Lead plow

Lawn & Landscape’s sister publication, Snow magazine, presents its Leadership Awards to individuals in the professional snow and ice management industry who demonstrate outstanding leadership within their companies, as well as in the industry and in the communities they live and do business in. The nomination process began after the first of the year through an open call for submissions. After collecting nominations, a committee of industry insiders was convened to determine the recipients.

The road home

Joe Kujawa may not have been raised in the snow business, but he was born for it.

By Jim Dunlap

To say Joe Kujawa took a road less traveled would be an understatement, but one that, in retrospect, makes perfect sense.

Unlike his older brother and partner Chris, who has worked with Kujawa Enterprises business full-time since 1982, Joe never aspired to join the family business. He dreamed of becoming an architect, and took the first step by earning a 5-year professional architecture degree at Cornell University, then joining prominent national engineering and architectural firm HOK after college. A few years later, he added an MBA from Vanderbilt University, and relocated to Chicago, where he found himself on the road far too often to suit him, his wife Patty and their three young children.

After visiting the new KEI headquarters in Milwaukee, Joe asked Patty on the drive home if he should consider asking his father Ron for a job. Concluding it might not be fair to Chris, he shelved the idea. Then, while on a consulting trip to Washington, D.C., his cell phone rang and it was Chris, asking if Joe would consider coming home to work with the company.

“Joe is very intelligent, and looks at the business side,” Chris says. “He works directly with the operations people, and keeps an eye on the nuts and bolts side of the business."

KEI has evolved into what Joe calls “a full service, four-season service company” with four major divisions: landscape management, snow management, interior plants and holiday decor and landscape construction.

People who know Kujawa cite his dedication to facts and data as the basis for business decisions, rather than opinion or speculation.

“Joe is not one for last-minute changes,” says Tom Jurasinski, KEI’s operations manager, who has been with the company for 26 years.

Because of the importance Joe and the rest of the Kujawa family place on employee development and well-being, Kujawa has implemented what the company calls Higher Ground University for key employees, a way to share thoughts and ideas and spark creative thinking.

He has actually started a book club on staff, with employees assigned to various business or management-themed books and invited to share their thoughts on them.

Creative and critical thinking is encouraged at KEI. Freedom to formulate their own solutions to problems is part of the company's culture.

“Joe is one heck of an awesome boss,” Jurasinski says. “You always know where you stand, and he’s very consistent. He truly conducts himself by the Golden Rule, and that makes him an awesome guy to work for. And, he believes in job fulfillment and a life balance between home life and work. During snow season, you might work 40-50 hour weeks, but in slow season you might work 35-40.”

Jim Dunlap is a freelance writer based in California.

A garden of growth

David Lammers, president of Garden Grove Landscaping, has grown his company and his life through the tenants of faith, integrity and dedication.

By Patrick Williams

What began as the brainchild of a 15-year-old boy became the first employee- and customer-driven multimillion-dollar snow and landscape company to become an ISO-certified snow contractor in Canada.

David Lammers, president of Garden Grove Landscaping, founded the business out of his parents’ Burlington, Ontario, home in 1990. For several years, he maintained lawns under the name Lammers Landscape, but he changed it to reflect his vision for the business.

“I thought, ‘I can’t let this be about me. If this business is going to be about me then it’s going to fail. So I’m going to make it about everyone else within the organization and I’m going to have people surround it with a culture,’” he says. “I knew that back then already. I don’t know how. It’s just intuition.”

Now the company serves as a leader in the landscaping and snow and ice markets in the Toronto area and in the commercial landscape construction market throughout Ontario. The company’s values, including to “honor God” and “operate ethically and with integrity,” spell it out clearly.

Through family and faith, Lammers grew up learning the value of love and nurturing. In both his work and personal life, he takes care of the people he comes into contact with. He values fairness, respect and differences in opinion while leading by his own example. Lammers recalls something his father told him when he was in his early 20s. “He says, ‘Listen, if you want to make a go at this, I’ll tell you right now, you’re going to have one big, big, big problem,’” Lammers says. “I says, ‘What’s that?’

“He says, ‘You are going to have endless problems with your workforce.’

“I say, ‘Well, Dad, you know what – if that’s going to be my biggest problem – then I’m going to make that my biggest focus then,’” he says. “‘If my number one problem is going to be in my workforce, then I’m going to make that my greatest solution.’”

Managing employees has been difficult, but Lammers requires them to keep up with the company’s growth. He and his team hire for positive attitude and teach skill from there. If employees are struggling with an issue, Lammers is willing to do what he can – whether it’s finding them a mentor or someone to aid them in financial management or something else – to achieve the sense of family he strives for in his company. “We’re nothing without our people,” he says. “We’re absolutely dead in the water. We can’t do a thing if we don’t have a solid team that’s committed to the vision of who we are.”

Not always focused on the green industry, Lammers studied classical piano at the prestigious Toronto Royal Conservatory of Music, learning about music theory and composers while writing pieces of his own. He received his ARCT diploma from the conservatory, which required a two-hour memorized performance of compositions by the likes of Bach, Debussy, Liszt, Mozart and Rachmaninoff.

At the young age he juggled the responsibilities of lawn maintenance with classical piano performance and business studies. He knew no one was going to do the work for him. Twenty years later, he’s placed trust in colleagues to allow himself to continue looking at the bigger picture.

“That’s the beauty of people being aligned collectively and as one, and when you’ve got unity and vision, you have an unstoppable force,” he says. “You’re just solid, you’re one, you’re unified. And that’s how I want to lead my life.”

Patrick Williams is a freelance writer based in Ohio.

Born to lead

Starting a business in high school, Peter Smolka was destined to be a leader for the industry.

By Jim Dunlap

Few people are destined from adolescence to become trailblazers in their chosen field, but Peter Smolka may come as close as anyone. Smolka, the founder and day-to-day leader of Chicago area-based Everest Snow Management, has run his own business since his junior year of high school.

After building his landscape maintenance business, while doing some snow and ice work in the winters, he had something of an epiphany and made what turned out to be a life-changing career decision.

“I realized that focusing on one thing was the key,” he says. “I sold the landscape division and focused strictly on snow. I realized that I was more passionate about snow. It’s easier for me to understand, and I enjoy figuring out the challenges that each different storm poses.”

While many may wonder about the business model of a company that essentially has no income stream for six or more months a year, Smolka and his executive team make maximum use of the off-season time. In addition to making sales and marketing for the upcoming season, company personnel spend the warmer months reviewing events from the previous winter and analyzing both problems and successes, along with tasks like equipment maintenance, inventory and professional development.

“We have a core group in the office of 15 people, and we always look at what we do,” says Chris Carter, Everest’s vice president. “We’re not set in our ways, and we constantly look at ways we can improve and do things differently. That keeps everybody engaged, and everyone is involved in company meetings.

“No two storms are exactly alike, so how did we handle each, and how can we do it differently and better? It’s almost like we’re busier in the summer with all that than we are in the season.”

One gets the feeling from talking with Everest staff members that their worth as both employees and individuals is just as important to Smolka as the company’s net worth. “I’ve been here for four years, and I couldn’t imagine working for a greater boss,” says the company’s client satisfaction manager, Robin Strasser. “There’s a lot of team building that goes on here, and Peter goes above and beyond to make sure that we’re all happy and productive.”

Smolka also does his part to support the industry in which he and Everest make their living.

Troy Clogg, owner of Troy Clogg Landscape and Snow Associates in the Detroit area, applauds Smolka’s business acumen and his dedication to advancing the success of the snow management industry.

“I have a lot of respect for Peter,” Clogg says. “He’s a great role model for the industry. He strives for professionalism and what’s right for everybody in the industry, not just for him.” One critical endeavor cited by both Clogg and Smolka is a legislative initiative in the state of Illinois which could have industry-wide ramifications. It involves a change in the legal language dealing with the assessment of liability in claims involving snow and ice and lawsuits resulting from those situations.

“Peter has been a great advocate, and is making the industry better for everyone,” Clogg says. “He’s created a number of different kinds of technology and applications to make the industry better – he’s led the charge, and some of what he’s shared with the rest of us is proprietary stuff, just to help improve the industry’s level of professionalism.”

Jim Dunlap is a freelance writer based in California.

October 2016
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