2004 LEADERSHIP AWARDS: Maria Candler

Features - Business Management

December 30, 2004
Will Nepper

Maria Candler Photo: Eric Dobbs

Maria Candler hesitates when asked about being a leader. Not because her mind is occupied with too much work and not because of false modesty. Candler hesitates because she knows that leadership is an abstract concept, and that there’s no guaranteed path to finding it, creating it or becoming it. But whether leaders are born or made, Candler has proven her gift for it. With the winning combination of experience, tenacity, hope and passion, she has catapulted herself to great heights in the green industry.


Name: Maria Candler

Company: James River Grounds Management

Location: Glen Allen, Va.

Career Highlights:

• Joined James River Grounds Management in 1992

• Legislative chair, Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA)

• Board member, ALCA

• Secretary/treasurer, ALCA

• Regularly travels to Washington, D.C. to represent the green industry as an advocate for H-2B and other green industry issues

• CLP, vice president of James River Grounds Management




After entering the fray of a generally male-dominated industry at 21 she now finds herself, at a mere 33, a respected leader in her field, a leader in her work place, a leading political advocate for the green industry and an inspirational leader to professional women. But how did she get here? Candler can define leadership, recognize its power and see it in the faces of potential leaders of the future, but as far as she’s concerned, her recipe for success amounts to simply believing in her own decisions and in herself and never giving up.

ACCIDENTAL CAREER. Despite the fact that her entire career trajectory has taken place at one company, and despite the fact that she has risen to the top as one of the industry’s leaders, Maria Candler did not choose the landscape industry from the get-go. "My background was in destination marketing, which is basically travel and tourism," Candler explains. "I wasn’t ready for a real job yet. I was 21 and without a clue."

It was her roommate, a property manager, who pointed Candler in the direction of a small landscape company she had worked with. "I was still just trying to figure it all out and my roommate told me she had developed a good relationship with the salesman for this company and that I should go and check that opportunity out. At the time it just sounded kind of fun to me and since I was still trying to decide on my life strategy, I looked into it."

This would be as good a time as any to add "and the rest is history." Maria never left James River Grounds Management and she’s still there today having climbed the ranks of the business from the lowly job-hungry college student to an undeniable leader in the company. "It was the diversity of the company, the clients and the employees that I liked," she says. "And it didn’t take long before I fell in love with the industry."

In the beginning of her career with James River she was "just doing whatever," but that didn’t last. "I think the wonderful thing about this company and the owners of James River is that they really allowed a lot of freedom from the beginning – to make my own decisions and mistakes and create my own environment and path in the company," Candler says.

Plotting her own course would become a theme in Candler’s professional life soon after her introduction to the industry and the management style of James River. "At that young age, I hadn’t yet realized that freedom to fail or succeed was something that I not only needed, but enjoyed."

Candler is a self-described "control person" and says that being employed by a company that allowed her to be in charge of her own fate and navigate her career was one of the main compelling reasons for sticking with the company. "I saw an opportunity to create my own way," she says.

Creating her way involved several factors not limited to what’s done between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Her 12 years in the green industry has seen her active in ALCA at the committee level and traveling to Washington, D.C. to represent the green industry as an advocate for H-2B. "It was something that began developing about eight years ago when we started using the H-2B program," she relates. Many have since looked to her as an inspirational example of how to organize green industry advocacy and fight for legislation on Capitol Hill.

Candler’s association with ALCA was established after about a year of working with the H-2B program. It wasn’t long before Candler was involved with ALCA at the committee level with employee recruiting, ALCA publications and education. She was making a name for herself – or at the very least a nickname. "We call her "The Doer," says Dan Foley, president, D. Foley Landscape, Walpole, Mass. Candler serves with Foley on the ALCA board of directors. "I’m fortunate that she’s an officer for ALCA with me right now because you can count on her to get things done." This year, Candler became ALCA’s secretary/treasurer at 32.

INDEPENDENT SPIRIT. One might wonder how someone like Candler, who never expected or sought a career in the green industry, could end up as one of its most important advocates and leaders. Because she’s been with one company for her entire career, playing connect the dots along her career path would only lead to two stops: the beginning and now. There’s little doubt that Candler knows how to navigate her career, but there is evidently more to it than hard work and luck. Influences also play a role.

Like any successful person, Candler’s background before James River shaped who she has become. And though other role models would come later, in the beginning, it was Candler’s single mother who inspired her to work for the life she wanted. Candler, who describes her mother as very hard working, says she was taught at an early age to take control of her destiny.

"She’d say, ‘Whatever you get in life, you have because you got it for yourself,’" Candler remembers. "’We don’t just take. We’re not here for a handout. You’re not a victim.’ That was my whole message growing up: ‘It’s up to me. It’s up to me!’"

Candler is surprisingly thankful that her mother didn’t pay her way through college. "She’d tell me, ‘If you want this you’re going to appreciate it more if you work for it,’" she relates. "I appreciate her forcing me to be very independent at a very young age. That was very helpful."

It’s this kind of independence that Candler seems to inspire in those who watch her closely as an example, whether they be green industry peers or fellow ALCA members. Coworkers who operate under Candler at James River also get a pretty potent dose of independence in a work environment where it’s encouraged.

It’s telling that Candler cites her greatest career accomplishment as creating opportunities for other people and enabling them to find their own paths. In other words, it’s not what she’s done for herself that she’s most proud of, it’s what she’s been able to do for others. Many recognize this as a clear sign of selfless leadership.

"There were 12 employees at our peak time when I started with the company and now at the peak time of year we’re at about 107 employees. And looking at all the opportunities that we’ve been able to create for our employees – I’m very proud of that."

"For me, leadership isn’t solving problems or making decisions for people," she explains. "I’m there to offer support and to keep people on the right path and to create a path that everyone feels good about as a team. My job is to keep people wanting to be on the same path. I’m not here to drive them, but I am here to make sure they want to be in the car – which is easier said than done a lot of days."

Candler says the corporate atmosphere and diversity of people at James River has helped her learn how to lead, but also challenged her to find creative ways to motivate. "I think the No. 1 thing that I’ve learned is that everyone is so different that you almost have to manage each personality separate from the one before it," she says. "What works for one employee doesn’t work for the other and what motivates one employee may not motivate another. You can’t make assumptions."

LIVING AS A LEADER. Another challenge of leadership, according to Candler, is knowing how to embrace it when it finds you. Part of this, may mean letting go of some responsibilities as newer more important ones begin to come around.

"It was never easy for me to let go of the day to day things," she explains. "It’s difficult being OK with the fact that you don’t know every single thing that’s going on in your organization. That is such an amazing shift for someone that’s a doer and who’s been in lots of different roles in a company." She reduces the philosophy to that old standard: Working on your business, not in it.

However, getting things done and knowing when to let other people take the reigns was difficult at one time for Candler. She expresses that it’s easy to get locked into a mindset that fools you in to thinking that because you know how to do a job, you should do that job. "You have to learn to let go of things and trust your staff to make it happen," she says. "It’s one of the biggest challenges – just managing the growth and really personally letting go and moving myself into a higher level of thinking."

In Candler’s case, some of that higher level of thinking probably pertains to legislative issues, educating the industry and advocating for immigrant workers. That’s a lot to contribute to one industry by her early 30s and impressive by practically anyone’s definition of the word. Still, Candler says she’s unsure how her peers in the industry view her. "There are the two things that stand out – that I’m younger and that I’m a woman." But neither of these considerations has seemed to pose much of a problem for Candler who’s never resisted rolling up her sleeves and getting involved.

"Legislatively, I contribute a lot and often about what I consider to be the value of our industry," she says. It’s a theme that pops up often with Candler, who believes that one of the most important things the green industry can do is to speak up for itself. It’s something that Candler, as a leader in the industry, works very hard at.

"I think we need to tell our story more," she says. "I think we need to take every opportunity to let our clients and the public know that what we do is technical in nature," she says. "It’s very business oriented. Running a successful landscape or lawn care company involves a lot of the same skills it takes to run a bank. We have to teach people that this is not just a job. This is not just a guy with a couple of mowers in the back of his truck – though there is some of that – But this is a big business and it’s important and necessary."

But Candler knows that it’s all just empty hyperbole without leadership to set an example. "We have to be the part too," she says. "Contractors have to believe they are professional."

Because Candler has accepted the call of leadership, she views it as her responsibility to get the green industry recognized as an essential service and an important business. "I think every time you do something for the community, you need to talk to the newspapers and send out a press release," she says, citing one way that the industry can run it’s own public relations. "I think you can also do this by joining professional groups in your market, whether it’s the chamber of commerce or any professional group in you area." She explains that these are ways to network the industry and spread the word about its positive contributions.

Candler will continue in her many leadership roles adding "mother" to that list this summer with the arrival of her first born. Naturally motherhood is more than just another challenge she’s taken on; it’s a major life change. But don’t expect it to slow her down. Being a leader is clearly in Candler’s blood and there is little doubt that she will continue to be one of the industry’s most valuable assets – an advocate, an inspiration, a leader and, now, a mom.


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

I’ve read several of the top sellers, like Good to Great and Execution. But I have to say that one of my favorites was called Listen Up Leader. It’s one of those 20-minute reads that you get unsolicited in the mail, asking you to buy them in bulk, which I did and distributed to all of my employees. I liked this book because it was from the perspective of the employee craving to be led. It was insightful and it really got me thinking about my leadership style and how I was likely perceived by my employees and the assumptions that I made as a leader about my team and where we were headed.

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

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with so many amazing people through my involvements with ALCA, but I would have to give most of the credit to the owner of my company, Ray Lazarchic. I’ve worked for Ray for almost 12 years now and I feel as though he’s "raised" me as a leader. He and I have completely different management styles, but we usually come to the same conclusions about things in the end. He’s taught me so much that it’s impossible to list. Most importantly, I think it was his faith in me and his general support of the decisions that I made – whether he agreed or disagreed – that created an amazing environment for testing my wings. I really owe him a great deal.

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

We’ve definitely created a culture here at James River Grounds Management of allowing people the freedoms within their jobs to make their own decisions and solve their own problems. The unwritten gospel in the management hierarchy is "Don’t ever bring me a problem unless you bring three solutions with you." It’s amazing how this concept empowers and develops middle managers into leaders.

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

My biggest leadership challenge has probably been continuing to believe in myself and having confidence in my leadership abilities. I came into my role as a leader pretty much by default. We had a serious leadership void for many years because no one really wanted the job. Basically sheer frustration led me to take on the job and learn as I went. I had many years of self-doubt as I tried to figure out what path was best for our company and who the right people were to be on the team to get us there. ALCA (Associated Landscape Contractors of America) really helped with my confidence in leadership. In the organization, I had great opportunities to network with other contractors. Many times I would leave ALCA events thinking – "Wow, we’re not as screwed up as I thought we were." After having a conversation with a business owner whose company is three times the size of yours and you realize they share your same problems just on a larger scale or maybe they have even more problems, it can inspire you. I also learned that size doesn’t matter so much when it comes to running a successful business. I’ve learned just as much from small companies as I have from larger ones.

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

1. Be a good listener.

2. Learn how to administer the proper blend of support and direction. Too much or too little of either can be detrimental, depending upon the situation.

3. Know and enjoy the fact that every person you lead is a completely different human being with their own personality, style and motivators.

4. Never hesitate to make a decision. The decision to not make a decision is the worst decision to make.

5. Never assume that your team knows the path that you have created. You have to constantly look back to make sure they are following you down the same road. There are just too many detours and roadblocks along the way.


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