What to know as an LCO

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In November, Lawn & Landscape hosted the Lawn Care Virtual Conference focusing on education specifically for the lawn care segment of the market.

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December 30, 2019

Here are some excerpts from the conference. To watch the full four-hour event, visit bit.ly/lawncarell.

 

Chemical communication

From networking to letter writing, LCOs need to have a presence in their communities.

Edited by Brian Horn
Four industry experts participated in a wide-ranging panel discussing important issues in the chemical lawn care industry including how to deal with local chemical bans and how to change the perception of the industry. Visit bit.ly/lcopanel, to hear the full hour-long panel.

The state of chemical bans.

Reardon: We certainly should be uneasy about where we are. We have about 600 jurisdictions that have put bans in place that include cities and towns out of about 80,000 in the United States. But really, the core issue is the undermining of our state and federal regulatory processes and generally the trend overall in society not to trust institutions. I think we are an easy target, a low-hanging fruit, if you will. And that’s something that really should get everyone’s attention, especially professional applicators.

Wenger: Being in Montgomery County, Maryland, we’re one of the leading jurisdictions that’s banning the use of pesticides. As far as how we should feel about it, we should feel, as Karen said, uneasy. The industry is in flux right now. And not to beat a very popular punching bag, but I do have to use the term “mainstream media” because that is where a lot of this is being profligated – places like Facebook and other media tend to promote anti-pesticide and anti-GMO platforms. Despite scientific data and even anecdotal data that show otherwise, people tend to embrace that anti-pesticide stance.

We should all be very uneasy despite the facts. This is the way legislation is going and Montgomery County doesn’t, I think, plan to stand still. I think they want to see this spread.

Mann: There is a strong correlation between anti-pesticide activity and the presence of a pesticide preemption law in each one of the states. There were 45 states that have preemption language in their laws that say that only the state and the federal government can regulate pesticides. But in those states where that is not the case, like for instance, Maine with its home rule tradition, and Maryland with its similar type of tradition – that’s where the anti-pesticide activists are concentrating and working against that.

Then to take the model that was used to ban pesticides in the province of Ontario, they use local momentum to effect change at the state level. In Massachusetts, when we talk about the pesticide preemption, what we’ll hear is how wonderful and things are in Maine where they’re able to regulate it from local level. The local level means that things are going to be banned. I mean, there’s really nowhere else to go after the EPA and the state regulatory agencies have done their job. That’s the only thing left is to ban the product. So that’s what we’re kind of looking at the moment.

Know your representatives

Wenger: The number one thing that LCOs who are concerned about these things in their jurisdictions should do is to immediately get involved with their local politics, learn who their politicians are, who the representatives are and show up – not just sending a check in to support.

You can certainly send money, but you need to be a presence. You need to show that you’re a human being, that you’re a real person – a business that supports the community. You need to learn who your representatives are, and you need to try to make friends with them or at least show them that you are an important part of their constituency.

I can’t emphasize it enough. It’s something we didn’t see coming here and we don’t have a lot of friends at our local political level. So do your due diligence as a local person. Learn who your political leaders are, your representatives. Meet them in person. Go to fundraisers, go to networking events and let them know that you’re a real person.

"I think we are an easy target, a low-hanging fruit, if you will. And that’s something that really should get everyone’s attention." -Karen Reardon, VP of public affairs, RISE

Reardon: Everything Eric said, plus I really think LCOs have got to think about being extenders. And this was especially important in Montgomery County and other jurisdictions thinking about bans. You’ve got to engage your customers as well and that’s going to be contingent on your having a good, trusting relationship with them – one that is potentially a little bit more personal in some cases than may have been the norm. In Montgomery County, it came to be a numbers game and the numbers were not astronomical.

We needed constituent letters in. You’ve got to understand what motivates your elected officials at the county and city level. So, have that insight. Join a coalition, join your state association, as Eric said, get to know everybody and understand what kind of targeted activity is going make a difference and then do it.

Whether we had letter writing events in the evenings for customers and residents – no one lost a customer by asking them to be engaged as a voter and as someone who appreciated a well-maintained yard and public spaces. Everybody was willing to come. You just needed to make the ask.

I would say be bold and understand that some of these things are as simple as they the proponents of a ban may have gotten in 500 letters and we got in 450 and it was a matter of that small number in some cases that can hold sway.

Enger: I think what Bob did by inviting the EPA to come out and look at a lawn care operation to see exactly what we do was very good because a lot of these people have no idea what we do.

As I often say, I think a lot of customers think that we’re in this big warehouse with the big cauldrons and we’re mixing up all these exotic chemicals. They can buy the same products at the hardware store that we use. So maybe invite your county person or whoever to come out and spend a day with you, looking at lawns, seeing how you run your operation, seeing how that, yeah, we don’t overuse these products. We use proper protective equipment when we’re applying these things so they understand how we do things.

Mann: NALP had roughly 40 EPA scientists from their office of pesticide programs – we’ve brought them out to … (an LCO’s house) in Virginia and we had (equipment) … and we had people that would make applications. There were all dummy applications – water and lime, that kind of thing.

But, we demonstrated what we do, we demonstrated how we go about and we demonstrate it to them – how accurate we can be with the equipment that we have.

We demonstrated the deflection devices that are incorporated into our equipment so that the product doesn’t go where it’s not supposed to. I think at that particular point, we sort of had a breakthrough with them.

We started to get actual substantive questions as to what we do and how we do it. The important part of that is when they go back to their offices and sit in the cubicle and do what they do, we have an improved outcome as far as the products we’re able to use, the rates we’re able to use, on all the different things that we would like from interacting with the EPA. So I think that was a big win for us. L&L

Zero to hero

How zero-based budgeting continues to be the backbone at Weed Man.

By JIMMY MILLER

Weed Man’s Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Lemcke remembers doing zero-based budgeting by writing everything out on graphing paper. Before they got a program to help them, Lemcke says it’d take five days with a box of pencils and a whole bunch of erasers to finish the budget.

“When we moved it into a spreadsheet, it was great,” Lemcke says. “Everything that we do, we want to measure and then be able to adjust and circle back. The budget… really started back in the day when I first started in the 90s. We did the exact same thing, we just used paper and a pencil.”

Lemcke swears by zero-based budgeting, which is intended to dive deep into each function of the company every year. Users of this method are supposed to start from a “zero base” and add each company function’s cost as they go. Lemcke says it helps Weed Man pay attention to its operations and spending control, plus it allows those who use the method to identify when cash flow will be higher or lower throughout the year.

Zero-based budgeting is her first choice, but Lemcke says every LCO should at least use some tried-and-true form of budgeting. Whether it’s incremental budgeting, fixed budgeting, capital budgeting or another method, keeping track of your spending is an essential way to stay in business.

“Certainly, doing nothing is really not an option, and I know quite a few LCO operators that don’t do budgeting. They just kind of fly by the seat of their pants,” Lemcke says. “By and large though, I’m seeing more and more people looking at doing budgeting, business planning, and certainly the sophistication of our industry has come a long way.

“You owe it to yourselves and really to your employees to make sure you’re on track,” Lemcke says.

THE BENEFITS.

Lemcke says zero-based budgeting is essentially budgeting your business based on the assumption that you start the year on Jan. 1 with nothing.

One of the major perks is that each year is viewed as a clean slate entirely, Lemcke says. If a company had a good year, they get to enter the new season with some momentum and had a fresh, rosy perspective on many areas of the company. If the company did poorly, zero-based budgeting is an easy way to clear the slate and identify specific areas where they failed.

“It allows you to be very involved in the whole process, from measuring how your metrics are going to be on the bottom line and on the top line. It allowed ownership and managers to really kind of access the previous year,” Lemcke says. “(But) it allows people to kind of forget their past.”

For a self-admitted micromanager like Lemcke, zero-based budgeting helps management sit back and really analyze how their company is doing, but she believes this form of budgeting also incorporates everyone on the Weed Man management team. Looping each person on the management team into the process helps each department understand each other’s demands and deliverables. Zero-based budgeting is a process that continues throughout the year and requires attention throughout the season.

“The reason we do the zero-based budgeting is to root out waste and to find some effective ways to improve operations along the way,” Lemcke says. “We call it a business plan. Some could argue that it is a budget, but we feel that in combining the two… we don’t talk about ‘what ifs.’ We’re not throwing numbers, it’s really done methodically. (We’re) not talking from gut, we’re talking with clear measurements taken throughout the year.”

At Weed Man, a returning client is one who was a customer in the previous year and participated in a main program.
Photo courtesy of Weed Man

BE CLEAR.

Lemcke says the trick to implementing zero-based budgeting effectively is to clearly define each category so that you’re measuring the exact same things year after year. For example, Lemcke says Weed Man analyzes client renewals and subsequently client retention, but there are multiple ways someone could define a returning client. For Weed Man, a returning client is one who was a customer in the previous year and participated in one of their main programs. Using Weed Man’s proprietary system to identify these clients, Lemcke is able to track retention over a time span stretching several years.

Companies using zero-based budgeting can and should develop their own formula that works for them. Lemcke recommends joining peer groups who use this same type of budgeting to cross reference how each company measures each category on the budget. She’s seen some companies make claims that they have a 100% retention rate, but she knows that those companies are simply twisting the definition of retention and not being realistic about their client base.

“The key to this is to be incredibly precise with what a measurement is so you can compare apples to apples each year,” Lemcke says.

Lemcke says it’s easy to just leave these measurements alone after completing them in the winter; however, she says at least periodically checking in on the budget helps management identify areas where the company is underperforming against expectations. For Lemcke and Weed Man, the whole point of zero-based budgeting is to serve as a business plan, which means adjustments should be made throughout the year based on the budget.

“There’s a lot of people that do budgeting, which is great, but then once it’s done, you leave the room and you kind of put it up on the shelf or save it into a file and you don’t really look at it until the midpoint or… the end of the year,” Lemcke says. “I think that is a huge mistake.” L&L

Just grow with it

The owners at Teed & Brown focused on key aspects of their company at different stages of growth.

By Lauren Rathmell

Teed & Brown started like many other lawn care companies: A truck and some equipment. But having grown into a company with 35 employees, over 2,000 clients and revenue upwards of $6 million, owners Christopher Brown and Peter Teed faced every growth obstacle you can imagine. With harder decisions to make and bigger issues to overcome, the duo learned how to strategically address those problems while still running their business.

“When we started out it was just me and my partner. We were going to become wildly rich by continuing to grow on this linear path,” Brown says. “I think (many) of you will understand how ill-informed this idea was.” Brown says after some reflection and talking to other companies, he realized they were dealing with growing pains that were pretty common across the industry.

Looking back – and after some formal education in the form of an MBA – Brown and Teed noticed what a successful business needed to focus on at each stage of growth. “I can look back and clearly see (that when we had problems), one of these things was not in place,” he says.

Self-employment.

Brown says early on, companies should be focusing on strategy, shared values and style. When you’re first starting out, your business might just be you and one other person. Brown says his company was a little larger when they explored these areas of the business, but growth was stagnant.

They shifted their focus on developing the company business strategy (what they were doing to give them a competitive advantage), the company’s values (what it is they are trying to achieve) and the style in which they would operate the business (their culture.) Are you selling the service or the experience? There’s no “right” answer to this, according to Brown. The important thing is that you know what it is you’re trying to sell and commit to that.

“Every successful business out there is one or the other. They are either selling a product or service or selling an experience,” he says.

Mind your money.

Brown admits that in the beginning phases of his business, he found it difficult to ask for money. He thought it may be distasteful or greedy, so asking customers for money almost felt wrong to him. “If you have that feeling, you have to get over it,” he says.

Cash is king.

“I can’t think of how many businesses I’ve seen that are terrible at billing their customers.

They’re not charging enough. Cash is the blood of your business.”

The “small startup” phase.

At this point, you have a team of people you’re managing, maybe five or 10 employees that are helping you do the work. You know how you want to run your business and what culture you want your company to represent. Now, your focus should be shifting to the skills and staff that you have on board. Now other people are going out and doing the things you’re used to doing day to day.

“The staff and skills you have need to be in alignment with the values, strategy and style of the company,” Brown says. Often Brown hears complaints about companies that have “grown too big,” he says.

But when it comes down to it, it’s not that the company grew too big; it’s that they did not have the staff and skills in place to match their growth.

Don’t wait for the problem.

Fine-tune your training and recruiting efforts before your customers feel you’ve outgrown yourself. At Teed & Brown, they break up skill sets and training into different levels. As levels increase, the employee knows more about the work they are doing. And, to ensure employees are best equipped for the job, they utilize local universities for the higher-level training.

A lifestyle business.

At this point in your company, you’re able to step away from the work a bit more. Brown says those 60-hour work weeks are behind you and your time is spent checking in on operations instead of out in the trenches.

You’re running what Brown calls a “lifestyle business,” which can go one of two ways.

Don’t be in the doghouse.

“I’m a dog lover,” he says. “But in business, dogs aren’t a good thing.” This kind of business owner is staunchly independent and doesn’t put a lot of work into the business. Things go downhill quickly. The freedom to step away from the business can get taken advantage of. “You’re taking the profits out of the business,” he says. “And you have this lifestyle business for only so many years.” If this goes on too long, the company’s image will suffer.

Teed & Brown has 35 employees and generates more than $6 million in revenue.
Photo courtesy of Teed & Brown

Your cash cow.

This type of business is taken care of well and allows you to reap the benefits of it. While it may not be a huge profit every time, it will only help in the long run.

Smooth operations.

“You manage systems, you lead people,” Brown says. By now, the people in your company should be aware of how to manage the systems you put in place.

“When the trucks come back at the end of the day, do you have a system for getting them cleaned out and ready for the next day?” he says. “Is there craziness or chaos, or is there a clear cut process?”

Super-regional.

You’ve got enough clients and enough employees to warrant several different locations across a fairly large area.

Brown says your business might have roots in several states at this point or many locations spanning a certain area.

Managing multiple branches and more employees than before, the focus should be on implementing an organizational structure for personnel.

Employee paths.

Keeping clients is important, but keeping employees is just as critical.

Brown says laying out a clear path for growth within the company should be a focal point when company growth reaches a certain level.

“It makes it easy for new employees to come into the company and see their path,” he says. “It makes them motivated to want to improve.” L&L