2005 LEADERSHIP AWARDS: Bob Ottley

Features - Business Management

Rather than talk about issues, Bob Ottley prefers to face them head-on.

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February 23, 2006

Fla 
Bob Ottley. Photo: Jeffrey Frew

Regulatory issues are almost always divisive. Each side has its extremists who believe their way is the only way. When Monroe County, N.Y., legislators proposed a law in January that would limit when lawn care operators (LCOs) could spray pesticides, it appeared that such a tug-of-war was at hand.
  
If there was one person who could narrow the gap between the two sides, it was Bob Ottley, president of One Step Tree & Lawncare in N. Chili, N.Y. He was concerned that if the law passed, it could threaten the livelihood of LCOs in his region and possibly elsewhere. He responded by partnering with other LCOs from the Rochester, N.Y., area to combat the proposed law.

When Ottley, 50, first formed the group, only one of 29 county legislators sided with the LCOs. In the end, the group lost but won a moral victory by gaining seven more votes in just three months.

ABOUT BOB OTTLEY 

    COMPANY: One Step Tree & Lawncare
    LOCATION: N, Chili, N.Y.
    CAREER HIGHLIGHTS:

  • In 1976, founded One Step Tree & Lawncare
  • Business hit the $1-million revenue mark in 1994
  • Elected to Riga, N.Y., town council in 1998
  • Named president of the Professional Lawn Care Association of America in 1999
  • Entered into partnership in 2000 with Phil Fogarty to subfranchise Weed Man USA operations
  • Leads a coalition of lawn care operators to fight a pesticide notification law in Monroe County, N.Y.

Those who know Ottley say his calm demeanor and the leadership skills he developed as a business owner, town councilman, association president and family man, helped convey the group’s message in a way that made people listen.

“Bob was the central figure for neutralizing the emotional issues on both sides,” says Laurie Broccolo, chief executive officer, Broccolo Tree & Lawn Care, Rochester, N.Y. “You know that he’s very passionate about what he does, and you know he’s very dedicated. But he holds his emotions and impulses in check, and he’s good at listening to different sides and ideas.”

Responding to challenging situations in a patient and understanding manner wasn’t something new to Ottley. It’s how he built a $2.7 million company during a 29-year period.

THE BUSINESS OWNER. Ottley knew early on that college wasn’t for him. Like many high school students, he enjoyed the social part of school but wasn’t too fond of studying and homework. Instead, Ottley focused his attention toward starting his own lawn maintenance business. He embarked on his entrepreneurial career by mowing lawns for neighbors until he accepted a job with a Rochester-area landscape company after graduating from high school in 1973.

Ottley worked there for a full season with the intention of eventually continuing his education but quickly realized his future was in the green industry. At 19, Ottley accepted a job as a manager for a garden center where he says he learned the ins and outs of business management.

About a year later, the company was struggling financially, so Ottley plotted his next course of action. While still employed at the garden center, Ottley purchased some equipment with money he had saved from working full time and financing from his parents. Shortly thereafter, in the spring of 1976, One Step Tree & Lawncare was born.

Ottley offered a mix of maintenance and lawn care services during the first several years of business. He learned the lawn treatment side of the business from attending university extension seminars, training sessions and from becoming involved with the Professional Lawn Care Association of America. It was at those PLCAA meetings where Ottley began developing some of his leadership skills.

ABOUT BOB OTTLEY 

    Q. What does the term grassroots mean to you?
    A. It has two different meanings. One is starting at the bottom and working your way up as far as how you’ve advanced within the company. The other part I look at from the political side – starting with your local governments and working your way up the food chain of your town, your county, your state and then nationally. If you get the people who elect these people involved and understanding your issues, then it becomes easier as you move up the food chain.

    Q. Describe a situation where you feel you had to defend the industry and how this impacted you in your career.
    A. The situation was the fight here at the county level on the 48-hour notification, and it’s definitely going to affect our service and the products that we use and the way we deliver our service. It impacted me from a business standpoint that way, and it also impacted me from a further understanding of how government works. I learned that science and common sense and business practices don’t really matter. We’d like to think they do, but they don’t. It’s emotion, and in the political process, it’s where am I going to get my votes and who’s telling me how I should vote on this? What I found – and this was the rude awakening – is that we’ve elected people who are willing to let the administration tell them how they should vote. They look at an issue and they look at it mostly from a political side and then they tell them how they should vote and very few members will do what’s right. They listen to what the party tells them to do.

    Q. Who is one person you admire most for taking a stand on an issue and why?
    A. I admire Ronald Reagan. His handling of the Cold War was something we could all learn from. It was certainly against public opinion around the world when he told Gorbachev to “Stick it,” basically. But you know what? That was the right thing to do, and he knew it was and didn’t falter from that. I have a lot of respect for that.

    Q. What is one thing you do to ensure your employees are reflecting a positive and professional image on your company when they are out in the field?
    A. We’re real sticklers for that. The equipment has to look good and the employees have to look good. We have a dress and appearance code, and before they’re hired they’re given that code and they have to agree to abide by it. So rule No. 1 is you need to look the part of a professional, and we don’t falter from that. The next thing is giving them the training – not just the technical training but also training on customer service and continually hounding them on taking care of the customer and never letting that slip.

    Q. In your opinion, what are the top three things a lawn care operator or landscape contractor can do today to help defend the industry against negative perceptions?
    A. They need to get involved. They have to get involved whether it be with an association or a political party or part of their local government. Secondly, they need to be honest. One of the things that helped me the most in this debate here is I made sure I had my numbers correct and double-checked them and every statement I was making I could back up. Having honesty and that reputation goes a long, long way in these things. And perseverance is the third thing. When you’re dealing with these groups, especially some of the environmental groups, you have to go and you have to keep singing your song and telling your story over and over again. You can’t give up because they won’t and if we get tired and quit, we lose.

“The people I met at PLCAA were probably the biggest influence on me from their preaching about customer service, the sharing of ideas and how they motivated people,” he says. “There was one board member in particular who taught me it was OK to make money. I would feel guilty if I made too much money, and he kind of changed my mind on that.”

Like many successful PLCAA members, Ottley involved his employees in the company’s decision-making process and involved himself in his workers’ activities. “I’m one who likes to listen to my people before making a decision,” he says. “I’ve always been one to lead by example, as well. I don’t ask my people to do something I wouldn’t do, and I think that’s important. It’s not below me to run the vacuum cleaner if the floor gets dirty.”

After his first PLCAA conference in 1979, Ottley realized how much the lawn care industry was growing and decided to drop the company’s landscape services and focus on treating lawns. During that time, lawn care was relatively new to the Rochester area, so Ottley had no problem growing the business. Ottley estimates revenues doubled each year during the first several years after starting out at just $9,000 the first year.

Throughout much of the 1980s, Ottley continued focusing his efforts on generating new business. But as competition heated up in the 1990s, growth slowed, forcing Ottley to take a different approach. He decided to place more emphasis on providing quality service, which included increased employee training and adding an application to the company’s lawn care program.

Employees became more than just service technicians. They all had their own accounts and they were responsible for selling the service, performing the applications and responding to customer inquiries. “They needed to build a relationship with the customers, so we put a focus on trying to give them ownership of the customers they were responsible for,” Ottley says.

The improved service helped the company reach the $1-million revenue mark by 1994 and increased customer retention rates from 67 percent from 1987 to 1988 to no lower than 83 percent since the changes were implemented. “We focused on simple things like training, but it was also other things, like keeping the same guy on the same lawns all of the time so they would start to learn the customers and what each customer wants, that helped.”

Ottley’s business savvy and involvement in PLCAA eventually led him to another lawn care venture.  In 2000, he and longtime PLCAA associate Phil Fogarty partnered to subfranchise Weed Man USA operations in Ohio, Western Pennsylvania and parts of Upstate New York. As part of the deal, Ottley was not required to turn One Step Tree & Lawncare into a Weed Man operation because a Weed Man franchise already existed in his area. In the five years since, Ottley and Fogarty have established 11 franchises, 10 in Ohio and one in Buffalo, N.Y.

Ottley’s business intuition was one reason Fogarty says he partnered with him. “Bob Ottley’s company has been synonymous with innovative ways to serve the customers,” Fogarty explains. “His company services thousands of customers and has a high retention rate because of his customer service and response time and that points to his ability to lead.”

Ottley says he saw the partnership as more than just an investment opportunity. “I realized it was an opportunity and a way I could use my experience in starting a business and running an operation to help franchises do the same thing, as well as help people in my own company because they may someday be able to graduate from this company and go into their own franchise somewhere,” he explains.

THE POLITICIAN. While Ottley was busy building successful lawn care operations, he was also establishing himself as a leader in the industry. Reserved but not shy about expressing his opinions, Ottley became a voice of reason amid increased concern about the industry’s potential environmental impact, say many of his colleagues.

“It takes someone who is going to be persistent in conveying information correctly in the face of radical activism,” Fogarty says. “When something doesn’t make any sense, you have to be able to calmly and persistently convey the truth, and he’s done that in New York State time and time again.”

Ottley started speaking out at hearings in the 1980s when New York passed sign- posting laws for applications. “I realized then that government regulation was a big issue for the business and that I should get involved with government if I’m going to be able to have any effect with this,” he says.

So Ottley applied for a job on his town’s conservation board in Riga, N.Y., to empower himself and the industry by entering the very circles that were making his job more difficult. Even though Ottley says he’s been described by colleagues as “a little further right than Rush Limbaugh,” he says he’s an environmentalist.

“We are the ones who are out there in the environment every single day, and our job is to protect the environment in many, many ways,” he says. “One way is making sure the plants we plant are the right varieties so they’re resistant to certain diseases so we don’t need to continually deal with pest controls to correct problems. Our next step is making sure we’re feeding the plants correctly so we know what fertilizers to use, what’s needed and when and how it should be used and all the cultural practices, including watering, mowing and aerating.

“All these types of things can create a beautiful environment in a way that doesn’t harm it by using products as tools – using them only when we need to use them and then knowing which ones are going to do the least harm to the environment.”

With that attitude in mind, Ottley eventually worked his way up to chairman of the conservation board and worked on several county committees. In 1998, Ottley decided to run for a seat as a town councilman. He was elected and has been serving ever since. A year later, Ottley was named president of PLCAA where he was also known as a leader.

“Bob really showed his leadership when he was running PLCAA,” says Tom Delaney, director of government affairs, the Professional Landcare Network, Herndon, Va. “He’s very knowledgeable in finances and helped PLCAA be financially sound.”

THE ACTIVIST. Ottley’s introduction to government and the political process prepared him for an ensuing battle with county legislators over a proposed law that would require LCOs to notify customers’ neighbors of an application 48 hours prior to spraying. The impact of the law could be staggering, Ottley remembers thinking.

Companies would have to first find all the adjoining properties, then send notifications, then wait a couple of days for the notifications to arrive and then hope the weather cooperates so they aren’t delayed even further. “For a small company, it’s going to be a full-time job just to do the notifications, and they generally don’t have the resources to do that, and I don’t know that you’ll be able to pass all of the additional costs on to the customer,” he explains.

After the law was proposed in January, Ottley decided his only recourse was to join forces with competing lawn and tree care companies to effectively fight the bill. The group hired an attorney and a public relations firm to help present its case. Ottley says he invested $8,000 to $10,000 and 95 percent of his time from February to May fighting the bill.

Ottley and his colleagues spread the word around town about the law’s potential implications for the lawn care industry. They visited legislators, sent letters to customers and other green-industry businesses to garner support.

When it was time for the LCOs to make their case, instead of being combative, Ottley worked to bring both sides together in the hopes of working out a compromise. Ottley met with a breast cancer coalition that supported the law and a county executive to explain the LCOs position and represented the coalition at public hearings.

Ottley’s political background helped the LCOs communicate their message, Broccolo says. “His experience in those areas made it very comfortable for him to sit down in those meetings,” she recalls. “He actually said he understood where some of the politicians were coming from.”

Ottley and the team battled the bill for five months until county legislators finally approved it in June. The law takes effect in January 2006. Some LCOs have talked about getting the law overturned, but Ottley says he doesn’t see that happening. He’s now putting his efforts into how he’s going to operate his business successfully while following the new law. Ottley knows it won’t be easy but says he’s confident his business will remain profitable. “We do have some ideas to the point where I think we’ve got it figured out how we’ll be able to do this and stay profitable,” he says. “We’re not one of the little guys who is really going to struggle because of this, and I do expect to make some acquisitions.”

Other companies may not be so fortunate. “The fact is the way this law is written, it’s going to reduce the amount of competition in this industry,” Ottley explains. “Now, you would think I would be happy about that, but, again, I go back to my political beliefs that competition is good and when you start to eliminate or reduce it, you’re not doing the marketplace any favors.”

But the industry as a whole may have still benefited from Ottley’s efforts to fight the bill. “Our industry has a lack of public image – that we’re just a bunch of laborers who are maybe not quite so educated, and this effort showed the politicians, the community leaders, our newspaper editors and, most importantly, our customers how highly educated and how truly professional we are as business people,” Broccolo says.

Ottley is convinced if more LCOs don’t get involved in the political process, the industry will lose more than just it’s image. “I really think the reason we’re dealing with the pesticide laws we’re seeing passed in our state and probably the rest of the country is because small business owners are not getting involved in government,” Ottley says. “We’re leaving it to people who have never had to make sure the people working for them get their paycheck at the end of the day. It seems like we’ve created a bureaucracy, and we’ve got bureaucrats running it, and I blame small business owners – not just lawn care guys but everybody who owns small businesses.

“They have to get involved, and I don’t care whether it’s joining a political party and participating in that process or sitting on one of your zoning boards or planning boards or running for office. But you need to get involved because if you don’t, somebody is going to do it for you, and they’re not doing a very good job.”

For Ottley, getting involved means more than just industry-related activism. When U.S. troops were deployed to Iraq in 2003 for Operation Iraqi Freedom, Ottley offered free lawn care services to immediate family members of troops in the Rochester area, Delaney notes. He’s also volunteered with his employees and family members to help beautify Arlington National Cemetery in Washington. “He’s certainly showed his leadership in the community and the industry,” Delaney says. “He goes beyond what’s required of running a successful business. He’s always taken the time to have his people participate in activities in Washington, D.C., with the Arlington Cemetery and lobbying federally on the Hill. You add all of those things together and it adds up to a remarkable person.”