In Nashville last month, I got to hang out with a bunch of landscapers from across the country. We spent a few days talking about how the attendees could grow their businesses. The event, organized by our columnist Marty Grunder, offered tons of advice and practical strategies for contractors of any size and shape to improve.
It was my favorite type of conference: one where lots of smart people got together to share ideas. Here were some of my favorite quotes from the two-day conference:
“Saying yes gets you to $1 million. Saying no gets you to $2 million.” One of my favorite sessions at GROW! covered the art of delegation, and Marty mentioned this idea. The vast majority of landscape companies never make it past $1 million in revenue, and it’s not because they don’t do good enough work. They keep taking on jobs in too many segments, lose focus and end up in the weeds.
“Focus on the significant few, not the important many.” Matt Caruso, who owns Decrascape, said this about managing employees, but it applies to almost every area of your business. His message: Delegate the “important” stuff to your best team members so you can focus on the “significant” stuff yourself.
“Perfectionism is dangerous. … You have to keep that periscope running or you’re going to run into something.” Mike Rorie, who grew a maintenance company to $30 million before selling to Brickman, said this about delegating and managing a team. His point was that, as an owner, you can’t get too caught up in the minutiae. Stay focused on the largest problems and greatest opportunities.
“We’re a service company that does landscaping,” said Jim McCutcheon from HighGrove Partners in Atlanta. He gave a great talk that encourages landscapers to stop thinking of themselves as, well, landscapers. (You’ll hear more about that in a forthcoming issue.) He works in Atlanta’s commercial space, which is about as commoditized as they come. And the only real thing that makes his company stand out from his competition is the service he and his team provide their customers. Once he realized the real business he was in, he could focus his team on what they wanted to be really good at.
As your season starts up this month, take some time to think about what work you take on, what you focus on as an owner and, ultimately, what kind of business you’re in.
– Chuck Bowen
|This fireplace kit was faced with cultured stone and the joints were pointed to give a natural stone look. The hearth was kicked up a notch by installing 2-inch thick Pennsylvania Bluestone with a rockfaced edge. The unit was raised up 18 inches from ground level and a wood box was added for wood storage.|
Maintaining straight lines, the proper marking, cutting and laying of pavers and basic cutting techniques can increase efficiency on the hardscape jobsite. But these techniques can also be used to transform ordinary segmental concrete pavements into creative works of art.
The average paver is handled seven times on the job, according to Pat McCrindle, who owns McCrindle Paver Systems (MPS). By simply purchasing a paver cart – in which one worker can pick up 90 pavers at a time – you eliminate handling the pavers three times. Every time you touch a paver, it’s labor oriented and costs you money, according to McCrindle.
“If I can eliminate four times when I am touching a paver when I have to lay it, I’m making money,” he says. Everything from alignment bars to extractors to cutting equipment, vacuum equipment and many others are all designed for the hardscaper and to increase their production and their efficiency.
The bottom line is square footage per man hour and when are you really making money, McCrindle says. That’s what it’s all about, becoming more proficient and showing your workers how to do things better.
These include how three men can screed off a thousand square feet of sand that is 1-inch thick at a level, constant lay so that they can lay the pavers.
That’s what the basics are all about, McCrindle says. The second application would be to look beyond the paving patterns, which would be the amenities: fire pits, sheet walls, fireplaces, water features, lighting, inset steps, columns, driveway applications, pool and deck applications, cleaning and sealing and stabilization of joints among a whole list of other things.
“Especially in the economic times of today, people are very conscious of the money that they’re spending,” McCrindle says. “In this industry, hardscaping is a soft sell. It sells itself. They know what shape, they know what color and they have a growing family and want to put a patio on the back of the house.
“Maybe I did a job 10 years ago, now all their kids are in college and coming home in September and October.
“How cool would it be to take the patio we put in 10 years ago and now put in a fire pit and a sheet wall? Now they’re at home with their family, they can relax with a nice fire out back; there are things like that we offer to clientele – even such things as backyard pizza ovens, these are huge as are backyard barbecues and kitchens. The outdoor living theme is huge.”
|The coping was replaced with natural bluestone instead of precast concrete coping. It also included fabricated stone on site, and Bullnose edge with thermal finish.|
McCrindle says the challenges in all of this include knowing what’s available and knowing how to find it.
“A lot of the contractors that are out there can lay a patio, build a wall or build a column, but when it comes to knowing what’s available, the different avenues through their vendors, the distributors, manufacturers – it’s really becoming in tune with the tools that are available to the contractors.”
The author is a freelancer based in Charlotte, N.C.
Photos Pat McCrindle
It’s a way out for a smaller company that couldn’t hack it in the tough economy. It’s a succession plan for a seasoned industry veteran looking to monetize his business.
It’s a partnership opportunity for an entrepreneur who wants to scale up.
Consolidation is all of these things, and a personal approach to joining forces is what makes The Yard Group’s business model better than the behemoth, if you ask CEO David Pyne.
“Getting bigger isn’t always a negative,” he says, shucking the stigma of a Goliath hungry for acquisitions. The Yard Group isn’t like that.
“We use big company ideas, but we never lose sight of what got us here, which is the local brands and customer relationships.,” he says.
The Yard Group, headquartered in Glastonbury, Conn., was created in 2007 with the purpose of bringing together landscape industry talent in the area.
Since its founding, the parent company has acquired four major landscape brands in the central Connecticut region.
The first to join The Yard Group was B&B Landscaping & Design of Glastonbury, followed by Burhoe Landscaping and Lawn Service of Farmington. Most recently, the parent company broadened its portfolio by acquiring Readco Landscaping and Connecticut Homescapes, both in central Connecticut.
“The landscape industry is no different than a lot of other cottage industries in this country that have been consolidated over the last 10 to 15 years,” says Michael Ferris, a founder of The Yard Group.
“There are advantages associated with scale and purchasing, and you can pass savings to the bottom line and to customers.”
It’s not just about dollars and cents. For The Yard Group, bringing more companies under its umbrella allows each of its brands – Burhoe, Readco, B&B and Connecticut Homescapes– to offer more value to clients.
“We want to bring as many products and services into the relationship as we can to make the experience as simple and hassle-free for the ultimate client as possible,” Ferris says. “Our feeling is we can create longer-term relationships with customers by serving them in a variety of ways across the whole spectrum of landscaping products and services.”
Homegrown Identity. When The Yard Group acquires a large, regional brand, the plan is always to keep key people and employees in place.
Perhaps some back-room jobs are trimmed out, since the parent company can offer centralized administrative services, including human resources, purchasing and other core business functions.
But the people who have worked hard to grow the acquired company into a successful, desirable entity stay on board. That’s part of the deal.
“There is a human side to this business model,” Pyne says.
“We are not going in like corporate behemoths, we are going in and saying, ‘Those jobs are staying put.’
“Jobs are safer than ever, and we can offer their clients better service and sharper prices than ever before – and by the way, we’re a local company, as well.”
Most times, when employees think consolidation, they figure they’ll be out of a job. “What you find with this business model is the founders of the brand stay on and are a necessary equation to the go-forward success of the entity,” Pyne says.
Same goes for key personnel and operators in the field.
“The difference is, now they have the kind of career potential they probably didn’t have before.”
The local, homegrown story is an important part of The Yard Group’s culture, and its branding efforts.
The parent company isn’t melting out-of-state outfits into its operation.
There are plenty of opportunities to consolidate regionally. And so far, integration has been solely horizontal, though The Yard Group sees how vertically integrating into the retail nursery business could diversify the business.
“We could deliver our footprint in a way that does not require the upfront investment associate with renting space and buying equipment,” Ferris says.
When larger brands like Connecticut Homescapes and Readco are absorbed into The Yard Group, they retain their identity. Their names are marketed, but The Yard Group drafts service offerings from one brand to the next to make each company’s offering more robust.
“The fact is, we are still a local landscape company, and we are not going corporate,” says Pyne, acknowledging that one challenge of growing is working to maintain brand identity and customer intimacy.
Pyne says The Yard Group maintains a balance by always returning to the people who drive the company – the founders of each acquired company.
Those business owners decide to take The Yard Group opportunity because the marriage makes sense financially, culturally and philosophically.
“There is a certain profile of an entrepreneur who is intrigued with involving himself economically and personally in a different career path, and it gives him a way to monetize his investment,” Ferris says.
For The Yard Group, adding more like-minded businesses to the mix diversifies and expands the parent’s suite of services. This can be a real buffer in a tough economy.
“We think we need to be diverse and nimble. From our experience, it is clear that this area has a lot of capacity in the industry for this approach,” Ferris says.
Photos supplied by The Yard Group
Find a fit
Here’s what to look for when looking at a prospective acquisition.
When a business becomes part of The Yard Group family, the owner is a key part of the success of the merger. “We don’t buy a company unless the local founder wants to stay and make a career,” says Michael Ferris, a founder of the Glastonbury, Conn.-based conglomerate, which has four landscape company brands under its parent, The Yard Group.
A company must be a match financially, culturally and philosophically. Here are some of The Yard Group’s priorities when vetting a prospective acquisition.
The owner. “We absolutely look at the DNA of the founding partners of the company before we merge,” Ferris says, adding that a thorough interview process helps The Yard Group dig deeper and find out what makes the prospect tick. “A company always takes on the character of the founding partner– we look at that.”
The price point. What does the company charge for services? “We know enough about the Connecticut landscape industry that finding out what a founder is charging gives us a sense of whether the company is able to deliver a quality service and what kind of clientele they have.”
The ‘list.’ Who buys from the company, where do these people live and how much are they willing to pay for services? This information is available on the all-important customer list. “We want to join forces with companies that go after similar demographics that we do,” Ferris said. That is, high-end clients looking for quality work and who are willing to pay a higher price tag for quality. “We differentiate ourselves on quality and the broad range of services we offer,” Ferris said.
NASHVILLE – Landscape contractors, whether just starting out or pulling down millions in revenue, need to focus on three key areas if they want to continue to grow their businesses.
That was the main takeaway for the 140 attendees at GROW! 2013, a leadership and development conference put on by Marty Grunder, owner of Grunder Landscape Co. and columnist for Lawn & Landscape.
Conference presenters included Mike Rorie and Jim McCutcheon, as well as some strong, but relatively under the radar, owners like Jeffrey Johns, Matt Caruso, Lee Buffington and Benton Foret.
The main focus of the event was leadership and management development, and encouraging the attendees to think of themselves as true leaders of their businesses and not the guy who does the technical work. Some of the best-received discussions centered on time management, delegation and general business systems.
Time management – Here’s a quick, three-step process for delegating and tearing through a set of tasks. Ask yourself three simple questions:
What happens if I just delete it? This applies to email, certainly, but also taking meetings and conversations about your new truck. If the answer is “nothing,” then get rid of it.
Can or should someone else do it? Delegate everything you can so you can focus, as Matt Caruso put it, “on the significant few, not the important many.”
Can it be done in three minutes or less? If yes, do it now. If no, put it on your list and set a time to do it later.
One of the best ways to save time is to not go out on sales calls with prospects that aren’t a fit for your company. Here are some questions that Grunder’s team asks anyone who wants to work with them:
- How did you hear about us?
- What process are you going through to hire a landscape contractor?
- What are you looking for in this project?
- What is your timeframe?
Each company will have slightly different questions, but they should be asked by the receptionist or an inside sales rep to pre-qualify all prospects. Then, salespeople aren’t wasting time on people who don’t fit the company’s scope or ideal client.
Leverage. Mike Rorie, who founded Cincinnati-based GroundsMasters and grew it rapidly to $30 million before selling to Brickman, spoke about some of the systems he used to scale his company so quickly.
First, answer some the key questions: What do you want? What does success look like? Are you spending your time on the right things? Do you know what your key people want?
“Have you really asked yourself what you want from this business? ... If you don’t know this, nobody on your payroll has a chance. Are we going to work like dogs just to work like dogs? ... No, we’re going to celebrate. We’re going to have fun.”
Second, have a repeatable, scaleable and systems-driven business model. Rorie’s was commercial landscape maintenance, and there are many others.
Third, have focus. He cautioned attendees to stay out of markets that are too different (commercial vs. residential, for example) and away from lots of services. “Do they sell pizzas at a car rental place? Can you pick up your dry cleaning at a car rental place?” he asked. Complimentary services make sense when they’re built off a core silo of work and sold to existing customers. “The way I manage is through elimination. All this stuff shows up and I have to decide quickly what’s important to me and who’s going to get it, because it’s not me. I don’t have that aptitude,” Rorie said.
“You’ve got to keep the periscope running or you’re going to run into something.”
Fourth, have a handle on your sales pipeline. “This is your oxygen,” Rorie said. An owner has to know how many prospects it takes to produce a lead, and how many leads produce a sale.
And fifth, have an organizational structure. Keep it simple: sales, production, administration. You as the leader have to be the head of resources and accountability.
“You all are wearing that hat whether you know it or not, recognize it or not, appreciate it or not,” Rorie said.
Delegation. As companies grow, the role of the owner and leader changes. Before, he was responsible for practically everything in the company, but now he must relinquish some of that day-to-day responsibility.
“Saying yes gets you to $1 million,” Grunder said. “And saying no gets you to $2 million.”
Several discussions focused on the importance – and art – of delegation. Johns said his main tool for delegating is his org chart, which also helps him set expectations for his team, and focuses them based on their skills.
“A lot of us as owners impede growth instead of encouraging it,” Johns said. “Give your people the chance to demonstrate their skills, and they might surprise you.”
McCutcheon said owners have to realize and accept that their employees will eventually screw up. “As long as they learn from it, and can tell you what they would have done differently,” he said, “It’s OK.”
McCutcheon said the best way to get over that fear is to pick one person at your company and delegate something – anything – to them. “Start there and it will get easier and better,” he said.
Rorie suggested that owners delegate the tasks that they are best at. “You can always come in and fix it if it goes left or right on you,” he said. If you don’t give them the chance, “nobody else has a bat, so no one else gets to hit and therefore doesn’t get to train up on different skills.”
GROW! 2014 will be held in Atlanta. To register, visit www.martygrunder.com.
Love your neighbor
Community involvement was a hot topic at Mid-Am.
By Heather Tunstall
Mike Nowak, radio personality, co-host of Dig In Chicago and co-founder of Midwest Ecological Landscaping Alliance (MELA), talked to attendees about the importance of giving back to your local community. Not only does community involvement help your business in several ways, but it also just makes you feel good. Nowak delivered the message at the 2013 Mid America Horticultural Trade Show, which was held in Chicago in mid-January.
Nowak took a lesson from John Elkington, world authority on corporate responsibility and sustainable development, and amended it. Elkington touts the concept of a triple bottom line: People, Planet, Profit. Nowak adds to that, commending a local triple bottom line – incorporating local initiatives for social and environmental responsibility in conjunction with corporate profit.
His session focused on profiling several Chicago-area landscaping companies that take pride in local sustainability. As Nowak said, “What’s good for the community is good for the businesses in the community.” This was demonstrated through examples of charitable initiatives, employee engagement and corporate social responsibility programs.
Tom Lupfer, owner of Lupfer Landscaping, involves his entire team.
He looks at sustainability not just as an environmental idea, but also a social component. When considering whether or not to take on a proposed charitable project, he looks at three things: is it environmentally sound, is it economically feasible and is it socially equitable? If so, he and his team will likely partake.
Lupfer said this sort of ongoing activity gives his employees pride in what they do. It builds a strong community reputation, which in the long run, may add additional customers.
He was careful to say that charitable work and community reputation is a cumulative payoff – it doesn’t come quickly. But when it’s there, you’ve got a great base of testimonials and trust.
Likewise, Mark Moxley of Lake Street Supply participates in community outreach. He believes that completing work in exchange for signage and advertising isn’t very beneficial in the long run.
However, working together with other community members on a project of good will may not bring immediate impact, but will build relationships, which will lead to future business.
Meeting someone on a project and working together makes you recognizable, and gives you a good business reputation.
Christy Webber, of Christy Webber Landscapes, looks at her company’s contributions as industry “tithing.” She budgets 10 percent in dollar amounts to community projects each year.
She suggests selecting causes that supports a mutual respect – in other words, she supports those who support her business. Her company gives materials mainly, and she believes this is a great way for advertising her business, and it brings with it good karma.
There are many ways to be involved in community outreach, social responsibility and local sustainability that will benefit your business as well as build a sense of pride among employees and team members.
Getting involved with organizations such as MELA, which is a non-profit dedicated to promoting and developing sustainable practices and currently has 200-225 member companies around the Chicago area, can point you in the right direction.
Check with your local council to find organizations to help.
Groups looking for Mid Am replacement
While the Mid-America Horticultural Trade Show has been cancelled for 2014, it may be resurrected in 2015, but those details are still very unclear.
The Mid Am board of directors determined it was not financially viable to host the show in 2014 and recommended to the trade show owners to not host it in 2014, said Joe Khayyat, the executive director of the Illinois Green Industry Association (IGIA), the majority owner of Mid Am. IGIA sponsors the event with the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association and the Wisconsin Green Industry Federation.
“They want to see if the economy improves, how the landscape and nursery industry fares in the spring, before deciding anything more about Mid Am’s future,” said Khayyat, who is also the executive director of Mid Am. “The IGIA currently is working on some different opportunities, a show included, to fill the void left by the current Mid Am. I am not yet ready to say it won’t still be called Mid Am.”
Khayyat said attendance has steadily decreased over the last seven or eight years, which can be attributed to a general slide in trade shows, the fledgling economy and increased competition from other shows.
He said the competition also comes from technology providing opportunities for accessible and affordable sales, marketing and educational support year-round to people in the comfort of their own homes or offices.
“The membership was not being serviced to what each organization thought would be the best situation, and we felt the show needed to be reinvented, and that is what’s happening right now,” said Bill Vogel, Mid Am board president.
The ILCA has already planned a show for 2014 – iLandscape: The Illinois Landscape Show, which “will streamline show management, be placed in a lower cost but strikingly modern suburban venue, and infuse the fun reminiscent of Mid Am trade shows of old,” said Scott Grams, executive director of ILCA. “Education will complement but not compete with the exhibit space.”
As of press time, Grams said the likely dates for the event would be in early February.
Khayyat said IGIA is working hard to also develop an event because the members and industry people need a place to gather in significant numbers.
“Sure, education always is a need,” Khayyat said. “However, the people who have attended Mid Am and who participate in similar industry events continue to tell us that so much more comes from being together, whether it’s the chance to commiserate with others facing the same difficulties or challenges, or whether it is renewing old friendships and cultivating new business relationships.”