When Lauren Morales joined Architectural Land Design nearly a decade ago, the Houston native was simply trying to find a way to help her family. She adopted her company, just a 15-minute drive from her childhood home, as another family in the process.
She was 17 years old when she first landed a job with ALD, where she’s been a receptionist, bookkeeper, office manager and project manager, the role she currently has out in the field with her crew. She first joined because her mother had been in a major car accident and could no longer work, which motivated Morales to jump on securing part-time work.
She found an ALD listing on Craigslist for an open receptionist position, but they ended up bringing her on as a full-time employee instead. Morales was quickly convinced that amidst a scary time in her life, she had landed at the right spot.
“It was definitely stressful, but I was ready for the challenge,” Morales says. “Even at ALD, we stand by family as number one. It’s a mom-and-pop company. It first started with a mother and son, so we’ve always had strong family values here.”
Growing up quickly.
Naomi Valdez has often wondered if her daughter is an “old soul.”
“She needed to be the breadwinner, which of course made me feel bad, but we were stuck,” Valdez says of Morales. “She’s been working since she was about 10 years old. Always been an honors student, always had perfect attendance, always trying to be number one but not in a conceited way. Everything she touches turns to gold.”
Valdez remembers Morales tending to their family gardens growing up, trying to grow tomatoes, jalapenos and – Morales’s favorite — roses. Even when the plants wouldn’t quite cooperate the way she had hoped, Valdez says Morales was determined to figure out ways to make them blossom.
It’s this same determination that got Morales inducted into the National Honor Society in high school and earned her several perfect attendance awards as a student. She attended Lone Star College for certifications in business management and is taking Harvard classes now toward a business degree.
“Especially with starting fresh out of high school, really absorbing everything has been a continual challenge in a good way,” Morales says. “Being that it’s a small firm, I’ve been able to wear multiple hats. Being 17, I was really young. I had to learn business management, team building, sales and even the basics of QuickBooks data entry. I have had to learn many, many skills, and it’s all been self-taught.”
The right relationships.
Morales says there were two things she noticed right away in working with her crews: first, everyone else at the company is male – she’s the only female on the ALD payroll; second, many of the employees spoke Spanish, which Morales could hardly speak at all when she first started at the company.
Morales says she hasn’t experienced any sort of major issues in directing men (she’s leading eight this season), especially since she emphasized creating a strong relationship with each individual when she first became a manager. Small details like buying the crews new socks or gloves go a long way toward building those relationships, Morales says.
Her boss, Gary Andreas, says Morales has even purchased meals and hygienic supplies for her crews, investing in their lives on a nearly daily basis.
“She has created a warm environment for growth amongst those she works with,” Andreas wrote on his nomination form. “Her multi-faceted nature has enabled her to be an asset to the business and her peers.”
Of course, the language barrier that existed also caused some complications. Her parents knew Spanish growing up, and she took Spanish in high school, but Morales did not consider herself bilingual until she self-taught herself the intricacies of the language on the job.
Valdez says she is fluent in Spanish, as were her late mother (Morales’s grandmother) and Morales’s father, so she wasn’t surprised to find that her daughter picked up the language with so much ease.
“She’s like a sponge and she enjoys learning more and more and more and more and never stops,” Valdez says.
But it was mainly through nonverbal communication with employees where Morales learned industry-specific words, and they taught each other the English and Spanish translations simply by pointing at an object.
“When I found myself needing to communicate with my team, we were able to feed off one another,” Morales says. “We were able to collaborate in a way where we know body language is universal.”
As long as Morales is out in the field working with her employees, she feels she’s gained their respect. She says focusing on the details helps prevent any major issues from coming up.
“Leading by example is one thing that (ALD has) really taught me, and just not to let a language barrier or even if you’re male or female get in the way of getting a job done,” she says.
Outside of work.
Valdez says her daughter works relentlessly at ALD because she feels so attached to it. In many ways, she’s grown up with the company — at a time when she needed the work most, Morales found a business that turned into a family.
On July 11, she will have been with the company for exactly a decade. Andreas says Morales aims to become a partner in the company by the end of this year.
“That’s as if it were her own baby or her own company,” Valdez says. “She’s been there so long, it’s like her blood now.”
That’s not to say Morales doesn’t have other interests outside of work, though many of them still relate to the green industry. She’s known to put in well over 40 hours of work at the company, but outside of ALD, she also found a way to remain connected to the outdoors while also giving back.
This is through the Tomball Community Garden, where they grow plenty of organic produce that gets donated to a local foodbank.
Plus, Morales continues to educate herself on the various facets of the green industry outside of work hours. Valdez says she’s seen her daughter trying to learn some basics of pool maintenance and irrigation repair.
Meanwhile, Morales says she’s always seeking continued education outside of work hours to find new ways to help out.
“I’ve always been connected with nature,” Morales says, “but joining ALD at 17 really enabled me to get more in depth with it.
In our inaugural technology report in 2018, 58% of landscapers said customers could pay for services online. In this report, that number jumps to 77%. That’s a great sign that more customers are embracing technology to make their lives — and their customers’ — easier.
Another area that shows the industry is embracing software more – when asked what types of technology they use at their company, 79% said mobile technology like smartphones and apps, which is a 42% increase from last year’s report.
Just a few years ago, Chris Duckworth, owner of Duck Works Lawn Care in Cobden, Ill., lost something very important. That’s when he knew his dependence on paper needed to go.
“Paper got really ridiculous in my life and I was sick of it,” he says. “I lost my calendar one day and realized that 100% of everything I had was in that calendar.”
Not only was Duckworth losing track of things, but he was also having trouble staying in contact with all his employees, which can get up to 20 during peak season. The company is expected to do just over $700,000 in revenue in 2021.
“I needed to get information to another crew, and I was always writing everything down and for a guy who works with his hands, it doesn’t feel very good to write a lot,” he says.
“Through a need to really communicate better, we started using some apps and basic things that I could use instead of paper.
At Maldonado Nursery & Landscaping in San Antonio, Eric Greer, director of accounting and financial reporting, says the company is using technology more as it focuses on the future.
“We definitely believe that technology is critical to position ourselves for the growth we feel is coming,” he says. “We are utilizing technology to secure information, so we can make good decisions. Greer says the company, which ranked #60 on this year’s Top 100 List, recently started using a new customer relationship management (CRM) software geared directly toward landscaping businesses.
“It allows us to manage our purchase order process better, and there’s revenue recognition, billing and all of those things,’ he says. “It helps us to capture those costs critical to making sure we’re bidding work at a price point that’s profitable.”
Greer adds this is especially important when it comes to maintenance work.
“The margins are pretty thin and there tends to be a lot of competition in that space, so we are always looking for data that helps us know what our costs are and then manage them better,” he says.
Anne Roberts, president of the Chicago-based Anne Roberts Gardens, says profitability is also her driving factor for prioritizing technology.
“It definitely helps in terms of bidding and making sure you’re bidding jobs properly,” she says. “When you go to bid the same job the following year, you can really look and see ‘did we bid this correctly? Did we perform at a profit?’ If not, the technology allows you to change your pricing, so that you are profitable.”
Roberts also uses landscape-based software. “The CRM is a lot more than just a regular CRM,” she says. “It’s time tracking, it’s invoicing – it goes directly over to QuickBooks, which is nice – everything is centrally located and that’s really helpful.”
Efficiency is another reason Roberts says her business relies on technology.
“I’m sure it’s important to larger companies but my time is even more important because I don’t have 20 guys out there bringing in income. It’s just two of us. The more efficient we can make ourselves — the more money we make.” CJ Kowalke, owner, Lawns & More
“We use technology to be able to track all our time on our jobs individually, and we use it out in the field in terms of crews signing in and out of jobs and all of our payroll is directly tied into that program as well,” she says.
Even though his company is small, it’s just him and his brother-in-law in terms of full-time employees, CJ Kowalke says he went ahead and dove into the technology world to improve efficiency as well.
“When I started out, I was told by a lot of people, ‘You’re too small. Once you’re a bigger company it matters, but for small companies, technology isn’t worth it.’ But I’ve actually found the opposite to be true,” he says.
“I’m sure it’s important to larger companies but my time is even more important because I don’t have 20 guys out there bringing in income. It’s just two of us. The more efficient we can make ourselves – the more money we make.”
What’s worth the expense?
Kowalke, who owns Lawns & More in Kendallville, Ind., uses a field-service software that he pays $130 a month for it. Kowalke says his business is projected to do about $200,000 in revenue this year.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned with the technology, is you’ve got to pay to play,” he says. “We tried some free versions. I got very frustrated with them and thought they weren’t worth the hassle, so I just gave up on them.”
Kowalke acknowledges that some smaller companies may be hesitant to make the monthly investments. “It can be a little bit daunting,” he says, mentioning it’s worth every penny. “My only regret is I didn’t do it sooner.”
Roberts says finding technology that fits the right price point was also important for her, and adds she was more inclined to go with a subscription-based model, where you aren’t committed for the long-haul.
“What I like about what we use, is that it’s affordable,” she says. “It’s a monthly subscription, so you don’t have a big upfront cost. A lot of other companies you have to pay $8,000 to $20,000 just to get in, and then they want a percentage of your sales, too.”
According to Roberts, the most important thing to keep in mind when selecting a software, or any type of technology, is how will it grow with your company over time? Will you have to continue replacing it as you scale up?
“My advice would be don’t buy more than you really need and get a system that you can grow into, and add and utilize more,” she says. “At some point, we’re probably going to have to get into something bigger, but for now I’ve used it for many years, and it’s been keeping up with us.”
For most of his technology needs, Duckworth prefers to go in the opposite direction — and sticks with free or low-cost choices.
“The margins in lawn care aren’t great, especially, in southern Illinois, so I didn’t have a lot of money to spend,” he says. “So, I had to find something that was free. The ones I’ve paid for have been the least productive for me, and I think it’s because they’re too advanced. I don’t have time to sit down and learn the whole thing, and then if I can’t figure it out in a short time, I don’t have time to train everyone on how to use it.”
Duckworth did his research and attended a few virtual events and through that he learned how to start utilizing free, online spread sheets with his crews.
“They clock in and out of each yard through it. So, we can see in real time where they are and where they’ve been,” he says. “That was the other thing about before, when we were just writing everything, I couldn’t ever find them. Obviously if they are working, they won’t be answering their phone, so I’d drive to a yard and they wouldn’t be there, I’d drive to another and they weren’t there either…I’d try to get ahead of them and I’d still miss them, and it got very frustrating.”
To outfit his employees with all these free apps, Duckworth says each crew has its own cellphone with all of them downloaded to it. “My foreman keeps his phone,” Duckworth adds. “Everybody else leaves their phone at the office at the end of the day.”
One of the most beneficial apps Duckworth has started using is a free, family tracking app.
86% of respondents say their companies budget between 0%-5% for software expenses.
“If the guys aren’t clocking in and out perfectly, or they’re driving, I can look on their and see where they are,” he says. “It was cheaper than all the other business ones, and I can create ‘pings.’ So, for the town to the north of us, I set it up at the furthest part south. So, when they reach that location, it pings. And in case I forgot to add something to their schedule that day, I can see they’re entering and exiting that area.”
Duckworth says that even as his business expands, he doesn’t feel the need to spend a lot of money on fleet tracking.
“You can pay hundreds of dollars a month for GPS trackers on every vehicle,” he says. “And it’ll tell you to the second where they are, but I don’t really need that. I just need to find them when I need them.”
Roberts says her company uses traditional vehicle tracking technology, but it’s more for reassurance when questions arise, then keeping tabs on those out in the field.
“We do have GPS on our trucks,” she says. “It helps us go back and just verify where people have been. There’s been times where people say we haven’t been there, and we can say ‘Yes we were, we have GPS on our trucks. We were there at this time, and on this date.”
Value outside the bottom line.
All four say embracing technology has allowed their companies to grow, thus increasing revenue. However, they all measure its return on investment in other elements of the business.
Greer says he makes very few decisions without first consulting the information garnered by the software.
“I tend to be a data guy, so we focus on technology that provides us better, more timely data,” he says. “In a space where you’re looking at thinner margins than you’d like at times, having that data in front of you can help you manage a lot better.”
Getting a better look at the financials is also a key benefit to Roberts.
“It’s about being able to really understand your numbers,” she says. “Sometimes you have to let go of jobs, because the technology will tell you it’s not worth having that job. You’re losing money at it. Also, a lot of companies don’t understand their overhead. I think the technology really shows you what your overhead is.”
And for Kowalke, he measures the technology’s success simply in time saved.
“It handles everything from our estimating to our invoicing,” he says. “When I started, we had about 50 lawn customers that we serviced weekly. So, I would make a note that said we mowed on this date and it took us this long. Then, at the end of the month I would take all those notes, type them up and do the invoices. It would take me anywhere from 10 to 12 hours.”
Now, that process is cut down to just half an hour, and Kowalke says all he has to do is double-check things.
Kowalke says using the technology has allowed him to stand out from the competition, as his business appears more professional. And customers are now able to pay online, which he says they love.
“The biggest thing has been details not falling through the cracks,” he says. “The level of service we’ve been able to provide has expanded. If they ask us for something we make sure it gets put into the computer and not forgotten. And if I give them a price, it’s in there and we don’t accidently charge them more and have an upset customer. Those elements have been huge for us.”
Combating common challenges.
Despite all the advantages of technology, it is sure to come with its challenges. Roberts says that sometimes people try to blame the technology for mistakes.
“You get people who say, ‘my phone was broken that day, or my phone wasn’t charged.’ There’s people who will give you every excuse in the book for why they don’t use it, but at that point I have a conversation with them,” she says. “I tell them it’s absolutely important and absolutely necessary and not optional.”
Kowalke adds that the onboarding process when instituting a new system can be overwhelming and time consuming.
“There was a learning curve with it,” he says. “I spent a lot of hours learning how to run the system and getting customers in there. But even through all that, I never thought ‘I don’t think this is worth it.’ It was totally worth it.”
42% of respondents say their company depends on technology and software a lot more compared to five years ago.
His best advice for this is to enter all the necessary data right away, and then slowly add in more as you start working with the system. “You can quickly add all your customers and get it running without a whole lot of trouble. Then, you can go back in and all the information you want into it,” he says.
Greer agrees saying that onboarding always takes more time than you think, and what consultants tell you, it should.
“That was one of our biggest challenges was just being patient,” he says. “You’ve got to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
For companies who are going from one system to another, Greer suggests using both for a while to make the transition easier.
“Allow plenty of time for parallel processing,” he says. “Yes, it’s double the work, but it gives you that point and counterpoint. If the old system is processing it one way and you get these results… and we’re processing it through the new system and we’re getting similar results, then fantastic. We can move forward. Or, if it’s giving us different results, then we need to go back and diagnosis where the differences are coming from.”
Greer says he’d recommend parallel processing for at least two close cycles, but he’s seen companies keep it up for nearly six months just to make sure they work out all the kinks.
Take the time to train extensively.
But one of the toughest challenges when introducing new technology always seems to be getting everyone to use it.
“I’ve found that it’s helpful to get your early-adopters on board first. These are the folks that will be the main drivers of that change, and who get excited about the change and new opportunities,” Greer says.
“But you’ve also got to spend some time with the late adopters and those who are going to fight you every second of the way. Sit down with them, answer all your questions and be patient with them.”
Duckworth says his 22- and 23-year-old employees embraced the change immediately.
“It was a benefit to run a crew, because that meant you got to be in charge of that phone, and that’s a lot of responsibility,” he says.
But he’s had a few employees who wanted nothing to do with the phones.
“We had some guys who were much older, and it was a challenge,” Duckworth says. “I bought new phones over the winter and they’re still struggling with them now. If anything happens that wasn’t supposed to, they just shut down.”
Roberts says plenty training is the only sure way to make everyone more comfortable with technology.
“We try to give everybody as much training as possible, and sometimes people still don’t want to use it,” she says. “But it is a requirement of your employment here, to be able to use it, so people get on board pretty quick at that point.”
Roberts adds that if after all that training there are employees still not willing to embrace the technology, she offers them one last option.
“We’ll give them as much training as they want…at that point we tell them if they still continue to not use it and need more training, then they can come in on a Saturday on their own time, and we’ll be very happy to show them how to do it,” she says. “It usually moves it along.”
As president of the Chicago-based Diaz Group, Rafael Diaz was looking for a better way to manage his stress. He found meditation and became completely captivated by it. When his team noticed, they were quick to laugh.
“It started as a joke,” he says. “They used to make fun of me, especially my family. Back when I started my own self-development deal, I was a high-strung person…I started to get into mediation to learn to control my emotions. When you’re a business owner, you get so many problems in a day. I had to find some way to think clearly.”
After his business partners and employees noticed a change in his demeanor, Diaz says they started to get curious, asking him questions about meditation.
“One day I introduced it to the company. I paid a professional to come to the Christmas party and he taught us all to mediate. A lot of people really took it up. Now, we do it about once a month,” Diaz says.
Since then, Diaz has noticed change in how his employees are handling pressure.
“I made a promise with my business partners...that as long as I was president of this company, that everybody will always be learning.” Rafael Diaz, president of Diaz Group
“It’s about convincing people that it’s a way to compartmentalize your thoughts and be able to make better decisions because your mind isn’t all over the place,” he says. “One of the things that it’s helped is that in our company, there’s never panic. You don’t see anxiety in the company itself.”
Diaz says most employees practice meditation every day on their own and once a month together. He would like to eventually make it a part of the team’s daily routine in the office.
In the early years of the business, which was founded in 2007, Diaz says he worked with several consultants who taught him what he should be focusing on when growing the company like the culture and customer retention. Diaz says that approach really sunk in for him and now the company’s culture is at the forefront of everything.
“We started working a lot on our company culture and defining our values,” he says. “From there, our quality improved because employees were happy and we started doing more training, so that helped the quality, too.”
Diaz’s philosophy for building up his company’s culture was pretty simple – just have fun.
“Don’t be afraid to have fun,” he says. “I feel like some companies always want to have that uptight ‘we’re down to business’ mindset and we have to be OK with having fun once in a while.”
To lift spirits, Diaz Group employees celebrate everything.
“For Diaz Group, everything is a big event,” Diaz says. “There is not one day we don’t have fun at work. Whenever a rep has a sale, we sound this airhorn and everyone claps and hits the walls. The office goes up in a roar.”
Gathering together for a meal, even at a social distance, is another way the company boosts its culture.
“With COVID it’s been super hard because we can’t have barbecues and dinners, so that’s been a challenge for us,” Diaz says. “But even just eating lunch together can be an event.”
Never stop learning.
Diaz Group’s revenue is $10 million annually, with 15% growth each year. One of the most crucial components of the company is its high customer retention rate of 92%.
“[One consultant] gave us a really good idea on how to structure the business and to always keep in mind that selling is the most important part of the business in order to have those customers come in,” he says. “So, we started learning more about sales, marketing and stuff that we needed to know to keep a flow of customers coming in.”
As a small company, Diaz admits his team was somewhat passive in its early years, but a consultant taught them to be more active in their sales approach.
“We were waiting for the phone to ring,” he says. “But in reality, it’s not about waiting for the phone to ring but about proactive approaches to contact the customer first. Nobody wants to be cold-calling or prospecting, so it was hard… but we had to have a different approach.”
Diaz learned that the services they provided were adding value to customers’ lives and that should be at the cornerstone of their sales pitch.
“I trained everyone in the company to be sales oriented,” he says. “So, no matter what your position was, you were trained in sales. Even if you’re in accounting and you answer the phone, you can help the sales team and find a lead for them.”
Diaz adds another way they seek out new customers – and keep them – is looking within their existing customer base.
“We ask for referrals,” he says, “And it always works. Our customer really is that property manager or facility manager. So, when we talk to them, we ask them to refer friends from the industry. It usually goes further than the cold-calling and the door knocking.”
But learning about sales and marketing wasn’t enough for Diaz. He took the advice of the consultant to heart and strived to improve his leadership skills.
“He started telling me that I needed to work on myself every single day and work on self-development for the rest of my life if I wanted to be a leader,” he says. “He told me to read books, watch YouTube videos, go to coaches… and he was right. If I wanted to be a good leader, I had to learn how to be one. I wasn’t just a boss anymore. I was a leader.”
Diaz says he especially connected with books by John Maxwell.
“He’s a great author and I read all his books,” he says. “The one part I loved was where it said you have to learn to create memories with your people intentionally. I never thought about it that way – I always thought memories were created spontaneously.”
Participating in a Dale Carnegie course also had a massive impact on Diaz. So much so, that it has become a requirement for certain Diaz Group employees.
“There’s this really cool course about how to influence and win people over…I liked it so much, that now if anyone comes into management, they have to take the course,” he says. “So, they can learn how to work on relationships. It teaches people a good way to approach other people. It’s about learning how to read people and understand them and their point of view.”
Diaz adds he instructs those who participate in the course to teach what they’ve learned to those they manage in order to share the knowledge and help everyone grow.
The course is not the only educational requirement for employees. Diaz says that each segment of the business, from sales to production, have their own weekly educational days. During lunch on these days, employees read and discuss books, watch training videos, lead workshops and more.
“I made a promise with my business partners, which are my two brothers and my dad, that as long as I was the president of this company, that everybody will always be learning. It’s helped us become very humble and always try to learn something from everyone,” Diaz says.And that starts with the hiring process.
“Right away when we’re interviewing, if that person thinks they know it all already, they probably won’t work well within our company, because we’re all learning and if they don’t want to learn, they won’t fit in with the culture,” Diaz says.
Worth the work.
Between the educational and self-development opportunities, Diaz says his team has the skills to handle anything that comes at them, which has also contributed to the company’s growth. “It gives them better decision-making when they are stressed out,” he says.
Diaz says that whether it’s meditation, leadership courses or another form of self-development, in order to get employees on board, you have to make them see why it’s necessary. And don’t give up if there’s some hesitation or pushback at the beginning.
“You just got to keep at it,” he says. “Explain the value in it. I don’t think companies can afford not to do it.”
And Diaz says because of this, self-development is an integral part of the company’s budget that proves its worth year over year.
“You can measure how much money you spend on this type of development, but you can’t measure how much you lose if your people aren’t developed,” he says. “At the end of the day, if I don’t develop and train people to be better, I start losing them. It’s happened in the past.”
But Diaz says even if you train your employees religiously, you will never retain them all.
“People always ask me why I train them so much if they’re going to leave, and I say that’s the wrong way to think about it,” he says. “I always say that if other companies aren’t recruiting my guys, that means I don’t have good enough guys.”
An open-door policy.
With all of the self-development, the culture at Diaz Group has become incredibly family-oriented.
But that aspect of the culture is balanced out with expectations and clear policies in place, so everyone knows what is expected of them.
“People might think that if you treat them like family, they might get away with not working hard, or putting effort into it. We had to learn that balance,” he says. “It’s a family, but a family where everyone is working at their highest level.”
Now when people ask Diaz what the company’s secret is, he doesn’t just tell them – he shows them.
“We open our doors to every contractor here in the city to come to our office and see what we do,” he says. “We don’t have any secrets.”
“I always say that if other companies aren’t recruiting my guys, that means I don’t have good enough guys.” Rafael Diaz, president of Diaz Group
Over the past few years, Diaz says he’s had 10 or so companies come and tour Diaz Group’s headquarters.
“We do a lot of it through social media,” he says. “We’re big on social media. We’re uploading stories all the time, or Facebook Lives, inviting people over and saying the door is open.”
At first, Diaz says his family was hesitant on the idea.
“At the beginning, they thought I was nuts,” he says. “Now everybody is on board.”
Diaz acknowledges he’s gotten to where he is by having people open the door and teach him, and he likes to return the favor. He adds that the questions people have most often are on people themselves, and how to retain good employees. But he gives general business advice, too.
“At the end of the day, I think life is too short for secrets or closing doors on people,” he says. “Anyone who wants to come in and learn how to do a proposal – great. I’ll teach you.”
He notes there are some things that are off-limits when it comes to the financials.
“I won’t show you my bank statements or accounting stuff, but I’ll show you how I got there,” Diaz says. “It’s not a big deal and it’s pretty easy.”
So, when a business owner asks Diaz about how to grow their business, not only does Diaz offer his assistance but he encourages them to ask everyone they can for support.
“The number one key is to ask for help,” he says. “Talk to other people. Also, the first step is recognizing you need help and accepting that you need help. Because if you don’t believe you need help, then you’ll never make any changes. It’s about being open-minded.”