Last month, a headline bounced around the industry proclaiming the EPA’s endorsement of fertilizers as good for water quality. It got a lot of attention, like a good headline should, but because the Internet is where nuance goes to die, it was a bit disingenuous.
Let me explain.
For decades, the EPA has studied the impact of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous on the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This report is the latest in a series of recommendations about how the states in the bay’s watershed can improve their water quality.
And while the March report had promise, this is not as big a win as you might hope. In fact, one of the panel’s recommendations was not to fertilize your lawn in the first place.
This report is a glimmer of hope that science still means something to the EPA. However, it doesn’t mean the agency is on the side of industry. And breathless headlines to that effect do a disservice to harried business owners and the industry as a whole.
Read just that headline, and you think the EPA has finally come around. But walk up to an on-the-fence homeowner in Connecticut and say, “The EPA says you should buy my six-time application program because it’s good for the Bay,” and you’ll be tarred and feathered on the town square.
But buried deep within the report are some promising recommendations:
And the panel recognized that most nutrient runoff comes from a “small proportion” of residential lawns – which most of you have known for a long time.
There’s a lot of solid work going on around the industry to promote the value of green space. Turf Mutt, a project launched by OPEI that teaches schoolchildren about the importance of trees and turf, has spread to more than a million students. And Grass Roots, a program that launches later this year at the National Arboretum in Washington, will have a two-acre interactive exhibit dedicated solely to the benefits of turfgrass.
Bottom line: It’s a great time to be green.
Landscapers are on the front lines of conservation. You have a tremendous opportunity not just to help conserve water, but to educate customers about how their landscape installation or lawn care program is going to help the environment.
Contractors are part of the solution, not part of the problem. Now that’s a much better headline.
Water is the one resource that impacts every single person in the landscape industry, whether or not you make your money piping, pumping and spraying it on customers’ turf. Consider all the inputs and stresses on a landscape business in 2013; fuel, health insurance, equipment, fertilizer, seed, labor, overtime. Water is going to have the biggest long-term impact on your business regardless of region, business model or customer base.
Here’s why: Without water, no one can do their job. You can’t cut grass that isn’t growing. You can’t spray water if you can’t get it in the first place. And an added bonus: Water conservation is a cause everyone can get behind, unlike many of those other, often divisive, topics I mentioned above.
Water isn’t renewable. Despite what the science posters told us in second grade, water reserves are not all what they once were. Aquifers dry up. Human intervention diverts rivers and dries up lakes. Punishing summers like we had last year are going to become more common, not less.
Water is (mostly) cheap now, but it’s going to get really expensive. The country’s water infrastructure is crumbling and municipalities need a way to pay for the upgrades. Rates in some cities have already gone up by triple-digit percentages. Cities across the country are installing mandatory “smart” meters that can better track usage, which means more accurate pricing and the potential for shutoffs when you use too much.
In addition to the price change, water supplies will continue to be strained with population growth continuing unabated in the sunbelt, mountain states and West Coast. Every winter seems longer in the north country, and the more temperate winters of California and Georgia tempt these poor Yankees.
And, if you choose not to believe me on any of the above points, the bottom line is this: Water management is the easiest way to show dollars-and-cents value to a client. Of all the services landscapers offer, it’s the only one that has clear, tangible, almost immediate ROI. Sure, you can talk about the environmental benefits of turfgrass and trees, or the somewhat-fuzzy curb appeal that nice annual installations bring to a shopping mall. But if you want to answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” with absolute certainty, start pulling out water bills.
Because water is so important to so many people, we’ve dedicated our July issue to water. In the pages that follow, we’ll tell you about how landscapers in Colorado worked with their association, their (sometimes) enemies in the statehouse and water purveyors to educate customers about the importance of water smart landscapes. We examine new technology available to irrigation contractors that can make systems even more efficient. We discuss the best way to light water. We had our crack team of water writers from ValleyCrest look at how water regulations are changing across the country, and what the future holds for water use. And we look at tools available to lawn care operators to help them manage water even more effectively. – Chuck Bowen L&L
During a recent consulting trip to the western U.S., I met with a number of landscape contractors who were having difficulty bringing in their installation projects on budget.
One company in particular comes to mind. It was doing high-end residential work in the greater San Francisco Bay area. Its maintenance division was fine.
Crews were adhering to the budgeted number of labor hours for each account and, subsequently, margins were in accordance with industry benchmarks. However, the margins on individual construction projects and, as a result, the whole division, were too low.
The office manager told me that she was so busy that job costing for installation projects often did not happen until two weeks after the projects were completed.
Diagnosing the problem.
A contractor needs to understand the concept of risk management. Ask the question, “What is it that jeopardizes the profitability on a job or division?” The answer to this question is almost always labor hours. My analysis shows that approximately 90 percent of the risk to profitability is caused by labor.
Materials, equipment, subcontractors, general and administrative overhead all contain some risk, to be sure. However, the risk they cause pales in significance to that caused by labor.
In order for you to achieve profitable installation projects (or any projects for that matter), you have to measure your risk – labor hours.
You have to plan (estimate) it and monitor (job cost) it. If your are bidding your work by factoring your material costs (material cost multiplied by two, three, etc.) or unit pricing ($500 per irrigation zone, $45 per flat of color, $18 per patio square foot, etc.), you will never be able to measure and control your risk.
You can’t measure what you don’t quantify. As Tom Peters says on in “Thriving on Chaos,” “What gets measured, gets done.”
Then print out and show crew leaders, designers, estimators and owners the results daily.
The office manager should still do a final job cost report for each job, but this won’t improve production. Job costing projects on a daily basis will do the trick.
You will be amazed at how this simple exercise will improve production and consequently, the bottom line for individual jobs and the entire division. L&LJIM HUSTON runs J.R. Huston Consulting, a green industry consulting firm. See www.jrhuston.biz; mail email@example.com.
From left: Michael Rotolo, Keith Rotolo, Joe Rotolo, Rod Rotolo and Brian Rotolo
It was purely by accident. In 1978, my father, surprisingly, bought a nursery from his brother-in-law as a retirement opportunity. That lasted less than a year: When I finished at LSU, I came to Slidell and bought the nursery from my father.
I was 21.
The family is the business. Without the family, we would never have achieved what we’ve achieved.
Kerry came in within months of us going into business. And then my brother Rod joined in 1983. Each of us has a specific skill set. I was more of the construction minded. Kerry was more of an accounting/finance background. And Rod, even though his major was in hotel and restaurant management, his love and his hobby was horticulture. He had a greenhouse in the backyard when he was in junior high.
Our youngest brother, Keith, joined in 2000. He runs our maintenance division, and of all four of us is probably the best manager of the group. Rod handles all estimating and construction management. Kerry retired two years ago. Kerry’s son Brian is our new CFO. Kerry’s other son Michael runs our hardscape and pool construction division.
We found that we could spend an hour with a retail nursery customer and have a $100 sale or we could spend an hour with a customer and have a several thousand dollar sale on a landscape project. So it was just a matter of recognizing the amount of time spent for the dollars earned.
I was able to take a class with Dr. Reich at LSU, who the landscape architecture department is named after. He really lit the fire for me and confirmed that this was what I wanted to do.
We went on a walking tour through some residential properties that he had designed. Before that I would look at a landscape and say, “That’s nice.” I understood after just a few of his classes the importance of how it all worked together.
We do business development, which means when we become involved in a project or with a developer or contractor, we really do get involved and help resolve the issues. When you have that mentality, you become a problem solver.
That is where we struggled in 2009 and ’10 and into ’11. There was very little design/build. The market had changed into a very, very competitive hard-bid market. And that was a very difficult transition for us, mentally, to go from looking at a set of plans and trying to evaluate them as opposed to looking at the plans and just seeing what opportunities there would be once we’re on the job. We just had never been a change order company.
You learn how to be more competitive. You learn how to run a little leaner. But I will say this: It is hard to continue to run lean for an extended period of time. It’s very wearing, and it took us a little while to come out of that mentality and start enjoying the business and enjoying the type of work we do again.
The best advice was from my father: When you walk in that door, when you walk in your office, you have to be consistent, you have to have a smile on your face. And no matter what, you have to project that life is good. You have to be a positive influence when you walk in your business.
He saw his four sons run it for several years. Dad was quiet. He was a tough disciplinarian, but a great father. Everybody says, “How can four brothers, and now nephews, all work together?” The reason is he instilled a great work ethic, a strong sense of family. And he was very proud.
The first year we were in business, I don’t think we did $100,000 in total revenue. I think he had a tremendous amount of pride to see us grow the company the way we did. L&L
The mounds on the plaza in front of the Federal courthouse in Minneapolis are representative of glacial deposits that can be found in northern Minnesota.
When maintenance and installation crews work as a united team rather than two armies on separate missions, the result is an ability to attract and win large accounts, fine-tune operational efficiencies and grow a stronger overall business.
That’s why Arteka Cos. does a bit of mixing and matching with its maintenance and installation personnel. “We shift people back and forth so they have their hands in both sides of the business,” says Stewart Hanson, president of the Shakopee, Minn.-based firm, which services major accounts like Best Buy and Target corporate headquarters. “Our maintenance and construction companies share the same (equipment) yard. We share the same offices. And the guys all get together on a monthly basis to talk about issues.”
A small but important example: how mulch is applied around trees. It may seem trivial, but if installation crews build mulch up too high around tree trunks, over time the health of the tree suffers. The mulch creates problems, rather than helping maintenance crews by creating a buffer around trees to avoid mowing challenges and helping trees retain moisture. When the two departments can come together and understand “the why” behind installation techniques and maintenance practices, a common understanding is realized – customers, the business and both divisions benefit.
“Construction and maintenance guys have different ways of looking at things,” says Hanson, who joined the firm in 1973 and worked his way up from the field to president of Arteka Cos. in 1994. “Our maintenance people help with installations, and our installation crews gain efficiencies by learning from our maintenance staff. It’s healthy for the company for us to work as a team.”
For the kids
Arteka Cos. doesn’t let discarded playground equipment go to waste.
When a jungle gym, or any play equipment, is removed from a property to make room for enhancements, Arteka Cos. have just the purpose for the retired gear.
Through its charitable arm, KidsParks, the organization facilitates the renovation of parks in needy neighborhoods throughout the Twin Cities.
“We try to reclaim any playground equipment and furniture, and we bring it back to our offices to clean it up,” says Stewart Hanson, president of the Shakopee, Minn.-based firm. “We put it on our website and donate it to a worthy park or organization.”
Arteka also volunteers labor and works with vendors to secure materials to revitalize rundown playgrounds in the city. Hanson says initiating KidsParks projects has been difficult the past several years, “as we have all been in survival mode” – and so have parks, with more becoming rundown or neglected during lean times.
Hanson says he looks forward to implementing a more sustainable program, and expanding it.
“The program is a good way to give something back. We have materials in stock that are looking for a good home.
“If someone has a worthy project, we can tap into vendors, employees and other volunteers who will help out.”
A cohesive operation.
Arteka started in 1970 as a high-end design/build firm created by Jerry Bailey, a landscape architect. A separate company called Natural Green, founded by David Luse in 1976, focused on commercial negotiated and bid work. In 1990, the two companies merged under the ownership of Luse and became Arteka Cos.
The merging of Arteka and Natural Green marked the firm’s first bold move toward joining maintenance and installation, Hanson says. Rather than keep the departments separate, Hanson wanted a cohesive business model where best practices were shared among all employees.
Supervisors of the maintenance and installation departments have switched roles. And, the two teams have always shared the same office. “It has made us a better, stronger company to have the maintenance and construction departments under one roof,” says Kent Harris, vice president.
Harris says clients and prospects tune into this work-together model. “When we have an installation job that gets transitioned to the maintenance department, the project manager from installation walks the property with the sales manager for maintenance,” he says, relating how each sheds light on how to improve client service.
Maintenance might point out an aspect of the property that could be improved by installation crews to make the property easier to manage – such as the way a bed is designed. And installation personnel can explain why a feature was designed and built so maintenance crews gain a better understanding of the construction process.
This cross-company communication builds respect. “Most of our supervisors have come from the field,” Hanson says. The construction supervisor oversaw maintenance operations at one time; and the current maintenance supervisor moved up from a construction foreman position. “So they have seen both sides of the business,” Hanson says. “And, they work together all the time.”
Arteka’s playlist of maintenance clients includes heavy hitters like Best Buy, Target, Wells Fargo and G.E. Fleet Services. The firm held the Mall of America snow account before the retail giant reeled those services in-house. These corporate headquarters accounts trust Arteka because of the firm’s history and track record in the region. “Once we get locked in with a property management company, they approach us about managing more of their portfolio,” Harris says, explaining how these big accounts were landed.
Keeping them involves constant communication. During the snow season, Arteka emails weather updates and gives clients estimates of when crews will arrive and how long clearing their properties will take.
Email is a crucial tool for communicating with clients, especially these larger accounts. “Our foremen drive around with computers in their trucks,” Harris says. “Our property management clients like email communication because they can forward message on to homeowners.”
Visibility on prestigious commercial properties also wins Arteka more work. “When we go to Best Buy with our trucks, people notice that,” Harris says.
Also, when executives at these corporate campuses move from one job to the next, they sometimes take vendors like Arteka with them.
This apartment complex included a green roof and a green screen mounted on an exterior wall.
Meanwhile, as the Twin Cities continue urban development and the creation of green spaces downtown, Arteka is bolstering its team with specialists and a dedicated division to capture cutting-edge work, such as interior and exterior green walls, rooftop gardens, rain gardens, the eco-friendly maintenance of these projects. Arteka has an urban landscape maintenance specialist – someone the firm trained and transitioned into that position.
“The rejuvenation of Minneapolis and the greening of our downtown area has been a big push,” Harris says. “We are River City – and we are a design-oriented community where we’re seeing more neat projects go up that aren’t your typical jobs where you plant shrubs, lay sod and go.”
Taking on new challenges keeps Arteka fresh, Hanson says. “We are not afraid to try new things,” he says. “One of our keys to success is that we have always pursued opportunities and we like a challenge.” L&L
Photos courtesy of Arteka Cos.