From the ground up

Ken Hutcheson built U.S. Lawns from a local company to a nationwide franchise by building the right teams.

Former New England Patriot, Brian Holloway; a keynote speaker at the US Lawns 2010 Annual Conference.

Ken Hutcheson isn’t directly thinking about U.S. Lawns while he cheers his youngest daughter on during her rowing competitions, but the connection is still there in the back of his mind. Pulling ahead means lots of passion, strong relationships and tightly knit teamwork – all goals of Hutcheson’s both on the water and at his home office.

And through his efforts at building the U.S. Lawns franchise since taking the lead as president in 1995, he’s brought plenty of others along for the trip, growing the company nationwide to 260 offices in 41 states today.

He had always looked toward working in the green industry, he says, as far back as high school and then finishing a degree in horticulture at the University of Florida.

“It was an interesting time, because I worked with some really cool people who got me passionate about plants and the nursery business,” he says. “What I realized just by looking at people around me, while it’s a great industry and having a passion for something is exciting, you pursue your passion and find out how to make a living doing it.”

Education played a major part in helping him set himself apart from his peers, and he started working in a management role in the interior plant service. He couldn’t get away from the horticulture industry, but he wanted something more out of the business experience, which led him to franchising.

“I realized plants are important because they’re a passion for me – I love plants, they’re awesome, but you have to identify an area of the business that brings a return and deals with professionals,” he says. “I’ve been able to couple, through my entire career, franchising with the green industry. From day one, it was about delivering the service and always about franchising.”

Hutcheson first came into contact with U.S. Lawns in 1986, as a consultant to the founders for a company that was intensely focused in a small area of Florida with a spread of just 15 franchises. He had his knowledge of the green industry and his understanding of franchising to back him up.

Off the clock

With so many offices spread across the country, it might seem that Ken Hutcheson never gets away from the job. But a work/life balance is one of the basic tenants of working at U.S. Lawn, he says.

“If you don’t have a life outside the office and outside work, you’re going to fail,” he says. “I’ve learned more from my outside activities including what my kids face at times than what I do in the office.”

With four children who have all taken up the sport of rowing through high school and beyond, he’s had plenty of chances to be involved. He and his wife of 32 years, Arlene, have volunteered with the Orlando Area Rowing Society since their oldest daughter first got involved in middle school. He’s not a rower himself, but during his time as a volunteer he’s served as both president and vice president.

But being involved with just one sport wasn’t enough. “I started doing some jogging four years ago, and now I’m a runner,” Hutcheson says. And, in his style, he pulled along people in his company, getting them involved in an annual corporate team 5K for the last few years in Orlando and kicking off initiatives to build a healthier workplace. But he’s eager to work toward even bigger goals with a few half-marathons behind him, and training to be a part of the Boston Marathon in April.

“I realized the 5Ks and 10Ks were fun, but let’s set our goals much higher. So if we’re going to do it, let’s do it right,” he says.

Hutcheson has taken an active role in athletic activities with his family. Top: With son Zach at a corporate 5K. Bottom: Horseback riding with daughter Gabriella.

“The question in 1986 was, ‘How do you expand a service business to where it remains that customer-intimate-model that is so successful in service?’” he says.

It was a question Hutcheson was perfectly placed to answer, says Andrew Mandell, chief financial officer at ValleyCrest. Hutcheson understood the franchising effort was more about selling expertise and advice than only a service. It wasn’t long before he came in full time as an employee in 1995, and became the company president in 2001.

“Ken did a great job of growing the business significantly, putting together a solid sales team to sell new franchises to the franchisees,” Mandell says. “At the same time, he really helped U.S. Lawns become a presence in the national account business.”

Hutcheson was able to build those franchises because “I had been a franchisor and franchisee of another business, so I knew both sides of the parking lot,” he says. Framing the franchise expansion wouldn’t just be a one-way street.

“It’s not just what will work for the franchisor,” he says. “It’s easy to sell when you’re passionate about something, and once I became president, we started putting together a much deeper team of people.”

Building that team and keeping that energy moving was an important part of getting U.S. Lawns growing, Mandell says, and Hutcheson had the gift to build that enthusiasm. “Ken is really the face of the company, and he’s very passionate,” he says.

“He’s got a bunch of independent franchisees out there that he’s built into one of the 10 largest landscape companies in the United States as an aggregate, and getting them all moving in the right direction and living the brand has been a big piece of what he does. “He’s very enthusiastic in getting people excited about the company and what they do and presenting a professional presence.”

Part of what makes him able to keep so many franchises working together is his ability to connect with each person he comes in contact with, according to Brandon Moxam, the director of franchise recruiting at U.S. Lawns. When potential franchisees visit the home offices, Hutcheson makes it a point to spend some time with them to give them a view of the company.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re the vice president of the company or you’re a temp here, he can communicate at your level,” Moxam says. “If you have a conversation with Ken, you feel like you have a personal connection with him. Each one of them leaves Ken’s office feeling like they know him, he understands their position and where they’re coming from. That’s a special ability to have.”

Building that connection is a integral part of bringing that person into the company, but also to set him on the right path for dealing with clients in the future, says Hutcheson. A mission statement is important, but it has to be simple enough for even the newest person in the company to “get it,” he says.

“The part that I really key in on when I’m talking to employees is to be honest and ethical and forthright with your dealings,” Hutcheson says. “We expand and we happen to be very competitive. But you can win and you can make money and you can do it in the right way. You don’t have to cheat. You can be tough but fair.”

That focus on getting people to work together and do things the right way has shown up over and over to Annamaye Clonts as she’s worked with Hutcheson as volunteer parents in the Orlando Area Rowing Society. With about 160 kids in the society and involved parents, emotions run high during discipline and personal situations, she says.

“Anytime we’ve had an issue, I always remember Ken saying, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’” she says. “He has sound thinking and reasoning skills, but always driving him is just, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ And he’s not afraid to step up and do just that.”

But leadership isn’t always about making the unpopular decision as much as it is putting the right people in play and helping them achieve, Hutcheson says.

“I would say I am an observer of people,” he says. “I love to stand to the side and watch people do something, then come in and make some decisions and help guide them.

His ability to help people rise to their potential is what makes his personality so magnetic, Clonts says.

“People want to work with him. They like him and he elevates others,” she says. “He’s not an autocrat at all, he’s a collaborator.”

Moxam looks at that leadership as the way that Hutcheson challenges his team and helps them grow, with a passion and intensity that “is really infectious and brings out the best in employees.”

March 2013
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