Winning out West

Features - Company Profile | Desert Foothills Landscape

Aaron Clark sustains a culture of teamwork that drives his people to succeed.

May 3, 2017

Providing phone and internet services isn’t that different from providing lawn care services. In fact, they’re “eerily similar,” says Aaron Clark, who has launched companies in both industries.

Aaron Clark bought Desert Foothills Landscape two years ago. The company provides design/build, maintenance and irrigation services in Cave Creek, Arizona, just north of Phoenix.
Photo courtesy of Desert Foothills Landscape

At the telecom company Clark started and ran for 11 years, technicians installed equipment for his patented technology, and then performed monthly maintenance. Now, Clark manages technicians who install landscapes and irrigation systems, and provide ongoing sprinkler service and lawn care maintenance.

“What the workforce is doing may be different, but managing that business was almost identical to managing this business,” says Clark, who purchased Desert Foothills Landscape in Cave Creek, Arizona, north of Phoenix, two years ago.

Although his experience outside of the green industry gives him a fresh perspective, Clark is no stranger to lawn care. He started his first lawn care company at age 12, mowing lawns around his neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. He expanded as customers asked for mulching, tree trimming, snow shoveling, and new flowerbeds. The oldest of six kids, Clark enlisted the help of his brothers, who managed the company when he left for college.

Clark’s business classes piqued his interest in retail and distribution. As part of his thesis for a final exam, Clark invented (and patented) a talking poster that sold millions, launching his career as a successful inventor and entrepreneur. After selling his last startup to a public company, Clark started looking for his next venture.

“It didn’t matter what industry it was in. I was looking for the best company,” he says. “I came across Desert Foothills because they were really known for their work. They were known around town as the best of the best.”

The owners, Mark and Juanita Wdowiak, were retiring after 20 years running the business. What they’d built caught Clark’s attention.

“The people and the culture at the company were fantastic. That’s what drew me to the company, and what draws customers to us,” he says. “What I’ve learned over the years in all the different ventures I’ve done, is if you’ve got good people, you’re going to be successful.”

Here’s how Clark harnessed that culture to foster a winning team.

Making employees feel important.

Clark knew that employees held the key to the company culture, so when he came onboard he listened to them with respect. He didn’t think of them as employees, but fellow professionals – and that nuance was critical.

“The stereotype is that landscaping companies aren’t always treated like ‘real’ companies,” he says. “But if you treat it like a real business, every worker is a professional – even if they might not be using sophisticated code, computers and servers like in telecom.

“The workforce deserves the same attention and respect as the highest level professional in any industry. If you look at it like that, then everyone begins to feel important.”

In fact, he says, “I don’t even like to call them employees, because I think a good manager feels like he works for them, not the other way around. It’s my job to keep them happy, satisfied, motivated and challenged. I’m constantly asking, ‘What tools do you need to do your job well?’”

Clark implemented an incentive program based on the sales and completion of a project.
Photo courtesy of Desert Foothills Landscape

When Clark started, the company rented cranes to transport large specimen cacti from its in-house nurseries to jobsites.

Not only was this a huge expense, but the logistics impacted timelines and budgets as crews sat around, waiting for cranes. Clark decided to purchase 14-ton and 90-ton cranes to ease the burden.

“It was a huge investment, but now we’re totally in control of the process and the timelines,” he says, which makes a difference, not just on projects, but in employee morale. “If you create a culture of success and you’ve got people who like to perform, they’d rather be working.”

Gears working together.

“When I came in, I wanted everyone to understand what everyone else does and how important it is,” Clark says. “If they understand that we’re all gears working together like a watch, then they don’t want to let each other down.

“They know another division is counting on them to perform, and if they don’t, they know how it’s going to jam them up.”

Clark regularly shares updates from each division. There’s the landscape division, which designs, builds and installs large, month-long landscape projects, accounting for about 65 percent of the company’s revenue.

Then there’s the specialty division, focused on smaller projects that only take a few days, like installing or repairing irrigation. The maintenance division is responsible for lawn care services like mowing, trimming and other gardening tasks that their high-end residential clientele request. The company also operates an off-site cactus farm where it grows plants for its projects, and a private on-site nursery where clients can select plants.

Once a quarter, the entire team of 150 comes together for an update about each department and other news and changes in the company.

“It gives them confidence that they’re not on an island,” he says. “It gives them a sense that they’re important to each other. Whenever I have to solve a dispute, that’s my go-to: I talk about the whole company, what’s going on around Them and what they’re affecting.

“It puts responsibility on their shoulders if they can get that picture of ‘we’ rather than ‘me.’”