The life of a business owner

Travels with Jim follows Jim Huston around the country as he visits with landscapers and helps them understand their numbers to make smarter decisions.

Jim Huston runs J.R. Huston Consulting, a green industry consulting firm.

It sounds so glorious to have your own business, be your own boss, pursue personal and financial independence and live the American dream. Often, we sort of slide into being a business owner — an entrepreneur, if you will. Because the barrier-to-entry in the green industry is so low, it seems to just happen.

It seems like a good idea. You have the necessary skills. You have a truck. You’re willing to take the chance. So, you hire a couple of your buddies, hold your nose and jump. One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand…splash.

Not for the faint of heart.

That’s how most of us got into the business that we’re in. We simply took advantage of an opportunity that was in front of us. That’s how it happened for me. The U.S. Marine Corps gave me an education in finance and aviation logistics. A stint at the General Dynamics Electronics Division in San Diego motivated me to obtain an MBA in finance and start my own general consulting business. A propitious meeting with the late Charles “Chuck” Vander Kooi led to my working with him in the late 1980s for three years consulting specifically in the green industry. 35 years later, I look back on it all with fond memories.

The faces and the opportunity may be different, but I bet you have a similar story. It’s how many of us do it in America — the land of opportunity. And it often works…for about one in five of us. “In 2019, the failure rate of startups was around 19%. Research concludes 21.5% of startups fail in the first year, 30% in the second year, 50% in the fifth year and 70% in the 10th year,” according to Investopedia.

There’s more to running a landscaping company than just maintaining properties. Being prepared for the unexpected can keep you from getting hit hard when it happens.

How it works in the field (real life).

Going into the fall with hundreds of thousands of dollars of work to get done, a client in Wyoming was down to 11 total people in his company. He needed 19. Instead of running his company, he was mowing grass. The stress was almost unbearable.

The office manager of a client in Idaho was poached by her previous employer. She was offered double what my client could afford to pay her. As a signing bonus, the poacher paid off her new truck to the tune of $30-40,000. The morning that my client told me his story, four of his field crew (family members of the office manager) quit.

Because he wasn’t going to get his H-2B workers, a client in the Midwest had to trim his annual budget from $12 million to $6 million. It’s one thing to reduce your sales by 50%, but it’s almost impossible to reduce your general and administrative overhead by that much in such a short period of time.

Another $6 million-plus full-service landscape contractor in New England is focusing on building the chemical side of his business so that he can eliminate the headaches that come from the people-intense maintenance and installation part of his business.

Labor issues for a $3 million full-service landscape company in the Boston area have become so bad that this contractor is building his commercial real estate portfolio so that he can get out of the labor-intense landscape business.

Smart entrepreneurs.

The life of an entrepreneur isn’t for the faint of heart. That’s why so few people become entrepreneurs and why fewer still succeed at it. Chuck Vander Kooi once mentioned to me that to be a successful green industry contractor, you had to love people and love problems (challenges). He was right. You have to be able to build a team and build the systems to direct them and hold them together. Your role is more that of a college football coach than that of an engineer or manufacturer of widgets. You not only have to understand the game, but you also have to understand the people. Add to this the supply chain, truck and equipment shortages today, combined with the unparalleled demand and expectations of customers, and you better have the internal fortitude of Superman or Wonder Woman.

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Jerry Schill

November 2021
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