Learn to follow

Sometimes the best leadership is done when you watch and listen.

Travels with Jim follows Jim Huston around the country as he visits with landscapers and helps them understand their numbers to make smarter decisions.

© Oxana Gravina | Adobe Stock

It was early January when I pulled out of Park City, Utah, onto I-80 heading east to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Unfortunately, 100 miles into this trip, fog smothered the road like a Hudson Bay blanket, reducing visibility down to 200 to 300 yards. I slowed down to an agonizingly slow pace. This wasn’t the way I wanted to start my winter consulting season.

About this time, two pickup trucks passed me going the speed limit. It was obvious they were traveling together. Like a lead dog, the truck in front was setting the pace and ensuring that the road ahead was safe. The vehicle had heavy-duty fog lamps and excellent visibility because it sat high above the tarmac. I’ll come back to this trip later in this article.

Lost in Idaho.

It was right about the time of the 2008 economic crash when I started working with Chase Coates, president of Outback Landscape (OLI), in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Chase was coming off a rough year and he knew that he needed to make some adjustments. Unlike so many young landscape contractors, Chase not only sought out new methods and advice, but he also implemented them.

We got together and began a process of budgeting, benchmarking, pricing and strategic planning. Upon departing his office (then in Rexburg, Idaho) the first time, I wondered if he would take the information that I gave him and implement it. It didn’t take long before I had my answer.

Six months later, it was obvious that Chase had implemented the pricing and tracking benchmarks that we had discussed. By the end of the year, Outback Landscape had grown in sales by over 30 percent.

More importantly, the bottom line had improved significantly. But this was only the beginning of a 10-year run that would take Outback Landscape from a fledgling company to one of Idaho’s premier Green Industry contractors.

Building on a solid future.

Throughout the next 10 years, Chase continued to study his business, the green industry and the opportunities within his market. He continued to plan both strategically and tactically as he sought to master not only the big picture (threats and opportunities outside of OLI) but also the little picture (daily operations within OLI). Early on, we began talking about purchasing land and building a facility to house the company. This would help the company plant a flag, so to speak, in the southeastern Idaho market. It would also increase efficiency of daily operations and allow for future growth. We estimated that the new facility, with its efficiencies, would add from 1 to 2 percent to OLI’s bottom line.

Internally, Chase focused on two very important elements of the company. First, he built a great team of field and office managers. Tyler Washburn, operations manager, has been with Chase almost since day number one. Arin Chunn runs the internal systems of the company. Kim Rubert and Kirk Jeppesen comprise the design/build and sales portion of the team. These individuals allow Chase to focus on threats and opportunities as they handle the daily operations.

However, Chase knew that he needed not only to build a great team with great people in key positions. He also knew that he had to build great systems to hold everything and everybody together. He and his team did their research and implemented industry software to be used in conjunction with his accounting software.

A decade later.

Ten years after first implementing a process of budgeting, benchmarking, pricing and strategic planning, Outback Landscape has grown more than ten-fold in sales revenue with a solid double-digit bottom line. Just this past February, Chase and his team moved into their new facility in Idaho Falls.

Like the lead dog that I was following to help me navigate through the fog to get me safely to my destination, Chase has followed in the footsteps of many others. He followed his father, Blair Coates, president of Coates Landscape Supply and his mother, Michelle Coates, the CFO for the company, who also teaches English at a local college.

Some people always want to be the lead dog, whether they’re qualified or not. They often quip that the scenery doesn’t change if you’re just a follower. Smart individuals, on the other hand, realize that in order to become a leader, you first have to learn how to be a follower. Interestingly, as Chase continues to seek out top-notch mentors and coaches, he’s become one himself because he knows the value of listening and learning from the experience of others. This is a lesson from which we can all learn.

Contact Jim Huston at jhuston@giemedia.com

May 2019
Explore the May 2019 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find you next story to read.