Air apparent

While Jon Rick flies between two states to operate two companies, he is training his employees to take on more daily responsibilities so he can focus on the big picture.

Jon Rick boarded 143 flights last year. About every three days, he landed in either Denver or Bismarck as he flew back and forth between two businesses.

“If I don’t keep moving, I get stir crazy,” says Rick, who initially chose lawn care over finance (his college major) because he didn’t want to be inside at a desk all day. He didn’t realize that his “desk” would become a mobile office in the sky.

After graduation, Rick became part-owner and general manager of the lawn care company where he worked during college. After several years building his experience, he started J. Rick Lawn & Tree in 2011. He did all sales and applications himself the first year, then hired technicians as the Colorado Springs-based company grew.

Then, in the summer of 2012, wildfires ravaged Colorado, practically shutting down businesses like Rick’s as thousands of residents evacuated. Rick traveled back to his hometown of Bismarck, N.D., where he stumbled onto an opportunity.

“I had quite a few friends that were struggling to find landscape contractors. It was small stuff – grading and putting rocks and edging around houses – but they just couldn’t find contractors,” he says. “So I ended up doing some work in Bismarck on my vacation. After talking to more people, I realized the demand for good contractors was there due to all the new construction.”

That fall, Rick went on a “fact-finding research mission” to Bismarck with Tim Emick, owner of a landscaping company in Colorado Springs. They met with several builders, developers and realtors to evaluate the market opportunity. Blending Emick’s landscape construction experience with Rick’s sales savvy, they founded Dakota OutdoorScapes in time for the 2013 season.

“Lawn care is an easier business model,” Rick says. “The returning revenue and the sellable aspect is the best in the industry, where it’s more recession-proof and it’s easier to manage. Landscape construction is more exciting because you’re transforming a blank canvas into something beautiful, and you deal with higher dollars. But you have to sell it every year. So there are big differences and things to like and dislike about both.”

A tale of two companies.

Though located about 775 miles apart, the Colorado lawn care company and North Dakota landscaping company help each other grow. Besides sharing some key employees, including Rick, president of both J. Rick Lawn & Tree and Dakota OutdoorScapes, the businesses tap into each other’s best practices.

“There are always certain systems I see in place at one company that work really well that we’ll implement at the other company,” Rick says. “For example, we use Real Green software for lawn care in Colorado (at J. Rick). It’s really not really applicable for landscape construction, but the back office work is cumbersome for smaller landscape jobs, so we’ve implemented Real Green software for Dakota as well.”

Both companies’ software, data and files are stored on the cloud, making it easy to access anything from either company on any device. Starting this year, Dakota will add lawn care to its landscaping services – further leveraging the Real Green software as well as J. Rick’s lawn care experience. The companies share many of the same systems, processes and back-office staff. But even within similar frameworks, people interact differently across the country – giving Rick plenty of stories to share with his teams.

“Having two companies in two different states gives you some perspective,” he says. “You get to be around a lot more people, different attitudes and different cultures. … There’s definitely a lot of sharing back and forth: saying, ‘Here was the experience, here was the customer’s take, and here’s the outcome.’”

Rick regularly shares customer feedback so employees can see examples of great service from both companies. When customers barbecue wild game to thank the crews, for example, or email Rick saying they can’t believe how late the crew worked, or how clean they left the sidewalk – those examples can spur consistently high-quality work.

“We want people to know that we’ll take care of their property to the best of our ability, and make the experience as painless as possible,” Rick says.

Frequent flying advice

Jon Rick lives most people’s nightmare – spending a lot of time in airports due to his frequent trips between. Bismarck, N.D., and Colorado Springs, Colo.

“During landscape season, I’m in both offices every week,” Rick says. “I’m in each place for about three days, so I’m usually in the airports two to three days a week going back and forth.”

Those airline miles have taught Rick how to manage his busy schedule effectively – and technology helps. He prefers email to phone, for example, because if he only has a 20-minute window, it’s much quicker to send several emails than to wait for people to pick up phone calls.

Technology enables him to work anywhere – even in the air. Rick travels with his iPhone, iPad and laptop to work remotely. By using his iPad on his cellular network, he can connect anywhere without relying on Wi-Fi. Because the files for both companies are stored on the cloud, he can access anything at all times.

“I carry a mobile office with me to manage my time effectively so I don’t have down time,” he says.

He also plans his flights accordingly to maximize his time in each office.

“I choose flights in the evening so I’m not missing phone calls or emails,” he says. “It’s being creative about scheduling times to travel, and being extremely effective when I’m there by setting up back-to-back appointments. Any office work or phone calls, I need to do later or early in the morning so I can meet with people throughout the day.”

Hopefully, all the work now will pay off later, he says.

“It is a lot of travel, which I enjoy for the most part, but it does get old when you pull in your driveway at 12:30 a.m. and you have to get up at 5:30,” says Rick, 31. “I don’t have a wife, I don’t have kids, so it’s easy for me to do. But at some point I will, so that’s why, while I’m young, I’m trying to put certain pieces in place so I won’t have to be in either spot at any certain time.”


Groom and go.

Though Rick is the main shared resource between the companies, several back-office associates also split their time – without leaving Colorado.

Emick’s other company, Timberline Landscaping, shares an estimator and an office manager with Dakota OutdoorScapes. J. Rick’s office manager assisted with both companies, but since her recent promotion to operations manager, Rick hired an office assistant who now crosses over as well.

At Dakota, Rick promoted an experienced foreman to project manager last year, increasing his responsibility over crews and customers – both for Dakota and Timberline. He hired a project coordinator, who focuses on Dakota. Meanwhile, a strong lead technician at J. Rick ensures there aren’t quality issues for Rick to deal with in Colorado, either.

Rick’s next hire will be a service manager to be in charge of the irrigation and lawn care divisions and help the warranty/irrigation/lighting side of the construction division.

“This area has seemed to take a lot of time away from our project manager, when he should be managing the construction side, and it has also taken a lot of my time,” he says.

Learning to delegate these responsibilities has been key to growing both companies. Rick used to manage every aspect himself – doing his own measurements, estimates, proposals and designs, often working until 10 p.m. after a full day in the field. Now, he puts employees in charge of those pieces so he can focus on the big picture.

While he’s still the face of both companies, in terms of sales and networking, Rick is starting to train a newly promoted operations manager on sales calls. He’ll keep training employees to pick up responsibilities, freeing him to grow the company.

“In a lot of companies, you see owner/operators get stuck working in the field, but as we’ve grown, my focus (has become) managing the people that do those things,” Rick says. “My whole goal on hiring people is so, once they’re trained, I can get out of their way and let them do their thing. One of the biggest things I look for is someone who can be self-sufficient, who has a proven track record of making his or her own decisions and not relying on somebody else.”

Together, the two companies employed 19 last year and expect 25 this year. They made approximately $1.5 million in revenue in 2014, and Rick predicts 25-30 percent growth this year. That’s slower than the 70-80 percent growth he’s been seeing, but he wants to make sure star employees are comfortable in their expanding roles before picking up pace again.

“My plan is to groom employees this year to start taking over more of my roles and responsibilities so they can replace me, so we continue to grow and hire more people and the people I train will train people,” he says. “The key has been putting the right people in the right places and promoting from within when we have superstars. We want to keep that train going because it’s definitely those people that make it happen.”

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