Providing phone and internet services isn’t that different from providing lawn care services. In fact, they’re “eerily similar,” says Aaron Clark, who has launched companies in both industries.
At the telecom company Clark started and ran for 11 years, technicians installed equipment for his patented technology, and then performed monthly maintenance. Now, Clark manages technicians who install landscapes and irrigation systems, and provide ongoing sprinkler service and lawn care maintenance.
“What the workforce is doing may be different, but managing that business was almost identical to managing this business,” says Clark, who purchased Desert Foothills Landscape in Cave Creek, Arizona, north of Phoenix, two years ago.
Although his experience outside of the green industry gives him a fresh perspective, Clark is no stranger to lawn care. He started his first lawn care company at age 12, mowing lawns around his neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. He expanded as customers asked for mulching, tree trimming, snow shoveling, and new flowerbeds. The oldest of six kids, Clark enlisted the help of his brothers, who managed the company when he left for college.
Clark’s business classes piqued his interest in retail and distribution. As part of his thesis for a final exam, Clark invented (and patented) a talking poster that sold millions, launching his career as a successful inventor and entrepreneur. After selling his last startup to a public company, Clark started looking for his next venture.
“It didn’t matter what industry it was in. I was looking for the best company,” he says. “I came across Desert Foothills because they were really known for their work. They were known around town as the best of the best.”
The owners, Mark and Juanita Wdowiak, were retiring after 20 years running the business. What they’d built caught Clark’s attention.
“The people and the culture at the company were fantastic. That’s what drew me to the company, and what draws customers to us,” he says. “What I’ve learned over the years in all the different ventures I’ve done, is if you’ve got good people, you’re going to be successful.”
Here’s how Clark harnessed that culture to foster a winning team.
Making employees feel important.
Clark knew that employees held the key to the company culture, so when he came onboard he listened to them with respect. He didn’t think of them as employees, but fellow professionals – and that nuance was critical.
“The stereotype is that landscaping companies aren’t always treated like ‘real’ companies,” he says. “But if you treat it like a real business, every worker is a professional – even if they might not be using sophisticated code, computers and servers like in telecom.
“The workforce deserves the same attention and respect as the highest level professional in any industry. If you look at it like that, then everyone begins to feel important.”
In fact, he says, “I don’t even like to call them employees, because I think a good manager feels like he works for them, not the other way around. It’s my job to keep them happy, satisfied, motivated and challenged. I’m constantly asking, ‘What tools do you need to do your job well?’”
When Clark started, the company rented cranes to transport large specimen cacti from its in-house nurseries to jobsites.
Not only was this a huge expense, but the logistics impacted timelines and budgets as crews sat around, waiting for cranes. Clark decided to purchase 14-ton and 90-ton cranes to ease the burden.
“It was a huge investment, but now we’re totally in control of the process and the timelines,” he says, which makes a difference, not just on projects, but in employee morale. “If you create a culture of success and you’ve got people who like to perform, they’d rather be working.”
Gears working together.
“When I came in, I wanted everyone to understand what everyone else does and how important it is,” Clark says. “If they understand that we’re all gears working together like a watch, then they don’t want to let each other down.
“They know another division is counting on them to perform, and if they don’t, they know how it’s going to jam them up.”
Clark regularly shares updates from each division. There’s the landscape division, which designs, builds and installs large, month-long landscape projects, accounting for about 65 percent of the company’s revenue.
Then there’s the specialty division, focused on smaller projects that only take a few days, like installing or repairing irrigation. The maintenance division is responsible for lawn care services like mowing, trimming and other gardening tasks that their high-end residential clientele request. The company also operates an off-site cactus farm where it grows plants for its projects, and a private on-site nursery where clients can select plants.
Once a quarter, the entire team of 150 comes together for an update about each department and other news and changes in the company.
“It gives them confidence that they’re not on an island,” he says. “It gives them a sense that they’re important to each other. Whenever I have to solve a dispute, that’s my go-to: I talk about the whole company, what’s going on around Them and what they’re affecting.
“It puts responsibility on their shoulders if they can get that picture of ‘we’ rather than ‘me.’”
Green Guides features a rotating panel of LCOs sharing their real-world experience on how to build and grow a successful lawn care business.
A house is only as strong as the foundation it’s built upon, as I learned during one of my many summer jobs as a young adult. So, as I began my first lawn care business in 1984, one of the first things I did, after buying an old used van, was to craft my core values and put them on paper. In reality, I did not have a clue as to where I was going, as I just wanted to start it up and make more money than I could as a teacher, which unfortunately was not hard to do.
I had no idea I’d build my first business into what it became, and was not even dreaming of building a third business to becoming one of the largest in our region. And I really had no mission statement at that time – I just wanted to get customers, pay the bills and stay in business. The mission statement came a few years later, after I’d figured a few things out.
But I knew then, and I know now, what I believe. We all have core values, personally, and in the business world. We use them daily, hourly, every minute to make decisions and govern our thoughts, words and actions. It was not that difficult for me to put the values, six of them at the time, on paper, as I started my business. It was easy that first year, because it was just me. The challenge begins when it grows to two, then 10, and eventually 50 or more people, who are charged with sharing those same values.
A look in the mirror.
In most cases, the core values of a company begin as a reflection of the founder or owner. As the company and the owner evolves, those values may change a little – a new one added, or one be taken away. In my case, the six core values remained pretty much the same with just minor edits in the wording.
“As the company and the owner evolves, those values may change a little – a new one added, or one be taken away.”
We added a 7th value about 10 years ago, a reflection of seeing the importance of taking care of our people, which was not even on my radar when I started. These core values stood the test for 31 years over three different companies, each one being successful. They served us very well and were the base of our success.
Values, in order to really have a positive impact on the company culture and performance, have to be fully believed in and implemented. Many companies have “words on a wall,” that are more hype than substance. And even in the best of companies, if we are honest, everyone can be susceptible to failing on core values. It happens in leadership, and on the front lines where our employees sometimes don’t work and act in a way that fully reflects the core values of our companies.
Must be a constant.
For company core values to be successful, they have to stand the test of time. Processes, people, markets and such will all change. True values should not change and be applicable over time. Values must apply to every worker in the company, so they must be broad strokes of how an employee views their work, how they act, the words they speak and how they perform their jobs. Values must prioritize what a company does, and how they do it. Values should show the role that a company plays in their community, and in our world.
Good core values will attract the type of candidates that are a good fit for the company. For example, if high morals and integrity are important enough to be listed as a core value, more than likely, you’ll attract folks who value that value.
Without a solid and relevant set of core values, a company will just drift, and eventually evolve into something that the founder may not even recognize. And those values, assuming they are the right values for the company, have to be fully bought into by leadership and all employees, for them to be even worth the paper they are written on. That will always be the challenge for owners and leadership making sure that your people actually demonstrate their belief in those values by their actions and work.
Brad Johnson is founder of LawnAmerica, which he sold to Swingle in 2016.
Words of Wilson will teach you each month to better understand, develop and manage your most valuable resource – your people.
As CEO, being the chief inspiration officer can be a lonely job. Especially if you feel you’re the only one doing the inspiring. But what if the inspiration bubbled up from the ranks? What if your employees were so excited and so motived and engaged, their spirit to win transformed your business?
True engagement is contagious. Your employees can’t be told to feel excited. People and teams are passionate when they feel their ideas, commitment and relationships they’ve formed in the greater workplace community are valued, and that their efforts count.
Getting your employees motivated about their jobs is not easy. But there are some things you can do to help re-engage employees’ sense of purpose and improve productivity. One way to do that is to promote from within.
A rising tide of knowledge lifts all boats.
Just as your rise to the top often relied on others helping you, your employees’ ability to grow in their roles depends on others helping them. In other words, it is a competitive advantage to work for a company where upward mobility is part of the culture and where continuous learning, and performance improvement, occurs at all levels. When your employees work together to advance the knowledge of the whole team, your company will always have a pipeline of people prepared to step up.
Helping your employees move up the ladder is good for morale and good for business. Employees that are performing and competing to get ahead drive your business forward. You don’t have to push them. All you have to do is manage it.
How to groom your company’s pipeline.
- Link training to your company’s overall strategy.
- Make career pathing and pipeline management part of your core values.
- Identify organizational obstacles to successful learning and remove them.
- Provide opportunities for stretch assignments and training across functions.
- Invite employees into problem solving; challenge them to come up with solutions to exercise critical thinking.
- Develop a career path roadmap that includes stepping stone positions to help employees gain skills and confidence.
- Encourage a progressive bucket brigade of people training their replacements to preserve institutional knowledge and best practices.
- Make smart recruiting, employee referrals and formal and informal training operational priorities.
Identify high performing employees early on and nurture.
- Look for natural ability, the desire to take on challenges and responsibilities, and the ability to communicate.
- People that demonstrate strategic perspective and clarity of focus.
- People that demonstrate an interest in results and in your expectations for success.
- People that are “we not me” and who value teamwork.
- People that behave ethically and can represent your company in your community.
- People that reflect aptitude for learning, expertise and agility, and who can encourage others to succeed.
- People that have the courage to make tough decisions and take calculated risks.
- People with emotional intelligence who demonstrate empathy, learn from mistakes, work well with others and can be effective leading change.
Hire smart. Close the deal with high performers.
- Have a true career path model to showcase opportunities in your company for advancement.
- Provide context for growth. Offer them a career not just a job.
- Take an interest in them personally, learn what makes them tick and what their passions are.
- Invite them to spend time understanding your organization’s strategic viewpoint and meeting employees representing different roles so they can visualize what it would be like to have an impact in your business and find a sense of purpose.
In game adjustments.
I believe in stressing that it is up to them to get promoted, not up to me to promote them. I stress the need to train their replacement. In my company, we have a coaching-mentoring culture, placing more emphasis on regular coaching than annual performance reviews. We call it, “coaching during the game.” As in sports, we course correct in real time. We do not wait for year-end reviews.
Bruce Wilson is principal of green industry consulting firm Bruce Wilson & Company.
Travels with Jim follows Jim Huston around the country as he visits with landscapers and helps them understand their numbers to make smarter decisions.
During college, I’d often work construction jobs in the summer. Occasionally, I’d work on a dairy farm in Maine owned by an old-timer named Lincoln Partridge. We called him “Link.” Link had euphemisms for most facets of life. “Three things are impossible,” he’d say. “First is climbing a fence that’s leaning toward ya. Second is kissing a girl that’s leaning away from ya. Third is making someone else successful.” Often he’d add, “It’s like trying to push a rope. You can’t do it.”
It’s what I do.
I often go into the offices of new clients who are either losing money or barely breaking even at the end of the year. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the problem is in their pricing, production or lack of volume – or a combination of all three.
For potential new clients, once I explain how I might help them improve their bottom line and provide some references, it’s somewhat of a “no-brainer” to hire me to help fix the problem. Either you want to make money or you don’t. It really comes down to doing a simple cost-benefit analysis. “If I pay Jim $X, what are the chances that I’ll get back more than $X?”
Business entrepreneurs are constantly conducting hundreds – perhaps thousands – of cost-benefit analysis scenarios when making business decisions. “If I purchase a $60,000 skid-steer, how will it impact my bottom line? How will it improve productivity? How might such a purchase lessen my risk by making me less dependent upon labor?” This is how successful business entrepreneurs think. They’re constantly analyzing the margin. If I do $X, will I realize revenue more than $X.
I insist that my potential new clients subject me and my services to such an analysis. If they don’t understand the concept or can’t do such an analysis, perhaps they shouldn’t be in business for themselves. If they refuse to do such an analysis, they definitely should not own a business. And I probably don’t want to work with them.
Fix then bid.
Somewhere on the interstate in the Midwest, I received a call from a young green industry contractor with a design/build installation company. He had talked with some of my clients, whom he knew and who once had problems similar to the ones he had.
He was considering employing my services. His sales the previous year were just shy of $1 million. However, at year’s end he had barely broken even. He knew that something in his company was wrong but had no idea what it might be.
We talked for about 20 minutes. He told me that he fully expected to sell and install at least $1.5 million in 2017. I told him that I could come to his office in about 10 days and we could diagnose and fix his problem(s) at that time. The 2017 season was about to start in full force and it would be good to correct whatever was wrong before he priced and installed a lot of work. For whatever reason, he thought that this timeline was too aggressive and he decided to do the $1.5 million in sales prior to addressing the problem.
The logic of his decision totally baffled me. He did $900,000 in sales and barely broke even. Now he wanted to do twice that amount without addressing or fixing the problem(s). Why would you not want to first fix the problem?
My conclusion was: 1. He either did not understand the purpose of a business within a capitalistic system. 2. He wasn’t really serious about identifying and fixing the issues. 3. A combination of both 1 and 2.
Don’t twist their arm.
Toward the end of this conversation, I was careful not to attempt to talk this young contractor into a consultation. It’s my philosophy that a new client needs to do his or her homework, talk with references, have clear and realistic expectations and really want to work with me. Arm-twisting is counter-productive. Otherwise, he or she won’t be mentally and emotionally prepared for our time together.
Reflecting later on this phone call, I wondered why this young green industry contractor didn’t get it. Did he not understand that the purpose of a business is to make a profit? Perhaps he didn’t understand how to do a cost-benefit analysis? Or perhaps I did not give it my best shot?
It was then that I remembered “Link” Partridge’s advice and his three things that are impossible. You encourage and support people and you give it your best shot. But when it’s all said and done, and in the final analysis, you can’t push a rope!
Jim Huston runs J.R. Huston Consulting, a green industry consulting firm.