Ever feel trapped? Like you’re stuck in the only industry you know, in the only job you’re any good at? Like you owe so much to the bank that you can’t get out from under it? Like you might not make payroll if it doesn’t stop raining?
Every year in our State of the Industry Report, we ask what contractors are most worried about. And every year, the top concerns are things like fuel costs, low-ball competitors and eroding margins. But last year, stress entered the top five.
Here’s what I think is happening: When the world ended five years ago, companies thinned out and cut the fat. Subsequently, owners took on more responsibility. As business has returned to some sense of normalcy and markets have improved, those owners – who went from doing their job, plus a little, to doing their job plus three others – have started to feel the effects. They’re cracking under the pressure.
This month, Phil Sarros has a great piece on burnout. We’ve written before about how to keep crews motivated through the heat of the summer, but this is different. Phil’s is a candid essay on what it’s like to run a landscape contracting business when you don’t want to do it anymore, but can’t stand the thought of leaving.
It’s a powerful piece that I think a lot of other contractors have written in their minds already.
You’re more than halfway through the year. From what I’ve been hearing, it’s been a good year in most markets. You want to take advantage of it, but remember that you’re not a machine. You need to recharge, refuel and relax. That might mean a vacation, that might mean hiring some people or it might just mean you take an afternoon off and go to the zoo with your kids. Whatever it is, you need a break.
Last month I was driving to a meeting with Alan White, who owns Turf Systems in Ontario, and we got to talking about the industry. He said the main thing that’s helped him improve and grow is networking with other business owners – inside the green industry and out. He’s realized that a lot of the problems he’s going through aren’t much different from other owners’ problems.
“You’re not on an island,” he told me. “When you isolate, you get in trouble.”
We’re running Phil’s piece to give a signal boost to the idea that no matter what you’re doing or going through, you’re not on an island. You are not alone.
Gone are the days when schedules were tracked on a calendar on the wall, work orders were written out by hand and invoices were sent by snail mail. Now, contractors of all sizes are relying on comprehensive business management software to do all of that – and more.
“It’s really the lifeblood of communication, information, and technology all in one little package,” says Joe Berry of Yardworx in Calgary, Canada. His residential and commercial lawn care company has used EverGreen, a cloud-based lawn service software from Marathon Data Systems, for the past five years.
“We’ve been able to integrate everything we do on a daily basis. We use it for office interactions and communications, too. It’s pretty much all we use other than standard email,” Berry says.
Berry is one of many business owners discovering the benefit of using one program to handle all of their operations.
In addition to EverGreen and QXpress, both from Marathon Data Systems, other software geared specifically toward the landscaping industry includes DynaSCAPE’s Manage 360, Include’s Asset and GroundsKeeper Pro from Adkad Technologies.
Although each brand offers a distinctive interface and features, some elements are common across the board.
Most comprehensive software options help companies with sales and estimating; job management including scheduling, routing, and time tracking; and accounting, including billing and payroll. Some software is PC-based. Others are cloud-based, so they can be used anywhere a company has Internet access.
For companies still relying on paper, the perks of switching to business management software can be huge. “Doing it the old way, there’s so much to lose track of. This way I keep track of everything easily,” says Fred Wolf, owner of Wolf’s Lawn Care in Hammond, La.
He’s been using GroundsKeeper Pro for about five years. “It’s pretty easy to navigate and work with, to integrate into your business. This one covers everything I need,” he says.
Upgrading to a newer program – particularly one that’s industry-specific – can yield major benefits. Prior to trying EverGreen, Yardworx used a program that was still rather paper-dependent.
They printed and mailed 2,500 paper invoices every month.
Now, they only send 75 to 100 printed invoices. The rest are distributed electronically.
In addition, service orders are sent to crews electronically. Customers can even pay bills by credit card online. And perhaps most conveniently, employees can access the system at home at 3 a.m. – a boon during winter for snow removal jobs.
Plus using the software has helped Yardworx “grow by a couple of hundred percent over the last four years,” Berry says, without having to hire any new office staff.
“We’re able to do more work with the same amount of people.” And Yardworx locations in Calgary and Edmonton are able to work seamlessly thanks to the software. “You wouldn’t know we’re in two different offices,” Berry says.
Mike Martin, president of Live Green Landscape Associates, a full-service design/build landscape contractor in the Baltimore area, ditched his previous operations software (which he says was user-unfriendly) for Asset.
One benefit, Martin says, is that he can limit what certain users can do in the program. For instance, estimators use the software for developing proposals, but only five people in the office use the entire program, including looking at payroll and profit and loss balance sheets. It’s also easy for Martin to keep an eye on things.
“We can check very quickly whether we’re billing something correctly or see if there’s a problem from the job costing standpoint,” he says.
When it comes to selecting the right software, Martin stresses that what’s best for one company isn’t necessarily what works for another. “I know companies that have bought software and it’s sitting on a shelf,” he says.
“People need to take their time, educate themselves, and understand the endeavor they’re about to get into.” Getting input from key stakeholders in the company can help ensure their buy-in once it’s time to roll out new software. Martin also recommends bringing your accountant into the conversation. “Make sure that the software works for them as well because at the end of the year the accountant has to get the information needed to do taxes,” he says.
Once you’ve selected your software and are ready to make the transition, training is particularly important.
Berry used PMP Campus, a training video website offered by Marathon Data Systems, to help employees get up to speed on the software. “It’s great. They log in and get the basics of the system and even take a test. It really makes the transition to the software very simple,” Berry says.
Martin recommends purchasing technical assistance hours from the manufacturer, if possible.
“Buy chunks of time upfront so you can have them working with you well into the first year,” he says.
He also suggests identifying one person to train first. “If that one person knows it very well, then you can start to train other people off of that person.” Perhaps most of all, all three contractors stress, be patient. For Wolf, getting started wasn’t difficult – but it did take several days to get all of his customer information entered into the system. That was Berry’s biggest challenge, too – albeit on a much larger scale.
“Our transition from one database to the other was a lot of work. But it’s worth it,” he says.
Yardworx used its old system side-by-side with its new one for about two months to make sure everything looked right. “Then one morning we came in and said, ‘There’s really not much more we can do, let’s shut the other one down.’ We never opened it again,” Berry says.
There’s bound to be a learning curve when you implement all-new software, Martin says, no matter how easy it is to use. For his company, it took well over a year before everyone felt comfortable using the new program.
“It doesn’t matter what the program is, that’s the hardest part. It takes patience,” he says. L&L
The author is a freelance writer based in Lincoln, Ill.
Using mobile technology the right way
As the green industry becomes more tech-savvy and streamlined, the amount of available, customized technology for our companies is constantly increasing. Gone are the days of paper work orders, sketch pads, grid paper, notebooks and day timers. Virtually, everything you need could be found at your fingertips, either on your phone or a tablet.
Here are some tips to keep in mind to get the most out of your mobile technology:
Pick the right plan and provider. When choosing new phones or tablets and your mobile service provider, keep in mind that what you select will have a major impact on the technology you use. Choose a type and brand of device that will be logical for everyone in your company. This makes everything from training to replacement infinitely easier. When choosing a mobile carrier, your goal is choosing the one that gets superior service in your area, meaning that more often than not, you have access to your 3G or 4G wireless network.
Be aware of your carrier’s data and text messaging plans. Going over the limit on texts or data can quickly escalate your mobile expenses far beyond the budget. When you try a new application, monitor the data usage it requires if you do not have unlimited data plans for your phones or tablets. Once you have settled on the best type of device for your company, get protection for your phones. This investment is small compared to the cost of replacing devices.
Choose who uses. Depending on your organizational structure and the type of mobile technology you are implementing, you may want to employ it on different scales. For production-related products, you will need to provide all crewleaders, or even all crewmembers, with devices.
For email and administrative software, managers and ownership may be the only employees who need access. Mendez says Mariani Landscape has provided hundreds of staff members with mobile devices. “We try to implement widespread use,” he says.
“All crewleaders have an iPhone. There is a group texting application that the production people have made good use of to coordinate changes. Crewleaders are also now using emails. All sales staff, all production coordinators, all designers, ownership and crew leaders all have iPhones.”
Formulate and follow a plan. First, document how to properly use the technology, update this documentation regularly and make it available to your employees. If the application has instructions available online, tell your employees how to access it.
Have several staff members familiarize themselves with your “help file” so they can help employees who are struggling with a new process. You and your staff will benefit enormously from testing the product before real-time use begins. Have all employees who will use an application download it ahead of time and try it out, if possible. If the product is a single-basis purchase (such as a licensed, integrated system), create a test system for employees to try out all the features and work out kinks before you go live with actual data. Take advantage of the testing phase to see what works for your employees and what processes may need revision.
After the testing phase, evaluate your data usage and any device performance issues. Now you can make changes with your carrier that can save you thousands in the future. L&L
The author is a client care analyst at Include Software in Annapolis, Md.
Arctic LD Plow
The pitch: The LD plows are compatible with several types of lighter-duty equipment including backhoes, skid steers, compact loaders and tractors.
- The steel moldboard design is made up of 32-in.-wide individual sections, each featuring spring-loaded trip edges.
- The separate sections move independently of one another, allowing the plow to contour to the surface and scrape snow and ice out of dips and recessions, all while moving up and over raised objects.
- Each moldboard section features an AR-400 hardened-steel trip cutting edge, designed to effectively scrape snow and ice down to the pavement.
For more information: www.sectionalplow.com
Western Pile Driver
The pitch: WESTERN now offers a full line of PILE DRIVER containment plows.
- Skid-steer models are available in 8- and 10-ft. widths while backhoe loader models are available in 10- and 12-ft. widths.
- Both feature 36-in.-tall moldboards and side plates.
- Three wheel loader models are also available in 12-, 14- and 16-ft. widths with 48-in tall moldboards and side plates.
For more information: www.westernplows.com
BOSS B-8 and B-10 Box Plows
The pitch: New in 2012 for skid steer applications, THE BOSS Snowplow introduces B-8 (8-ft., 4-in.) and B-10 (10-ft., 4-in.) box plows adding to its growing box plow product lineup.
- The box plows feature a universal coupler fitting all skid steers for easy attachment.
- The trip-edge was designed to protect the plow and skid-steer when obstacles are encountered.
- Adjustable trip springs let the operator adjust trip-edge tension.
For more information: www.bossplow.com
Pro-Tech IST Model Sno Pusher
The pitch: Pro-Tech’s steel edge Sno Pusher, the IST model, has upgrades that include pivoting wear shoes.
- The upgrades include: 2-ft. cutting edge sections, a 6-in. cutting edge, front pivoting wear shoes, poly suspension and a new side plate profile.
- The 2 ft. cutting edge sections allow greater contouring to the plowing surface.
- The 6-in. cutting edge increases wear life and allows the edge to dip below the wear shoes as needed for increased scraping capability.
For more information: www.protechcorp.com
BLIZZARD POWER PUSHER Box Plows
The pitch: BLIZZARD now offers a full line of POWER PUSHER box plows.
- Skid-steer models are available in 8- and 10-ft. widths while backhoe loaders come in 10- and 12-ft. widths.
- Both feature 36-in.-tall moldboards and side plates.
- Three wheel loader models come in 12-, 14- and 16-ft. widths with 48-in tall moldboards and side plates.
For more information: www.blizzardplows.com
The Dallas Arboretum Trial Program takes data on 7,000-plus annuals, perennials, woodies, grasses and trees each year, looking for the toughest of the tough. North Texas is a brutal climate that can swing from one extreme to another; six months of drought is usually followed by a month of flooding. Many of the arboretum’s trials focus on heat tolerance and ability to withstand low water requirements, because Texas is experiencing water restrictions like other states. We highlight some great drought-tolerant contenders here.
Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’ bred by PanAmerican Seed (annual)
This is a beast of plant that you can only truly appreciate once it has grown out. It’s somewhat leggy and sad-looking in nursery containers, but in the landscape this bold plant truly shines. Fuchsia flowers tipped with gold wave on 3-foot-tall stems and mounds of soft textured foliage. Once established, plants can survive easily on lower water use.
Leucophyllum langmaniae ‘Lynn’s Legacy’ (shrub)
Found by the legendary Texas plantsman Lynn Lowery, this evergreen shrub is truly a gift to the garden. Glowing lavender-pink flowers frost soft grey-green foliage off and on from summer until fall. Exceptionally drought-tolerant plants are best in xeric beds, also outstanding in containers. Unlike many other cultivars, this one stays compact and seldom needs shearing, and it is more floriferous.
Ligustrum ‘Sunshine’ by Ball Ornamentals (shrub)
Choirs of landscape architects would be singing the praises of this plant – that is, if they knew about it. Compact, easily trimmed shrubs of pure gold are the perfect contrast for boxwood or barberry in formal garden design. Plants are supposedly sterile and will only reach 5 feet tall in 10 years. This plant can be trimmed to 1 foot in height, and it must be in full sun for best foliage color. It is semi-evergreen in milder climates.
Purslane ‘Cupcake’ and ‘Rio’ series by Dummen and Ball Floraplant, respectively (annual)
You have to love a plant that you can leave unwatered for two weeks while on vacation, then just sprinkle with water when you return and it almost instantly resurrects. These new cultivars really put on the flower power, and the foliage stays tight and compact. They are excellent in hanging baskets, spilling out of containers or growing in that spot by the mailbox where everything else bakes during the summer. The flowers on both of these new cultivars are much larger than many of the older selections.
Evolvulus ‘Blue My Mind’ by Proven Winners (annual)
Who doesn’t like the cooling color of blue in their garden during the infernal heat of July? ‘Blue My Mind’ is a major improvement over the rangy and stingy blooming variety we’ve all been using for years. This new compact variety is also more drought-tolerant and heavier-blooming.
Celosia ‘Intenz’ by Ball Ingenuity (annual)
This plant is not for the faint of heart. These 3-foot-tall plants are crowned with burning spikes of flaming fuchsia. Through the hottest weather that Texas can throw at it, ‘Intenz’ just keeps right on flowering. It took a hard frost to put this one down. For a Celosia, it also has a very nice foliage and habit.
Helichrysum ‘Silver Leaf Yellow’ by Suntory (annual)
Trying to keep a basket watered during a Texas summer is nearly impossible; sooner or later, it’s going to dry out. That’s where ‘Silver Leaf Yellow’ comes in. This soft, flowing carpet of sage-green leaves is punctuated with golden polka dots, and it just laughs at attempts to kill it. Vigorous growth quickly cascades over the hanging baskets to 2 feet.
Catharanthus ‘Cora Cascade Strawberry’ by Goldsmith Seed (annual)
Periwinkles were made for the hot humid south, but the Dallas Arboretum Trial program is ground zero for Aerial Phytopthera. It’s guaranteed that any Vinca the arboretum plants here is going to get a true test of resistance, and most don’t pass.
This new ‘Strawberry’ introduction features soft, creamy, pink flowers with a strawberry-red center that curtain 2 feet over hanging baskets all summer long.
Like all Vinca, this one was drought-tolerant and did not require daily watering to keep alive.
Lantana ‘Lucky Pot of Gold’ by Ball Floraplant (annual)
It’s almost impossible to drive a mile in Texas and not see a planting of Lantana.
Drought, heat and humidity only make this plant grow faster. Not too big and not too small, this 1-foot-tall variety is just right.
Wide balls of burning gold flowers bloom all summer long. As a matter of fact, this variety actually blooms better if you let it get thirsty between watering.
Gaillardia ‘Galya’ series by Danziger (annual)
Flame-like flowers in red, orange, yellow and bicolor come in double and single forms in this new hybrid from Danziger. Bred from the Texas native G. pulchella, this plant relishes heat and drier soils but will also tolerate cool weather and seasonal deluges. Once the weather heats up, this plant never goes out of flower.
Portulaca ‘Samba’ series by Athena Brazil (annual)
A pass-along plant from your grandmother’s time, this Portulaca laughs at dry weather. Broken stems lying on the sidewalk have been known to flower for three weeks before they finally give up. Two-and-a-half-inch flowers of magenta, white or a combination of the two dot the foliage all summer. Plants are only slightly slower than kudzu in their growth habit and will quickly spread to 3 feet either across the ground or out of baskets. Forgot to water for two weeks? No problem, this plant looks just the same.
Hesperaloe ‘Brake Lights’ by Mountain States Wholesale Nursery (perennial)
The plant commonly called false red yucca for years is perplexing: where is the red? Then comes the aptly named ‘Brake Lights,’ which has a true red flower and stems. Drought tolerance is this plant’s middle name. They’ve been seen growing in Arizona with no supplemental irrigation at all, and they’re almost constantly in flower from late spring to fall.
Agave ovatifolia – Whale’s tongue Agave (perennial)
Another plant that Lynn Lowry found in Mexico has quickly become the favorite Agave across the state. These zone 7, hardy, icy-silver plants form large 5-foot rosettes. Unlike many others of this genus, this one does not form pups. Able to withstand drought, hot summers and cool wet weather.
Verbena ‘Princess Blush’ and ‘Princess Dark Lavender’ by Southern Living Plant Collection (perennial)
Many verbenas in the Texas climate quickly succumb to high night temperatures and powdery mildew, but not this one. Both colors of this variety are vigorous plants that flower off and on all summer on mildew-free foliage.
As a matter of fact, the flowers continue right up until a hard freeze finally puts them to slumber for the winter. Mat-forming foliage requires low water to keep flowering.
Thirsty for more? Here are some additional drought-tolerant varieties – provided by their respective companies – that are either already introduced or soon-to-be-introduced to the market.
Touting excellent branching and a strong upright structure, Clio Magenta features dark foliage and long, continuous flowering. This seed-sterile plant also has non-stick leaves and exceptional garden performance.
The Santana series lantana is a semi-trailing structure that is great for ground cover as well as baskets. It features long-lasting, abundant flowering and interesting diversity of color.
Scaevola ‘Blue Haze’ and Scaevola ‘Blue Wind’ are elegant and floriferous low-spreading ground cover plants whose flowers are concentrated in clusters at the edge of the leafy spikes. Suitable for rockeries and borders.
RED FOX Cupcake portulacas performed beautifully at trial sites around the country last summer, one of the hottest on record in many areas.
They loved the tough conditions, showing large, bright-colored flowers in abundance. They feature good branching and controlled growth and are good trailers, making them an excellent choice for landscape and basket applications.
Company note: These plants must be established in the landscape in order to exhibit drought-tolerant qualities. They are not – drought-tolerant from the beginning.
A new GoldFisch Heat Lovers series, Starcluster is bred to perform through summer heat. Its large flower clusters are supported by strong stems to ensure consistent quality and shelf appeal at retail.
A well-branched habit makes Starcluster pentas a showstopper in gallons or larger containers and landscapes. Consumers will appreciate Starcluster for its low-maintenance performance that requires no deadheading as new flowers form over spent blooms. Available in four colors: white, rose, red and lavender.
Sriracha is a totally new, heat-loving series from seed that offers season-extending opportunities for growers and retailers. Available in three colors, Sriracha provides vibrant color from spring through the heat of summer. Sriracha is a faster, cost-effective alternative to specialty vegetative varieties. L&L
Turner is senior director of gardens at the Dallas Arboretum. Wegley is senior manager of trials and greenhouse at the Dallas Arboretum.
Unless indicated, all photos courtesy of Dallas Arboretum & Botanical Gardens
Lynn’s Legacy : Courtesy of George Hull
Danziger varieties: Courtesy of Danziger / red fox cupcake: Courtesy of Dummen / SAKATA VARIETIES: courtesy Sakata
Like so many other landscape businesses, Chase Coates started his when he was in high school. His father was in the industry and it was something Coates grew up around so it was a natural fit. As Outback Landscape evolved from a mowing business into a full-service operation, Coates began to delve into the irrigation field. Learning on the job, he has turned that portion of his business into a successful division and separated himself from the competition.
“Everyone in this area has sprinklers so it’s a big industry here,” Coates says of his Rexburg, Idaho-based business. “It also lends itself to a lot of service work, from sprinkler blowouts and turnoffs in the winter to getting the system up and running again in the spring. We really got into working with sprinkler systems because of the demand – we were being asked to do that work a lot – and it grew from there. I’ve learned a lot about how to run that portion of my business over the years.”
One of the key things that Coates says he’s learned is efficiency. He says they used to spend days working on a system, but have focused on getting the timeframe down to a single day – or two if need be. “The difference between spending days working on it or taking care of it in a day was being organized, having a plan, and having all the parts there when you need them,” Coates says.
“If you’re running back and forth to pick up parts, a one-day job can take three days. So we’ve really drilled down on that and won’t tackle a job until we have everything we need.”
In order to promote efficiency, one thing Coates has stopped doing is having parts sent directly to the site.
Everything comes to the shop and a job doesn’t get started until it’s fully ready to go. “We do all of our staging at the shop,” Coates says. “The guys are no longer involved with supply and inventory because we get it all staged at the shop before they go out to the site. This effort has had a tremendous impact on our efficiency. These days we can usually do a residential system for a half to three-quarters-of-an-acre in a day.”
The uneducated customer.
With a primary focus on residential work (about 25 percent of their business is commercial), Coates says the biggest challenge for his company is helping the residential customer to understand what they’re paying for. They understand why they need a sprinkler system but they likely don’t really understand water conservation and efficiency and the value of having a system that doesn’t waste water or require it to run longer than necessary.
“It’s just an area that’s difficult to educate the consumer on,” Coates says. “When they buy a house and pick out their materials, they see exactly what they’re getting. But when it comes to things like drainage and irrigation, they don’t really see what goes into it and therefore don’t understand the costs associated with it. We’re always striving to find better ways to educate the customer on what they’re getting and exactly what their sprinkler system does.”
One of the ways Coates does that is to try and get “in front” of the customer whenever possible. He prefers to do a live sales presentation and get some one-on-one talking time with the client. But he admits that can be hard in today’s rushed society. “We find that everything has shifted to e-mail these days and we get a lot of customers that say ‘just e-mail me the estimate and I’ll get back to you.’ They essentially try to skip over that education phase,” Coates says.
“So if we can’t get in front of the customer, we put together a packet of information rather than just send them the estimate. That way, they can see what they’re getting. But we feel we’re definitely best at sales when we can actually talk with our customers.” Coates says he definitely avoids mailing bids or sending them blindly. “With a presentation, we can actually show the customer how using 2,500 gallons of water every time they water their lawn doesn’t make sense when they can do it with 600,” he says. “We want to give them some substance behind what they’re buying. Not just a number that has no greater meaning to them.”
Outback Landscape offers design/build and irrigation services.
Bundling as a package.
In trying to stand out from the competition and also keep clients on a regular service plan, Coates has put a major emphasis on grouping services together. He says that it’s not uncommon to find a homeowner uses one company to do the sprinkler system blowout, another company to get the system up and running for the new season, and possibly even a third company for repairs, and then uses the kid down the street to do the mowing. “At least in this area, we found that there wasn’t always a lot of consistency with homeowners using one company to do it all,” Coates says.
“So we’ve had a big push to change that. With our residential customers, we’ve rolled all of the services we take care of – sprinkler turn-ons and shut-offs, sprinkler maintenance, mowing, and even snow removal – into one big seasonal contract and we split the payments up monthly. So it becomes like a cable bill that you get used to paying every month. We also try to get as many of our customers on auto-pay as we can and right now about half of them are signed up for that.”
One of the things that bundling does is take price out of being at the forefront of the conversation. Coates says that has really improved client relationships. “The first question they ask isn’t always about price,” he says. “The conversation with customers becomes more focused on ‘what needs to get done’ and not ‘what’s it going to cost?’ They know they have the monthly fee and if there’s something that needs to be done beyond that, it just gets tacked on.”
The other important thing it does is give the company more control over the property. For one, the workers are on the property more often and therefore more likely to notice problems. “And since it’s always us coming to the property – and not split up between a bunch of different companies – there’s more consistency,” Coates says. L&L
A social presence
In keeping with the times, Chase Coates, owner of Outback Landscape, has made use of social media and keeps a Facebook page as well as a Twitter account. He admits that they can definitely be time consuming but he thinks that in this day-and-age it’s becoming a necessity. Coates offers three quick tips on utilizing social media:
Photos courtesy of Outback Landscape