Working vacation

Working vacation

Columns - Industry Voices

April 29, 2014
Jim Huston
Industry News Jim Huston

Jim Huston

For more than 27 years, I’ve been facilitating “brainstorming” meetings throughout the U.S.

Compared to the estimating workshops I conduct, which are very left-brain oriented (analytical), the purpose of the brainstorming meetings is to create a social networking event within a think-tank atmosphere – a right-brain event. Ancillary activities such as skiing, snowboarding and dining add to the recreational ambiance. It is this vacation-like setting that facilitates an “out-of-the-box” cognitive experience.

In late January of this year, 45 individuals (including owners and staff) from 20 green industry companies came together at the Snow King Resort in Jackson (Hole), Wyo., for two and a half days of creative thinking and networking.

They came from 15 states. Size of attendee companies varied as much as location. It ranged from more than $10 million to less than $500,000. Virtually all elements of the green industry product and service mix were represented.

The top three topics. Prior to arriving, attendee companies email me a list of the top five topics their companies would like to see covered in the sessions. I then combine and prioritize the lists into one list and present it to the group at the beginning session. Not surprisingly, the prioritized list is quite representative of those issues on the minds of green industry professionals throughout North America. Here are the top three issues we discussed.

1. Strategic planning and thinking (long term and short term): The sense was that attendee CEOs wanted to standardize and systematize not only the planning process within their companies but also the problem resolution process. They wanted to reduce the amount of helter-skelter, reactionary crisis management activity and make it more of a proactive planning and preemptive crisis process. Michael Porters books on competitive advantage and strategy were discussed.

2. Employee incentives, bonus plans and compensation. This topic tied with strategic planning for top billing. All attendees wanted to compensate their staff fairly but were operating in a vacuum. They simply did not know the fair wage for their particular market. They also wanted to discuss how they might provide staff with incentives that would emphasize and promote individual, as well as group productivity. One company shared how a company incentive plan backfired in a very harmful way.

Another company had a “piece-work” incentive system for its commercial maintenance crews that worked very well. A mid-size company had provided its four top managers with a bonus of ten percent of the net profit split equally four ways. However, the company had to attain a minimum of ten percent net profit overall. The other companies that paid bonuses (almost all) indicated they had a more subjective approach. At the end of the year, they would analyze their bottom line and pay out bonuses to individuals as they deemed fair and appropriate.

The consensus was that there was no “one-size-fits-all” incentive plan. Incentives tied to specific, quantifiable, production goals for production personnel seemed best. More general incentives tied to company-wide performance were seen as best for management staff.

3. Exit strategies and succession planning.
Interestingly, about 1/3 of the companies were less than 10 years old. An additional 1/3 had been in business more than 25 years. The remaining 1/3 were somewhere in the middle. Almost all were interested in succession planning in one form or another.

Lessons learned. Follow your passion and do what you love but build a company that has value upon your departure.

Understand what services and products create value that transcends ownership. One-time installation has minimal value, while repetitive services such as lawn maintenance and fertilization, irrigation service, weed control, snow and ice management have maximum value.

Numerous other topics were discussed during the sessions and often late into the night at social events.

Some of the lessons emphasized: A. There’s no silver bullet. Success only precedes work in the dictionary. B. Much more needs to be done regarding succession planning within the green industry. C. “Shoot-from-the-hip” management might be more exciting than a planned approach but it doesn’t make for an enduring and profitable company. D. To be successful in business, you have to use both sides of your brain.

Quantitative analysis has to be combined with creative, out-of-the-box thinking. If you don’t employ both, you’ll dig yourself and your company into a rut. Feel free to email me at the address above to obtain more tips from the meeting or to have me facilitate a brainstorming session for your company.


JIM HUSTON runs J.R. Huston Consulting, a green industry consulting firm. See; mail