Top-grossing landscape companies gather in Cleveland

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July 28, 2017
© Vicki Blayney

Lawn & Landscape held its inaugural Top 100 event, an exclusive event for the highest-grossing lawncare and landscape companies in North America, June 6-7. Industry leaders from coast to coast gathered in Cleveland to network, learn from each other and, of course, receive their awards.

Read on to find out how Top 100 companies deal with company culture, hiring and mergers and acquisitions. Plus, get the lowdown on bridging the generational gap from the event’s keynote speaker, Phil Gwoke.

Creating your culture

Top 100 CEOs share their best practices to make sure there vis a good company culture in place.

During Lawn & Landscape’s Top 100 event, a few industry leaders sat down to discuss best practices in their companies. Whether your yearly revenue is $50 million or $50,000, these are takeaways everyone can use.

When it comes to focus, Jason Craven, president and CEO of Southern Botanical, said at his company, quality comes first. “It’s always been a big part of our culture,” he said. When it comes to deciding what’s right for the client, he gives his team leeway to make those decisions in the field.

Brian DuMont focuses on his people as his No. 1 priority, reaching out to at least one per day to ask them about something personal in their lives.
© Vicki Blayney

Brian DuMont, president and CEO of Yard-Nique, said at his company, he focuses on quality, but said it can’t be No. 1. “For me, it’s focusing on people and letting them handle the rest,” he said.

To do this, DuMont makes sure to put in his schedule to reach out to a different employee each day. He asks them about their families, themselves and anything else to show he cares as more than a boss. When an employee’s daughter had an upcoming surgery, DuMont even scheduled it in his phone so he knew to ask how the surgery had gone.

“I make a big effort to empower people and focus on people,” he said.

“The key is that the core values are not separable,” said Joe Ciffolillo, president and CEO of Greenscape. Driving efficiency, increasing customer loyalty and increasing quality go hand-in-hand, and none can take more focus than the others.

Ciffolillo’s company has also implemented a point system to recognize employees who step up on the job.

Ciffolillo’s managers can award points to employees who are doing something well. The employees can then use those points to go online and buy new TVs, vacations, etc.

“It spreads like wild fire when somebody starts getting the points,” Ciffolillo said.

For more on this story and other best practices from the Top 100, visit bit.ly/LLTop100practices. – Katie Tuttle

Innovative hiring

Even Top 100 companies aren’t immune to the industry’s hiring woes.

Being a Top 100 company doesn’t make you immune to some of the hiring and retention challenges the industry is facing. But four executives from Top 100 companies gave their thoughts on hiring and retention during a discussion on the issue. Here are some thoughts from the panel: John Gibson, president, Swingle Lawn, Tree and Landscape Care; Jen Lemcke, chief operating officer, WeedMan USA; Christy Webber, president and CEO, Christy Webber Landscapes, and Tim Portland, chairman and CEO, Yellowstone Landscape.

Analyze the process.

If you are having issues with hiring, you need to step back and look at your recruitment process, Lemcke said. When resumes come in, what is happening to them? Are they being looked at or sitting on a desk? Look at your referral bonus program and where you are posting jobs. “You need to be innovative; you can’t keep complaining about not finding people,” she said.

Invest wisely.

Gibson said Swingle offers a $1,500 referral bonus for an employee who stays a year. The company also invested in a contract recruiter for 30-60 days who, based on qualifications given from Swingle, found workers for the company. Gibson said there was initial hesitation in hiring the recruiter because of the cost, but he said the upfront costs paid off in the long term.

Focus on the good.

“We as managers tend to focus on our problems. We take for granted what we have right,” Portland said. Portland tells his supervisors to celebrate success. If a crew gets a compliment from a customer or an employee does something well, take them to lunch or get them a gift card. “That makes them feel like they are succeeding,” Portland said, adding that those accolades coupled with company growth makes them excited to stay around. If you don’t celebrate, “that has a dampening impact on morale,” Portland said.

Ask the right questions.

Gibson said the team at Swingle asks behavioral questions. “We don’t ask as much about experience, rather how they would react to certain situations,” he said.

Be realistic.

Gibson said Swingle began realizing that some employees were only going to stay with them 12 to 18 months, so they started Succeed from the Start, a program that tells new employees what they need to know in their first 60 days. “So we can at least get them on a launch pad,” he said. Gibson added that the program gives Swingle the best chance to get the most out of the employee for the time they do stay, and it creates a positive atmosphere where the employee may recommend others to apply after they leave.

Create opportunities.

Swingle has what Gibson called “an employee journey.” It allows workers who may not be manager material to grow with the company and be cross-trained in a different division of the business. As they learn more skills, they are rewarded with pay increases. “It gives them an opportunity to do something different,” he said. – Brian Horn

“We as managers tend to focus on our problems. We take for granted what we have right.” — Tim Portland, chairman and CEO, Yellowstone Landscape

Bridge the gap

Understanding the differences between the generations is the first step to better marketing and a happier workforce.

Each generation has its own idea of what greatness looks like whether it’s an individual, a product or an experience. Phil Gwoke, consultant with Bridgeworks, laid out the differences between the generations and how to understand them as he gave the keynote speech at Lawn & Landscape’s Top 100 event.

“Each generation is vital to the success of a community, a company,” he said. Whether you’re marketing to or working with people of different generations, it’s important to understand and respect their differences.

In general, each generation wants a different kind of working relationship. While Boomers want professional, productive and effective relationships, Gen Xers want transparency, honesty and efficiency. The newest addition to the workforce, Millennials, want relatable, authentic and accessible interactions.

Getting the word out.

When you’re marketing to the different generations, it’s key to understand that they want and value different things. Boomers are stuck in a sandwich, Gwoke said. On one side, they’re taking care of their children, and on the other side, they’re taking care of their aging parents. “They want things to be easy,” he said.

Gen Xers grew up being told they won’t have it as good as their parents did. And due to a tumultuous atmosphere during their childhood, they find it hard to trust anyone, Gwoke said, citing the example of NASA. When Baby Boomers think of NASA, they think of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. But when Gen Xers think of NASA, the first thing to come to mind is the Challenger explosion.

So Generation X doesn’t trust salesmen. They prefer to find out what end-users think, which is what brought us sites like Angie’s List. “Say you’re an expert and don’t push so much,” Gwoke said. “They’ve seen so much fall apart that they can detect insincerity.”

Millennials have a bit of a PR problem, Gwoke said, but they’re expected to spend $200 billion annually starting in 2017.

The Baby Boomer generation is busy taking care of children as well as aging parents, so they’re looking for options that will make their lives easier when it comes to purchasing lawn care and landscaping services.
© Vicki Blayney

Threats of violence to Millennials were much closer to home than previous generations so they’re more likely to live in the moment. Eighty percent are more likely to buy an experience than a thing so campaigns like Weed Man’s “Transform your lawn from a burden into a paradise” work well, he said.

But Millennials aren’t ever going to be loyal buyers. They’ve been hardwired to always be looking for the next best thing. Gwoke cited the difference between how Millennials and their parents look at phones. He (a Gen Xer) grew up with the same phone in his house his entire life. Millennials, on the other hand, upgrade their phones every two years or less on average.

“To attract them, lead with why you do what you do,” Gwoke said. For more on how to bridge the generational gap in the workplace, visit bit.ly/LLTop 100generations. – Kate Spirgen

Bringing everyone under one roof

Learn the dos and don’ts of M&A from some of the top landscape companies in the country.

While M&A can be exciting, don’t get caught up in the enthusiasm and emotion. Instead, make sure you’re looking at things like location, business mix and, above all, culture. “At the very top of the list, the business has to fit into the culture of our organization,” said Mike Bogan, CEO of LandCare. “The team members of the organization tend to follow their leader. If they buy in, their team will, too.”

Expanding is a great opportunity, but it’s also a painstaking process that requires detailed research when done properly. “Researching the company, you use everything that’s available to you – interviews, customers, dealers, website, social media,” Bogan said.

Look at the customer concentration and really dig in. Many companies are in the $6-8 million range with about 350 customers, said Dean Murphy, president of Terracare Associates. “Sometimes it looks right when you first look at customers, but 30 to 50 of the largest are with the same company.”

That’s a customer concentration problem. Also consider how long customers have been with the company and whether or not the company you’re acquiring has been raising their prices.

And don’t forget to inspect the equipment. Terracare looks at each piece of field equipment and pulls oil samples from each truck. “It may sound excessive to some folks, but we do that,” Murphy said, noting that if the oil looks bad, it’s a sign that the company wasn’t doing general upkeep.

On the other hand, Ruppert plans to sell 80 percent of what it acquires so Phil Key, partner, Ruppert Companies, and his team just look for wholesale numbers. LandCare also plans to sell most of the equipment from a merger or acquisition. They’ll start with the owner’s assessment and go from there.

Pay attention to people.

It’s important to look to the future as well, particularly in terms of strategic planning. “I think it’s more efficient to understand market-wise where you want to go,” Key said. And the one thing to never forget, no matter if you decide to acquire or merge with another company or not, is that you can always take away something from any company you’re looking at. “Never think you can’t,” Murphy said.

Once you’ve made the transition, it’s a matter of communication with your customers to make sure they keep your services. Key said keeping the crews in place on the routes is always best. He says the process of transitioning takes about three months at Ruppert.

His company sends out an initial letter and schedules meetings with larger clients to explain how the transition will work. “To some degree, it’s no different than transitioning when an employee is promoted,” he said.

“The team members of the organization tend to follow their leader. If they buy in, their team will, too.” — Mike Bogan, CEO, LandCare

You have to keep the account managers engaged, Bogan said. If the higher-ups in the company don’t want to be a part of what’s happening, it’s easy for them to leave and start their own business, taking a big chunk of your customers with them.

To make the transition as painless as possible, be transparent throughout the merging or acquiring process. “Try to get out in front of negative anticipation,” Murphy said. “Unfortunately, people have a sense that if you’re sold, that means something bad – ‘Something is going to change and I’m not going to like it.’”

He recommends trying to have individual conversations and allowing employees to ask questions to dissuade their fears.

At the end of the day, remember what you’re really buying. It’s not the brand; it’s the people and the customer accounts, Murphy said. “To me, at the end of the day, we’re going to run the business the way we’re going to run the business.” – Kate Spirgen