Mike Pungitore grew up alongside his father, Sergio, riding along and helping out with landscape maintenance jobs around his hometown of Hingham, Massachusetts. “I worked for him every summer,” he says. “It was like summer camp.” Pungitore took his first spin on a skid-steer at age four—and despite growing a love for outdoor work, went off to earn a finance degree and work a corporate job in Boston.
That didn’t last long. A few years in, Mike called his dad and said, “I want to grow the business.”
Sergio said, “What business?”
His dad’s reaction: “You’re not touching my business.”
An Italian immigrant and self-made, tireless worker, Sergio was quite content with the way things were. Loyal following. Business that put beyond bread on the table. Customers are like family. And he was immensely proud that Mike earned a degree and loved telling friends and clients about his son working in Boston. “He wanted me to do something outside of getting involved in the business,” Mike says.
And that’s what Mike did, for some time. But it didn’t provide the same sense of pride that he experienced from leaving a property looking much better than it did when he arrived. Plus, he had an entrepreneurial itch and the financial acumen to grow something big.
So, Mike earned a pesticide license while still working at the bank. “I sent a letter out to my father’s customers and started servicing about 60,000 square feet of clients, eight or ten properties the first year,” he says, adding that since his father never offered pesticides or fertilization, he could fill a demand without competing.
Within a couple of years, Mike made the leap to full-time and delved into irrigation. “I started taking jobs that I’d do myself, dissecting valves and figuring out how everything worked little by little,” he says. “It might have taken me three or four hours what would take 15 minutes today because I really wanted to know how it all worked.”
The pace picked up, and Mike brought on a couple of friends to help. This seeded Pungitore Irrigation & Fertilizer, serving the Massachusetts South Shore. Today, with his father stepping back from Pungitore Landscape and merging all of the services, the business operates four divisions and employs 25 people. “Now, we do everything from A to Z,” Mike says.
A new headquarters is under construction following two strong growth years of increasing revenue by 72% from 2020 to 2021, and by about 40% the following year. Mike expects the same performance for 2023.
The secret sauce?
Creating a culture that encourages commitment and values time in and out of the field — and creating opportunities for dedicated team members who want more than just a job. It sounds like business 101, but Mike and wife and marketing manager, Danielle, have a different approach.
Overtime is looked at as a marketing investment to earn referrals from jobs well done. Weekends are reserved for employees to spend time with family. But when the work needs to get done, they step up to the plate. And rather than just-in-time hiring to find bodies to complete work coming in the door, Pungitore finds the right person and builds a division around the lead — and then he chases the work.
“Our employees are not robots,” he says.
Budgeting Benefits — a Mindset Shift
In 2020, after nearly a decade in business, Pungitore Irrigation & Fertilizer experienced a turning point. Before, the company did not offer benefits to employees. While team members shared the same work ethic, there was no defined mission, vision, handbook or incentive program. However, because of swift growth, the company needed to build systems to maintain quality and professionalism.
Mike and Danielle established a vision: WRATH. W is work ethic, R is reliability, A is accountability, T is teamwork and H is honesty. Danielle works full-time in marketing and brought her lessons-learned to the business, so this was her brainchild.
“It’s easy to remember and it incorporates key characteristics we look for in team members — and it’s fun. We say, ‘Feel the WRATH,’ and people latch on to it,” Danielle says. “We reinforce it in every meeting, and we work it into performance reviews. It’s a way to set expectations and measure against them.”
Mike adds, “We are here to support our people, and we expect them to do the right thing for the company, the customers and team. And if you are doing all those things, you’ll be rewarded for it.”
Bonuses are tied to the WRATH vision, which the couple rolled out at their first kickoff meeting in 2020 — another tradition they started and includes a mid-season, company-wide check-in. “It brings the entire company together, acting as an important platform for sharing information and building camaraderie,” Danielle says. After these meetings, the company stages a barbecue or other fun event.
The mid-season meeting reinforces quality, updates employees on where the business stands financially and scheduling-wise and includes a team-building component. “It’s an opportunity to reiterate or introduce key information,” Danielle says.
Mike adds, “The mission starts at the top and we don’t just put it out there and expect laborers to follow it. I get called out on it, too, and these values have helped me steer the company and build a culture that attracts great people.”
During 2020, the company also rolled out benefits including a retirement plan and health insurance. Yes, it’s expensive — and the cost continues to increase.
At first, three employees participated and now there are eight on the plan. But Mike believes the industry needs to raise the bar in how it “takes care of people,” and it helps him sleep at night. “Overall, we work some of it into our pricing, and we might cost more than competitors, but we put a lot of effort into delivering a quality product that our people represent well. A lot goes into them representing us in that way.”
When the company cares for its people, they care about performance. Also, the company can manage offering benefits by putting profits back into the business and, specifically, people. “That helps us continue to grow through referrals,” Mike says, adding that thinking of benefits as pure overhead or overtime as just labor expenses is not the way they approach those investments.
Ultimately, these costs produce quality work — and more of it.
Scheduling a balance
A family-first focus is ingrained in the Pungitore Irrigation & Fertilizer culture. It’s not just a party line.
Basically, growing up watching his father toil away 14 hours a day, at least six days a week, Mike wanted to be sure he didn’t burn out valuable team members. He admits to working nonstop himself, but he wouldn’t expect that of others.
“We want to make sure people have time to rest, time to spend with their family, go away on weekends — have a life outside of work,” he says. “And I think that has helped us with recruiting.”
Danielle adds, “We want to attract a person who will grow around that value system, and when they are in an environment where they are supposed, feel secure and are fulfilled by what they do, they can have a balance.”
Of course, duty calls.
“I’m transparent about the work that needs to be done,” Mike says, adding that everyone knows the schedule, backlog and expectations. Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate. Other times, there’s a holdup on supplies or a job just takes longer than planned. Smart scheduling helps the company stay on time without forcing weekend work.
“If we want to work five days a week, we don’t book five solid days,” he says. “We’ll book four days, knowing there are potential problems, so that gives us some wiggle room.”
Same goes for client communications. “If we think an installation will take two days, we’ll tell the client two to three days,” Mike says. “If our schedule is booked three weeks out, I’ll say four to six weeks. Then if we get there ahead of time, they are happy. We manage those expectations.”
The schedule doesn’t always work out perfectly.
“Our team knows when they are ahead, on schedule or falling behind if we have a bad week of weather, and I’ll ask, ‘Does anyone want to work on Saturday?’ and some want the hours,” Mike says.
The company pays time and a half for weekend work. “And if we are busy, we don’t cap overtime,” Mike says.
Does this come at a cost? Certainly. But as with investing in benefits and incentives, the company frames overtime labor costs as marketing. “Your profit margin might shrink a little bit, but to us, it’s important to follow through on what we promise to clients,” Mike says. “To deliver a quality product, if that means we have to pay more for labor but we’re keeping clients happy, it’s worth it.
“As business owners, we are focused on labor and how to cut down that rate,” he continues. “But you have to look at it from a different perspective. Yeah, labor was more expensive, but why? We were able to satisfy customers’ needs, who will then turn around and talk about the job well done, and tell their family and friends.”
A platform for growth
“If you’re not growing, you’re dying,” Mike says.
The phrase has been said before. But at Pungitore Irrigation & Fertilizer, there really are no plans to slow down now that a framework is in place. “As long as the work is there, the people are there and the economy allows, we’ll continue growing — and as we do, there is more opportunity to move up and be a manager here,” he says.
Two of the company’s employees have been on board since the company started. “The people who have been here and put in the time and effort will eventually be project manager or helping on the business end,” Mike says.
Danielle adds, “The ROI is having the right people in place and their contributions to the business allow Mike to delegate roles so he can focus more on growth. That makes a big difference.”
Meanwhile, investing in software, equipment and benefits helps pave the way for the future. “We have done a lot to set the foundation,” Mike says, citing specialized roles, divisions headed by experienced leads and versatile teams that are cross trained to accommodate scheduling demands.
Also, Mike is big on making sure his team has the equipment to reduce labor pains and improve efficiency in the field. “If there is a piece of equipment that will make their lives easier, we find a way to get it,” he says.
Providing the right tools is a matter of retention and quality, too. And it helps drive profitability, so these factors weigh into the cost.
“We put a lot of thought into financial decisions and evaluate what it will save us in the long-term and what work it can generate for us,” Mike says.
It’s the WRATH thing to do — and the Pungitores will keep on.
“This is like our baby,” Danielle says of the business they’ve grown together — as their family has expanded from the startup to an English Shepherd to their young child. And so, full circle, it’s a legacy that is continuing a next-gen approach. “We continue to focus on the three Ps — People, Process and Profit,” she says. L<he author is a freelance writer based in Ohio.
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