Avoid the beat down

Features - Formulas for Success

Mistakes are unavoidable. But you can limit the pain by learning from those who’ve been down that road before.

April 8, 2013
Lawn & Landscape Staff

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Get a mentor.

Wouldn’t be the most compelling bumper sticker, but it sure does ring true for entrepreneurs. Who hasn’t compared notes with another business owner and discovered that both parties made the same mistakes. (Been there! Done that.)

This month, Lawn & Landscape spoke with a few seasoned industry veterans who have been on both sides of the desk: as eager students learning from professionals with many more years under their belts, and as teachers, passing down advice to help grow a successful organization. Here’s what they had to say about finding a mentor, how to make the most out of the relationship and how to give back by sharing lessons learned.

Lessons from Mr. Fred

Tim Lake remembers getting called into the work site trailer of a “crusty old superintendent” he called Mr. Fred. Lake had been on the job every day, driving equipment and digging holes. The project boss had other ideas for Lake.

“He said, ‘I’m going to teach you this now, and I’m telling you this because I admire how hard you work and I like you,’” Lake says. “He said, ‘You will never grow the company as long as you are out there on a piece of equipment digging holes. You have to run the company – you have to sell.’”

Lake was producing by day and selling by night. Mr. Fred forbade Lake to enter the job site for the rest of the week. He wanted Lake to check in the following week with progress on how his sales were going.

Another mentor taught Lake a similar lesson. The man was a client of 30 years, and he took Lake on a quail hunting trip to Texas. The client told him, “What I want you to get out of this trip is that you can only build wealth by leveraging people.” Lake says this client continues to remind him to find his sweet spot in business.

“Do what you’re most effective at and run the organization – being in a production role is counterproductive unless you are a one-man band,” Lake says.

Lake formally engaged in a mentoring relationship in 1995 when he hired a consultant for the first time. “We were growing very quickly and so I teamed up with a consultant to get to the next level,” he says.

But early on in business, some owners do not have the financial luxury to pay for professional advice.

Neither did Lake. “I looked for people who exemplified what I wanted to be – people who were successful in a similar business that I was not going to compete with,” Lake says.

He looked outside of his East Dublin, Ga., market. And he focused on finding individuals who were strong where he was weak.

Then, he simply asked for a meeting. “I never asked anyone who was not genuinely flattered,” he said. “No one ever said no.”

Usually, an invitation to sit down for a talk resulted in an outpouring of lessons learned. “To benefit from the wisdom someone else has gained is huge,” Lake says. As for Lake, he chose advisers who could help him connect with well-versed business professionals.

“I made sure my banker, my accountant and my attorney all had gray hair,” he says.

“I always hired older, more successful people to take care of my services. That may be more expensive, but the benefit of that is they had real wisdom and colleagues and friends they were glad to connect me with more than once,” he says.


Visual mentors

You don’t have to do it all. But when you’re a young company starting out, saying “yes” to every type of job is quite tempting. “You have this desire to be everything for everyone – you think you have to be good at all of the things we do as professionals, whether it’s irrigation, tree work, installing patios. …” says Ben Collinsworth, CEO of Austin, Texas-based Native Land Design.

By watching industry veterans run their businesses, Collinsworth learned this do-it-all approach would not help him build the company he envisioned. The guys he looked up to were hyper-focused. “They got extremely good at what it is they were passionate about, and it took me a long time to realize that even if you are presented with opportunities, you don’t have to take them all,” he says.

Collinsworth participated in the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (PLANET’s predecessor) mentoring program when he first started his company. He was interested in connecting with people who were raising the professionalism of the landscape industry.

“Those guys showed me what professionalism was in our industry – what it meant to be a responsible employer and a steward of the land,” Collinsworth says. He has continued his mentoring relationships over the years by getting involved in peer groups. One is called TAB, The Alternative Board, and has a presence in several major U.S. markets. Consultants assemble peer groups of businesses from various industries.

“You get into a group of six to eight other companies and have day-long meetings with a facilitator,” Collinsworth says. “They get you involved and make sure you are benefiting from the advice they put out there.”

Involvement in a peer group outside the industry helps Collinsworth get a valuable outside perspective. “You can grow by learning how other companies handle the same problems you have,” he says.

Collinsworth is also involved in an industry peer group. “If you don’t put yourself in the position where you have those people around you, it’s easy to be lazy and not hold yourself accountable and for benchmarks to not get hit,” Collinsworth says.

“These guys (in the peer group) hold you accountable. You walk into the room and give a report on how your business is doing and whether you followed through with your plans.”

Collinsworth considers the monthly membership fees for these two peer groups an investment in his continuing education as an owner. “I see it as a necessary expense for our business,” he says.


First-class coaching

Michael Hatcher knows the best and brightest employees will most likely want to move on one day, leave his company and start their own ventures. “It’s selfish for me to think that young people who have the same (entrepreneurial) dreams that I had will want to come into our organization and stay here forever,” he says.

So Hatcher, president of Michael Hatcher & Associates in Memphis, Tenn., takes a different approach to mentoring the young, talented individuals he hires. In a way, he’s training them to eventually run their own businesses. “When we hire someone, we are not under the assumption that they are going to ride off into the sunset with us,” he says.

Instead, Hatcher embraces this generation of independents with what he calls catalytic coaching. “That involves candid conversations with employees so they are telling me their goals,” he says. “I am not doing performance reviews; they are telling me what their ambitions are.’”

His favorite analogy involves train tracks. One rail is the company, the other is the employee. “As long as the two rails run parallel to each other without deviation, the train can be as long and as fast as it can run,” he says. “But the moment deviation occurs, what happens is a train wreck.”

That’s why mentoring is so important to Hatcher. If an employee wants to deviate, he would rather help that individual along to a better rail than wait for a crash at his company. And if a worker’s “train” is rolling right along with his company, he wants to be sure to provide the opportunities for that employee to stay the course.

Meanwhile, Hatcher seeks out mentors to grow his own knowledge of business, and to connect with others who can help him work through challenges and set goals. Early on in his career, he looked up to the industry’s pioneers, and he watched them transition into retirement. This inspired Hatcher to begin planning – which has resulted in him forming an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) so his hard-driving employees can be rewarded with eventual ownership of the company.

Mentoring relationships are critical for business owners in all stages, he says. “There are issues I need to be able to discuss with people who are not employees, whether financial, banking or personal questions or challenges,” he says

Careful listening and honesty set the tone for the relationship. “We are all entrepreneurs, and we have egos as big as 18-wheelers,” he says. “What has humbled me over the years is being able to be honest with those who I mentor, and those who have mentored me.”