Ready for the rush

Companies share the systems and strategies they use to prepare for the busy landscaping season.

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Ramping up for warmer weather takes resources: time, training and attention to equipment. Starting the season organized and prepared means planning. Lawn & Landscape talked to three firms to learn how they ready their operations for busier times.

Own the preparation

Whether it’s training or equipment, the people at Ryan Lawn & Tree “own it.” And that’s quite literally the case since the company offers an employee stock ownership plan. President Larry Ryan and his wife only own 12 percent of the business today. “Everyone here truly gets to be a part of the success,” he says.

This business model informs every part of the company’s operations, including how the team prepares for the warmer season. And, with an “own it” attitude, the staff works to take care of equipment during the season and constantly learn so the company can do better and they, too, can profit.

“Our guys have their own spreaders, their own pick-up trucks, their own sprayers, and their job is to maintain that,” Ryan says. “They have bought into that.”

While equipment maintenance occurs year-round, winter is when “finishing touches” are completed, Ryan says. That generally falls on in-house mechanics who tune up spreaders and perform fixes that employees don’t manage.

Larry Ryan, onwer of Ryan Lawn & Tree, says one of the keys to success is adapting to the weather.
Photo courtesy of Ryan Lawn & Tree

The season officially starts at the end of January in Tulsa, Kansas, and in Kansas City, Missouri, the teams start rolling out in February. The first lawn care applications go down in February and March, with second applications in April and May. Preparation requires planning around the weather,

“Last year, we were terribly wet and that killed our irrigation business in spring,” he says. “You have to be adaptable.”

So the teams focused on other types of work: tree and shrub pruning and lawn care.

Ryan Lawn & Tree provides pruning services year-round, so the work never really halts in winter. But the colder season is when the company focuses on securing employees’ pest recertification. That’s also when the company holds its annual meeting. Then, the entire company gathers for two days and each team member shares his or her goals for the coming year.

“You really get to see the different personalities of the staff – and their sense of humor.” Ryan says. Employees also lead their own training sessions during this meeting. “We ask our people to become good at something. They become the expert and share with the company.”

Ryan Lawn & Tree also has several Toastmasters clubs so staff can learn public speaking skills and gain confidence to be leaders in the company. “We are trying to cultivate a culture of ambition,” Ryan says. “We want everyone to be the best versions of themselves.”

"Go through the years and write down what problems you experienced, and when they should have been solved. That will tell you what to do the next cycle."Larry Ryan, Ryan Lawn & Tree

This year’s preparation for the busy season includes implementing a new software program, Real Green Systems. Every one of the 220 employees at the company will use it in some capacity. The software provider offered some in-house training, but Ryan says the real learning will happen on the job.

Then, as with other types of training, employees will teach each other.

As for planning ahead, Ryan says what’s helpful for him is to maintain a calendar since he’s always planning.

“Go through the years and write down what problems you experienced, and when they should have been solved,” he says. “That will tell you what to do the next cycle.”

Everything in this business runs on a cycle, he adds. “Once you learn that, you can be prepared for the next year.”

Great ideas in the sky

A system for overhauling mowers and a revamped training video featuring employees ensures that Greenscapes is prepared for the intense Florida maintenance season. Linda Nelson, president, says one of the company’s greatest successes of 2015 was its video project.

“I was sitting on a plane watching a training video provided by an insurance company and I thought, ‘We need to make something like this ourselves,’” she says.

Why not have employees do the talking and modeling instead? “I thought, ‘What a cool way to bring in new people,’” she says, adding that new hires watch the employee-produced videos and “meet” 250-plus people at Greenscapes before they ever run a route.

The videos are actually YouTube spots that are seamlessly merged into a full-length, three-hour video. Individual training spots are shown throughout the year at weekly tailgate meetings. And videos can be added to the master at any time.

“Every time we find an area we want to focus on, we create a three- to five-minute video with a member of our in-house staff,” Nelson says. The video is a big part of initial training when a person joins the team.

While training is segmented into quarterly and weekly sessions, pesticide recertification training happens in-house at Greenscapes in December and January when maintenance and mowing slows down. Though, the company is still mulching and performing clean-up at this time of year, Nelson says.

December is also when the mower maintenance schedule begins. All routes at Greenscapes are divided into A routes or B routes. The “As” bring in mowers for maintenance in December and January. During that time, crews double up to handle cleanup. Some staff takes care of housekeeping at the shop, and others take a voluntary, unpaid extended leave for two months. They are promised the same level of seniority when they return.

“This is our second successful year with no layoffs,” Nelson says, noting that many employees like the fact that they can take off two months for other pursuits.

Mower maintenance is a full-blown overhaul, starting with a compression test and attention to belts, bearings, wheels – everything. “We service mowers from top to bottom,” Nelson says. “We turn those machines upside down and inside out.”

"We service mowers from top to bottom. We turn those machines upside down and inside out."Linda Nelson, Greenscapes

The company allows six to seven weeks to “rebuild” a mower. If a compression test shows a mower is operating at 8 percent capacity, for example, the engine will be rebuilt.

Once the A route maintenance is complete in late January, the B route equipment comes into the shop in February and March for the same total maintenance. This ensures that there are always mowers out in the field, and that all machines get a solid check-up and even a rebuild if necessary before the serious cutting season starts in late March.

Teams regularly check in and discuss the weather so they can be prepared for what’s next. “We had a very warm winter this year, up until the last two weeks of January,” Nelson says. “So we had a workshop to talk about how to gauge our April and May cuts, what percentage we were going to cut off the (grass) blade. Is it going to be a light top shave, a 10-percent reduction or a 20-percent reduction?”

The team considers the health of the plant, the weather and other variables including turf type. “There are no hard-fast rules,” Nelson says, noting that constant communication guides the company’s seasonal plans and training schedule. “We are continuously training in different arenas.”

Non-glamorous work

“It’s all about being prepared,” says Steven Hoover, president and maintenance division manager of SiteWorks in Chandler, Arizona, where there’s not a true dormant period.

But, as Hoover says, “There is some downtime in the desert.” That’s when SiteWorks dives into training, account forecasting and assessing equipment.

“Doing paperwork and budgets and forecasting is not the most glamorous part of the business, but it will make your life a million times easier if you are prepared and have a good idea of what’s coming down the pike,” Hoover says.

At SiteWorks, that includes evaluating the annual schedules for every property it manages.

The maintenance division keeps a spreadsheet that lists each property and every service, along with all of the “inputs” required, from equipment to manpower and fertilizer. During December and January, SiteWorks takes a hard look at its annual schedules.

“We have pretty tight annual schedules that come from looking at routine requirements, including pre-emergent applications, fertilizer and annual flowers that are changed out at certain times of the year,” Hoover says. “We get that (schedule) really dialed in and compare what we did during the last couple of years. We look at what we can improve upon.”

That schedule outline produced in Excel helps SiteWorks in a couple of ways. “It provides a documented path that we can share with the client so we can say, ‘This is what happens on your property when,’” Hoover says. “It also is helpful if we see a need for additional budget to help with equipment or other needs.”

The spreadsheet format is helpful because adding or removing a client from the document is relatively simple. Also, it’s easy to see what services and materials are needed when.

“We forecast every property out for the whole calendar year, all the way to overseeding in the fall,” Hoover says.

This exercise helps with the company’s budgeting. And, of course, changes are always necessary. “If we acquire a new account we can add that and look a month or two ahead and see what our manpower and materials needs will be,” Hoover says.

SiteWorks likes to complete this annual scheduling process by the end of January. “That way, we get a process set and we are not behind the eight-ball in the middle of the year,” Hoover says.

Training is also big focus during the slower season at SiteWorks. Specifically, the company focuses on safety: required OSHA and CPR training for all employees, no matter their years of service.

“This is absolutely imperative because even if guys have been here a long time, they can get complacent, so it’s a refresher to make sure we’re using the proper methods,” Hoover says.

Every rig’s equipment at SiteWorks is reviewed. Equipment is assessed to determine whether it’s the best for the job.

“We found that we really have to look at a property and find the perfect use for equipment so we can be efficient,” Hoover says. “That could mean investing in a bigger mower. Those are expenses you have to take on so as you get into the busy season you are not already behind and trying to catch up.”

With all of the scheduling, training and equipment evaluation underway before February, SiteWorks is prepared to roll into Arizona’s busy season.

“Do the tedious tasks ahead of time,” Hoover says. “That way, you won’t find yourself in a bad position when a demand or need arises.”

March 2016
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