In the winter of 2007, I stood on three acres of land with my team of managers, office staff, foremen and laborers – 21 employees in all – and our fleet of late model trucks and equipment. The purchase of this property marked a major milestone in our company’s growth and was now home to our rapidly expanding landscape operation. I took in another deep breath, cleared my throat and addressed my team.
Then the economy collapsed.
What ultimately saved our company from failure was the painful but immediate decision to downsize our operation. Our reaction to the economic crisis was swift and expedient, thanks to the data and reporting we used to monitor our financial health. By April 2008, we had sold over half our fleet and recouped most of our money. By July 2008, our property was up for sale and we were operating with only two crews, and just one manager.
Since that time, we have completely redesigned the business model under which we operate. In many cases, starting or rebuilding a company begins by documenting a solid foundation. With the help of a good business coach, this process can be off to a very strong start in a matter of one or two days.
However, it occurred to me that the transformation we made at Sarros Landscaping could in fact be traced to a single, first step, that became the basis for every decision and policy that followed.
I remembered a meeting with my senior staff where I mentioned that we were going to write a “100 Percent List” and, for lack of a better name, the list still appears with that same title to this day. This list defines, with 100 percent certainty, every value, action, principal, method or strategy, from which we will not deviate even a fraction of one percent.
Whether you’re a contractor who needs to make a change or are just starting out, the 100 Percent List should sit at the core of your principals and beliefs. Don’t make it a long list. Entrepreneurs must remain flexible and adapt processes to meet changing conditions.
While there are many possibilities, here are just a few items that a business owner might consider putting on their own 100 Percent List:
Be a debt free company. Make a commitment never to borrow money to operate your business. Do not jeopardize your credit, your home, your family and your peace of mind by over-committing your resources and taking on loans that will burden you for many years. If you cannot afford it, you shouldn’t buy it.
Operate legally. This one’s pretty simple: Just follow the law in everything you do. Ignorance is not a legal defense and you are never too small to have problems. It doesn’t matter what your competition is, or is not, doing nor should it ever keep you from selling jobs. If it does, you are not targeting the right clients. I strongly recommend having a trusted attorney involved in all legal aspects of your business.
Do extraordinary work. Make a commitment to continued education. Test for your ICPI and NCMA certifications. Take the time to admire quality work, especially if it is not your own.
You will never get a bad reputation from fixing a mistake or problem for one of your customers. My grandfather was a blue-collar business owner with an impeccable work ethic and an abundance of common sense. He used to tell me, “Good enough just isn’t good enough.”
Share your wisdom. There is very little of what we are now doing that I would consider proprietary. It is vital that as an industry, we come together and support one another. As a whole, we can command higher pricing and more qualified competition while improving client education. Don’t be shy about sharing ideas with your peers.
Respect the seasonal cycles. As a rule, spring and fall are incredibly busy seasons, summer can be hit or miss and winter can be brutal. Most every contractor understands this cycle, yet they continue to be negatively impacted by it. The most obvious solution to this problem remains the most commonly overlooked. Simply set enough money aside when sales are high to cover overhead when sales are low.
Stay Focused. Know that it is entirely possible to grow your business, command your price, sell jobs on quality and, dare I say the forbidden words, make a profit. The economy has nothing to do with your ability to sell jobs for a respectable profit margin. Some contractors may emphatically debate this point but I assure you that letting go of fears, honestly evaluating your operations and making needed changes are the key ingredients for operating a profitable company with repeatable results. The good news is that as entrepreneurs, we can have all the success and achievement we are willing to create for ourselves.
These days I stand in front of a rented 2,000 square-foot office warehouse. I have six full-time employees and a small fleet of used trucks. I have one skid-steer and a stockpile of hand tools, saws and compactors that are old and scratched, yet impeccably maintained.
A lot has changed since that winter three years ago, but our dedication to the work and growing the business efficiently and profitably haven’t.
The author is president of Sarros Landscaping, Cumming, Ga.
Cash in on Credit Cards
Cash might still be king, but a business today isn’t going to go far if it doesn’t take plastic.
As home prices have continued to fall, the amount of equity available for home improvements has dried up, leaving home owners with their savings or credit cards to finance their landscape and hardscape projects.
“We noticed in the fall of 2008, if you didn’t have more than 80 percent equity in your home, after the amount you wanted to borrow, you weren’t going to get the financing needed to finish your backyard,” says Brian Price, president of Rockwood Retaining Walls, which licenses concrete paver and retaining products. “As we reviewed our plans for 2009, we became very concerned. How were homeowners going to afford our products, if they weren’t able to get financing?”
That concern lead Rockwood to partner with First Data Independent Sales (FDIS) Rochester, to create a “Pay As You Go” credit card acceptance program specifically targeted at landscape contractors.
The program offers a flat rate of 2.99 percent, regardless of the type of credit card taken or how it is processed. It charges no fees for applications, set up, customer service or for terminals, Price says.
New technologies such as wireless credit card terminals and cell phone applications allow payments to happen at the customer’s door instead of the back office.
“There is a tremendous advantage for landscapers to take a down payment at the door, with a credit card, instead of having to come back only to realize the sale was lost,” Price says. “By offering your customers flexible payment options, especially for down payments, you will close more sales faster, easier and for larger amounts.”