No excuses

It’s the same old story when it comes to finding labor, but contractors across the country have been plugging along to make it a successful year.

© Brian Edward Miller

David Lindenstruth, owner

Van Zeeland Nursery & Landscape, Green Bay, Wisconsin

For Lindenstruth, 2019 proved to be a decent year in business. The owner of the nursery and landscaping company says business is primarily focused on their nursery sales and landscape installation projects. The company also provides spring and fall clean up services.

Like years past, he says the company’s main issue centered around the need for skilled, qualified and reliable labor. “We’ve sort of continuously been hiring,” he says. “We put a big emphasis on our training and retention this year.” The shift toward focusing on training has helped keep the company staffed, although they could always use more employees, he says. Van Zeeland ended up hiring a lot of employees in the winter to help with the snow services, too.

“Even if we were fully staffed, we just keep hiring because we know what we're going to be losing people left and right,” he says. “You’re just always going to need people.”

In his area, Lindenstruth says the market is highly segmented, which he says isn’t unlike most larger cities. And while labor is always on his mind, looking into 2020, he’s less concerned about a looming recession than most.

“I think the media could easily scare us into the recession,” he says. He’s prepared for a dip, though. They’ve been working to get as many jobs booked into 2020 as they can. “It is starting to get a little bit shakier so I'm just trying to push our guys to get as much work done and getting as much booked now so that we've got a backlog going into any recession.” - Lauren Rathmell

Patrick Maxwell, owner

Maxwell Lawn Care, Martinsville, Indiana

With some growing pains of 2018 behind him, owner Patrick Maxwell says 2019 has been “a good year.” During 2018, the company seemed to be growing, and Maxwell hired more people. But, he admits, looking back, he may have hired too many and spent too much on labor.

“The problem is just finding help,” Maxwell says. He employs four fulltime workers but has relied heavily on student employees to help keep up with his maintenance routes. He has about 20 people on payroll, but with class schedules, he says shifts just depend on availability. Right now, it might mean him, and his other full-time workers have to put in some longer hours, but he says he’s in a better position with the right amount of labor this year. His client base is about 60 percent residential and 40 percent commercial, and this year he decided to scale back on the growth.

“I’m not focused on growing too much this year,” he says. “I’m staying where I’m at.” Part of the need for more workers last year was the addition of chemical lawn care to his service mix, something that Maxwell ultimately found wasn’t a good fit for his company.

“There are high product costs with it,” he says. “And it wasn’t what I really wanted to be doing.” This year he’s dropped chemical lawn care as a service and is solely focusing on his maintenance and small landscape installation services.

Many of Maxwell’s properties are campus homes because of the proximity to Indiana University. He’s run into a snag this year with the university parking policies, though.

“Bloomington has strict parking enforcement,” he says. “You can’t park anywhere at all for any period of time really without a permit.” This year, the cost increased from $50 to $150 per vehicle. To offset the rising costs, he’s had to get used to parking the truck and driving his equipment to the properties. Still, he plans on bringing in about $400,000 in revenue during 2019. - Lauren Rathmell

Julio Lopez, owner

Cadre Landscaping, Los Angeles

A former U.S. Navy officer, Julio Lopez says his discipline has helped the business succeed. That discipline is particularly important on the West Coast, where a severe drought changed how they do things in the industry entirely.

“We learned to be smarter about water-distribution, plant usage, (and) many people got into the bandwagon to remove real grass and install synthetic grass,” Lopez says. “Our company didn’t jump on that trend that is now over. We engaged in irrigation retrofits, better plant selection, converting high-water landscapes to lower-sustainable plant-material landscapes and educating our clients.”

While several companies have struggled to adjust accordingly after the synthetic grass trend is over, Lopez says Cadre Landscaping’s biggest issue moving forward is finding a replacement for Lopez who has the same “fire in the stomach” that he’s had. Finding labor is a national epidemic, he says, but he’s trying to promote the career possibilities his company presents.

“All the professional associations and educators have failed to promote and make the general public see our industry at a higher level with great rewards and opportunities for growth,” Lopez says. “It has always been classified as a lower-grade gig… until better opportunities come by and move on, just like fast-food employment. There is so much to do to improve the notion and value of our industry, so more people are attracted to it as a vocation.”

Lopez says Cadre Landscape is trying to be forward-thinking in that regard and in others, too. For example, they now have more battery-operated equipment than before and will continue to look for other ways to gain a competitive edge in technology, too. He says his company is better than it was two years ago, and he only hopes he can say the same in 2021.

“The West coast mentality forces us to become better and adapt to the ever-changing demands of our clientele and their sophistication,” Lopez says. “Since the knowledge and information is readily available, we need to stay a couple paces ahead. (It’s) really hard to do but we need to.” - Jimmy Miller

James S. Geissmann, owner

Hometown Oasis Landscaping, Phoenix

James Geissmann isn’t sure if he’s exaggerating or not, but he estimates he’s interviewed close to 100 people and has ultimately employed two of them. He says the process isn’t particularly difficult for potential employees – he has five questions he asks, mainly consisting of their experience level and for verification that they can legally work – and often, they don’t even complete that.

“It is a nightmare,” he says. “Nine times out of 10, they don’t answer all five questions and they’re still calling looking for a job.”

It’s a dog-eat-dog world in Arizona, where Geissmann says competition is high as they’ve got landscapers around every corner. He puts employment advertisements on Indeed and similar websites, and this is because he wants to grow the business as he eyes retirement. The problem is he’s trying to do things the right way, where some of his various competitors are paying in cash and under the table to recruit employees.

“For me, as a corporation, I don’t want to get into paying people cash,” Geissmann says. “That’s getting into IRS situations and I’m not interested in getting audited. I don’t want to get into major time like that. If you can’t take a check every week and you don’t have an ID, I don’t want you working for me.”

At 59 years old – and with his business partner at 33 – Geissmann says he’s probably got 10 more years before hopping out. In the meantime, boosting his business is critical. He has six full-time employees, one of which is dedicated solely to marketing. He’s had that employee for six months and he’s a versatile, do-it-all marketer who takes videos and pictures of jobsites, runs their social media accounts and even helps with recruiting.

They also run Google and social media advertising that costs roughly $10,000 a year. The company services a medley of business from large apartment complexes to a few extremely high-end homes.

“I’ve been in the industry for 25 years, and it’s not a business for the faint of heart,” Geissmann says. “The market’s been really good, I could not be happier as far as that goes. The competition’s a little tougher, but when it’s all said and done… am I going to where some of these mega companies are? I don’t plan on it, but we’re a good little business.” - Jimmy Miller

Sara Engstrom, ceo

Carolina Landscape, Charleston, South Carolina

It’s been a good year overall in the Charleston-area market for CEO Sarah Engstrom. She say’s the company has been seeing a steady six to eight percent growth, even with the tight labor market.

“We’re having to bring in less skilled workers and pay them more,” she says. Something that’s been echoed across the country for the last several years. And in turn, she says they’ve been carefully and slowly raising their prices as they can to cushion the added labor costs. And if that wasn’t enough, Engstrom says the wage increase also prompted the company to increase pay for their core group of fulltime workers, as well. This year she says the company will finish around $2.3 million in revenue.

Engstrom says they’re keeping an eye on legislation like immigration reform and insurance because she’d like to see some better solutions for small businesses like hers. The company hasn’t tried using the H-2B program because of the cost and red tape, and they do landscaping year-round in the south so it doesn’t make much sense to have that type of seasonal worker join the team.

Hurricane Dorian blew through in early September leaving a lot of the Charleston area underwater, prompting most of the area to essentially shut down for an entire week. Being familiar with the storm risk, Engstrom says storm prep and clean up are part of their service offering. While it did put them behind their usual schedules, the team was prepared and had processes in place to get things moving when the water cleared.

“Basically, once the storm passes, everyone that comes in just does maintenance for the week (after the storm),” she says. The team of 27 employees also has an option to come in on a Saturday just to volunteer their time and get ahead of the game. “Our customers expect us to be the best,” she says. “A lot of them don’t live here fulltime, so a lot of services we provide are what we do before and after a storm.”

For customers on or near the water, the company will put up planters, put away lawn equipment and outdoor furniture. After the storm clears, they set the property back up again. - Lauren Rathmell

Norman Phillips, co-owner

Philipps Landscape Contractors, Englewood, Florida

Norman Phillips is quite satisfied with the state of his market. Located right in the Florida Keys and among older residents who are willing to pay higher prices for quality work, Phillips says his job is perfect for someone who’s on the verge of retiring.

Good thing, too, because Phillips is already semi-retired but is still working because he enjoys working outside with his hands. His major problem is that he’s having trouble finding the employees who share that same passion.

“(It’s about) finding qualified labor, finding people who are interested in getting their hands dirty,” Philipps says. “Who’s going to do it?”

Philipps co-manages the business with his wife, Betsy, and has noticed less people are interested in mowing their lawns than ever before. He says the tradition used to be that people would barbeque on the weekends after a long day’s work of gardening or working in the yard.

Now, there’s more business potential than ever before. Navigating that has been tricky, to the point where Philipps often employs day labor to manage the workload. They’re fortunate to be in a situation where they can afford this because of the high incomes of their clients, and they don’t have a ton of competition. They can charge fair rates as unlicensed landscapers get weeded out quickly in their market.

But still, they’ve got to find the people willing to help do the work. That’s the tricky part.

“Again, how do you navigate it?” Philipps says. “My feeling is you have to treat your employees with respect, show them they’re of value, and give them the training to progress.”

He says one way to help navigate a stingier market is to offer more specialized services. Philipps and his wife will help take care of an entire home, including the interior, which can help upsell to clients and show his company is different than any other around the block. A younger person just taking ownership of a company could be doing even more of this than he is, Philipps admits.

“I think people are leaving a lot of money on the table by just doing maintenance,” he says. “If I was in my thirties, I’d be doing a lot more in terms of landscaping.”- Jimmy Miller

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