For the greater good

For the greater good

Top 100 - Cover Story: The Top 100 | David J. Frank Landscape Contracting

Industry veteran David J. Frank spent decades learning from his peers and working alongside his employees.

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May 10, 2019


In February, the industry lost one of its great leaders. David J. Frank, founder of David J. Frank Landscape Contracting, passed away after an illness. David J. spent roughly six decades in the industry. He quite literally grew up doing landscaping work. At nine years old, he roamed around his Milwaukee neighborhood, running his one-man business of mowing lawns.

His mother would drop him off at his furthest client and he would work his way back to the house, even employing other classmates as he got busier. At some points, he cared for roughly 30 lawns as a young boy. And it seems that his sense of work ethic and collaboration never left.

Photos courtesy of the Frank family

Employee importance.

With a business spanning 60 years and counting, David J. Frank built his company with the ideals that every employee was of value, and the success of his company was not just his own.

Dave Shrode, the company’s longest tenured employee, joined David J. Frank in 1979. Shrode says some of his fondest memories of David J. were working alongside him on jobs.

“He worked with the crews side by side,” he says. “He would show us how to trim and shape, he was such a hands-on, active individual.”

David J. was often found working alongside his employees at jobsites. David Shrode, the company’s longest-tenured employee, says some of his fondest memories are of David J. working alongside him on jobs.

David’s son, CEO and president, David R. Frank, says his father had performed every service the company offered and it wasn’t a surprise to see him driving a piece of equipment from jobsite to jobsite.

David J. recruited Shrode at a career fair, and David J. pitched the company to him and Shrode began work in the summer.

“He was passionate, sincere and enthusiastic (about the company),” Shrode says.

When employees saw David J. roll up to job sites, they made sure everything was in shape. “(Everyone) would say ‘look alert’ and ‘the boss is here,’ so he really commanded a lot of respect,” he says.

David J. Frank pictured with his wife, Jane Frank.

A side of David J. that people may not have always seen was the personal relationships he had with his employees, too.

“There was a soft side to him,” Shrode says. “He would go out of his way to help in our personal lives.”

Shrode recalls landing a big job at the P&H Harnischfeger building. He spent a year and a half on the property doing maintenance and grounds work, and when P&H had their 100-year anniversary celebration, David J. made sure Shrode was a part of it.

David J. pictured alongside his son, David R. Frank. “(My father) taught me to work to continually improve myself and my company in every aspect,” David R. says.

P&H gave out limited edition belt buckles to all employees to commemorate the anniversary, and David J. made a point to get one for Shrode.

“I had worked on the grounds all that time,” he says. “So I felt that was really cool he went out of his way to try to get a belt buckle for me. I still have it now.” Shrode says he would often do things like that to recognize his employees. “He didn’t need to do those things, but he did them anyway,” he says.

Networking and sharing ideas to better the industry were among some of David J. Frank’s favorite things about industry events.

Even during the Great Recession, Shrode says David J. maintained the benefits he provided for his employees.

“A lot of companies were failing during those times not too long ago,” Shrode says. “He pulled that off and survived it.”

With a company of over 300 employees and six different branches, it could be easy for employees to get lost in shuffle, but David R. says his father made a point to meet every new employee.

“For many, many years before I took over from him, he met every one of our new team members and welcomed them to the company, carrying the history of our company and culture that we currently have and strive for,” David R. says.

Even with over 300 employees, David J. made a point to meet each new hire.

Constant collaboration.

Those who knew David J. say he was always eager to network and learn new things from his peers. Tom Lied, a longtime industry friend and employee, met David J. several decades ago. Lied owned Lied’s Nursery and Landscape, and they would bounce ideas back and forth.

“He had a great value of the client,” Lied says “In fact, he wanted desperately to please them and to do those things that the client chose, how they wanted him to do it and the way they wanted them done.”

The transition from business acquaintance to employee happened when the economy took a turn, Lied says. Lied’s son decided to put the business up for sale and David J. bought it. He also made sure Lied had a job with the company. Lied says David J. had a strong sense of giving back to the industry. He was involved in numerous trade organizations.

“He wanted to help to develop our industry and our opportunities,” Lied says. “He spent his time and his assets in helping those associations move forward and assist the practitioners in feeling good about doing what they were doing and to conduct their business on a business-like basis.”

The beginning of Lied and David J.’s relationship was based on the idea that it was their job to be good examples for the industry, so sharing tips as competitors was never a concern.

David J. orchestrated a mowing business at the age of nine in his Milwaukee neighborhood. At some points, he cared for up to 30 lawns in the area.

“Our philosophy was that we were responsible to lead and make happy our own client. But that in fact when we were also responsible to develop the industry by creating good companies to deal with clients in an appropriate manner,” Lied says. “To help others do the right thing didn't reduce our opportunity to sell, it just created a better environment in the industry and more people wanting something better.”

His involvement with industry associations were some of his favorite industry memories. David R. says he enjoyed being able to openly share his best practices. “He felt he owed it to the industry as whole,” David R. says.

With his son at the helm of the family business now, his lessons, and leadership will live on. David R. says he learned from his father that life is so much more fulfilling when you are doing something for others.

“He taught me to work to continually improve myself and my company in every aspect,” he says. In fact, David R. says one of the final sentiments his father gave him was simply: “I owe so much to so many.”