“Hey, you want to see what $65,000 worth of iPhones looks like?”
That’s what Matt Bland said to me while I was sitting with him and his brother Kurt at their Apex, N.C., headquarters this summer.
“It’s really not that impressive,” he added quickly.
It’s true, 65 large worth of new iPhones isn’t that impressive – they’re just so damn small. But that the Bland brothers had them at all is impressive, because they’re giving them to their crew leaders. It’s part of a roll-out of a newly integrated software system and a focus for the company on improving communication among disparate groups of employees.
I’ve met plenty of owners who don’t even trust their crews with the shovels and rakes, let alone something as new and shiny and potentially dangerous as an iPhone. But that’s not how the Blands see it. They see these phones as another tool to help them better manage their employees in a rapidly growing business in expanding markets.
The brothers have also ordered a custom-built iOS app that integrates their internal tracking systems so managers can stay on top of key metrics – and, again, communicate better.
The old adage is that if all you have is a hammer then every problem is a nail, and so maybe I see failures of communication most because I’m a writer.
But what the Bland brothers have done with that one single purchase has done more for their long-term success than almost anything else they could have done. In one call to AT&T, they’ve set up a channel for their crews and their foremen to communicate more efficiently about weather, projects and even job opportunities. They’ve created a system that effectively tracks employee time and location. They’ve given employees tools to photograph and troubleshoot problems in the field quickly. And, most importantly, they’ve shown their entry-level employees that they trust them enough to handle the responsibility of having a shiny new toy.
Good foremen and crew leaders are worth their weight in gold to any contractor. The Bland brothers asked their employees and found that benefits like a new a phone were more popular than a straight cash bonus. The employees get more value from those things than they do from a little extra silver in their palms.
So what is it that your people want? What keeps them coming back through miserably hot summers and the threat of layoffs in the winter?
What are you doing to invest in them that will keep them around?
This year has seen its fair share of weird weather. Most of the Midwest, East Coast and transition zone have seen record rainfall and unusually mild temperatures, while drought continued to plague the West.
In the Midwest and East Coast particularly, the cooler, wetter weather sets the stage for vulnerable grass. “Turf doesn’t perform well when it’s shaded a lot,” says Kyle Miller, senior technical specialist at BASF. “And a rainy day, I’m going to equate to turf being in the shade. Because of that, the turf is weaker; it’s thinner and more spindly, and more susceptible to stresses on it.”
The types of diseases that will need treating depend on the type of grass on the lawn as well. Cool season grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass, creeping bentgrass, tall fescue and perennial ryegrass are infected with diseases like dollar spot, red thread and gray leaf spot. Warm season grasses like zoysia, St. Augustine and bermuda typically see diseases such as zoysia patch, brown patch, dollar spot and leaf spot.
Recognizing the problem. It’s important to know what you’re treating. “Diseases can look very similar to one another and you want to make sure you’re treating with the right product that’s going to provide protection or be a curative,” says Jill Calabro, plant pathologist and regional field development manager at Valent. “Have a disease diagnosis done if there’s any question of what the disease is, relying on a university diagnostic lab.”
Visual indicators can help with narrowing down which diseases may be present. Brown patch is active through summer and into mid-September, and shows lesions on the leaf blade with irregular margins, says Derek Settle, green solutions specialist at Bayer. The margins are a chocolate brown/red color, and the interior of the lesion is a tan color. The colors are important because brown patch can easily be mistaken for dollar spot, which has a bleach white center lesion more regular margins.
“Scouting is key,” says Matt Giese, technical field manager at Syngenta. “Especially if we do have some of these weather conditions that kind of creep into fall, it’s important to continue to watch leaf blades.” Things like dollar spot and brown patch can linger into the fall, he says.
With gray leaf spot, there will be patches in the grass, but they usually aren’t as large as brown patch, says Steve Jedrzejek, marketing manager of Nufarm Americas. There will be spots on the leaves themselves that are tan or gray in color. “With either of these diseases, brown patch or gray leaf spot, you can get some fuzzy mycelium growth or spore mass growths when you have wet conditions,” he says.
With red thread, you have foliar symptoms. “It gets its name from the various thin strands, that reddish colored mycelium that you particularly see when you have some moisture out there,” Jedrzejek says.
Reactive treatment. With the unusually wet conditions in much of the country, more diseases on cool season grasses, such as brown patch and some pythium are likely, says Nathan Walker, professor of Turfgrass IPM/Turfgrass Pathology at Oklahoma State University. “What that means is going into the fall, landscape managers may need to reseed some of those areas that had diseases this summer,” he says.
Since the grass will be going dormant in the winter in cooler climates, the solution to the major damage from summer will be in the form of reseeding, overseeding and fertilizing to get the grass back in shape, Settle says.
What not to do
“They want those grasses to go dormant,” Walker says. “Normally, if they fertilize them late, it’s going to keep them active and they won’t go dormant. That just prolongs the window that diseases can be active in the fall, which will make them more severe in the spring.”
Getting overzealous with your water and fertilizer in the fall is actually detrimental to plant health efforts. You have to find a balance in order to keep the turf healthy through winter and into next spring.
“It’s sort of like our human diet,” Giese says. “Overdoing something can eventually cause a problem. Having moderate fertility, having moderate or adequate water needs … will really help you in trying to manage the diseases. If you get on the extremes of either of those, that’s when you start to see some of those opportunistic diseases come in.”
If you have extended wet conditions conducive to disease prevalence in the fall, something in the DMI chemistry of fungicides would be an option for dollar spot and brown patch as a curative-type application, Giese says.
Something else to consider when doing reparative work is a disease called damping off, which is where either pythium or Rhizoctonia kills the turf seedlings themselves. “During the renovation process and shortly after seeding, either the seed will not come up or it will germinate and the seedlings will quickly die,” says Jim Kerns, turfgrass pathologist at North Carolina State University. “There is really no good indicator of which fungus you are dealing with, so typically we just recommend a tank mixture of mefenoxam, azoxystrobin, pyraclostrobin, and/or trifloxystrobin.”
Preventative treatment. Experts agree that the best offense is a good defense: turf diseases are best managed and prevented with good soil practices. “Anything you can do to promote good health, anything you can do to reduce the stress of the plant, will help defend itself against disease encroachment,” Jedrzejek says. “Practices such as having good balanced fertility, that goes a long way to fortifying the plant to be able to defend itself against biotic infections or diseases infections.”
If an area of a lawn has been infected with a disease in the past, it’s safe to assume that it may be affected again. Using a broad-spectrum fungicide as a preventative measure may help reduce the risk of a repeat appearance.
“It’s important to stress being proactive in terms of treating before you start seeing symptoms,” Calabro says. “Curative applications are much more difficult because the turf takes so much time to recover.”
Preventative practices include fungicide applications, aerification and maintaining proper levels of fertilizer and irrigation. Long-term preventive measures could also be taken, such as ensuring appropriate drainage and planting disease-resistant turf species.
“Aerification practices for cool season lawns in the fall are usually extremely important,” Settle says. “For warm season lawns, you also do aerification, but aerification for warm season grasses would be in the summer when they are growing.” Several families of fungicides can be used in the fall to prevent diseases from occurring the following spring. Two major fungicides are the strobilurins, which attack rhizoctonias, and the DMIs, which are good for large patch that is attacking the cool season grasses.
“You have to think about Integrated Pest Management, and a lot of these fungicides that are really good for rhizoctonia give you broad spectrum control for other diseases,” Settle says.
Specific to large patch on zoysiagrass, a fall application is particularly helpful, Giese says.
“If you have a zoysiagrass grass property that a contractor may be maintaining and you know that there is a history (of large patch) there, it’s important to make fall applications of fungicides to try to prevent that going into the spring,” he says.
For management of zoysiagrass, as soon as soil temperatures start to hit 70 degrees, applications of either azoxystrobin, pyraclostrobin or flutolanil could be used to manage large patch, which typically shows up in late fall or early spring, Kerns says. “We have seen the best results with two fall applications, and if you miss those fall applications, we don’t see very good results with spring applications.” Likewise, dollar spot on bermudagrass and leaf spot on St. Augustine grass should be pretreated with fall applications, Miller says.
“It’s actually a spring problem, but you need to be treating in late fall in order to control the problem the following spring.” Miller also recommends DMIs and strobilurin fungicide applications.
Whatever it takes
Slow-release fertilizer helps one LCO focus on other areas of client care.
New Leaf Landscape Maintenance in Bridgehampton, N.Y., services 160 high-end second homes in the Hamptons. For a five-figure annual contract, clients get a one-stop shop for all their landscape needs, including turf care.
The contract doesn’t specify a six-, eight- or 12-step program. It just says crews will do “whatever the house needs,” says Kevin J. Kenny, senior account manager. “All they want is healthy turf and a healthy landscape. They want to come down here on the weekend and not worry about talking to us.”
But combine high expectations from clients with New York’s phosphorous prohibitions, and that can be difficult. So New Leaf relies on Agrium’s slow-release Duration fertilizer to maintain high-quality turf. The company has just one lawn care technician, and the slow release products allow him to apply the correct amount of fertilizer early in the season and not scramble to hit 160 homes in a few days when the weather finally cooperates.
Instead, that employee does other jobs and stays on the look-out for other problems, which can be handled proactively for clients.
“They just want (the lawn) to be healthy all the time,”he says. “If you set their expectations correctly, they know lawns get disease and insects form time to time. As long as you can find it and correct it, you can control it right away.” – Chuck Bowen
It’s the icing on the job – rather, the job that removes the ice. The final touch after plowing a property is spreading salt, says Jason Dickey, director of operations at Schill Grounds Management in North Ridgeville, Ohio. “If the customer sees the salt truck on their property, they know they’re taken care of for the day,” he says.
When a single spreader is down, that loss can affect up to 15 properties in one night, Dickey says. And you can plow all night long, but salt is what stops the ice from forming.
Efficiency, dependability and durability top the list of qualities that spreaders should provide. That means considering a product’s construction, its power source, its controls and ease of use.
Contractors looking for productivity should seek out spreaders that are fleet-friendly and flexible, says Craig Kemmerling, national sales manager for Meyer Products.
Consider this scenario: You’re salting a retail parking lot and a mother and her two children are walking from their car to enter a store. They’re going to cross in front of your path, but how easily can you stop salting? A feature like auto-stop will stop applying materials when the vehicle brake is activated.
But the buying decision ultimately depends on your budget and your typical job.
“A business that mainly services residential driveways would lend itself to a walk-behind spreader or a small tailgate spreader, whereas larger applications like parking lots, roadways or bridge decks call for mid-sized hoppers or tailgate spreaders,” says Andy McArdle, product marketing manager for Fisher Engineering.
Power Plays. CSB Contractors in Suffern, N.Y., includes 21 spreaders and a fleet of 60 trucks. Most of those spreaders are hydraulically powered, though George Stoll, president, has a handful of electric conversion models for smaller pick-up trucks that manage touch-up jobs.
He’s plowing big snow, salting major expanses – mainly municipal accounts. So his needs are different than a contractor who will provide snow services to a few neighborhoods of landscape clients.
His advice when buying spreaders: Know your materials usage, and be careful not to underestimate your spreading capacity. Stoll is running 10-yard spreaders, “We do highway roads,” he says. “But (buying up) can’t hurt. Know how much material you’ll need. You don’t want to do a lot that needs 4 yards of salt spread with a 1½-yard spreader.”
Power is also a major concern for Stoll. Hydraulic-powered spreaders suit his operation for a couple of reasons. “As long as that truck is running, the hydraulic system is running and we don’t have to worry about blowing a fuse in the (vehicle’s) electrical box or running out of gas if it’s a gas-powered motor,” he says. “With hydraulic, you hit a button and you’re working.”
Schill runs a combination of hydraulic tailgate and electric-powered insert spreaders. The insert models are convenient for trucks that work several jobs.
“We can quickly switch the truck over from summer maintenance into winter snow service, and we like the center discharge on the insert spreaders because the discharge is set pretty low to the ground,” Dickey says, noting that the excess salt spray is minimized this way.
But as Stoll notes, hydraulic power is literally turnkey: When the truck is on, the spreader is ready to operate. There’s no extra electrical drain on the truck either. “If you are relying on a truck’s electrical system to power the plow, to power the truck and then to power the salter, that’s an awful lot,” he says.
Still, the electric motor drives are convenient, flexible (it’s fairly easy to remove those insert spreaders), and cost-effective. And, you don’t have to add the extra vehicle expense of getting hydraulic controls.
Keepin’ Up. Spreader construction plays into maintenance requirements – and equipment longevity. There’s a big cost factor here, too. As Stoll points out, “You get what you pay for.”
Spreaders face the toughest elements, so Stoll invests in stainless steel and galvanized components wherever he can. He is also gradually phasing in auger-drive spreaders as he replaces the equipment. (He still has many chain-drive units in the field.)
“With the auger-drive, instead of four bearings (as with a chain drive) you have one,” he says. “You have no take-up slack adjusters, and as long as you have a good maintenance and cleaning program in place, that auger will last you forever. You’ll never have to worry about a slight bending in the chain causing the spreader to jam up.”
Dickey says that his team replaces drive chains every two years, no matter what. It’s part of their maintenance practice. That means properly cleaning spreaders and tending to their hard-working components (replacing chains, cleaning the hopper after use, greasing those moving parts).
Stoll also likes the enclosed spreader so no material drops down onto the driveline, air cans or U-joints. “That way, excess product doesn’t rot out your truck,” he says. “In a chain drive, all the residual material drops down on everything – electrical wiring, everything.”
The author is a freelancer based in Cleveland.
We’ve talked a lot about risk in past articles. However, I thought it a good idea to discuss the topic from a more general perspective – the 30,000-foot one. For instance, if your annual sales budget is $1 million and your desired net profit margin is 10 percent or $100,000, your risk IS anything that jeopardized achieving the $100,000 net profit.
The question is, “What practical steps can you take to control a reasonable amount of risk?”
The concept of risk and doubt go hand-in-hand. If you have a lot of doubt regarding a service or project, you probably have a lot of risk as well. The major areas of risk for a contractor are direct costs such as materials and field labor. Weather certainly can cause risk, but its risk is reflected in its impact on materials and labor. While subcontractors and equipment pose some risk, it is minimal compared to the other categories.
I maintain that roughly 90 percent of your risk is caused by field labor and field labor productivity. Subsequently, much of our risk management attention will be directed toward field labor.
Next is a labor warrantee factor applied to installation projects to address material issues. A good starting place is to add one man-hour into your bids for every three-man crew day the job takes.
If I see some red flags at the end of the bid I like to add a contingency factor. One of my clients presented a proposal to an attorney, which the attorney agreed to. Unfortunately, my client failed to see the attorney’s vanity license plate that read, “SUE EM.” Now, that’s a red flag! Difficult homeowners or architects, limited access, time of year all can add to the contingency factor.
Another clause that you should include in your contract is commonly referred to as a rock or ledge clause. If you uncover foreign materials (a ledge, stumps, sewer lines, batteries, cables, etc.) on the job site, the contract reverts to a T&M one.
Some of my clients have a clause in their contract that states if the homeowner does not have an automatic irrigation system, they will not warrantee the plant materials.
One of my favorite contracts is what I call a time and materials “over/under.” Once a price for the work is agreed on, the work is billed on a time and materials basis. If the contractor goes over budget, the homeowner only pays 50 percent of the overage. If, on the other hand, the contractor completes the job under budget, the homeowner agrees to pay half of the savings to the contractor.
Conclusion. Risk, and risk management, take many forms and apply to all levels of your business. We’ve only touched on a few ideas and techniques here. Remember, it’s your business and the more risk that you control, the more money you’ll make!
JIM HUSTON runs J.R. Huston Consulting, a green industry consulting firm. See www.jrhuston.biz; mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
My dad had us mowing yards when I couldn’t even push a mower. It was just horrible.
In 1987 we started our company based in Kerville, which is a small town about an hour west of here.
We moved to San Antonio, and my dad was able to buy a raw piece of land. And we cleared it enough to get in there with the trucks. And we slept in the trucks.
Over a couple of years, we built a shack with no water, no electricity and no plumbing. And we slept there for a few years while we knocked on doors around the neighborhood, started to do a little work and then finally were able to start getting paid a few bucks.
We had hot plates, and we would open a can of beans and warm it on the hot plate and just pass the can around.
We were kids. We were ages 21 and 22, 23. There was a landscape company just across the tracks from where we were, sitting there. And my dad’s dream as we were sitting there, just starving, he would say, ‘One day, each one of you is going to have your own crew.’
That was my dad’s extent of the dream. We’ve got 160 trucks out on the road every day now.
I always think about my dad’s dream. My father was definitely the pusher. He was the guy that had the dream. He’s the one that got us here.
I’m the most proud to say we started at zero, been in business for 26 years, and it’s the same ownership, and that’s family.
My brother Oscar and my brother Roy, and my father, Roy Sr., are also still involved in the business and one of the owners. We own 25 percent.
From 2010 to 2011, we dropped down to $15 million, from $25 million. We went from $15 million to $28 million in one year, which is pretty difficult.
Insane, yes. We’re very proud of our folks and the fact that we were able to get that, not only to get through that but get through it successfully, with profit margins in double-digits.
It sounds like it’s an overnight thing. But for us, it wasn’t. We started making cuts well in advance of the $15 million year. We were looking at our coffee supplier. Is he giving us a good deal? Who’s our uniform supplier? What’s he doing?
So by the $15 million year, we were able to get through that because of the cuts that we had made in the previous two years. And we were able to manage. We weren’t profitable, but we paid all the bills.
We didn’t bring all the H2B visas that we had. We didn’t hire many internal folks. But we kept the entire management team – our construction managers, our top-level guys. They were all here.
But we did let go of account managers. We didn’t cut our estimating department because we have always had the understanding that when it’s slow, that’s when you bid more. That’s not when you lay off all the estimators.
The H2B issue for us is huge. We’ve got 175 to 185 guys coming next year. They raised the rate here in San Antonio to $11.50 an hour just like that. Just as we start the season, no warning. That represents about $500,000 on a 40-hour week just for our H2B guys.
We want to get back to the old system, the tier system, where we pay people based on their experience levels. Without the H2B guys, we don’t have people to fill those slots. They’re not available.
San Antonio relies on the Edwards Aquifer for most of its water. And so they guard that thing with their lives sometimes – a little too much, I think. We’re not a desert-scape city. We like green grass. We like trees. We like plants.
My dad would always tell us, ‘Don’t waste your time making somebody else rich. Go out there, learn a trade, go to school, figure something out and then do it for yourself.’
I got a lot of worse advice when we were starting. ‘You guys are living like animals. You guys are crazy. Why don’t you get a job?’ Worst advice ever.
Fear is the number-one limiting factor to success. Do your due diligence, and take the risk. No risk, no reward; everybody knows that. And it’s OK to be scared.