Travels with Jim follows Jim Huston around the country as he visits with landscapers and helps them understand their numbers to make smarter decisions.
The most common questions that new clients ask me are, “How does my company compare to others in the green industry?” and “What am I doing right and, perhaps more importantly, what am I doing wrong that I need to address and fix?” Benchmarks and/or critical numbers are especially helpful when addressing these questions. But what do you do when you’re in uncharted waters and don’t have good historical data to fall back upon?
Just as the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic was unprecedented, so is its 2021 aftermath. Since benchmarks and critical numbers are derived from repetitive historical data, they’re often hard to decipher and are not easily adapted and applied to unprecedented times. However, since I’ve traveled to 43 states and worked with hundreds of green industry entrepreneurs so far this year, let me share what I’ve learned. Here are three unprecedented issues facing green industry entrepreneurs in 2021 and my thoughts about them:
1. Unprecedented labor shortages. Almost all of my clients could perform 20, 40 or even 50% more work if they could find the field labor to produce it. While the H-2B program situation has improved this year, the labor shortfall outweighs all other issues facing green industry companies.
2. Unprecedented opportunities. Demand for green industry services has never been higher. Due to the economy in general and our desire to be outside and enjoy the outdoors in particular, the demand to upgrade and/or beautify our outdoor surroundings is unprecedented. This is true for both the commercial and residential markets.
In addition to a robust consumer market, dozens of private equity companies have millions of dollars they need to invest and obtain a return on for their investors. Not only are these companies investing in commercial lawn maintenance companies, but now they are also looking at commercial and residential landscape installation investment opportunities.
3. Unprecedented supply chain shortages. Have you tried to buy a new truck or mower lately? Currently, I’m in the Detroit area as I write this article. The auto makers have parked thousands of cars, vans and trucks in vacant parking lots throughout the Greater Detroit area as they await electronic chips to complete the manufacturing process. The ripple effect from the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown in early 2020 is still being felt. Manufacturers lost almost a whole quarter of production in 2020 due to the mandatory shutdown. Supplies of lumber, plastics, metals such as steel, and so forth are just beginning to recover from this shortfall.
No one could’ve predicted the COVID-19 pandemic, but thinking creatively to push past these unprecedented challenges can help you grow.
Chaos breeds opportunity. Here are three takeaways for you to consider:
1. Use the supply-demand curve to your advantage. In other words, raise your prices. When a commodity (materials, equipment, labor, etc.) is rare, it is more valuable and you should charge more for it. Customers don’t necessarily like increased prices, but they’re more receptive to them in times like these. When the economy is robust, customers are more concerned about how soon they can get work done than they are about the cost.
2. Learn from the human resources professionals. Consider employing a part-time or full-time human resources professional to help you improve your company’s productivity. I’ve seen professional recruiting, hiring, on-boarding, training and so forth improve a company’s productivity 25% to 50%.
3. Research private equity opportunities. There’s a lot of money available and it’s looking for a place to land. If now is a good time to consider selling your company, it means that it may also be a good time to consider buying a company (or two, or three…).
Green industry entrepreneurs are facing unprecedented challenges in 2021. However, unprecedented challenges provide unconventional opportunities, but only if you are willing to look for and capitalize upon them. Remember, chaos breeds opportunity. If you learn to thrive in tough times, so will your company.
Words of Wilson features a rotating panel of consultants from Bruce Wilson & Company, a landscape consulting firm.
Job openings are at record highs, yet many landscape businesses can’t fill positions and struggle to keep up with demand. In a “Help Wanted” market, maybe the solution is right under your nose. If you have a promote-from-within culture, you’re in luck. In fact, promoting from within not only benefits your business, but it’s a tangible way for your company to show employees you are willing to invest in them as emerging leaders.
- Promoting from within keeps employees engaged and aspirational
- Career advancement opportunities keep employees motivated and less likely to leave for career advancement elsewhere
- Internal mobility saves time and money on the external hiring process and there’s less risk involved
- Internal candidates are better prepared and more likely to accept new responsibilities
- There is a shorter learning curve
- The ripple effect of watching colleagues grow within has a positive impact on morale
But because every upside has a downside, there are also challenges that come with internal promotions. Moving an individual out of the team into a position of leadership over former peers can cause stress and uneasiness for both the team and the one promoted.
I recently had a client ask me to talk with someone that had just been promoted above his peers to manager. He asked me if I had any advice for the guy, who would be overseeing his former colleagues. Here is some of what I shared:
People are human.
It’s normal that work friendships may change. Sitting at a lunch with the gang complaining about leadership is not an option anymore. You are now the person you used to complain about and that changes a lot of things, including what people expect from you, how people treat you and how they react to you. It will also change what people are willing to share with you (good and bad). Be sensitive, adapt your communication style, be open and honest. Expect that everyone may be awkward at first, but being transparent will go a long way to build trust and respect.
Change is hard.
Don’t try to change everything at once. Give your team time to adjust. Figure out your new rhythm, and be strategic and thoughtful about making structural or personnel changes. If you are too quick to reshuffle positions or terminate an employee, you risk making the rest of the team insecure about their positions.
Self-aware is good.
Ask for objective feedback on your performance as you start in your new role. This will also show your team that you are willing to take and act on constructive feedback. When a leader can do this, it helps set a positive example for the team that continuous improvement works for everyone.
With the current labor shortage, promoting from within may be a viable way to move forward, plus doing so can help team morale.
Before your promotion, you were probably closer or more friendly with some people than with others. As the leader, you need to make sure you aren’t playing favorites. If the team thinks you have a closer relationship with one person, even though you don’t think so, some members may feel slighted and ignored. Make sure you are treating everyone equally, especially as it relates to opportunity and information-sharing.
Rise to the challenge.
Think about how you have behaved in the past. What traits made people like you? As a leader, you may need to modify your behavior to be successful. Set boundaries, communicate, be fair and objective, act in the best interest of the whole and acknowledge the success of your team. The more you allow your team to shine, the more you shine. No one gets promoted in a vacuum. Acknowledge the co-workers who have been there for you on your journey to success.
You got the promotion because you demonstrated that you were always willing to learn and try new things. The skills for being a good boss aren’t necessarily things you are born with, so keep learning. Find what works best for you and your team and don’t be afraid to adapt your style as needed.
Cream of the Crop features a rotating panel from the Harvest Group, a landscape business consulting company.
It is all too clear to successful business owners that social media has moved quickly from being a mere cosmetic aspect of the company marketing plan into a vital determinant of capitalistic advantage. Unique resources and ongoing attention are now commonly being devoted to social media, just as resources and attention are traditionally allocated to horticulture quality, customer service, gross margin and revenue growth. With that premise in mind, here are some of the fundamentals that you should adopt.
To remain current, visible and “fresh,” prescient companies frequently have a presence on at least the following four platforms: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram. Extending that thought, social media postings should occur bi-weekly on each of the platforms, with appropriate costs, results and tracking metrics being tracked accordingly for effectiveness.
Beyond social media platforms, there are four common information topics routinely included within a well-developed, targeted and successful social media strategy:
1. Recruitment: In conjunction with its own website, the company should consistently populate, refresh and publicize all vacant positions. Job descriptions, salary ranges, training opportunities, career path information, available benefits and the like represent the current standard for human resources content.
2. Employees: This topic fuels the company’s Rewards and Recognition Program by highlighting new employees, tenured employee work anniversaries, recent achievements, successful performance, employee commendations, training certifications and promotions, as well as biographical sketches that personalize each employee’s distinct contributions to the company.
3. Educational: Supporting customer service, these social media postings frequently include useful information to improve viewers’ awareness, initiative and competence through topics like how to trim a rose bush, plant health care, fertilization tips, proper application of bark or mulch, irrigation improvements and installing new plants or trees.
4. Job Quality: It’s always beneficial to highlight successes by sharing before and after photos or videos of new installation, enhancements or tree service work, especially when accompanied by the manager’s and foreman’s names to document their accountability. People’s memories may lapse with time; photos and videos permanently improve those memories.
Building upon social media platforms and content categories, it is important to note the current mode of presentation is far more elaborate and dynamic than it was just a few short years ago. Long-winded, drab, static PDF postings are from a bygone era; dynamic information transfer is the new standard.
Having a clear, concise social media strategy can only benefit your business in terms of recruiting, customer service and other areas.
To that point, there is an increased emphasis on 30-60 second video presentations rather than two or three still photographs. Aerial captures of drones flying over new construction projects, documenting yard departure routines, or detecting invasive tree hazards actively engage the viewer across topography, sense and imagination. Likewise, the migration from placid to progressive information can also be seen in company websites that contain an embedded audio-visual thumbnail of the company president verbally escorting the viewer across and through the various sections of the company website (e.g., who we are, project gallery, careers, customer testimonials).
To accompany this increased information placement, an increasing number of companies have added functional staff to monitor social media.
For example, while some landscape companies have outsourced their social media analytics to third-party vendors who provide weekly reports on key metrics, other landscapers utilize part-time consultants, interns, or full-time internal social media employees.
Social media is not only here to stay, but quickly is becoming an indispensable platform to convey company branding, cultivate organizational culture and publicize myriad human resources functions (e.g., staffing, training career ladders) necessary to engage interested job applicants to help the company achieve sustainable success.
The horticulture industry converged on Columbus, Ohio. July 10-13 for Cultivate’21. After going the virtual trade show and education route in 2020, the event was in-person with on-demand education. Here are a few highlights:
Dr. Charlie Hall discussed current events at his State of the Industry presentation on July 11. We’ve moved from the Great Recession to the Great Shutdown to the Great Conundrum, he said.
“We’re in a period of probable growth but we’re constrained,” he said, “but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
Currently, there is a need for nearly 9.2 million workers, Hall said: about 6.5 million jobs that are open now and 2.6 million that would have been created if there were the workforce to fill them.
While many blame the issue on COVID unemployment checks, two separate university studies have found that the effect on the workforce has been very small, Hall said.
In the past few years, tariff costs have been passed on to the consumer and with a pandemic on top of that, there has been increased difficulty in obtaining raw materials.
And the industry felt that pinch this spring as it drove up the cost of containers and plant protection materials. Hall said this drove up the cost of doing business by 11%.
“Input costs are rising so we’re going to need to increase prices to maintain margins,” Hall said. The way to do that is to increase the perceived value of plant material through marketing, whether it’s the economic, health, experience or quality of life benefits.
Because while consumers are spending more on houseplants, landscaping and flowers when they’re forced to remain home, that spending won’t continue at the same level without the proper marketing. “It’s incumbent on us to continue talking about the benefits of plants,” he said.
First Lady makes her debut.
J. Berry Nursery and Genetics introduced the newest addition to the Hollywood Hibiscus series at Cultivate’21.
First Lady is a prolific bloomer with fantastic disease and insect resistance, according to Tamara Risken, J. Berry’s marketing director.
First Lady joins the Hollywood lineup and will be available at retail in 2022.
“The flowers are a bit smaller here at the show because they’re not houseplants, but she blooms nonstop in the Texas heat, and in South Florida she’s a grower’s favorite,” Risken says.
The Hollywood Hibiscus line keeps expanding, with 14 “personalities” available currently and more in the pipeline, including First Lady and The Hustler, which is also planned for a 2022 release. Jim Berry, owner of Texas-based J. Berry Nursery and Genetics, keeps coming up with new ideas.
However, each “star” that joins the Hollywood Hibiscus line is the result of a team effort, Risken says.
Research and development at J. Berry makes recommendations, and Berry consults with sales and marketing on ideas, as well. Then from a production standpoint, the nursery sets up trials with its licensed growers and contract growers.
“We get a lot of people on the phone and ask their thoughts because something that performs well in Texas may not perform in South Florida,” Risken says.
J. Berry has growers in Florida, Texas, the West Coast and even Hawaii, where hibiscus run rampant. Risken says their no. 1 producer for the year was Native Farms in Hawaii. The grower provided feedback that even near the jungle, with every known pest and tons of humidity the Hollywood Hibiscus are successful and popular.
“Hollywoods are thriving and customers are paying top-dollar for them in Hawaii even though hibiscus is everywhere,” Risken says.
“People want the Hollywoods because of the flowers, the fanciness, the neatness. That speaks to our grower maintaining our quality standards and doing a fantastic job with the presentation at retail. It’s a combination of effort the genetics, the growing, the marketing.”
Walters Gardens introduces EZ Scapes.
Walters Gardens has created a way for its retail garden center partners to hang on to those new gardeners that picked up the hobby during the pandemic.
New gardeners picked up a houseplant or two or perhaps a shrub last year. If they had success in their first steps of their horticultural journey, they may be feeling ambitious enough to do some basic landscape design. The EZ Scape program was designed to help these gardeners learn the basics and set up their own three- or four-plant perennial border.
“We had 20 million new gardeners last year and a lot of them have no idea what they’re doing,” said Karin Walters, vice president of product strategy for Walters Gardens. “Any way to simplify it and make it easy for them to understand is what we’re shooting for to help support this new explosive growth of the industry.”
“We’re in a period of probable growth but we’re constrained, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.” Dr. Charlie Hall, professor
EZ Scapes are curated perennial recipes, paired by similar growing needs and providing frost to frost garden interest.
Each EZ Scape comes with a specifically designed planting guide showing the recommended ratio of plants to put together, and an approximation of how much space they will take at maturity.
The EZ Scapes are chosen by collection, so gardeners will have a group of perennials with similar landscape performance and requirements.
The EZ Scape handout can be customizable with the plants the retailer sells. Walters has illustrations of the plants in the collection, so if a retailer has three of the four, the missing variety can be swapped out. That would be a difficult task with photographs, but the illustrations make it possible.
EZ Scapes offers marketing support to the retailer in three ways. First, point-of-purchase materials, including posters and banners designed to explain the program. Second, customized handouts with the planting plan, variety information and care tips.
“The home gardener can come up, look at the sheet, and say ‘I can do this myself, that’s easy,’” Walters said.
Third, EZScapes.com, a mobile-friendly website is coming in Spring 2022 with more recipes, a tool to swap varieties and to find a desired color combination.
The author is Managing Editor of Lawn & Landscape’s sister publication, Nursery Management magazine.