A new structure

Features - Cover Story

After a number of conversations with employees, John Munie organized his team to improve company culture at Focal Pointe Outdoor Solutions.

January 20, 2021

"Any time we have a problem, we make our team part of it. This is not John Munie sitting on top of a throne dictating how we're going to be navigating the virus. My life improved the second I improved the company, and I want to continue that."
All Photos courtesy of Focal Pointe Outdoor Solutions

Employees know what they want out of a company, and if yours doesn’t check all the boxes, they’ll find it somewhere else.

That’s the perspective of John Munie, and perhaps that’s why his team at Focal Pointe Outdoor Solutions headquartered in Missouri is so hellbent on constant improvement. Munie, the company’s president, says employees need a fair wage – that’s a given. But then, Munie says the best company owners are the ones who start thinking beyond the paycheck.

“If you really think about it, what matters more? At the end of the day, you’re going to make a nickel if you run a decent-sized company,” Munie says. “When I take our people out to dinner for their (work) anniversary, I ask them: What are your dreams for the company and what are your dreams for yourself?”

It’s these types of conversations that helped Munie conclude his company needed to do more. He says the culture at Focal Pointe was always strong, but with the recommendation of a consulting group, the company still set up five committees dedicated to improving all facets of the business. In particular, Munie wanted to examine marketing, innovation, safety, team education and charity work.

The company had a strategic meeting in November where they established the committees, and leadership collaboratively helped place employees in each committee where they felt the employees’ strengths fit best.

And whether it’s the newly launched Focal Pointe University – a program that will teach employees valuable life skills like English as a second language, financial literacy and more – or it’s workplace safety, Munie says his company is always looking to improve. And, despite the pandemic, Munie’s goals have not changed. He hopes his company is better in 2020 than it was in 2019.

“Are some of the initiatives we wanted to do going to get done? No,” Munie says. “But are we going to get the emotional benefit of overcoming something and adversity? Absolutely. We just shift that focus a little bit.”

Munie says the company is currently hovering around 185 employees and earned $17.8 million in revenue last season. They handle largely commercial accounts like the Enterprise Rent-a-Car headquarters and nearby Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals, plus some larger residential clients.

Though maintenance makes up about 50% of what the company does, Munie expects some drop in revenue this year because less people are doing enhancements and construction projects.

Even still, Munie says he’s optimistic. The committees meet with Munie at least once a month and then weekly or bi-weekly on their own volition.

“Our goals are not changing,” he says. “Our bar is not lowered for the year. Even if we’re dealing with adversity, that doesn’t mean our customer should notice. We still expect to perform very well on our customer satisfaction.”

After a strategic planning meeting in November, Munie helped the team devise five committees that would help Focal Pointe improve in areas that aligned with the team's mission statement.

Lessons learned.

Focal Pointe spent the winter constructing a 30x30-foot expansion to their main office, complete with a projector, whiteboard, two large flatscreen televisions, a sink and a fridge. But by the time it was actually finished in early February, the pandemic started to ravage the nation and the company needed to postpone its new Focal Pointe University.

Even though the University was paused, the space did come in handy, creating a spot for small company meetings during COVID-19. Munie says they were able to keep employees socially distant because of the extra room in the office; however, they weren’t able to use the new add-on until August for the education component.

That’s where Sandra Gonzalez comes in. The director of talent and development helps find educators for Focal Pointe University. She says as of now, the company brings in an English teacher twice a week to educate the employees who largely speak Spanish fluently.

She adds that Focal Pointe has always hired outsiders to help teach lessons, but they’re trying to create concrete curriculums and plans so education is ongoing.

They’ll do classes on how to become an account manager next and will eventually move into more life skills lectures, such as long-term planning for a child’s cost of college.

“If we don’t have the right skills in house, we look for somebody to come in and teach those classes,” Gonzalez says. “We’re not going to try and teach something we’re not familiar with.”

Once the pandemic settles and groups can crowd together again, Gonzalez says they’ll be able to hold up to 50 people in the office extension. This means they’ll save the future costs of renting out a hotel conference center or other space for their larger group outings.

In the meantime, the committee that gets together to discuss Focal Pointe University will continue structuring its education paths for the employees.

“As time goes on, it will only get better because we will get feedback,” Gonzalez says. “That’s our goal is to get better every year and streamline it so that it is seamless a few years from now.”

Focal Pointe employs almost 200 people and earned $17.8 million in revenue last season.

The next big thing.

When Elyse Harpstrite first joined Focal Pointe seven years ago, only five people in the whole company used their software program. It was clunky and outdated, she says, and it wasn’t particularly aesthetically pleasing, either.

That’s a stark contrast to today. The company had paperless time sheets within 18 months of implementing its newest software four years ago, and crews were clocking in on their mobile devices. Now they can even track materials used and leave notes for others in the company about a particular jobsite. The communication is largely digital, and that’s been huge in the COVID-19 world.

Harpstrite admits that change didn’t come easily. As she was formerly the contracts manager (now an account manager), she paved the way in terms of implementation with the new software.

“I think with any kind of change, you have a sense of panic. That panic comes from different personalities. Some people love a challenge, love a change. Some people say, ‘I’m good here. This is working here. What are we doing?’” she says. “When we came out with it, we knew it’d be a process and that we couldn’t download everything on everyone at one time.”

Harpstrite says they gave crews three to five months to figure out mobile time sheets while also still documenting everything on paper. This way, management could turn around and educate employees on why they did or didn’t use the software properly. They also rolled it out in increments, starting first with the people they felt most apt to working with a new software.

“Instead of a manager encouraging others to use the technology, (you should) get their peers to encourage others,” she says.

Now, Harpstrite sits on the team’s innovations committee. They discuss a wide variety of technological advancements and are currently exploring ways to streamline their new jobs and finding new ways to track their equipment. She says another recent focus has been enhancing the customer experience, which Harpstrite says are all about the little touches. If, for instance, an employee at a client’s home notices carpenter bees, they’ll notify the customer and provide references for businesses they trust to take care of the issue. All of that information is backlogged in the team’s files and can be pulled whenever an issue arises.

“When our clients walk by, you’re just (someone) on a mower,” she says. “But once you wave, you’re more of a person. We’re not just a land care company; we’re their partners.”

Improving the culture around safety was a focus at Focal Pointe, which involved embracing technology. After an incident, crews are alerted of it as a reminder to avoid repeating the mistake.

Streamlining safety.

Weekly meetings have helped change the culture around safety, says Raymundo Ramos, the team’s safety director and foreman on one of the crews. Each team manager creates an annual schedule with their crews to discuss seasonal issues. For instance, they talk about how to stay safe while pruning when pruning season starts.

Ramos says proactivity is better than reactivity, but one thing that’s also helped is the technology. When there’s an incident out in the field, Ramos and management can send accident reports cautioning the remainder of the crews to avoid repeating that mistake. Then, the next morning, Ramos and the team will go over the safety infraction again in greater detail.

“We are very focused on identifying obstacles or hazards so we can remove them before it becomes an incident or accident,” Ramos says.

Ramos, a 16-year veteran of the car manufacturing industry, says Focal Pointe implemented LEAN, which is a common, systematic approach to proactively eliminating some items that might cause frequent accidents or injuries. He says the crews pushed back a little on that, but once they saw how much time they were saving – Ramos estimates roughly 15% – they embraced the program.

Of course, the pandemic has shifted a lot of this initiative digitally, and it’s added a new wrinkle that the team will wrestle with for at least the coming months. Focal Pointe has 27 mowing maintenance crews and 11 installation crews, and they had to facilitate all the proper PPE and keep crew sizes smaller to encourage social distancing. For the employees who are there on visa programs, Ramos says they’ve rearranged housing assignments so they can minimize potential outbreaks.

“In the event that somebody tests positive, we can contain that to that specific three- or four-people crew,” he says.

All things considered, Ramos says safety initiatives are still going well – even if they aren’t as seamless as he’d like due to COVID-19.

“Efficiency this year is going to be a challenge,” he says.

Looking ahead.

Munie says his committees are dedicated to answering critical questions that align with the company’s four pillars: great place to work, operational excellence, uniquely positive client experience and partner in the community. Using technology to drive these initiatives is key, he says.

“Everything we do is in that prism. If it doesn’t support that, then why are we doing it?” Munie says. “I believe technology is going to be a game-changer in our industry more than people realize.”

The COVID-19 pandemic actually epitomizes what Munie’s team is all about, he says. As they communicated their way through the early goings of the pandemic, emails were not directives – they were calls for feedback on what could be done better.

“Any time we have a problem, we make our team part of it,” he says. “This is not John Munie sitting on top of a throne dictating how we’re going to be navigating the virus. My life improved the second I improved the company, and I want to continue that.”