Joe Chiellini has made some unconventional hires at ASI Landscape Management, leaving no stone unturned in his search for his next great employees.
One recently hired employee lost his security job during the COVID-19 pandemic. Another account manager on the ASI team used to work at Dunkin’ Donuts. Chiellini, the company’s CEO and president, met him as he worked behind the counter, and Chiellini noticed that the cashier knew his name, his wife’s name and even his kids’ names by heart.
“I said, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about landscaping instead of donuts?’” Chiellini says. “Now he’s been with us for two years.”
Chiellini says they’ll uncover people anywhere, with the obvious caveat that they’re located somewhere near one of their three offices in central Florida. The company is a full-service, commercial landscaping company that earned $15 million last year, and Chiellini says some of his more recent growth can be directly attributed to the irrigation expert they uncovered three years ago — Eric Rothell.
Rothell, the director of irrigation, has taken a department of four employees earning $300,000 in revenue into a team of 19 people making $1.5 million for the department.
“Around here, passion is everything,” Chiellini says, “and Eric had a lot of passion for water.”
Rothell calls it “dumb luck” that he got into irrigation work.
After graduating from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville in the winter of 1997, he quickly realized the difficulties in landing a job during Christmastime. Hiring employers were hard to find, and Rothell says he didn’t have the connections he’d need to get a good job in agriculture or environmental science, industries he studied while earning his bachelor’s degree.
So, Rothell says he attended a job fair with an open mind and ran into interviewers at what is now BrightView, who asked him to move to Florida to do irrigation work. Rothell, who grew up on a small farm in North Carolina, knew nothing about irrigation or about Florida — he had only been there a handful of times before receiving the job offer. But he packed up his life and moved to Florida and hasn’t looked back since.
The work wasn’t always easy, especially on days where Rothell joked he became a “human backhoe” and was constantly trenching. But he found the work rewarding and got hooked on the intricacies of irrigation, a passion only solidified by his first trip to the Irrigation Association Show that year. He started traveling the country training other employees for BrightView, at one point becoming a regional irrigation advisor.
“Once I learned more, I really liked sharing that knowledge, training other guys,” Rothell says.
After a six-year stint as a branch manager, Rothell says he felt burnt out by the challenges of managing a branch and wanted to dive back into irrigation work. It was then, in 2018, that he found ASI Landscape Management, a company that was eager to bolster its irrigation department but didn’t have the right pieces in place to make it happen.
Now, Rothell is educating his team at ASI, a unit that has grown from four employees to 19 and counting.
“(We had to) start from the beginning,” Rothell says. “They had some basic knowledge, but they had a lot they had never been shown.”
For ASI’s Director of Maintenance Operations, Joe Amarosa, this fall will be an opportunity to finally topple Rothell’s close-knit team.
Of course, that’s all in fun and games: Amarosa’s unit wants to win the company’s ASI Olympics. This is an annual competition after the summer season winds down where every branch and team comes together in Tampa to compete in small games like an inflatable obstacle course.
Outside of the games, Amarosa says he and Rothell have grown to have a great professional relationship. They were hired relatively close to one another — Rothell was at the company first — and Amarosa was once a branch manager, so Rothell and his crews were involved in his day-to-day even then.
“From the very get-go, it was making sure we had a good relationship,” Amarosa says. “His team helps my team every day, and my team does the same.”
“I always tell the guys (they shouldn’t) be afraid to train their replacements. They shouldn’t be looking over their shoulders because the company might have bigger plans for them.” Eric Rothell, director of irrigation, ASI Landscape Management
Building that relationship so quickly comes down to respect, Rothell says. He says he doesn’t go out and bark orders at his employees in the field, keeping a level head and treating his subordinates like equals.
“We’re all employees out there,” Rothell says. “The guys are not just another tool or piece of equipment. If you give respect, you’ll get respect.”
That respect goes beyond just the expected daily roles as well, Amarosa says. Take Florida’s recent drought, where many clients had a high demand for irrigation and fast. Rothell’s team was slammed, and Amarosa says his team knew now was a bad time to demand more from the irrigation techs. Amarosa’s team helped in any way it could.
Meanwhile, Rothell’s unit will point out hardscaping issues, shrubs that aren’t quite pristine and possible pest problems to Amarosa’s team after leaving the jobsites, notifying them that there’s still some extra work to be done for the client.
Amarosa attributes this to Rothell’s ability to build a great team culture immediately within the company’s irrigation department.
“What he’s done there in such a short amount of time is remarkable,” Amarosa says. “His techs would live and die for him.”
For Rothell and the ASI team, finding employees who collaborate well together is essential. Perhaps humbly, he says some of the hiring spike came down to luck, but his referral system surely helped: He encourages new hires by incentivizing referrals with gift cards after a new employee stays 90 days. And many times, employees in his department are out working by themselves, but Rothell says he can put any two of his employees together for a bigger project and they’ll work well together.
“When you have guys that work for you and buy in, they bring friends over, friends that they know will work and fit our system,” Rothell says. “We’re looking for people who want to win the game, not just play the game.”
Before hiring Rothell, Chiellini says he was anticipating a “going blue” movement akin to the “going green” movement over the last several decades, where people adapted their lifestyles to better protect the environment. Steps like energy-efficient appliances and paperless billing would eventually translate into smart irrigation controllers and limiting wasteful water practices.
For Chiellini, this was an opportunity to become experts in that segment of the industry; he says most landscaping companies in his area aren’t fully in line with current irrigation practices and don’t know enough to educate the clients who would soon have a desire to be smarter with their water.
“It is a very weak piece at a lot of companies in Florida,” he says. “We wanted to really put an effort in it. If we wanted to be different, which is a big thing for ASI, water was going to be an important part.”
Once Chiellini decided to hire someone rather than contract the irrigation work out, he says ASI went through its fair share of employees before finally finding Rothell, who knew someone already on Chiellini’s staff. He now calls Rothell “exactly what we were looking for.”
“If we wanted to be different, which is a big thing for ASI, water was going to be an important part.” Joe Chiellini, president and CEO of ASI Landscape Management
Rothell’s work was cut out for him once he got hired. The employees who were already on staff had some skills already from working out in the field, but they also lacked some of the sophisticated know-how that Rothell started implementing right away.
Though there’s not necessarily a formal training boot camp or anything like that for new employees, Rothell says he brings in outside vendors when possible (COVID-19 threw a wrench into this routine) to talk about specific topics like valves or smart irrigation. When there isn’t someone else coming into train ASI, Rothell teaches the groups himself, which is a smooth transition given how much time he spent training others when he was at BrightView. Often, Rothell or these outside trainers are aligned with a topic of the month they select well in advance.
Beyond the classroom, Rothell says he tasked the crews with taking a closer look at their systems. Issues like sprung leaks that gushed out of the top were obvious, but could they identify gaps in coverage that were a little more hidden? Did they know how a valve worked, or how to adjust a head properly?
“How are we doing inspections? What are you seeing on the jobs?” Rothell remembers asking his crew when he first started. “It’s a skilled trade, it’s a skilled labor.”
Catching up the clients.
Rothell says many of the clients he has also want to be educated just like the employees. Of course, there’s plenty of technical terminology in explaining irrigation to customers, industry jargon that would be difficult for an uneducated client to process.
So, to keep it simple, Rothell likens irrigation systems to a new car — every part needs attention and repairs, even if the whole system is brand new.
“A lot of people say, ‘I have a brand-new irrigation system, why do I have to fix it or check it?’” Rothell says. “When you get a brand-new car, you’ve got to change the oil, you’ve got to check the tires.”
Rothell says visual components help his clients follow along as he explains irrigation systems. He’ll place pieces and parts that would ordinarily be hidden underground on a table or let his clients hold them to see what he’s talking about rather than just a verbal description.
Chiellini’s goal of becoming experts in irrigation is well underway, as clients often thank him and Rothell for walking them through the issues they troubleshoot on jobsites or why each component is important during installation.
“People want to learn. It’s just taking that time and offering,” Rothell says. “Oftentimes, we’ll get the comments, ‘Nobody’s ever taken the time to explain this to us.’”
Room to grow.
The plights of the industry’s labor shortage aren’t foreign to ASI, even if they have been able to find employees in unique ways. Rothell says oftentimes, the best employees in his department are the employees they already have who simply took the time to be trained accordingly. The number of qualified employees out there who already know the irrigation skills necessary to be hired is limited.
“There’s definitely a small pool,” Rothell says.
Yet the company is still aiming to grow, as Chiellini says they’re in the process of building a fourth office. He adds that despite the labor shortage, the company has continued to be selective when hiring new employees.
“We’re picky because we do have a family atmosphere, but it’s our culture. It breeds success,” Chiellini says. “That makes it even harder. We already have a shortage, and we’re being picky about who we want.”
And for Rothell, his department that he has already quadrupled in size continues to grow larger.
At 19 technicians, he says ASI is aiming to add more, all with the understanding that he’ll continue his role as an irrigation educator.
“It comes back to education to me: Knowing it, sharing it with other people,” Rothell says. “I always tell the guys (they shouldn’t) be afraid to train their replacements. They shouldn’t be looking over their shoulders because the company might have bigger plans for them.”