Best places to work

Best places to work

An inside look at how landscapers build great companies, reward their teams and attract top talent.

September 13, 2012

Need top talent? Get your own house in order and they’ll come to you. The best way to find good employees is to make your company a place that, first off, rewards the good people you already have so they stick around. And two, it attracts top talent from across the industry. From well-oiled recruiting programs to a rabid focus on safety to ample bonuses and incentives, landscape contractors have a lot of options when it comes to building an attractive place to work. Here’s how the best ones do it.

Favorable attraction

Noon Turf Care lures the high-end talent it needs to grow to the next level by offering a competitive salary and benefits package.

What was once a roadblock for Noon Turf Care in attracting and retaining talent has become its most prized possession. When the company incorporated in 2002, it was small and nimble with a growing customer base, but it couldn’t attract the top talent it needed to take its business to the next level.

But once Noon implemented competitive salaries, an attractive bonus structure and a strong benefits package, potential candidates started turning their heads. Though Noon Turf Care is still a small, privately owned business in the industry – 30 full-time employees and 20 seasonal – it has leveled the playing field to compete with the big players.

“Some of the guys bounce from company to company and they really haven’t found their place, but the ones we’ve gotten, they’ve found a place with us,” says Stephanie Lee, CFO, who handles the majority of the company’s administrative and human resources responsibilities.

Noon, a lawn care company in the Hudson, Mass., area, puts its money where its mouth is. The company pays its technicians for their experience. Techs new to the industry with little-to-no experience are starting at $15 an hour and the experienced technicians can make up to $20-plus per hour.

On top of these competitive salaries, employees earn bonuses. Noon’s bonus schedule is based on production. Technicians are given weekly and monthly goals, and they receive 10 percent commission above them.

“One thing we tell everybody when we hire them – this is not just another job. We’re looking to build and grow and we want people that are going to help us get there,” Lee says. “We’re not just a place where you’re just a number; we really want the people to make a difference.”

In addition to health, dental and vision insurance, Noon provides an employee assistance program, life insurance and long-term disability.

What’s more, Noon offers employees a 401k package with an employer match. The company pays 100 percent up to three percent of the employee’s contributed salary, and the company will add one percent more if the employee contributes an additional two percent.

All of these benefits are in addition to paid-time off and holidays.

“They kind of look at us and think this is a small company, and I’ve heard the question, ‘Do you even offer health insurance?’” Lee says. “You can hear the hesitation in their voices. And then we lay it out for them … they’re like, ‘Oh, my God.’”

In the last year alone, Noon has stepped up its benefits package to attract and retain a strong employee base. And, it has paid off. Noon has hired 20 people so far this year, and experienced very little turnover. One hundred percent of their technicians returned this spring, and Noon’s full-time staff’s retention rate is up in the 90 percentile.

“At this point, (talent) is really looking for us,” Lee says. “Our company name has gotten out there and it’s recognizable. People are just looking for something better and I think we can offer that.”


An Employee Advantage

Ruppert Landscape puts its employees first, and trusts its managers to reward them early often. The rest seems to take care of itself.

Ruppert Landscape gets creative when it comes to celebrating employees. It’s not something that’s written in an employee handbook, or stated as a company policy managers must follow. Instead, celebrations pop up when recognition is warranted and acknowledgments are customized to directly speak to that employee.

“It’s the belief … that if we take good care of our employees then it’s good for our business,” says Chris Davitt, president of Ruppert Landscape, who started with founder Craig Ruppert in the Ruppert family’s garage when he was just 11 years old. “Our No. 1 thing is training the belief and then it gets lived in different ways and different situations.”

Ruppert, which specializes in commercial landscape construction, management and nursery stock in Laytonsville, Md., is constantly on the hunt, searching for opportunities to stop and give recognition. Celebrations range from employee appreciation events, such as summer picnics, soccer tournaments and white water rafting team-building outings, to recognizing performance excellence and employee milestones through awards, birthday cards and anniversary coins.

Every employee receives a silver dollar coin on their anniversary, along with a thank you letter, hand-signed by Davitt and Ruppert, that includes hand-scribbled notes by managers to personalize it.

But it’s those major milestones – 20 or more years of service – where Ruppert really outdoes itself. Davitt points to one example where an employee was picked up on the job by a limo filled with managers and past managers who were influential to his career. The limo took him down memory lane to various critical jobs in his career and picked up an employee on those sites who had played a vital role. They laughed and reminisced while the limo took them to a restaurant for dinner, where the employee met up with his wife and children. It was there that he was presented with a plaque and an award for his dedicated service.

“It brings you together,” says Davitt. “The word gets out and … it’s appreciated by a lot more than just that one individual.”

The one thing Davitt believes makes the biggest impact is when Ruppert lives and breathes its belief: employees first. It’s when something goes wrong personally and affects an employee’s work that Ruppert steps up to the plate.

For example, when one employee was battling cancer about 20 years ago, Ruppert moved him to light duty and re-structured his job while he was in and out of the hospital. Now, that same employee’s wife is battling cancer, and again, Ruppert is accommodating his needs and has customized the employee’s position once more.

This attention to its more than 700 employees has proven successful through Ruppert’s retention rate. As a whole, the company’s retention rate is about 75 percent, but it varies by position: 91 percent retention for management and administrative staff, 76 percent for field managers and 69 percent for crew members.

“I think a lot of (companies) want to be a great place to work, but with everything else that you have to do in business, sometimes accomplishing that goal gets lost in servicing the customer,” says Davitt. “It starts with a belief that it’s smart business and it’s followed by structure to make sure we live up to our belief.”


Safety First

R.M. Landscape keeps things simple: Employee safety and training take top billing.

When Brett Lemcke joined R.M. Landscape full time, he noticed a lack of consistency in safety procedures across the board. Armed with the safety principles he picked up while interning with Gachina Landscape Management as a degree requirement from New York’s SUNY College of Agriculture and Technology at Cobleskill, he made it his mission to develop that piece of the business.

“We have to be in front of our people as often as possible, driving home safety, driving home training,” says Lemcke, son of owner and co-founder Rick Lemcke. “It started 10 years ago on a more consistent basis and it’s been improving year after year. Now, every message that we provide to (employees) in every training session is about safety in some form or another.”

It is evident in R.M. Landscape’s loss reports. Since 2006, R.M. Landscape, which offers landscape design and maintenance, hardscape installations and snow removal in Hilton, N.Y., has received numerous recognitions from PLANET’s safety awards program for “No Vehicle Accidents,” “No Days Without Work” and “Overall Safety Performance.” In addition, the 70-employee company has an Experience Modifier Rate of .93 for its workers’ compensation policy, which indicates below-average claims.

To Lemcke, what makes all the difference for employees is “just being able to go out there and do labor-intensive, skilled work and know they have the backup in a company that believes in the safety piece of it and not putting them at risk or exposing them to injury,” he says.

Though much of the training takes place on the job, Lemcke implemented tailgate sessions every Wednesday morning. These weekly meetings offer crews the opportunity to discuss safety and implement impromptu training for that week’s scheduled jobs. Recently, in the height of tick season, safety topics have focused on Lyme disease. Employees were shown pictures of ticks and were taught how to check themselves for the insects. If technical training is necessary, such as bed edging or teaching a new recruit how to accurately secure a trailer to a truck, crews are taken outside on the facility grounds for hands-on training.

In addition, Lemcke combined safety and training with R.M. Landscape’s yearly company meeting for all full-time employees. Topics such as areas of improvement and company policy changes are discussed, along with safety demonstrations, videos and tips. Lemcke points to one year when he brought in one of the company’s John Deere representatives to demonstrate safety precautions on its mowers. The rep pointed out the mower’s emergency brakes and demoed for the audience how to disengage the blades, while sharing other safety tips.

What’s more, new recruits go through a half-day orientation, where they learn about R.M. Landscape’s processes and safety procedures. They are then handed off to their crew for more hands-on training.

“I’m the first to say we have not figured it out all yet,” says Lemcke. “Year after year we want to make sure we’re providing a consistent message that needs to be said, but there are new pieces that we’re learning.”


Build it best

Start with HR to create a great place to work. By Steve Cesare

Successful landscape companies that create a good work environment typically have an effective human resources program based on an integrated three-step approach.

First, their human resources departments focus on external compliance factors to protect the company against government fines, employee lawsuits and union activity. Second, their internal human resources functions (e.g., staffing, training, safety) are goal directed, non-bureaucratic and cost effective. Third, they rely on human resources to support the company’s plan, ensuring achievement.

The rest of the best

Other notable companies and why they’re worth knowing: LawnAmerica, Tulsa, Okla., has a custom incentive program that shares up to 25% of company profits based on production and net promoter scores, FORET Contracting Group, Thibodaux, La., offers health insurance, life insurance, and IRA matching up to 3%; The Brickman Group has branches in 30 states with formalized training programs and individual development plans for each employee; Emerald Magic Lawn care, Holtsville, N.Y., keeps its office library stocked with books on gardening, personal finance and wilderness survival, and serves themed Friday dinners during the busy Christmas lighting season; Davey Tree Expert Co. is employee-owned and offers multiple services. It has extensive training programs, and helps employees and their children pay for college; Eichenlaub, Greensburg, Pa., shares profits and equipment – employees can borrow tools off hours for their own projects; OneSource Golf and Landscape Services offers tracks in resort, golf course and athletic field maintenance in Florida, the Carolinas, Arizona and California, and has incentives for a host of performance indicators, stock purchase plans and tuition reimbursement; ValleyCrest Cos. offers professional and technical training, and top safety performers can win a brand new Ford truck.

External. Most importantly, successful landscape companies use human resources to reduce fiscal impact from external threats. Specifically, human resources confirms compliance with all federal/state laws by having current employment posters in place, abiding by all wage and hour and Fair Labor Standards Act provisions (e.g., properly classifying employees as either exempt or non-exempt, paying employees for all work time including overtime wages and overseeing timesheet procedures regarding hours worked) and processing all I-9 Forms as stipulated by law.

Moreover, human resources plays a pivotal role in protecting the company against OSHA penalties by conducting safety assessments, developing OSHA audit guidelines, conducting all required training (e.g., tailgate sessions, IIPP, Hazard Communication) and maintaining appropriate recordkeeping.

Internal. Once the company’s external boundary has been secured, attention shifts to the internal functions performed by human resources. Fundamentally, successful landscape companies direct human resources to build a strong administrative foundation which includes: an employee handbook that is revised and distributed to all employees annually, a company culture based on a clear company mission statement and core values, a current organizational chart, accurate records retention (e.g., employee handbook, arbitration agreement, safety/training attendance) and monitoring the company’s Employment Practices Liability Insurance program.

Human resources must also design an efficient staffing program which requires a job description, interview protocol and performance appraisal form for every company position. Staffing interviews should be jointly conducted by human resources and a field supervisor each week regardless of vacancies to identify, select or benchmark available talent.

Human resources is responsible for coordinating the company’s training calendar which schedules all legally-aligned (e.g., safety, EEO, harassment), functional (e.g., new employee orientation, career ladder, key procedures), and supervisory (e.g., discipline, coaching, leadership) skills training.

Safety is another vital area for all landscape companies. To that end, successful landscapers assign Human Resources to take the lead in developing all safety-related training content, monitoring the workers’ compensation program (e.g., MPN, claims reviews, paperwork, OSHA 300) and conducting all injury investigations.

Longitudinal. Successful landscape companies leverage human resources to play an active role in longitudinal planning.

Accordingly, human resources facilitates company adoption of the Balanced Scorecard to define and track business goals for the four quadrants (e.g., fiscal, employee, process, customer) as part of organizational accountability.

In support of these business goals, human resources is typically responsible for developing an appropriate succession planning system, supporting change management initiatives (e.g., growth, M&A, culture) and ensuring all human resources functions (e.g., administrative, staffing, training, performance management, rewards and recognition) are efficiently aligned with the company’s stated strategic direction.

Summary. Successful landscape companies view human resources through a simplified three-step prioritizing functions across external, internal and longitudinal dimensions. By doing so, these companies ensure their human resources functions are legal, efficient and goal directed. These are the building blocks to create a best place to work. 

Cesare is a columnist for Lawn & Landscape and an industrial psychologist with the Harvest Group He can be reached at


Let Employee Voices be Heard

Swingle Lawn, Tree and Landscape Care uses the results of its annual employee survey to drive strategic decisions. It’s just one of the many ways employees are valued.

At the foundation of everything it does, Swingle Lawn, Tree and Landscape Care strives to provide an experience that makes people’s lives more enjoyable – and that goes for not just customers, but employees, too. Take it from John Gibson: Just walking down the halls in the office, he can see people have a smile on their face, they’re happy to be there and they love what they do.

“We’re competing with everybody in our market for our employees,” says the president of the Denver-based residential and commercial landscape company. “For us to be able to attract and retain employees, we’ve got to have a great environment that people buy in to the values of who we are as a business. It’s the whole package of so many different things that we put together (that makes a difference).”

Swingle offers several incentive programs for every level in the business. Employees receive bonuses based on production that range from five to 15 percent of their income and senior management receive annual bonuses of five to 10 percent of their income tied to overall company performance.

In addition, Swingle offers safety awards of cash and prizes for employees who make it 30, 60 or 90-plus days without an incident, such as property damage or a personal injury. It also recognizes milestone anniversaries with $100 bonus checks.

But one of the things Gibson believes makes the strongest impact on employees is Swingle’s annual employee survey. Every July, an anonymous company survey goes out to every employee. The 50-plus questions cover everything from production to leadership to the company’s software package. The results drive strategic decisions and activity to improve the company as a whole, whether that’s in training, communication or company meetings.

“I (tell employees) I want very candid but professional responses,” says Gibson. “It’s OK to tell me you don’t like something because that’s how we’re gonna make decisions to make things better.”

From there, Gibson segments all the answers across the company’s nine production divisions. The information is then communicated one-on-one to the department’s supervisors as to what their team deems a problem or a success. The company as a whole takes this information and incorporates it into its strategic plan for the following year.

Take for instance last year’s survey. Employees complained about Swingle’s software device consolidation plan – the new handheld units weren’t syncing properly with the software. Today, employees use a wired system rather than a wireless one.

Going into its sixth survey this year, things are looking good for Swingle. The Denver Post recognized it as one of the “Top Workplaces” in Denver in 2012. What’s more, Swingle experienced an 84 percent retention rate last year on its more than 190 full-time employees, and this year has a 91 percent retention rate to date.

“People want to work for winners,” says Gibson. “(We will continue) our employee survey to look at what else we can continue to tweak to make our employees happy.”


Think you should be on the list? Send Editor Chuck Bowen an email and tell him why at We’ll feature more good examples in a future issue of Lawn & Landscape.