Cut and grow

How The Yard Barbours grew 50% by cross-training employees, subcontracting services and dropping unprofitable customers.

Matthew and Alicia Barbour, pictured here with their daughter, Lydia, have played a key role in The Yard Barbours bottom line growth.
All photos courtesy of The Yard Barbours

When the second generation of The Yard Barbours joined the Indiana-based lawn care company about 15 years ago, founders Paul and Nancy Barbour had to take some risks to grow their small mowing company to the next level.

“That was a pivotal time,” says Alicia, who married Paul and Nancy’s son, Matthew, in 2007. “We had to decide if and how we wanted to grow the company so that it could support both of our households and all the employees that worked for us.”

Since the business began in 1995, The Yard Barbours focused almost entirely on turf services like mowing. Initially, Nancy says, they built the business around mowing because it seemed like “something we could easily get into” when Paul’s previous employer closed. With no prior experience, they launched the company with a small pickup truck and three push mowers.

“At first, all we could do was mow, because that’s all we knew how to do,” Nancy says. But they soon realized that building a successful business wasn’t so simple. “It’s not just mowing grass,” she says. “There’s a lot more to it than that.” Over time, they gradually expanded their services to include lawn care and arbor care, as Paul pursued certifications in various chemical applications to address customers’ problem areas.

Eventually, they even started doing minor landscape maintenance and spring cleanups. When Matt and Alicia came aboard, they saw untapped potential to grow the landscaping side of the business by offering other specialized services, such as irrigation and hardscapes. “We wanted to see what else we could offer, and it just took off from there,” Alicia says. “We’ve had steady growth ever since.”

While they expanded their capabilities to support the second generation, ultimately it was the decision to trim the less profitable services that unlocked 50% growth over the last couple of years.

Making the effort to cross-train employees has not only helped with the labor shortage at The Yard Barbours, but it’s also boosted employee morale and profits.

From specialization to cross-training

When Matt and Alicia joined the business, all four Barbours created distinct roles for themselves to avoid infringing on each other’s territory. Paul is the company’s turf expert and chemical technician, and Nancy serves as office manager. Matt pursued training in irrigation, hardscapes and landscape lighting, so he handles those specialized services while acting as the company’s mechanic. Meanwhile, Alicia carved out her role as landscape coordinator as that service grew.

Years ago, The Yard Barbours’ staff was similarly dedicated to specific roles. As they began doing larger landscaping projects, they hired and trained employees to specialize in landscaping while other employees focused on mowing. But over the past few years, the tightening labor market has forced them to take a different approach when it comes to training their crews, which contains about 20 employees at peak season.

“For many years, we thought we’ll just train just some people to be lawn mowers and others to be landscapers,” Nancy says, “but now we don’t really have that luxury because we don’t have the workforce. Now we train every person to fill every job.”

Each season kicks off with a week of training to bring returning crews up to speed. Depending on experience level, new hires spend about 30 days training at the company’s headquarters in southern Indiana, where they can practice maintaining flower beds and mowing turf before hitting the field.

“We’ll usually start with the small engines, the string trimmers, the blowers or hedge trimmers — the handheld equipment — and let them master that first,” Alicia says. “Then, they feel a little more confident using a lawn mower or driving the trucks and trailers — the bigger equipment.”

After in-house training, new employees shadow a crew, tagging along to learn both sides of the business as some days are dedicated to mowing and other days focused on landscaping. Then, training continues throughout the year during weekly Monday morning meetings, when the Barbours bring current issues to the team’s attention and celebrate positive customer feedback.

Building a team mentality

Although the cross-training began out of necessity due to labor shortages, this strategy has gleaned multiple benefits. First, it creates the flexibility to easily shift labor between projects or services when employees call in sick. “Everyone knows how we string trim and how we go about mowing,” Nancy says. “If someone’s out, then another can step in and fill his position.”

Initially, the cross-training caught some backlash from employees who thought they were just hired to perform a certain task, and when asked to do more, they thought, “That’s not my job,” Nancy says. So, besides just teaching them new technical skills, the Barbours had to convince them to embrace more flexible roles.

To build a team mentality where employees felt accountable to the entire project instead of just one piece of it, the Barbours focused their training on not just how but why to prune certain plants or keep grass clippings out of flowerbeds when mowing. “Once they understood why it was important to do things a certain way, it helped that ‘not my job’ mentality fade a little bit,” Alicia says. “They understood it’s not a mowing job or a landscaping job; it’s the job for the customer.”

Engaging crew leaders and other core employees to lead cross-training — for example, having landscapers teach mowing crews how to hedge trim — also helped the team embrace a more collaborative mindset. “It has really helped morale, because they know they’re helping train the people they’re going to work with,” Nancy says. “That has given the guys a feeling of ownership.”

Because of these benefits, the Barbours say cross-training is here to stay. “I don’t know that we’ll ever go back,” Alicia says.

Analyzing profits

Throughout The Yard Barbours’ early years, Nancy kept all the business receipts in a grocery sack. When Alicia came aboard, one of her first moves was replacing that sack with a more efficient system for tracking and analyzing operational costs.

Now, a shelf in the office holds several “beautifully labeled” magazine tins used to collect receipts for expense categories like fuel, equipment rentals, equipment upkeep, truck repairs and insurance. The receipts get totaled every day, and itemized by landscaping or mowing — depending on the crews’ workload that day.

Every winter, the Barbours spend time analyzing these expenses during the winter as they’re preparing their taxes. In addition to looking at overall profitability, Alicia says they also look closely at each division to uncover service-specific trends.

“When you start going by division, it can be a real eye-opener,” Alicia says. “For years, mowing had been our bread and butter, so we always thought that was our main business. It was difficult when we realized, ‘wow, our landscaping division is outperforming it.’”

After noticing this trend in 2015 and confirming it over the next couple seasons, the Barbours began discussing how to shift their focus toward more profitable landscaping work while improving their mowing margins. Their solution was to start subcontracting some of their mowing jobs, freeing their crews to focus on landscape services.

“The mowing division had the largest overhead, between equipment, upkeep of that equipment and labor — and not much reduction can happen with that. So, when things don’t add up, you start subtracting,” Alicia says. “Ultimately, it was more profitable for us to turn the mowing over to a company that focused on mowing.”

Fostering partnerships

The Yard Barbours eased into subcontracting around 2019 by reaching out to local mowing companies that seemed to share their quality standards. They only subbed out a few properties the first year and gradually brought in more subs as they established their partnership process.

“When they are mowing for our customers, they are Yard Barbours. They carry our signs on their trailers so that our customers know it’s still us,” Nancy says. Customers still receive their bills from The Yard Barbours, and if customers ask subs for additional services while they’re onsite, the contracting language compels them to have customers call the office instead of poaching the work. “We have a trust there that we’ll help them grow their business, and they won’t take our business,” she says.

Before bringing in new subcontractors, the Barbours meet with them to explain their mowing process and expectations. Then, when Paul and Nancy check on customer properties every weekend, they also visit the yards mowed by subs to ensure the same quality standards. Last season, for example, they had to correct a sub’s string trimming standards, and immediately after the conversation, his work improved.

“Our name is on every job, so whether it’s our crews doing it or it’s a sub, we still police the quality,” Alicia says.

Today, Alicia estimates that the company subs out at least two-thirds of its mowing jobs. They’re more likely to sub out mowing for customers who exclusively use that service while keeping jobs in-house if the customer also engages The Yard Barbours for landscape maintenance, irrigation or other work.

Subcontracting has been a win-win for The Yard Barbours and the local mowing companies they work with. “Partnering has been a really good thing for some smaller companies that have been able to grow their mowing divisions,” Alicia says, “and in turn, we could then grow our landscaping division.”

“It’s sad that this industry can be so competitive,” Nancy adds. “We ought to be working together. Think of the power we could have if we would stop competing with each other and cooperate more.”

Flexibility for the future

Unlike cross-training, the Barbours don’t know yet if the decision to subcontract mowing will be permanent. “If there’s a major shift in the labor market, we still hold those contracts and we can always go back to mowing them,” Alicia says. “Every year we look at the numbers and make those decisions.”

These strategies have grown The Yard Barbours’ business by about 50% over the last couple of years. The landscaping division now accounts for at least 60% of the business — when less than a decade ago, the Barbours just assumed that mowing would always be their main business. Having the willingness and flexibility to pivot has been key to the company’s recent growth.

“I’ve seen a lot of business owners our age not being willing to listen or take the ideas that the younger generation brings,” Nancy says. “Older folks are like, ‘No, we’ll do it the way we’ve always done it.’ That was hard at first, but just because you always did it that way doesn’t mean we can do it that way anymore. We live in such a different world than we lived in even five years ago. In the lawn and landscape industry, you have to keep growing and changing or you’re not going to be profitable.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Ohio.

March 2023
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