No magic pill

There’s no surefire way to build and retain a quality team, but there are a number of ways to make the process easier.

Ask any landscape business owner what has helped them become successful and they all will likely say the same thing – having great people. But for many contractors, the challenge is getting those good people to work for their company.

“You have to do a little bit of everything, whether it’s referrals or advertising or just being the best place to work. That’s what it boils down to,” says Brian Steers, regional franchise adviser for U.S. Lawns. “Hiring is just like sales. You never stop. I would say we have good retention rates once we get the guys. It’s going through 10 guys to get to one that is the challenge.”

Steers suggests contractors formulate a written hiring process and follow it the same way every time. The process should include a phone screening piece to narrow down candidates before bringing them in for face-to-face interviews. Contractors should also ask the same questions in every interview so that they can see patterns of answers and spot differences easily.

“It’s all about streamlining and being as efficient as possible, because (hiring) is a huge commitment of time, and making sure you make a good hire so you don’t have to go through it all over again,” Steers says.

Know what you want.

For David Tucker, owner of CLIP Landscaping in Frederick, Md., a good hire is someone whose values align with those of the company. He’s not looking for workaholics; he wants well-rounded employees with a sense of humor. “I am looking for people who are intensely interested in win, win, win across the board. I want someone who says ‘I want to work for this company so I can give value to the company, I can give value to the customers and I can give value to my own family.’

“I don’t want to take you away from something else. We should be able to do everything together,” he says.

Internal recruiters.

Most contractors find that hiring from referrals is more successful for their businesses than hiring someone off the street. The referring employee passes on the expectations and the reality of the job so there are no surprises, says Michael Danley, owner of D-Lite Lawn Maintenance in Fort Wayne, Ind.

“If one of my people recommends someone, I trust their judgment because they wouldn’t be with me for the last 10 years if they didn’t believe in what we were doing,” he says. “If you’re looking for a common laborer, there are a million of those guys out there. Anybody can do that. But if you need someone who is going to have some skill when it comes to hardscape or irrigation or fertilizing, it’s a little harder to find.”

Lawn & Landscape surveyed nearly 500 contractors about their experiences with staffing. Nearly 16 percent of respondents said they are the only fulltime staff member in their operation and 38 percent have fewer than five fulltime employees. More than 75 percent have 1-5 part-time employees. Referrals were the most popular way to find new employees by far, but only 36 percent of contractors say they offer incentives for referrals.


Another set of eyes.

Typically, Brad Hayes, CEO of Greenbee Landscape in Palmdale, Cali., tries to hire from within or use referrals, but as his business is expanding, he is beginning to look outside of his workforce for new hires.

“That’s one place where we are lacking – people qualified to step up into management roles,” Hayes says. “In the past, we have hired people who have really good skills and talents and then we’ve created a position for that person based on their abilities. But that’s really not the way we want to do it in the future.”

Hayes is currently working with an independent business consultant to set up organizational management charts, an employee manual, an operations manual, incentive programs and other tools that will help keep employees satisfied and make all areas of his business more efficient.

“We want to develop an organization where you are able to plug people in and out of positions and allow them to move up the chain. That’s where we have gone wrong in the past,” he says.

Many of Hayes’ management-level employees have been with the company for many years. While they are very loyal and productive, Hayes sees that they are somewhat resistant to change.

“When you’re trying to implement new policies and a new business plan so that you can expand, their natural tendency is to be afraid,” he says. “Trying to integrate a foreign leadership member into a core group of people is difficult.”

Hayes found that having a business consultant has been helpful when implementing new policies because the ideas are coming from a neutral, outside voice who has been hired to make each employee’s life better.

The consultant interviewed every employee and spent time on jobs with them to find out what their biggest challenges were, and will be working with the company until the goals are met.

“We want to remove road blocks for our employees and remove any bottlenecks in the way that we are organized and the way we process things,” he says. “We want to give everyone the information and tools that they need to be successful.”

The reward attraction.

Another area Hayes’ consultant is focusing on is developing an incentive program to reward his existing employees for finishing projects on time and make them feel appreciated.

“There’s nothing more valuable than a loyal employee who is honest and dedicated. You can’t buy equipment to replace that,” he says.

In most cases, it will take more than competitive wages to attract employees and to keep them working for you, Steers says. “Take care of your people. We’re all offering competitive wages, so it’s the little things that will add up to a good work environment.”

Danley makes sure to focus on those little things to make his employees feel appreciated. He has been known to give employees holiday gifts and give their families baby shower and graduation gifts, and has even cosigned on vehicles and loaned money to employees in need.

“You have to show people you care about them. If you do, they will do anything for you. If you expect it, you’re not going to get the results you want,” he says.

Hayes tries to keep lines of communication open and clear between management and employees for the same reason. If employees at all levels are working toward a shared goal, everyone will feel fulfilled in achieving those goals.

“I know that’s where we’ve failed in the past,” he says. “It’s critical that the people running the jobs are on the exact same page as the owners.”


More responsibility, better retention.

Besides bonuses and monetary incentives, the most effective retention factor is often just being a good place to work. For Tucker, that means delegating.

“Contractors are constantly complaining, saying ‘I can’t find good people,’ but at the same time, they are micromanaging people. They don’t allow them to make their mistakes and they don’t allow them to be responsible. They haven’t put in pay structures that reward people for being good,” he says. “So the good people, if they do even get hired to begin with, end up leaving because they can’t fill their need there.”

Tucker encourages contractors to step out of the roles they had when starting out in their businesses, when they were doing everything from mowing the grass to data entry to marketing decisions, and trust their employees with those tasks. Tucker’s top manager gets 10 percent of profits at the end of the year, which allows Tucker to trust her with any decisions she makes in regard to spending money.

“I spend about two weeks a year managing that company,” he says. “Otherwise, it manages itself. All I have to do is get out of the way. To me, that is a beautiful business. My goal in life is to become completely useless. I don’t want any part of any one of my businesses to depend on me. I am an entrepreneur. I like to start businesses and find good people that can run them, and sit back and be useless.”

That relationship between Tucker and his managers is more valuable to him than a few dollars lost. For example, the aforementioned manager wanted to spend money this year on radio advertising. Even though Tucker knew that it hadn’t worked for them years ago, he let her try it. It didn’t work out, but Tucker believes the shared monetary loss was much less valuable than the amount gained by trusting.

“If I had squashed that right off the bat, then I would have been squashing attitude, and that was key to me,” he says. “They will do the wrong thing and there will be some losses, but the amount that you will gain by being able to just watch your business from afar is going to be so much better than what you lost.”

Hayes has also found that giving his crew leaders responsibility has paid off in high retention rates for his company. Each crew operates like its own business, seeing a project through from beginning to end. The crew leaders are given expense cards to buy the materials they need, which gives them a sense of ownership of the project.

Furthermore, Hayes looks to his crew leaders to help find solutions to problems that come up. Including them in the process makes them feel like they can really make a difference.

“Our employees have come up with some of our best ideas,” he says. “Listening to them and letting them experiment – giving them a chance to fail sometimes with a new system or procedure has been very good because it gives them an opportunity.”

Catherine Pomiecko is a freelance writer based in Louisville, Ky.

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