This isn’t a story about perfection - or happy beginnings and smooth transitions.
This is a real story. One that portrays a man, like many, cut out by corporate downsizing, hurt by lagging economic times and disgruntled by the complexity of operating systems. This is a story about a man, Dan Standley, and his company, Dan’s Landscaping & Lawn Care, which is carving a name in Terrytown, La., and leaving a dent in the New Orleans commercial market by building slowly, learning gradually and fine-tuning constantly.
|At A Glance|
DAN’S LANDSCAPING & LAWN CARE
HEADQUARTERS: 1609 Carol Sue Ave., Terrytown, La. 70056
WEB SITE: www.danslandscaping.com
2000 REVENUE: $780,000
2001 REVENUE PROJECTIONS: $858,000
SERVICE MIX: Eighty percent of the revenue comes from commercial/industrial clients, 10 percent from residential and 10 percent from government/municipal. Seventy-five percent of the company’s work is maintenance services, 10 percent is installation, 10 percent is lawn care and 5 percent is irrigation.
EMPLOYEES: Eight year-round, 2 seasonal
EQUIPMENT: Ten trimmers, eight blowers, six edgers, three pruners, three chain saws, four hedge trimmers, four maintenance vehicles, six 60-inch zero-turn mowers, two mid-size 36-inch walk-behind mowers, six 21-inch push mowers and two skid-mounted spray tanks.
MISSION STATEMENT: Exceptional people providing exceptional service. Satisfied customers are our greatest asset.
FUTURE CHALLENGES: Retaining employees in a tight labor market and pricing services competitively while accounting for increased fuel and insurance costs.
Standley started the company out of his home in 1981 after working nine years in New Orleans oil fields.
Today’s Standley knows that untimely endings make fruitful beginnings - and successful businesses, for that matter. In his office, he proudly displays a neatly embossed seal commemorating the company’s 20th anniversary. The insignia also embellishes his invoices, and two decades after founding his company, this long-term success still catches him by surprise.
"I had no inkling we’d be where we are today," he remarked, modestly downplaying a success story with a $780,000-revenue ending. "But, when you hit rock bottom, you have no place to go but up." Standley didn’t dredge the bottom long when he was laid off in 1981 after working nine years in the oil field - a job that followed his departure from University of Texas where he spent a couple years taking business classes and playing football.
"A real-world, nuts-and-bolts type of guy," he turned misfortune into opportunity, rewinding to high-school summers spent mowing neighbors’ lawns in Houston, Texas, with his brother, Tom, for $3.50 a pop - $5 for corner lots, which were a treat, he said. Then, Standley had no idea this makeshift money-maker would ignite a thriving full-service landscape business that would celebrate 20 birthdays.
However, before any anniversary come rites of passage - turning points, milestones, signs of a company driving forward. Standley notes the pivotal marks in his business history. Hiring his first crew in 1983 proved he was growing, and joining Associated Landscape Contractors of America in 1988 spring-boarded his industry involvement and fed him ideas to improve operations. Moving his business out of his garage soon after demonstrated increasing financial strength.
A PEOPLE PLACE. Standley goes to work everyday with a genuine smile - a true-to-life, toothy grin. He simply loves his work. "After being laid off and starting my own business, I had a feeling of independence and power - just a great feeling. A happy feeling. A feeling of fulfillment and closure," he described. "I wake up each morning with a zest for life, and I smile ear to ear because I love my job."
This contagious enthusiasm remains a principle of his business - he carries it throughout his client and employee interaction, incentive programs and internal operations. Energy drives Dan’s Landscaping & Lawn Care, and people know it.
"Every company has internal and external clients, and I really try to treat my internal clients A+, because my employees make the company," he reasoned. "If they’re happy and devoted and have the right training, they’ll make our clients happy."
Standley takes care of his "internal clients" with generous incentive programs, including bonus bucks employees can put toward prizes (see Showcase Showdown below), breakfasts, staff pizza parties and an annual crawfish boil he hosts for their families. He also awards outstanding efforts with employee-of-the-quarter certificates. But most of all, he listens.
"You have to be a good listener and a good coach," he said. "We really focus on, ‘What did you learn from that?’" Many times, Standley finds himself learning, too. He encourages technicians to exchange constructive ideas and praises input with $25 rewards for the suggestion of the month.
"I’ll say, ‘Look, you are the expert. You’ve been out there,’" he reasoned. "‘I don’t want you to write up a suggestion that says, ‘Buy a new machine.’ What I want you to do is come up with labor-saving, money-saving or employee-benefiting ideas that will help the overall structure of the company.’"
Input leads to implementation. One technician suggested rerouting crews to improve transportation efficiency. Another recommended installing a boat winch to lower trailer ramps and alleviate aching backs from unloading equipment, which saved the company money from workers’ compensation claims. And, by learning from mistakes and focusing on safety, the company keeps insurance rates in the lowest bracket.
These bonuses help build his business, because growing a reliable workforce requires not just attracting, but keeping, valuable workers, Standley said, identifying employee retention as a barrier to success for many businesses, including his own at times."The available workforce is less," he pointed out. "You have to form creative ways to entice them and keep them in the door. We get people a lot of times coming from other companies because they hear a lot about the things we do for our employees."
Standley is not just referring to the rewards, but the givens. His eight full-time employees enjoy competitive benefits packages with medical insurance and an IRA. A profit-sharing initiative is in the works, as he hopes workers will see how they impact the company’s success.
While business thrives, Standley realizes the importance of trust and delegation, one of his weak links, he admitted. "I was working 15 hours a day and I was too stressed out," he described of his earlier super-man management tactics. "I couldn’t do it all, and I had to get some key people out there."
Now, Standley manages the bulk of sales and marketing, still dipping into maintenance work, and his crew supervisor, Anthony Ruffin, handles operational duties. Elizabeth Ravindran, office manager, keeps systems intact.
Passing on responsibility not only relieved Standley of over-packed workdays, but also allowed key employees to grow along with the organization, he said. Ruffin moved up the ranks, starting 13 years ago as a technician. “At one time, Dan was the only one who did the scheduling, and now he passed that down to me,” Ruffin said, also noticing Standley’s hefty workload.
Now, Standley is loosening the reigns and passing out more than incentives. “I used to jump on a mower and help the guys mow, and I found that my expertise is dealing with clients, quality checks and sales calls,” he realized. “I thought I was doing a good job, but I was being counterproductive.”
Eventually, he would like to shift business into “autopilot,” but first the company must solidify its systems, he noted. Still, he sees stepping out of day-to-day operations as a challenge. “I like being involved,” he said simply. “I always have.”
OPERATION OVERHAUL. A pivotal point in Dan’s Lawn Care & Landscaping business timeline falls in 1988, when Standley joined Associated Landscape Contractors of America, a connection he refers to as “a lifelong business partner.” Networking with other contractors – borrowing ideas and sharing tips – drafted the skeleton for more efficient operating systems.
“I learn the best from visiting other companies, and the benchmarking tips I’ve gained have been unbelievable,” he said, listing a four-day work week, pre-employment drug screening and equipment advice as suggestions he lifted from other businesses.
“I’ve learned a lot of lessons over the years and prior to getting involved with trade organizations,” he said. “Ten years ago, I ran my business from the seat of my pants. It would take me five hours with a pot of coffee late at night to do invoices. With our software, it now takes my office manager a little more than an hour.”
This is only one of many systematic overhauls that sharpened the company’s daily operations, Standley added. “I think that having decent controls in effect has been an evolutionary process. We’ve never been out of control, we’ve just improved the ones we had.”
Managing financials, undoubtedly, is one of Standley’s greatest challenges, he said. Ravindran recalled the shuffle of paperwork and technicians on her first day at work eight years ago when the business was still in Standley’s home. “There was no system,” she remarked. “There was no employee manual. We didn’t have a route sheet, and we would just write the crew name and where they were going to go on a piece of paper, and they would return at 5 p.m. Dan used to write proposals on an itty-bitty piece of paper that had carbon behind it, rip it off and give it to the client.”
Now, systems at the company are the norm. Spreadsheets organize scheduling and routing, and job costing allows the company to identify productivity pitfalls and determine which accounts yield a profit or a loss. A tracking system prevents inefficient routing by creating geographic territories. “Before the spreadsheet I had old formulas that people had given me through the years, and they weren’t accurate and I wasn’t using them properly,” Standley remembered.
Additionally, he keeps a labor attorney on retainer and meets regularly with an accountant to produce periodic financial reports. He hired several consultants to evaluate his company’s financials and formulate a business plan, which outlines a model of gradual, consistent growth.
Most importantly, Standley maintains relationships with other industry professionals, learning through their experiences as to not “reinvent the wheel,” he noted. “It’s a two-way street. You share back and forth, and there are no barriers. The walls go down, and it’s a very open forum for growth.”
With expectations for a 10-percent revenue increase in 2001 and a history of incremental growth, Standley predicts more maturity. “Financially, we can always improve,” he stressed. “I’d like to see us not growing as much, but netting more. We all want to see that.”
EASY GROWS IT. Standley doesn’t want to overextend his operation. He isn’t planning for branch offices and he doesn’t crave quantity. “I’ve learned that bigger isn’t necessarily better for me,” he explained. “You can gross a lot [of revenue], but it’s what you net that matters. I think that most small businesses fail after three to five years, and we’re doing something right.”
Doing it right means doing it slowly, for Standley.
“There were some years where I had growth spurts, and that was back when I didn’t have any real business plan and I wasn’t seeking any help,” he recalled. “But my growth has been very gradual. I was very leery of not having the people to handle the work and losing the bread and butter clients that pay the bills.”
Core clients are Standley’s first priority, which he justifies with a common business philosophy – the 80/20 principle, which figures most company profits stem from 20 percent of the client base. Reselling services to these accounts is unnecessary since customers are already pleased, he explained. Their satisfaction with the services supplies additional selling opportunities. “Those are the people you focus on,” he said. “Instead of going out on five new Yellow Page calls, where one may pan out and the others don’t, I’ll resell add-on services to existing clients. They like us, the job we’re doing and it’s a done deal.”
The company provides landscape maintenance and lawn care services in-house, and uses strategic alliances with companies for irrigation installation and tree services. “A lot of our clients expect one-stop shopping,” he explained. “They want to call one person to fix the tree and the irrigation system.
“I don’t want to buy extra equipment or train people to do these jobs,” he continued, stressing the value of his subcontractor relationships. “I can use the irrigation technician, tack on a percentage and make money, and it’s a win-win deal.”
Standley also looks for winning accounts. Existing clients and commercial accounts are ideal business and residential clients within a $2,000 to $5,000 scope who “respect the value of a professional company” are welcome. He prefers to keep his growth within the parameters of his valued clients – commercial clients with regular maintenance.
Part of this client screening process includes avoiding those that reach for cost-cutting companies, and he will not compete with price slashers.
In fact, sometimes he simply offers other companies advice. He’ll tell them there is a better way of running a business – a more fair way to price. Many ignore his feedback. Some take it seriously. “I told one contractor flat out that he was going to lose his tail, and he appreciated it,” he quipped.
Still, Standley gets out-bid by companies that estimate a property below his break-even point. “That’s where selling comes in and educating the client about the value of your services,” he pointed out. “When you can develop that relationship with the client and educate them on what they’re getting for their dollar, the other guys go out the door.”
INTENSIVE CARE. Standley’s client base didn’t hire him by responding to a television ad or a flashy bulletin board. That’s because Standley keeps it simple. His marketing efforts consist of a Yellow Pages ad and visible company logos on his uniforms. His technicians also carry business cards to pass out.
Otherwise, his clients signed on for his service because they heard it was quality – their neighbors said so. And his customers tend to stick around, he added.
“We do what we say we’re going to do when we say we’re going to do it,” he commented. “That’s one of the things we really pride ourselves on. I give my guys a latitude of $50 in labor or ornamentals to fix any problems right on the spot, and that empowers them to know that they can fix the problem and move on. It’s an investment in the client relationship.”
This is just one example of Standley’s proactive service approach – a trait he said sets him apart from other companies. Quick response time is an undebatable priority. “If we mess it up, we fix it better than anyone. We make the mistake and the complaint is positive because the client will like us even more after we fix it.”
Conversation triggers this quick response, and Standley emphasized the importance, again, of listening, and then acting. Asking whether or not a client is satisfied with the service is a rudimentary question many technicians neglect, he said.
“A lot of times you can be talking to your clients and you get into the person – the kids, their soccer games – and you get ready to leave and you haven’t asked if there is anything they need to know about,” he said. “When you ask, it opens up additional sales and seals relationships because you cared.”
After all, caring is one of Standley’s keys to success. He cares about his employees, his clients and his company. A competitive streak advanced his business and an optimistic attitude molded his crew’s work ethic.
“Have a zest for life and the job you do, and do it well,” he advised. “When you are excited about your job, that excitement transfers down the ranks.”
Chances are, this excitement will see Standley through the next birthday.
The author is Assistant Editor of Lawn & Landscape magazine.