Uncertainty still in bloom

Uncertainty still in bloom

State of the Industry Report - 2021 State of the Industry Report

The pandemic began well over a year ago. Where does that leave contractors today?

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October 14, 2021

Illustration by Michael Marsicano

Gabriele Lasco started his landscaping company in 1995, at one point managing roughly 500 clients in his area of Texas and employing four people.

But 2020 was particularly difficult for Lasco. Over the last few years, he reduced his staff to just a one-man operation, and he’s found a steady decline in the amount of work he once booked. The pandemic served as his company’s death sentence: He didn’t have the resources on his own to navigate COVID-19.

Larger businesses in his area could equip their employees with proper PPE and disinfect their materials after use, and Lasco found he lost nearly all of his clients who seemed “terrified” to meet with him. Other companies had better resources allocated toward advertising, while Lasco says he never garnered an audience on social media like some of his peers at larger companies.

Earlier this summer, Lasco decided to close up shop. His company that earned him money through thick and thin — even the Great Recession in 2007-2009 — could no longer support him. Lasco is still deciding what’s next for him. He could go work for another landscaping company, or he might end up leaving the industry altogether.

“That’s life. There’s nothing you can do about it,” Lasco says. “It is what it is, and it’s nobody’s fault. Nobody wants this. I guess everybody’s struggling.”

COVID might not have decimated most companies like it has Lasco’s, — in fact, some had record breaking years — but uncertainty remains around what’s next in this pandemic that remains. The State of the Industry research indicates most contractors are worrying less about COVID than they were in the year prior, but as phrases like “Delta variant” and “booster shot” become more common, so does the precariousness of the pandemic.

“(I went) months and months and months with no money,” Lasco says, adding he just recently sold his truck as well. “I just couldn’t keep hoping something happened.”

Managing amidst COVID.

While Lasco’s company faded during COVID, Ben Whanger in Virginia decided to start his own. In June 2020, Whanger opened the doors to Rivah Lawn and Landscapes and says he has no regrets starting a company in the pandemic.

That’s not to say there aren’t still struggles. Whanger says his company didn’t receive the same grant money other small, local businesses received at the very beginning of the pandemic, and of his initial four employees, two have already left the company. Finding new labor is a chore, and even after some unemployment money from the government dried up, Whanger says he still hasn’t seen a good number of applications come in.

Even through that, Whanger says his company has managed to succeed. But COVID itself — and not just the lingering economic consequences — has also caused issues at his company. Just recently, Whanger spent $500 to put one of his employees up in a hotel because the rest of the employee’s family tested positive for COVID. Whanger spent more money to help his employee get a test and then paid his employee for two workless days while they awaited test results.

The test came back negative, and the employee returned to work. Still, Whanger says he’s going to continue to roll with the punches as COVID has forced him to do several times already.

“I’m concerned,” he says. “COVID’s not gone, and I don’t know when it’s going to be gone. I think we’ve got some serious issues coming down the pipeline.”

Whanger says that he’s balanced being a responsible employer during COVID with also allowing his employees to get the job done without being overbearing.

“I’m not overprotective, but I keep a mask with me, and we’re not usually together a lot,” he says. “We usually drive separate, and they’ve got masks.”

Lingering effects.

Ted Glaser’s company has managed to return much of their daily processes to normal. Operating out of Lincoln, Nebraska, Summit Lawns is back to working fully in person, including in the office. There are exceptions, like when the team needs to buckle down to prevent the spread of COVID. When Glaser was interviewed for this story, he was working remotely because he was exposed to someone who tested positive.

“We follow whatever local mandates are in effect,” Glaser says. “If we know someone had direct exposure, we keep them out of the office.”

He added that getting supplies and equipment has been more challenging than in years past, but there could be plenty of other contributing factors in 2021 than just COVID. Weather is a big factor, like the Texas freeze, and hot, dry climates causing problems with low grass seed numbers in Oregon. But Glaser says his company is definitely feeling the pinch: He’s kicking himself for not ordering tractors he needs for snow removal season because now he’s not sure he’ll get them in time.

“…scenarios like this will put you in a place where you go, ‘YOLO. Let’s huck it.’ I would say we’re probably a little more open to making big changes quickly (since COVID began).” Ted Glaser, owner, Summit Lawns

“Here I am trying to get tractors for snow removal that’ll be here when the grass is green in the spring,” he says.

Of course, like Whanger mentioned, the other issue is labor. Glaser laughs when his friends from other industries bring up their recent labor shortages that arose because of the pandemic. In the green industry, that problem’s long been plaguing companies.

“We’ve been in a shortage for several years — welcome to the party,” he says. “Labor has been extremely difficult, and COVID has not made it any easier.”

Looking ahead.

It’s uncertain whether things are getting better — Glaser says his city just reimplemented a mask mandate — but operating in COVID also doesn’t feel as foreign as it did when the pandemic first began.

“We’re working pretty day-to-day,” Whanger says. “We just don’t know what’s going to happen with COVID.”

While Whanger started a company in the pandemic, Glaser has improved his. He doesn’t know if he can directly attribute his company’s aggressive growth path to COVID or to improved processes — he admits that maybe it’s a bit of both. He has owned Summit Lawns for the duration of its nearly 10 years in operation. With roughly 20 employees helping the company earn $2 million in revenue this year, Glaser says his company has evolved dramatically in the last 12 months.

“On one hand, people have said since people aren’t traveling, people are investing in their homes. On the other hand, we’ve built up on the infrastructure of our business… our processes are better. We are a better company,” Glaser says. “I think being in a scenario where if you’re going to survive, you need to adapt and adapt quickly…scenarios like this will put you in a place where you go, ‘YOLO. Let’s huck it.’ I would say we’re probably a little more open to making big changes quickly (since COVID began).”

There are some silver linings for all the contractors operating in COVID, even for Lasco, who had to shut down his company. He says he has no hard feelings about the tough luck, adding that he had fun running the company and it helped him learn lessons about perseverance.

“I realized my dream: a house,” Lasco says. “It’s all paid off. That’s what the sacrifice was all for.”