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Mike Rorie shares what he learned transitioning from his own company to working for a national player, and now as an industry supplier.

January 25, 2011

Mike Rorie is partner and CEO of GIS Dyamics, which sells geographic information systems and software. Photo: Art DickinsonMike Rorie finds the roles of decision maker, chief influencer and vision setter the most comfortable. So much so that last summer he left a position as vice president at The Brickman Group for the title of CEO at a much smaller company.

Rorie’s desire to lead roots all the way back to his founding of Groundmasters in Cincinnati in 1979. In 27 years, he grew the one-man business to a 500-employee regional landscaping company. When he sold Groundmasters to Brickman in October 2006, leading was all he’d known.

But after four years with one of the biggest landscaping companies in the country, he missed the driver’s seat and left Brickman and landscape contracting for his current position as partner and CEO of Cincinnati-based GIS Dynamics, which produces the Go iLawn and Go iSnow mapping software. With 10 employees, Rorie once again finds himself at the helm of a young company hoping to become a growing enterprise.

“It’s nice to be back in a smaller business where you can meet with everybody that is involved, discuss, investigate, make a decision and then go ahead and implement it,” Rorie says. “You can handle all of those pieces of the puzzle very quickly.”

Lawn & Landscape caught up with Rorie to discuss what the transition process was like when he sold his company and then moved to the supplier side, and what advice he has for other contractors facing similar situations.

Why did you decide to make each career move? 
With Groundmasters it was a great financial opportunity to validate the growth of the business and to sell the business. Beyond financially, it was a great opportunity to see and participate in a larger company at a high level. I got to do both of those things – I got to liquidate an asset I spent almost 30 years building and had the proof or validation of the achievement that the business had undergone. Then I got to come in on the ground floor of a national company at the highest level.

Going from Brickman to GIS, I did take about nine months to make that decision, working with both businesses for that period of time and deciding do I really want to leave something I love, which is the landscape contracting industry, to become a supplier to the industry for the sake of having my own business again. Ultimately, the answer became yes.

What advice do you have for contractors looking to sell their companies?
One, I would say are you emotionally ready to work with other people of your level or greater? As a small business owner, if you’re bought by a mid-size or large company, you are going to have someone else involved in the direction and the ultimate decision making. If you’re looking for that help, if you’re looking to join an organization that has a lot of things figured out that you haven’t been able to achieve on your own yet, than that can be a very positive and powerful opportunity and one of the hidden gains of selling.
Secondly, you want to make sure you’re ready emotionally because you can’t go back once you sell. Beyond the fact that you’re probably going to sign a non-compete for three or four years, it would be difficult to wait that length of time and then build the business back. Some people do it – it would depend on how old you are and how much energy you have to go do that again.

You want to make sure the time is right, because you can sell all the time. Some times are better than others, but, at the end of the day, the reality is you can always sell the business. If you’re not certain you’re ready, I would wait. I would try to get as much information and have a lot of dialogue on what it’s going to be like after you sell, before you sell, so you’re going into it as knowledgeable as possible.

What questions should you ask someone who wants to buy your business?
Some of those would certainly be the employee policies. You have a management team, and you’re going to want to know how your employees are going to be governed in the new company, so you’re going to want to know firsthand where you fall in relationship to that. Customer policies – you’re probably used to handling customers a certain way. When there’s a resolution needed, you’re going to want to know how that is going to be handled. Employees and customers are going to be very big.

Is there any additional opportunity for you? Are you coming in at the level that you’re at and is that the level that you’re going to stay at? It’s not likely they can promote you or pay you more without the business growing significantly and you having a significant part in that or why would they be rewarding you.

That would all go in with where they’re taking the company. What is the plan for the company? Are you going to continue to grow it? Are you going to regionalize it and go to new cities, therefore create a lot of additional opportunity? Or is it to stay local?

What advice do you have for contractors looking to transition to the supplier side?
If you’re going to get out of contracting for whatever reason ... becoming a supplier can have great insight. There are a lot of people on that side that use to be in contracting that said, hey, I think selling to contractors is going to be easier than becoming a contractor or more rewarding.

It’s a natural evolution and a good evolution because of your insight with the industry and you being able to identify, ‘Hey, this is a great product or service that contractors need.’ That was a big part of my decision. I saw the validity of what GIS is providing; therefore, this should be a successful enterprise that contractors will want to purchase on an ongoing basis.

Would you have done anything differently?
I probably would have just stayed longer, I probably would have run Groundmasters for another five or eight years. I deem that a good thing, not a regret. I just make that comment from an educational standpoint, which is one you can’t make without having done it.

What one thing from your years as a contractor has helped you on the supplier side?
The importance of a good strategy or good planning, and then making sure you have the right people on your team – those would be my long-term takeaways. Do we have a good strategy? Do we have a good plan to implement the strategy? And do we have the right people with us – skills, competency and commitment to fulfill the plan and the strategy? Because it takes all of that.

Anything else you would like to add?
One thing I have learned being a supplier is no matter what product you have for contractors, the ability to gain contractors or sell your product or service is largely the ability for somebody to be willing to change their behavior – unless you’re just selling them a different lawn mower or a different truck. That really is the challenge – can you get people to want to change their behavior?

The author is an associate editor at Lawn & Landscape. You can reach her at clawell@gie.net.