Only the strong survive

Features - Lawn Care

Heron Lawn and Pest Control’s training program is a mental boot camp that separates the best from the rest.

June 3, 2013
Lee Chilcote

Pictured above, Rodney Lackey (left) and Steve Okros, co-founders of Heron Lawn and Pest Control in Orlando, Fla.

When the trio of entrepreneurs behind Heron Lawn and Pest Control self-funded the company a decade ago, they barely earned enough to pay themselves at first. One partner even sold his car and his boat just to make that month’s payroll.

Yet for the past several years running, Heron, now a $14-million company with nearly 160 employees, has been one of the fastest-growing companies of its kind in the U.S. From 2011 to 2012, Heron is on track to post a 25 percent increase in sales revenue. The company recently opened its seventh location in Central Florida this year.

Located in Orlando Fla., an area that is popular with snowbirds and one of the fastest-growing parts of Florida, Heron has set its sights on expanding to the Tampa and Ocala markets in 2014.

“Our goal is to grow 20-25 percent per year, and we’ve never been under 20 percent,” says Steve Okros, chief operating officer, who co-founded Heron with Joseph Patti and Rodney Lackey. “Everybody out there is trying to buy us, but we’re not selling.”

Back to school.
Heron Lawn and Pest Control was born when the partners, who had worked together before, decided they’d reached a plateau and banded together to start a new venture. Those early startup days were scrappy and lean – with zero customers, they knocked on doors to generate leads. The business launched inside of Rodney Lackey’s house.

Growth came quickly, but also at a price. “With the amount of sales we were doing, we had to buy trucks, add employees – there’s a lot of overhead that comes with growth,” Okros says. “If you’re growing at 5 percent, you’re not adding nine trucks a year like we were. Growth was not something we wanted to give up, even though it cost us.”

The key to Heron’s success, Okros says, is its methodical, resource-intensive focus on training its employees. After they complete a mandatory, three-week training program, employees are exposed to regular mentoring, inspections and weekly training.

“We make sure that it’s very impactful when we’re sending somebody through it,” says Okros, who estimates that the three-week training costs the company $2,500 per employee, including a weekly salary, uniforms, business cards and trainers. “This isn’t just a formality of going through it to get somebody on the road. This is like school.”

Heron has established a comprehensive, 160-hour training that places new hires side-by-side with experienced field technicians that are certified as trainers.

Each training day is broken into specific learning modules, and employees must pass three tests with a 90 percent or better mark just to graduate from the training.

After the tests, they go through a manager’s verification process to show what they’ve learned, and an eight-hour graduation training class where the training is reviewed.

The training also doesn’t stop once employees are sent into the field. Once or twice per week, staff people gather to review products and applications or how to use a spreader.

Managers conduct ride-alongs with team members in order to monitor their work. Every three months, a large meeting is held with all employees to review training materials.

“We’re constantly making these guys as good as they can be,” Okros says.

Then there are the quality control inspections. The firm conducts five random quality control inspections per month, taking a look at what was done right and wrong and trying to find ways to improve. “Customers love it when they get to be that person,” Okros says. “We’re looking at it close and making sure that they get good service.”

Worth the trouble.
The challenge, of course, is that this kind of employee training is far from inexpensive. Approximately one out of every 10 trainees simply never makes it onto the permanent payroll.

Yet Okros says Heron is able to cut its losses by conducting pre-employment testing and two initial interviews to identify if the candidate is the right fit for the firm.

“If a manager is crunched and needs a body, that person still has to get through that second interview,” he says.

“If he doesn’t make it, then he’s not right for the position.” Whether they are technicians or salespeople, employees have goals that they have to meet when they’re out in the field and everyone has to be a customer relations expert.

“We require our service consultants to do three self-generated sales leads per day – through door-knocking, talking to landscapers, whatever – and we also try to give them one lead,” Okros says. “We track everything to a tee. If they don’t have 10 self-generated leads or $5,000 in sales by Friday, they have to work Saturday to make up where they’re short.”

Some technicians also do sales, and they are all trained to offer additional services. “They say, ‘Why don’t you try our shrub or pest control programs? I can give you an estimate today,’” Okros says. “We give them $10 for every technician referral.”

Although Okros admits that Heron’s rapid growth has made it a target for other, smaller companies – “they pick at our heels,” he likes to say – that hasn’t slowed down growth.

Despite being one of the most expensive lawn and pest control companies in the Orlando area – partially due, Okros says, to the high level of service – it has a cancellation rate of only two percent.

“We do whatever we have to do to get great customer service,” Okros says.

“We want to be like the Ritz Carlton when it comes to customer service. We’ll never say we can’t or we won’t. We’ll always do what we have to do, even if it’s outside the scope of work.”


Inside and out

Heron Lawn and Pest Control can get in the house by doing work outside the house.

Steve Okros of Heron Lawn and Pest Control in Orlando, Florida knows that he can sell exterior pest control fairly easily, by coupling it with lawn, tree and shrub care services.

“Our guys walk up to a door and say, ‘There are chinch bugs in your lawn, can I get you a free estimate before your whole lawn dies?’” he says, paraphrasing the sales pitch given by his service consultants. “But it’s harder to ask for an inspection inside.”

About 15 percent of Heron’s overall business is pest control, and the company would eventually like to increase that to 50 percent. That’s because pest control is less resource-intensive and more profitable than the other services Heron offers.

“There’s less equipment, fewer products and smaller vehicles needed,” Okros says.

To ensure the most effective coordination between its service areas, Heron employs managers at its seven branch locations who are responsible for overseeing all of the technicians – from pest control to irrigation, lawn care and tree and shrub care. Each technician is cross-trained and aware of how to promote the entire range of services. Managers also go through plenty of training to ensure they’re knowledgeable about all of Heron’s service areas.

“They go through three weeks of lawn care training, three weeks of sales training and three weeks of pest control training,” Okros says.

“We go through every single position in the company and make sure that they can do it.”

Initially, Heron offers one pest treatment on the inside (baiting and crack and crevice). After that, treatments are every three months on the home’s exterior to keep pests from coming in.

By coordinating its efforts and training techs and salespeople to offer all four services, Heron has averaged 2.5 services per customer. “There’s a lot of crossover,” Okros says. “Eventually, our goal is to have three services on every house.”

Heron’s inside pest control program is also all-inclusive.

“If there are ever any problems, we’ll come back and treat the inside of the house at no charge,” he says.