Stop thinking like a landscaper

Stop thinking like a landscaper

Features - Cover Story

Go beyond plants and start building your business.

April 17, 2013
Chuck Bowen

One day, Jim McCutcheon got a call from a crew out in the field. Seems the 18-wheeler delivering plants to a job site in metro Atlanta was pulling into the parking lot to unload and got stuck, blocking six lanes of traffic.

McCutcheon’s crew leader told him that the HighGrove team called the nursery and then set to work unloading the plants themselves. They got it cleared up and the truck unstuck and everything went back to normal.

A few weeks later, McCutcheon called his five nursery suppliers in for a meeting at his office. He said that each of them sold him on the quality of their plant material, pushing over pamphlets full of great glossy photos of trees and shrubs.

But he told them that if they each brought out a two-inch Japanese maple and set it down in the parking lot without the tags, there’s a slim chance he – or his customers – could tell the difference. He told them the story about the stuck semi.

“You guys didn’t unload it. My guys had to unload it,” McCutcheon said. “I need you to stop thinking like nurserymen and start thinking like a logistics company. I need you to help solve my problems.”

HighGrove Partners now has two nursery suppliers.

That’s an interesting story about plant material. But your customers think the same thing. So to start solving your customers’ problems, you have to stop thinking like a landscaper.

Business models.
You know what business you’re in. But what business should you be in? In 2005, HighGrove moved to more of a service model, and it’s maintenance division has averaged 12 percent growth since, even during the recession.

“We’re a service company that does landscaping,” he says.

McCutcheon does all commercial work in Atlanta. That means he’s playing in a very crowded, very competitive and very “price conscious” market.

McCutcheon’s seen the same push toward single-year contracts and price shopping and commoditization of landscaping services as contractors across the country have.

Eventually, he realized he couldn’t compete on price alone, so he decided to work on differentiating his company instead – become more like Apple and less like IKEA.

“Too often, we try to do both of these things,” he says – try to offer high-end products at bargain-basement prices. “You need to figure out which of these areas you’re in.”

So how do you do it? First, you get the right people and give them a lot of rope. Two years ago, HighGrove got rid of account managers. Under the old model, account managers had to supervise crews, keep an eye on properties and make sure clients were happy. Then they had to sell enhancements, too.

“I would submit to you they can’t do all that,” McCutcheon says. Sales and service require two personalities, and it’s difficult to find a person who can do both really well.

Now, the company has CRMs who handle clients and operations folks to handle the crews. One group is proactive and the other is reactive. The CRMs have a monthly entertainment budget $250.

“In the face of change, the competent are helpless,” McCutcheon says.

Which means: Don’t be afraid to upgrade your talent from guys who are just good at what they do to guys who are excellent, and don’t try to convince yourself that they’re better than they are. “Some employee turnover is not always a bad thing,” he says.

Then what? Once you have the right team, you establish a mission, vision and strategic plan. Too many landscapers, McCutcheon says, are more focused on tactics than they are on strategy. They worry about how deep trenches have to be or how many spray heads they’ll need instead of how happy their best customers are – or even who their best customers are.

You need to articulate why your company exists, where you want it to go and how you’re going to get it there, McCutcheon says. Then, you explain that to your employees so they understand what it is everyone’s doing every day.

“Can you hand the reins of your company to someone else to run it while you actually work on the business?” McCutcheon asks. “You have to make money, and your people need to know how you make money.”

And then?
You have a team, you have a plan. Now you execute. You build your company to be what you want it to be, McCutcheon says. Stop and think: What do you want to do with your company? If money and time were no object, what would you do? If you had to build everything again from scratch, would you do it the same way?

“If the answer is no,” McCutcheon says, “what are you going to do about it?”

The author is editor and associate publisher of Lawn & Landscape. Email him at