A different kind of worker

Features - Formulas for Success

Maybe it’s time to look outside the industry for employees.

February 14, 2013

It’s your greatest asset, and burden. It will keep you up at night wondering, “What’s next?” It will cause you to second-guess yourself sometimes – and other times make decisions you wish you could repeal. It will cost you handsomely when you make a mistake, though it is the one aspect of your business that is worth more than you can even pay.

Labor. It’s hard work finding quality employees, but some landscape business owners have found success looking beyond the industry. Lawn & Landscape spoke with three firms who shared their recruiting strategies.


Recruiting into the culture

Todd Pugh wants to know three things for sure before considering a field worker for a position at Enviroscapes in Louisville, Ohio. 1) Do you enjoy the outdoors? 2) What are your hobbies? 3) What kinds of jobs have you had in the past?

“If they don’t like the outdoors, they are not going to like working in the outdoors,” says Todd Pugh, founder and CEO. “And if video games or being on the computer is their hobby, or shopping, that probably isn’t going to work out. But hunting, four-wheeling, fishing, anything related to the outdoors …that gets us closer to a person who wants to do the type of jobs we offer.”

And as for background, working in the landscape industry isn’t essential. Pugh does look for prospects who understand hard labor, though.

People who have held jobs as painters, construction workers, anything requiring physical activity are usually better candidates.

“We have as good of luck with people coming from the outside of the industry as from inside,” Pugh says, adding that every landscape company is different and even industry experience doesn’t guarantee success at Enviroscapes. “We are really looking for people who have a drive to work – people who can speak to the customer.”

The customer service aspect of a field position is critical, Pugh says. “These guys are on our customers’ properties 30 times a year. I might be on a property one time. Managers might be there 10 times. Our field labor are the faces of Enviroscapes, so not only do they need to have the ability to work, but they also must communicate with customers and represent our brand.”

Finding these people can be a challenge, but Enviroscapes has tools in place. For one, the company holds periodic mini-job fairs. These fairs might take place on a Wednesday night for a couple of hours, and the events are advertised on the radio.

The fair is split into blocks of time. The first 20 minutes are an introduction to the company and its policies. All new hires take a drug test, get a background check and learn some basic rules: the firm is smoke-free, hair can be no longer than collar-length and random drug screenings take place.

Usually, a few people will depart the fair after hearing about these standards.

Then, attendees are encouraged to take their resumes to one of the managers manning a table. Two to three prospects sit with one manager. “We like to see how people interact in a group setting,” Pugh says.

Pugh says he has a 20 percent success rate with the mini-job fairs. If 10 people show up, two will walk out after hearing about the rules and regs, eight will interview and the firm will hire two or three of those people.

Of course, employee referrals are an ideal way to attract people to the business, Pugh says. The company might advertise positions in its internal newsletter, or announce, “We need people” during weekly meetings.

“I think business owners need to realize that times have changed, and I always say to my guys, ‘Why would someone want to come work here?’ What are we doing that really sets us aside from other landscapers and other industries – from plumbing, construction and electricians?”

The answer is culture. “We treat people fairly,” Pugh says. “If you look at your people as an asset, you are not going to have major employee issues. If you look at them as a liability, that is exactly what they will be, a liability.”

That’s why Pugh hires with great care.

“Hire slow and fire fast,” he says, repeating a popular business mantra. “There is such a large amount of time invested in training a new employee and getting a person acclimated to your culture.” Specifically, getting office personnel in the door and up to speed costs about $2,000. A field production worker costs $250, and this includes uniforms and time for training. “Hiring is not a rash decision.”

Fresh faces

You can tell a lot about a person during a dinner date. How they eat with a fork, the way they make eye contact with others at the table, their manners and the way they treat servers and restaurant staff – all of this matters. That’s why James Cali, COO of Southern Botanical in Dallas, always takes prospects vying for higher-level jobs out for a meal as part of the interview process.

Cali isn’t looking for fancy behavior. But he wants to confirm that the prospect can represent the brand. And over the years, he has realized that doesn’t mean having a horticultural background. “We are a business-oriented company, and horticulturalists don’t go to school for business – they go to school to be outside with flowers. So we work on finding individuals who have basic business acumen and the ability to communicate. If they also love flowers, that’s the best candidate,” he says.

Cali says the company does target horticultural colleges for the best and brightest. “We want the top talent to come to our business,” he says, speaking of horticultural positions at the company. But the second recruiting approach at Southern Botanical is to train creative, driven people from the outside.

Twenty-five percent of employees come to work at the Southern Botanical because they know someone who’s already on board. A referral program rewards employees who bring in a worker so long as that person stays for a year, or longer. The employee receives a bonus after the new-hire’s first successful six months, then year in business. “That way, they will not refer friends unless they will stay,” he says.

The other 75 percent of employees find the company because they learn about its reputation. The firm has focused on amplifying its visibility by applying for industry awards. It took home two out of four judges awards from PLANET. “So we are getting calls from everywhere,” Cali says. Three of the last five hires came from outside of Texas. Cali starts with a Skype interview, then brings great prospects to headquarters for an interview (and likely dinner). But you don’t attract people from outside of the industry, and beyond your geographic area, without presenting an attractive package. Southern Botanical offers competitive compensation and benefits, including a 401(k), health, dental and disability insurance. “Until our industry steps up and starts being competitive for pay for students coming out of college, we are not going to get the best and brightest,” he says. “Nor will we be able to attract people from the outside.

Ace admins

Despite high unemployment and a recession that has left many seeking work, finding quality people who will stick with the job is no easy task, says Steve Rak II, president, Southwest Landscape Management, Columbia Station, Ohio. “And we’re not paying minimum wage either,” he says.

Over the years, the company has tried to hire field employees from other industries, but Rak says their perception of the landscape industry is often different than reality. “It’s all fun until you do it on a commercial level,” he says. So hiring outside the industry for field labor hasn’t really worked.

Rak tells of a former pilot that wanted to join one of the firm’s landscaping crews. “He lost his job as a pilot and always wanted to try landscaping, so he worked for us for a summer, but then he left,” Rak says. “We have had that time and again with people from outside of the industry.”

Rak has found that transitioning employees who work in different hard-labor capacities – say those who shovel snow or pour concrete – into a field position fare better in terms of longevity. For instance, a shoveling subcontractor who was working on one of Southwest’s snow and ice crews was asked to join the landscaping team when a foreman noticed his work ethic. “He has been on board with us for a couple of years now,” Rak says.

As for filling those field positions, Rak relies on the H2B program, which provides him with nine field workers – that’s half of his labor. When he sought local employees instead, he only got fast turnover. He has turned to temp agencies for filling positions in a pinch, but the best way to find field workers who will stick with the business is by asking employees to refer friends and family, he says.

Meanwhile, the recruiting story is different on the administrative side of the business, and Rak has had success bringing in “outsiders” to work in the green industry. He hired an office manager after she was let go from a concrete company that went out of business. Prior to that, she worked for her husband, a builder. As for sales, “A good salesperson is a good salesperson, whether they sold fertilizer or cars,” Rak says.

And Southwest hired its account manager based on an employee referral. The company’s existing account manager’s father had worked for a builder in town as the head of installations. He had been laid off by the building industry. “Always keep your eyes and ears open,” Rak says. “You never know if there is someone who works at your favorite restaurant who would make a good employee.”