Pass the torch

Features - Cover Story

As a landscape-heavy company, Wasson Nursery transitioned to the second generation by embracing change with sights set on steady growth.

September 1, 2022

Earlier this year, Dan Wasson, right, took over as CEO of the company his father, Dan, left, started more than four decades ago.
Photo by Esther Boston

When Dan Wasson Sr. started Wasson Nursery in June 1977, he didn’t realize he was building a foundation for future generations. Initially, his goal was just to earn $25,000 in a year. He ended up selling $40,000 of work that first year with only two employees — quickly surpassing his goal.

Dan Sr. worked long hours building the business, now based in Muncie, Indiana. His sons, Dan and Bob, later grew up working in the family business. Dan remembers his dad throwing him on a landscape crew one summer when he was about 13. The other employees held him to the same high standards as anyone else, not cutting him any slack as the owner’s son.

“That would be my advice to other family businesses that are trying to figure out how to get to the next level,” Dan, the son, says. “If you want the second generation to be successful, don’t start them off in management. Put them out with the guys doing the hard work.”

Gradually, Dan Sr. gave his sons additional responsibilities while grooming them to embody core values like hard work, honesty and family.

Over time, the small company grew into a $12 million business with 150 employees working in three retail garden centers, 13 greenhouses, and a large lawn care and landscape division.

While lawn care and landscaping comprise two-thirds of the revenue today, the family decided to hold on to the original name as a nod to the company’s roots and reputation.

As the Wasson sons took over each half of the business — Bob overseeing retail operations and Dan heading the service division — they realized that some of the processes their dad developed weren’t scalable with the growth they saw ahead. In preparation for the official leadership transition earlier this year, Dan Sr. had to learn to let go and give Dan the reins to lead Wasson Nursery forward as the new CEO.

“I want to maintain a lot of what got us started, but we also have to be willing to adapt,” Dan says. By balancing his father’s values with his vision for the future, here’s how Dan Wasson grew the family’s lawn care and landscape division to over $8 million — an increase of nearly 25% over the last three years.

Shaping the culture

First, to drive the company’s continued growth through the next generation, Dan needed to get the right people on the bus.

He began building out the executive team by hiring a chief operating officer, Zach Yeagy, who played a strategic role in shaping the company’s culture.

“We began to hire very intentionally based on the type of employee we wanted to work with — someone collaborative, fun, fast-paced, a continual learner, and eager to be part of growth,” Yeagy says.

To identify these candidates, the company revamped its interview process to focus more on cultural fit than job-related skills. “We hire for culture first, because we feel confident that we can teach the skills,” Yeagy says.

The key to these interviews, he says, is asking open-ended questions instead of leading candidates toward the expected answer. “That’s one of the biggest pitfalls of interviewing,” Yeagy says, “because everybody’s good at it when you say, ‘You’re good at that, right?’ But if you ask a broad, open-ended question, it’s easy to decide if somebody truly knows how to do something.”

For example, he might ask candidates to explain how they handled a situation when something went wrong on a jobsite — or how they rewarded their team if everything went right. The goal, he says, is to understand how candidates might treat other people as part of Wasson’s team.

To attract more team players, Wasson Nursery implemented an employee referral program. Employees who bring in new hires can earn $250 after 30 days and another $250 after 90 days of employment.

“We trust the guys and girls who work for us, and if their friends also act like them, then we’re going to get a bunch of high-quality employees who already want to work with each other,” Yeagy says. “We have employees who are telling their friends or family members to work here, so it’s turned into a family business.”

Retaining the staff

Bringing in the right people was only half the battle; the next challenge was keeping them.

Fortunately, the company’s growth created plenty of opportunities for job growth and promotion, contributing to long-term employment. For example, one of the project managers started working in retail as a cashier, then began managing landscape inventory as a production manager before moving into his current role. “People are moving into different roles, and new roles are getting created annually,” Yeagy says.

Training is another key component of employee advancement and retention. Every season starts with an annual landscape kickoff, where Dan reminds crews about standard operating procedures and other expectations, from wearing uniforms to hitching trailers properly. The company also invests in leadership training for executives and managers, which hones their communication skills and management techniques to keep the team cohesive.

Although the company employs up to 95 retail/greenhouse staff and 55 lawn/landscape employees at peak, these numbers naturally fluctuate due to the seasonal nature of the business. While 17 of those 55 landscape employees are full-time salaried staff, Dan didn’t want to lay off the rest of the team every winter and risk losing them for good.

About three years ago, Wasson started building up off-season services to keep the landscape crews busy. For example, the hardscape crews get foundations laid before the ground freezes, so weather permitting, they can work on patios all winter long. After Halloween, they start installing Christmas lights. If it snows, they switch to snow removal instead. In between, they might wash and wax the trucks or clean the shop.

These off-season options kept another 20 landscape employees working through the winter last year. “We’re barely seasonal anymore,” Yeagy says. As a result, the landscape division retains between 90-95% of its staff, with many part-time seasonal workers returning each spring.

“We’ve got a really good group of installers and landscapers, and I didn’t want them going anywhere in the winter and getting another job and end up not coming back,” Dan says. “The cost is worth it for us to keep (staff year-round), because it’s far more expensive to the company if we don’t get those guys back.”

A focus on hiring to fit key culture points has fostered growth for Wasson Nursery.
Photo by Esther Boston
Dan, left, and Zach Yeagy
Photo by Esther Boston

Increasing capacity

After ramping up recruiting and retaining efforts, Wasson Nursery focused on maximizing the capacity of its crews to get the most productivity out of the team.

“One way we’ve done that is implementing an employee incentive program,” Yeagy says. “We look at the labor estimated for a job and the labor used for a job, and anytime they beat the estimated hours, there’s a monetary incentive.”

If a crew completes a job in fewer hours than estimated, the incentive is added to a monthly pool, which is split between the crew and its foreman. But if a job takes longer than estimated, money is taken from the pool at the same rate. The company determined that each hour saved is worth $13. So, for saving 10 hours, the crew pool receives $48.75 to split among the team, and the foreman receives $81.25.

Monthly payouts average between $2,500 and $3,500. “Last year, we were able to pay out over $40,000 in incentive bonuses,” Yeagy says. That incentivized efficiency saved the company more than 3,000 hours of extra capacity.

Of course, there’s a catch. To make sure that crews don’t rush through jobs, quality checks are part of the process as well. Project managers, designers and even Dan himself will evaluate projects regularly to make sure they meet the company’s high standards.

Typically, project managers meet with foremen every morning and visit design-build jobsites daily to ensure that projects are progressing as planned. Complex enhancements may also require quality checks. If any problems need to be addressed — such as miss-cut pavers, unburied lighting wire or sections of lawn that require touchup — the extra time counts against the team.

However, Yeagy says it rarely comes down to that. “They want to do a good job and be proud of the work they do,” he says. “It’s almost like we gamified it. We turned it into something exciting by saying, ‘This is our expectation. How do we get better at this?’ It forces our guys to focus on being effective.”

To keep foremen and project managers on the same page when it comes to quality expectations, Wasson holds weekly training sessions to review the company standards. Meanwhile, incentive programs keep everyone accountable. While the incentives for foremen and crews focus on hours, the project managers’ key performance indicators are based on quality and customer experience. When everyone meets their goals, jobs are completed correctly and on time.

In addition to its lawn and landscape division, Wasson Nursery has three retail garden centers and 13 greenhouses.
Photo by Esther Boston
Photo by Esther Boston
Photo by Esther Boston

Equipped for efficiency

The key to helping crews be more efficient in the field, Dan says, is equipping them with the tools they need to do the job. Five years ago, employees scrambled around every morning loading materials into their trucks, often stopping by the home improvement store to grab last-minute supplies.

“Now, we are extremely organized in the morning. I don’t want them going anywhere else but the jobsite,” Dan says. “You can set your crews up for success if you’ve got everything ready so they can focus on production.”

For example, Wasson stocks more inventory in-house now, ordering all the materials for jobs upfront so crews have access to supplies throughout the project. Each landscape truck gets its own color-coded tools to cut down on loading time and confusion in the morning. Those tools stay locked inside toolboxes that are built-in to the company’s new customized fleet of Ford F-650 gas trucks.

Dan worked with a fabricator to build his ideas onto a blank chassis. The customized truck beds feature 36-inch toolboxes behind the cab, drop sides, side lift gates, attached roll-out tarps, and barn doors in the back — all designed to increase the crew’s efficiency.

“We’re trying to buy equipment that can make our crews’ jobs easier,” Dan says. For example, he added side lift gates that can handle up to 2,000 pounds to save his crews from heavy lifting. He also added rear-view cameras in the back so drivers can hook up trailers without help.

Since finalizing the custom design about four years ago, Dan has updated about 10 of the landscape trucks so far, with plans to refresh the other half of the fleet as the trucks age. Meanwhile, he has also updated the Ford F-450s that the crews drive, adding custom aluminum flatbeds with underbody toolboxes to better serve their project needs, too.

Photo by Esther Boston
Dan’s wife, Danielle, also works for the company as director of HR and communication.
Dan has been a part of Wasson Nursery ever since he was a 3-year-old boy going to jobsites with his father.

Carrying on the family legacy

From the trucks to the high-tech systems that run behind-the-scenes, Wasson Nursery looks a lot different than it did 45 years ago. Watching that transition hasn’t been easy for Dan Sr.

“The biggest challenge is just being able to let go and give up something I built from a wheelbarrow,” Dan Sr. says. “Everything I had set in place got changed. I hate change. I didn’t think it was necessary, but I guess you need to learn that your way’s not always the best.”

For 40 years, Dan Sr. estimated landscape designs in his head, taking a certain percentage of the plant price to determine the cost of planting it. When his son took over the landscape design business, “he threw it out the window and changed the way we estimated,” Dan Sr. says, “and man, I didn’t like that.”

Instead, Dan began estimating jobs based on the hours required to install each design, using technology to track and calculate labor. “It was a couple years of back-and-forth, with dad being very upset that we weren’t doing it by percentage,” Dan says. “But with the percentage, there was no way to make that scalable when we started adding staff.”

They butted heads for a while, but now, the new system is working, the company is growing and even Dan Sr. is pleased with the change.

“Changes have to happen for your business to grow,” he says. “The sooner you can accept that, as hard as it is, the easier it is to move on and the happier everyone will be.”

Dan Sr. says he’s blessed to work beside his sons as they lead Wasson Nursery into the next generation of growth. Although he officially retired in February 2022 when Dan became CEO, Dan Sr. continues working in Wasson’s greenhouse. “I’m never gonna quit, because I love it,” Dan Sr. says. “If I’m physically able to put in a helping hand, I’ll be here.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Ohio.