Ask 10 landscape contractors what their biggest problem is and 11 of them will tell you it’s labor. Ask those same 10 guys what they’re doing to help fill the labor pipeline with smart, talented people to hire, and you get what feels like 100 blank stares.
Turf and landscape programs across the country are under threat from budget cuts and dropping enrollment. Santa isn’t going to deliver quality employees for Christmas. You have to go find them yourself.
Here are four key points to drive home to potential employees.
Bottom line is this: Landscapers have a real, tangible impact on the world. Take just the companies on our Top 100 list. In 2011, they grossed $6.8 billion and employed more than 62,000 people. That doesn’t count the thousands more families they’ve supported, or the impact they’ve had on the communities where they work.
So, this winter, call up your local vocational school, high school counselor or FFA adviser. Ask to speak to the group about what a great career a company like yours can provide. Offer to give students and their parents a tour of your shop. Tell them about the benefits and opportunities that are available to their kids if they choose to become a green industry professional.
If you want good people, you have to go out and find them. Landscapers have a great story to tell, but nobody’s going to tell it for you.
– Chuck Bowen
Ask someone about edging, and you might get a quizzical look. Do you mean edging or edgers? Well, in this case, we mean both. Take a look at the products below to find out the latest in edging to put around a lawn or hardscape, or find a new edger to clean-up around the landscape.
Belgard Anglia Edger
The pitch: Belgard Hardscapes Anglia Edger Adds Decorative Edges to Paver Walkways and Patios
- Designed for edging driveways, patios, walkways and creating small planter walls.
- Anglia features a chiseled finish that emulates hand-hewn stone and is tumbled to look distressed.
- Available in a variety of color choices and a number of different lengths for flexibility of design, the Anglia Edger is beveled on the ends to allow for creating both curves and angles.
For more information: www.belgarddesignpro.com
The pitch: EcoBorder is manufactured in the USA and molded from recycled tire rubber.
- The recycling process gives old tires a new function while providing a simple-to-install solution.
- To create EcoBorder, the rubber is ground and then mixed with industrial glue and molded in a high heat, high pressure press.
- One standard automobile tire can create approximately three pieces of 4-in. EcoBorder edging.
For more information: www.ecoborder.com
The Trimmer Assist Strap System
The pitch: The Trimmer Assist is a universal landscaping strap, as it works with all string trimmers, hand held blowers and edgers.
- The Trimmer Assist uses new bungee technology to facilitate as a shock absorber, while allowing full movement unlike the conventional straps.
- Measures 9.250 in. x 2.750 in. x 1/2 in.
- Half-inch thick and comes with a quick-disconnect release.
For more information: www.trimmerassist.net
Gravely Edger and Walk-Behind Trimmer
The pitch: The Gravely edger (pictured) gives you the options of edging, trimming and beveling, and the Pro-Trim Professional Walk-Behind Trimmer removes grass where mowers can’t reach.
- The Gravely Edger offers a four-position height adjustment, 110-degree pivot head rotation for cutting, trimming or beveling.
- The trimmer features a reinforced 15-degree pivot head and 14-gauge steel deck for durability,
- The Pro-Trim also includes a 22-inch cutting width and 1.25- to 4.25-in. cutting heights.
For more information: www.gravely.com
The pitch: Oly-Ola Edgings’ Teco-Edg is a 6-in. high L-shaped edge restraint made with heavy-duty 100 percent recycled PVC.
- The product’s specially-engineered drainage slots and multi-purpose stake holes make it available for versatile “green” applications such as green roof systems, permeable pavements, aggregate pathway installations, and more.
- The L-shaped profile is available in rigid or flexible pieces for easy installation.
- Teco-Edg comes in 6 x 6 in. or 4 x 4 in.; custom sizes are also available.
For more information: www.olyola.com
Tom Del Conte started his landscape business while he was still in high school in order to put himself through college. After earning a business degree he realized he was too passionate about the green industry to give it up and decided to stay in the business.
Since that time, he has grown not only a successful landscape business but also a green waste recycling company and a technology firm responsible for the development of an app and online program for water conservation.
Del Conte, president of Del Conte’s Landscaping in Fremont, Calif., says that he’s long known water management is the “next big frontier for landscape contractors.” And while his company has been employing technology to better manage water for years, he also knew that many were lagging behind.
“Our irrigation division has always been very aggressive in water management,” Del Conte says.
One day in October 2010, his water manager, Logan Oates, suggested the idea of turning that technology into a mobile app that could be available to others. From there, the idea for Sprinkler Times was born.
In 2011, Del Conte founded Garden Apps using his knowledge of landscaping, irrigation, and conservation to ultimately develop the Sprinkler Times application. It was an enormous investment of time and money but Del Conte believes it’s something truly unique to the industry. He has been helped along the way by Oates, who is also now co-owner and senior irrigation specialist of Garden Apps.
Research and development
Measuring and managing water correctly takes a lot of work.
Fremont, Calif.-based Del Conte’s Landscaping has always prided itself on using the latest science and technology into its business. That’s why company president Tom Del Conte incorporated a specialized irrigation division with its own research and development programs focused on exploring advanced irrigation technology. “It’s not uncommon for landscapers to just use the method of an educated guess and trying to get as close as possible to an appropriate water management goal,” says Del Conte. “
“But there’s a lot more that can be done in the area of water management from understanding how many minutes are required for the landscape all the way to creating a budget and knowing how many gallons of water should be used on any particular site.”
This is where the research and development program comes into play. Del Conte employs a tool that matches water use with real time demand.
Del Conte says that all of the extra effort doesn’t typically return a quick profit. “As a company we are forgoing those short-term profits and making an investment in research and development as part of a goal toward our future,” he says. “It’s a long-term investment. We even do our own reviews of manufacturer’s performance.
“The manufacturer will tell us what their performance is but then we go out and do our own research to verify that and come up with our own assessment. It’s not always cost effective in the short run but it builds up to a better understanding of our irrigation management.”
The Sprinkler Times website and smart phone app help provide accurate watering schedules for sprinkler systems without much effort. The app is $5.99 and Del Conte says is therefore a much easier sell than the installation of a smart controller, due to the initially high price (despite savings in the long-run).
“If contractors can convince their customers to install a smart controller then that’s really the ideal solution. But in the meantime, we hope to be another great solution,” Del Conte says. “Customers have become more and more demanding that their steward of water management has solutions for conservation.”
The initial purchase of Sprinkler Times includes one timer with 32 zones. Contractors can purchase additional timers once inside the program. Once a zip code is entered, Sprinkler Times utilizes 20 years of historic weather data along with entered data on plant type, sprinkler type, soil type and sun exposure for each zone of the yard in order to generate a monthly watering schedule that is specifically customized to the landscape.
The schedule can be viewed from the computer and accessed through an online account at any time.
Del Conte says that even though people are starting to realize the importance of water conservation, the time involved in smart management is a deterrent. He aims to solve that problem using simple mobile application technology that anybody can master.
“People are still just not going to spend that much time calculating and managing every zone they are stewards for,” says Del Conte. “The Sprinkler Times website and app uses basic information from each property to develop a base schedule. The program even allows for adjustment factors so that every station can be fine-tuned over the initial periods to arrive at a greater water management program to both save water and improve plant health.
“This is how high level irrigation managers program, except it only takes minutes to determine run times for every month of the year rather than several hours to determine a schedule.”
A passion for sustainability. Del Conte’s passion for the green movement is why he strongly endorses smart timers even though it would eventually make Sprinkler Times obsolete. “We recognize that we may very likely be obsolete in about 10 years,” he says. “We do believe that smart controllers will continue to catch on and are the way of the future. But what we’re concerned with is what’s going to happen in the meantime. That’s where we come in.”
Del Conte says there are roughly 25 million sprinkler timers out there. Of those, he says, only three to five percent are currently smart timers. “The industry has no answer for those other 95 percent of timers which is why we created Sprinkler Times,” says Del Conte.
“The water auditing process and scheduling using scientific methods is extremely comprehensive and time consuming so it’s not cost effective for contractors to employ such methods. Instead most take their best educated guess. But with Sprinkler Times you can now calculate the schedule for the whole year in about two minutes.”
Available to all. Because Del Conte decided to make this available on the marketplace, he knew it would mean talking directly to his competitors, which has certainly been an unusual situation. Del Conte still considers himself a landscape contractor, first and foremost, but he knew that the product had too much potential to keep it from the industry as a whole. “Saving water is a huge social issue so it was ultimately an easy decision to make this technology available to everyone,” he says. “It’s built for everyone to use.”
It was one of Del Conte and Oates’ main objectives to make Sprinkler Times so intuitive that truly anyone could use it. “We understand that people will spend a second or two looking at something and then want to be able to just push a button,” Del Conte says. “So we had to make it incredibly simple. We have a ticker tape that gives instruction on every single page of the app. This allows people to always have the information of ‘what to do next.’”
The bottom line. Del Conte says it’s also an opportunity for irrigation contractors to add some dollars to their bottom line. The company offers templates of letters that landscapers can use to send out to their customers once adopting the Sprinkler Times technology.
“The letter explains that XYZ Landscaping Company has engaged a sophisticated computer program that will allow them to better manage their water,” says Del Conte.
“They can charge the customer a little bit of extra money, which they’ll have no problem paying because the customer will understand it could save them some money in the long run and help improve the management of their sprinkler system.”
By adding an irrigation scheduling service through Sprinkler Times, Del Conte says contractors can charge an extra $8 a month to the customer. After paying Garden Apps for the purchase of each unit, Del Conte says a contractor with 100 maintenance accounts would still make an extra $9,000.
Del Conte adds: “Customers will be happy to pay an extra eight bucks in order to receive superior water management and contractors will find it’s easy to add the extra $9,000 to their bottom line – especially when it’s for something they should really already be doing.”
For more Water Works: www.lawnandlandscape.com/newsletters.
The last three articles featured what I refer to as “young guns” in the landscape industry. These are young entrepreneurs who are building strong teams and implementing good systems as they build their companies and pursue the American dream. We now turn our attention to some “Old guns” or entrepreneurs who have been in business for at least 25 years. Old guns are the survivors, contractors who have weathered many storms. What once was a dream to pursue is now a story to tell with many lessons for those willing to listen.
The recession in Southern California was in full swing at this time. Margins were tight and Philip really wanted to get this job.
He had me spend a day with him bidding this project. We were unsure why the owners were putting Phase 2 out for bid, but thought they might be dissatisfied with the original contractor. Consequently, we felt that, if we won Phase 2, we’d probably get Phases 3 and 4.
In the late 1980s, Philip would bid large residential installation jobs with a gross profit margin (GPM) in the mid to high 30 percent range. (We calculate GPM by adding the general and administrative overhead costs on a job to its net profit margin.) Two years later, jobs were so scarce and the market so tight that he had to bid work in the very low 20 percent GPM range. Philip decided to bid this $300,000-plus job with a 17 percent GPM. He wanted to give it his best shot.
Of the four bids provided, Toddco. was the second lowest. We’d beaten the original contractor’s bid by $12,000, as he came in third. The fourth bid was much higher. The landscape architect and owners met and decided to throw out the low bid, which then made us the low bidder. My client was happy, and so was I, as I felt I’d done a good job for him.
However, the landscape architect called my client and informed him the owners decided that, for $12,000, they didn’t want to change horses in midstream. It was then we realized we’d been “shopped.” The owners and landscape architect probably never did intend to change contractors. Their intention, we thought, was to keep their guy honest but at the expense of three other bidders.
Imagine! We bid this project with a 17 percent GPM, and still didn’t get the job. The lesson is that things can get really ugly in a recession, and all the rules change. You had better know your numbers and know them well.
My response was that if the client paid it, it was alright. The client did pay Philip’s prices with the additional margin included. Cost for materials alone were over $500,000. Philip then bought himself a car that had just been introduced to the market. The personalized license plate on the Lexus read, “PAYDRT.”
What are Philip’s greatest challenges as he plans to retire in the next five years? The present economy is his number one challenge. Second is maintaining a solid team that will carry Toddco Landscape Co.. into the future.
His desire is to leave a legacy that carries forward all that he’s worked so hard to build. Thereafter, it’s fishing, biking, collecting wine and spoiling the grandkids.
Finish strong my friend. Your legacy will prevail!
JIM HUSTON runs J.R. Huston Consulting, a green industry consulting firm. See www.jrhuston.biz; mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a little faith. That’s what Mainscape has practiced from the very beginning. Faith in their people, faith in the quality of their work and the faith to step outside of their comfort zone is what has guided the company into the ranks of the Top 100.
When owner Dave Mazanowski was going to school at Ball State University, he was doing some summer mission work in the community and he and his group basically needed something to support themselves while they did that. So, they started a grass-cutting and general yard work company and they did that every summer and into the fall until they graduated. When they graduated, Dave knew that he could either move on and get a different job, or he could keep doing the landscaping thing, so he chose to keep doing the landscape thing.
I started with the company in 2002 running operations in Indiana. The first big milestone was expanding outside of the state in 2004. We started doing some work out in California. We were trying to learn then if we could do work that wasn’t necessarily right in our backyard. Since then, our average growth rate has been right around 20 percent a year.
About a year and a half ago, we went through a buyout from Dave’s brother, who was 50 percent owner for about 20 years. So now Dave is back to being the sole owner of the company.
We try to bring on the best people that we can find – really good people – who have that mindset and mentality of continuous improvement and who are entrepreneurially oriented, people who want to grow and develop. That’s what we focus on doing.
From a cultural standpoint, when we make a mistake, we’re very open to talking about it. Every mistake we make, we are diligent about looking at what it is we did wrong and how we can fix it.
We can look back and say we’re better now than we were a year ago, and I feel like we’ve always been able to say that. I think that’s pretty important.
Growing requires a couple of different things, but one of them is a passion to go do it. If you don’t have a deep-down desire to do it, you won’t be able to do it. It’s got to be something you really want to do.
One of the most dangerous things about growing fast is losing control of what you’ve got. It always seems like it’s easier when you’re talking numbers – 15 percent doesn’t seem that big. But when you actually go do it, you have to add all those people and capital and coordinate and manage customer relationships and employee relationships.
I never feel like we are doing anything special or rocket science. It’s all very basic principles that we follow. I read a lot of different journals and websites and encourage our team to go and learn as much as they can about better ways to do things, and take those things and apply them.
I wouldn’t say there’s a specific best management practice put in place. We’re probably dabbling in all of them in some way shape or form.