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Higher standards

Features - Design/Build

Sunrise Landscape + Design fosters a workplace where quality and customer relationships are the top priority.

Kristen Hampshire | July 15, 2013

If Joe Markell says he’ll be on a client’s property at noon on Tuesday, he shows up on time. When his crews are scheduled to break ground on a design/build project, they get to work on the plan. If it’s mowing day for a maintenance customer, that homeowner knows that the lawn will get cut.

It seems simple: Do what you say you’re going to do. Keep your promises. Honor your commitments. But business ethics today are not a given in every organization. And when times get tough, sometimes standards are the first thing to go.

That’s not the case at Sunrise Landscape + Design in Sterling, Va. “We set the tone that we are a stand-up company and we always do what we say we are going to do and deliver on what we promise,” says Joe Markell, president and CEO of the firm, which he founded 27 years ago.


Weathering economic stress.
Sunrise Landscape + Design serves mostly residential design/build clients in Northern Virginia.

More than half of the business is focused on maintenance, with about 35 percent of revenues generated from design and installation work. The two businesses feed each other – maintenance account managers tune in to clients’ needs so they can turn new work over to the design department, and designers offer the option of continued maintenance to clients following project completion.

But in 2007 and 2008, business synergy heightened in importance. Sunrise Landscaping + Design was hit hard by the recession. “It was a real root canal for us,” Markell says. Business dropped by 40 percent during those two years and dwindled until the firm saw a gradual comeback in 2010.

Last year, Markell says “things got better,” and this year the company is focused on growth.

Aside from this decision, Markell skimmed through company operations and teased out every possible efficiency. “We had to make a lot of changes,” he says. For one, the company moved to a four-day workweek with 10-hour shifts. Friday is reserved as a day for planning and catching up, and is helpful if there was a rain day during the week.

Not working on weekends saves on overtime, and Markell says the extra couple of hours tacked on to each workday allow crews to be more productive.

“We are more efficient in the field with less travel,” Markell says. “We can better control our overtime, and the expenses of working extra do add up. We now pay less for fuel and travel less with those four 10-hour days.”

Ultimately, Markell attributes employee accountability for the firm’s ability to climb out of a deep, recessionary trench. It goes back to the basic ethics of the firm: Do what you say you’re going to do.

“As business owners, we always struggle with balancing fairness and accountability for people’s actions,” Markell says. “You have to hold people accountable, and we do this by communicating what is expected and working together to reach the common goals of the team.”

Accountability is, indeed, a team effort, Markell says. “It’s not an individual thing,” he says. “We try to (hold each other accountable) so there is pressure from within the group to make sure everyone is toeing the line and doing their jobs.”

Markell holds weekly meetings with individuals and the whole team. “We discuss what’s going on in the business and who needs help with what projects,” he says.

Without this type of communication that comes from the top, Markell says employees can lose focus. “We need to make sure everyone concentrates on doing what they can to be most productive for the company, so communication is the key to that,” he says.


A history of high standards.
Longevity in the business is proof that Markell’s philosophy works. The firm gets very few customer callbacks on its project installations, and the employee attrition is one quarter of the industry standard.

Perhaps this commitment stems from Markell’s desire to do good by the family name. The Sunrise name has been in the family for more than 60 years. Markell’s great-grandparents owned and operated Sun Rise Dairy in Reston/Herndon, Va.

His grandfather owned Sunrise Amoco, a service station. In 1986, Markell founded Sunrise Lawn/Landscaping Services with two employees (including himself), two mowers and a pickup truck that had been in the family since 1964.

Since that time, the company has grown to about 40 employees and established a solid reputation in the community as a choice firm. That’s because of how Markell chooses to run his business. Designers do the selling of installation jobs. “You can have the best designs in the world, but if you can’t sell them, they’re not worth anything,” Markell says.

So his designers create solution-based designs that address issues including drainage or grading or budget constraints. Six crew members man the installation team, generally working in two-man crews.

These days, customers are asking for patios, backyard retreats and upgrades of aging landscaping. Markell says that times are much better and clients are beginning to invest in their properties – especially because so many have decided to stay put. Markell is focused on capturing this business.

“We are doing more networking in the community and really getting out there and keeping our name in front of people,” Markell says. “We are a full-service company, and if we don’t do it, we can at least get customers the resources to get the project done.” L&L

Creating an ethical concert

It’s possible to stay true to your values, even in tough economic times.

Creating a culture of ethics requires strong communication within the organization, and a commitment from everyone who works there to live up to high standards. It’s easy to write out a philosophy boasting high ethics and post it on the company website, but living it is a different story. Here are some tenants that Joe Markell, founder of Sunrise Landscape + Design shared.

Set the tone.
It starts at the top, and that means Markell must walk the talk. He’s not quiet about what he expects from employees. “If you set the tone from the get-go, employees know what is expected of them and what your philosophy is, and how you are going to operate,” he says. “You have to stay true to your word.”

Drive accountability.
When the team understands each other’s responsibilities, each employee works to ensure that everyone toes the line, Markell says. He facilitates this type of accountability by holding individual and team meetings. “It all comes back to communication,” he emphasizes. For example, if one crewmember needs help reaching a goal – say, finishing a project–the others pitch in so the company can make good on its completion-date promise to the customer.

Be consistent.
For Markell, consistency is described as never cutting corners, and it’s the way he’s always done business. “It goes back to communication and keeping the quality up on everything we do,” he says. “Quality is what we are selling.”