Sun Tzu in the grass

Sun Tzu in the grass

Features - Business Management

4 key business lessons from the ‘The Art of War’ help you go toe-to-toe with your competition.

October 17, 2013
Bryan Clayton
Business Management Management

It was a typical day for me, the man in charge at a large scale landscape organization. An account manager informed me that one of our top competitors had underbid us on a key account, forcing us to renegotiate or lose the business. Meanwhile, our sales developer told me we could steal a group of properties from that same competitor because he had just taken the property manager to play golf earlier that week. The frustration over how to proceed was uninspiring. Many days, the conflict felt like outright warfare. This type of scenario was a constant element of the business.

I have spent 15 years leading a professional landscape operation, growing it from a one-man operation to more than 100 employees. Earlier this year, I sold the business to a respected national organization. This has freed me to pursue other business opportunities and interests, and as of late, I have been reading a lot.

One of the most interesting books I wish I had studied long ago is Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” Written by a Chinese general named Sun Tzu more than 2,500 years ago, the book has long been respected for its advice on warfare strategy. Sun Tzu’s teachings have since been adapted by legions of armchair soldiers and pseudo-generals in the business world.

To my amazement, there are many teachings in Sun Tzu’s ancient text that can help green industry leaders have clarity of mission, clarity of strategy and, most importantly, clarity of purpose. Here are a few lessons I gleaned from the book; knowledge I wish I had implemented in my business long ago.

1. Intensely study your competitors in your market, talk to their customers, find out what your competition is not doing so well and focus on filling that need. Maybe they don’t perform well on seasonal color, or irrigation maintenance or some other service. Understand what your business can do better than your competition and focus on that strength.

Do not directly compete in areas where your competition is superior. Perhaps the opportunity might be a market segment, such as hotels, HOAs or office parks that you intensely focus on out-serving your competition. Do not go head to head on pricing alone, as this will result in a bloodbath. And no one wins a bloodbath.

“If you know your enemy and you know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.”

2. Rather than temporarily gaining market share by fighting it out with your competition, undercutting pricing and wooing clients with golf games, focus on out-serving your competition with exceptional service where your competition is weak. This will build a long-lasting competitive advantage. Win the war and grow your company without fighting. Simply out-serve your competitors by exploiting their weaknesses and avoiding their strengths.

“Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy with no fighting.”

3. Don’t attack competitors’ market share because they have ticked you off. Lay out your strategy for wise competition, remain cool and collected and focus on what your company is good at. Do not change your strategic path because your competitor has irritated you. Never lead your organization from a standpoint of your personal gain or gratification. Your company is a living breathing thing much bigger than yourself.

“No ruler should put troops into the field merely to gratify his own spleen; no general should fight a battle simply out of pique.”

4. Without happy loyal employees as team members, your organization will never be great. You must focus on growing yourself as a leader by serving your people. If you care about them, they will care about the organization’s success.

This is the single most important teaching I gleaned from “The Art of War.” A vibrant, unified company culture will be instrumental in success in the green industry and add real purpose to your company’s existence. While your competitors lose focus by dealing with employee turnover and quality control, effective and authentic leadership will afford you the freedom to focus on strategy and the growth of your company.

It might seem like a stretch to have applied ancient Chinese warfare strategy to the landscape industry, but these elements are compelling if implemented into the outlook and leadership of your company. These are the values by which companies with lasting impact are built, separating your company from your competitors and adding lasting value to your organization.

“Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look upon them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.”


The author is co-founder of Peach Tree Landscapes in Nashville, Tenn.