Gary Mallory doesn’t have a college degree. But that doesn’t mean his employees get a free pass to skip out on education.
It also doesn’t mean he’s at a loss for coming up with ways to motivate his employees and encourage them to grow as green industry professionals. He just picked up some of his strategy while learning the importance of working together while playing and coaching basketball.
Mallory, now CEO of Heads Up Landscaping in Albuquerque, New Mexico, started out with three friends in 1973 when he was one month clear of high school. Then the Heads Up Lawn Sprinkler Company, they spent the season installing sprinklers around town. By the end of the summer, Mallory and one of his partners bought out the other two for a total of $2,200, and branched into commercial irrigation and landscaping.
Mallory fell easily into the role of the salesman, though with only two employees, he didn’t have much choice. “I was the salesman, accountant, head laborer and trencher operator and warranty person,” he says. “I had a partner who was really quite good at all the technical aspects, so he would design everything as the craftsman. I've always gravitated toward customer service.”
The hard work paid off: The small business’s volume doubled every year for the first five years. Along with partner Greg Bouloy, Mallory hacked at the job throughout the week while he took courses to build toward his business degree. His Greek grandmother worked as their receptionist, answering the phone with a thick accent. The schedule was harrowing, and eventually, he just couldn’t keep up.
“I took all my classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” he says. “I’d go to work in the morning at 6 and get off at 7 at night, and I’d fall asleep in my night classes. I just couldn’t swing it anymore.”
With 116 hours of a 128-course-hour degree completed, Mallory called it quits to focus on the company.
“My grandmother, she cried for a week when I dropped out. She’s an immigrant, so the whole family was always taught to work hard and go to college and get a degree.”
But Mallory had bigger plans than just giving up on a degree to cut lawns. As the company grew, he found being a part of a business tough work, but also very rewarding.
And with the addition of more employees, he discovered a knack for motivating his team, crossing over from his history playing basketball in high school.
“I really liked owning a business right off the bat,” Mallory says. “And I think just my passion for coaching and teambuilding and mentoring gets into everything I do. So with my children, my employees – there’s something about setting goals as a team and mentoring people and watching their abilities grow. It’s the most exciting thing to me.”
With more employees joining Heads Up (which got its name from the call up-court during a fast break in basketball) as it picked up steam, Mallory put programs in place to help build up his staff and support them in growing alongside the company.
The company pushes employees to go to college and work toward a degree, and helps finance the coursework. For Spanish-speaking employees, the company provides English-language courses.
A family man.
Mallory urges his employees to spend time with their families. He leads by example, reserving Saturdays for coaching soccer and basketball.
“In this industry, it’s easy to get wrapped up seasonally and just work,” he says. “Your kids only score their first goal once, and if you’re not there for that and you’re out working, what a tragedy. The family time should be scheduled and protected fiercely.”
He speaks from experience, after raising three children who live and work around the world with his wife of 37 years.
“I love my family,” he says. “It’s way more important to me to be a good husband and a good dad than to win a business award.”
Other initiatives are geared toward making Heads Up a rewarding place to work and keeping employees motivated. Once each week, Mallory tries to have lunch with an employee, as well as buy a gift card for the employee to bring his own family back later. When workers have children, he has a card ready for them. Occasionally, he’ll pass out movie tickets to the crews.
Once, they held a safety competition in which employees’ children made posters about staying safe on the job – they were supposed to choose one winner, but somehow all the children ended up with gift certificates.
During the holidays, there’s a slideshow roast of employees that people actually attempt to get on. And during the season, managers will sometimes hold cookouts, grilling hotdogs and hamburgers to be ready when their teams come back in from the field.
“We spend so much time at work,” Mallory says. “You ought to help people just as much as you can. And for any employees, I don’t want them to feel just like a number. I want them to feel valued and appreciated, so we do all kinds of things to boost people up.”
But building his team isn’t just about making the workplace inviting. It’s also taking the time to groom employees for promotions, and bringing in new recruits ready to head out into the field, he says.
“We have interns every year that we bring in. For our expansion plans, we need about three to four managers each year coming out of college. So we help pay for their housing and education,” he says. “We really like that program. Their energy – it’s just so great to work around them. We’re always trying to recruit young, college-educated people.
“We are constantly talking about stocking up the bullpen for the future. So in the short term, that costs us, but in the long term, we have a very strong farm team.”
Keeping new recruits coming in helps fuel expansion plans for Heads Up, but it also gives employees who have been around for a few jobs a chance to grow as managers. Managers are encouraged to train their replacements, which means employees have the opportunity to look upward for career growth.
“He’s not afraid to pay for talent and bringing in the best possible person for the job,” says Tom Fochtman, CEO of Ceibass Venture Partners, and former member of Mallory’s peer group. “But his preference would be to help his employee team grow. He would prefer that his staff grow into the next position, and the next position. Heads Up has invested in internal training and mentoring to help their people ascend to the top.”
Fochtman and that peer group of green industry business leaders are another part of Mallory’s plans to build teamwork. After visiting a roundtable discussion at an industry convention, Mallory was inspired to bring together other leaders to work through issues facing their companies, kicking off the Next Level Peer Group.
“Gary is one of the most genuine business owners I know and is committed to helping others, such as me, a peer group partner,” says Bob Grover, president at Pacific Landscape Management. “He has good perspective, cares about what his company does beyond making a profit as is always looking for ways to improve.”
Part of pushing for that development is urging those leaders to make progress on what’s holding them back without making excuses, says Fochtman.
“He did not settle for average and would not allow you to do either. If you came back to the next meeting with the same issue, he rolled his sleeves up and said, ‘Let’s figure this out,’” Fochtman says. “If I have an issue, an idea, a problem or concern, Gary is one of the folks I call to vet it out. He’s a great sounding board. Once we narrow it down, he’s extremely encouraging going forward.”