus says he still works in the field with his employees at least two or three days a week. "I work a lot of hours and Turf doesn’t mind if I’m a little late coming home," he says, laughing.

In the spare time that Kobus does create for himself, he seems to be checking specific tasks off of a long list of most-wanted experiences. He has a passionate interest in history and architecture. He’s also a big fan of attending professional sports games as well as visiting sports fields, such as Camden Yards and Jacobs Field, to experience their architecture and design.

And don’t expect to conduct mindless small talk with Kobus. Not only does he challenge you with historical questions about your youth and hometown, but he also openly shares intriguing stories about his own history that slowly unveil what seems like an endless treasure chest into his personality. In one breathe, he’ll tell you how it was an honor to be in charge of the marines along Pennsylvania Avenue during President Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration and then reveal that he spent last Saturday, with the permission of the local school board and the Fairfax County Health Department, alongside the 60 doctors he recruited to admit physicals to 160 children whose families couldn’t afford to send them to medical professionals for their school checkups. "He is a great mentor to students and to young people coming into the industry," Ervin shares.

Kobus has an office but doesn’t truly operate out of one. He is always reachable from a mobile phone at a job site, where he’ll tell you he’s overlooking turf fields, as Turf and J.D. inspect his work. "My happiest times are when I’m on the job or on a tractor and taking an ugly site and turning it into an aesthetic beauty," he says.

Kobus would rather form a partnership with Mother Nature vs. constantly challenging her to achieve his goals. His current project is seeking out land to build a turf center at Virginia Tech. "I’d like to create a place where landscape contractors can get the most up-to-date research available," he says. "I am an environmentalist. I believe if we work with Mother Nature instead of against her, a lot of our environmental problems will go away. The turf center is a lofty goal, but wouldn’t it be great to be able to give contractors all the information they need to keep the grass growing?"

A reviewer of Casablanca was once quoted saying, "It’s not much of a stretch to say that Hollywood doesn’t make movies like this any more, because the bittersweet ending has gone the way of black-and-white cinematography. One of the things that makes Casablanca unique is that it stays true to itself without giving in to commonly held perceptions of crowd-pleasing tactics. And because of this, not despite it, Casablanca has become known as one of the greatest movies ever made."

Similarly, old-fashioned leaders like Kobus, who form partnerships and sign contracts with handshakes and call even the youngest, newest person in his employment "boss" to make them feel special, are around for the long haul to aid the industry through good and bad times, proudly sharing his motto: "The mark of a man can be measured by what concerns him."

And what concerns Kobus? When asked the question, "What are your future goals?" Kobus replies, "You mean before I close my eyes to God? I’m living life now. How many people do you know who have swam out of a submarine 25 feet below the ocean, flew planes on and off aircraft carriers, fired gun shots in anger, learned to speak fluent Japanese and have been around the world two and one-half times? I’m very proud of my time in the military –it’s part of the fabric of my life. I’m very blessed and very humble to God."

And yet his initial goals are further away from personal gain than one would expect. "I would like to see the industry have a strong national organization," he says. "I would like to see the lawn care industry become a professional industry. There is room for everyone – there is nothing wrong with the guy who has one truck and is trying to make it. My goal is to try to help those people. A lot of people say I’m an opportunist, and they’re right. I take a look at the opportunities before me and I move on them."

While some people would say Kobus has taken some risky chances in life, most would agree that, despite these ventures, his mark on the industry is immeasurable – "the beginning of a beautiful friendship."