Conferences are information overload. How do you tease out workable ideas and put them into action?
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In a word, conferences are overwhelming. It’s like going to camp with hundreds of peers who love the same things you love, who understand the struggles, the climb to success, and the sweet stuff, too. They really get you. Industry main events like the Green Industry Conference (GIC) and GIE+EXPO are where perfect strangers meet and find they have more in common with each other than they might with their own family members. (Though don’t tell this to the loved ones taking care of business at home while you’re gone.)
The thrill is there – and then it’s gone. Once you’re back to the grind, your good intentions and those pages of notes and lists of ideas get benched until later.” Whenever that is.
This month, Lawn & Landscape talks to three industry players on how they put ideas on that gruesome post-conference to-do list into action.
“We are the original green, you know,” says Joy Diaz of the landscape industry. But the daily grind of business and pressure to compete and succeed in a tough economy can tear even the most passionate owner away from the roots of this business. When Joy and her husband Rob Diaz, president and CEO of LandCare in Las Vegas, went to last year’s GIE+EXPO, the impressive showing of new equipment geared to run clean caused them to reignite their internal sustainability efforts.
“We were impressed with all of the efforts our vendor partners were making to move toward more environmentally friendly, sustainable-type machinery – like trucks that get more miles per gallon and lighter-weight hand-held equipment,” Diaz says. “That had a real impact on us and it was something we needed to revisit here at home.”
Diaz says her list of to-dos after the GIC was “horrendous.” It was just overwhelming. But by honing in on an initiative they could start, and then grow as their budget allowed, LandCare began to move toward the green goals they set.
“In any company, you have to discuss the idea and put a plan in place,” Diaz says. “Then, you’ve got to budget accordingly.” LandCare couldn’t replace its entire mower fleet and trade in those hand-helds for newer, more efficient models. But the company did commit to replacing equipment that’s ready for retirement with leaner-running, cleaner-burning upgrades.
But there’s more to the initative than buying iron. Diaz says LandCare verbally rewards employees who introduce new ideas that are green-minded (and all constructive suggestions, for that matter). The little stuff matters, such as choosing reusable coffee cups rather than paper, and using throw-away printouts for message paper.
And the big picture is important, too, Diaz says. The company can only buy the new equipment if it gains new business, and that’s ultimately up to the staff. “They understand that when they gain a new client it affects the entire team – from the very minute they walk in the door, they are part of a team, and their behaviors will hopefully be positive and allow us to put aside money in the budget for these pieces of equipment.”
Visual reminders help instill this attitude. Diaz hangs pictures of the new equipment up on bulletin boards so the team can see what managers are talking about. She and Rob bring back product brochures and industry literature from trade shows to share with the team. When they can see it, they believe it can happen with their hard work. “It’s really a grassroots infiltration of the whole team pushing forward in the belief, and that has to come form the top,” Diaz says.
“We have to think of the motivators for our team.” Diaz knows that changing out the company’s fleet won’t happen over night.
“It’s like changing how you eat,” she compares, adding that just starting the initiative is a big step. Over time, LandCare will continue to deepen its sustainability efforts and commitment to running more efficient equipment. “It’s all about taking that first step,” she says.
Gearing up for growth
Stephen Mazelis calls the GIC the Super Bowl of the landscape industry. “It’s something you don’t want to miss,” he says – even though he did, in fact, miss this and other conference opportunities for most of his career. Let’s face it, the business pulls you in and finding time to leave it, even for a weekend, can seem impossible.
But for Mazelis, the changes he made in his company this year after attending the 2011 GIC are putting him on track to double his revenues in the next three years from $1-$2 million.
“I was at a point where I felt like I didn’t know where to go – I wanted to take the business to the next level, but I didn’t know how,” he says. “Meeting other landscapers and networking with peers at the GIC helped guide me in the next direction.”
And in order to meet his growth goals, he has to fine-tune production – and produce more. So he started by talking with others at the GIC about running a two-man crew. What were the pros and cons? “I had so many conversations with so many people, whether at the show or after-hours,” he says. When he returned from the show, he changed his crew configuration from three to two laborers.
“You don’t have that fifth wheel, which was the third guy, wasting time on people’s properties,” he says. “There’s no waiting time, it’s constant work with two crewmembers.”
To accommodate the company’s workload, Mazelis added a crew, and he was a bit worried about the increased fuel cost.
But his industry colleagues assured him that the numbers would work out because of the improved efficiency from two-men crews. And so far, they have been right. As for the crews, they were a bit disgruntled at first. “There was some mild fight-back,” Mazelis says. “But they are more accountable now because there are just two guys per crew.”
So this big change, a seed planted at the show, is helping improve production. Next came producing, which means boosting those sales numbers to $350,000 more per year if Mazelis wants to reach his three-year revenue goal.
It was time for Mazelis to hire his first full-time salesperson. “I had to grow some nerve and confidence to do that,” he says. “I did some number-crunching to make sure he’d be able to hold his own with salary plus commission.”
Also, Mazelis was forced to implement an estimating system. “Now that I’m not the only salesman, I needed to share a system with another person who can competitively go out and estimate properties,” he says of working out standardized square and lineage footage production rates for maintenance.
So far, Mazelis is on track to continue growing, and he wishes he had taken the weekend away to gain inspiration and insight years ago. “If I would have gone to a conference like the GIC 20 years ago when I started the business, I’d probably be a $5 million company by now,” he says, adding that he’ took his new salesperson to the GIC this year.
Developing valuable relationships
“The information is in the room, it’s at the conference, you just have to put yourself out there,” says Mike Rorie, who shares how he grew his former business Groundmasters from a $5-$30 million in six years before selling to The Brickman Group in 2006.
Groundmasters was growing at a 20-percent clip annually, opening a new branch per year. In that short, aggressive phase of driving forward fast, the firm popped up seven branches in five cities.
“We figured out the branding model and that was largely learned through industry consultants who helped critique our plan and direction, and from business owners just sharing answers to some of my concerns,” Rorie says. “I learned all of that through PLANET and people at the conference.”
Rorie first became involved in the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA), now PLANET, back in 1991. He was doing about $1.5 million then, “and that allowed me to ask a lot of questions,” he says, adding that he was “blown away by what people had accomplished.”
Rorie, like many landscape contractors, is a visual learner. The shows helped him see the opportunity – and then he took that a step further by making personal visits to companies to learn how they did things. He traveled to other markets, leaving behind any competitive bent.
And when the GIC was stationed in Cincinnati in 1996, Rorie opened the doors of Groundmasters for attendees to tour. “You have to open upyour hands so information can flow in and out,” he says. “If you stay guarded and keep your hands clenched, not much can come in and out. It’s give and take.” Rorie gave generously by volunteering from the start, and eventually serving on the exterior board of ALCA. And while serving on the executive board, he attended annual retreats with other leaders. That is how he first met Scott Brickman, who was just taking over as president of The Brickman Group at the time and would purchase Groundmasters more than a decade later.
“If you want to be progressive and learn, you want to surround yourself with peers who are more successful in the sense of what they have accomplished in their businesses,” Rorie says. “You want to be around people who are trying to get better – you want to be around people who love the industry that you love. That is the commonality that bridges perfect strangers at an industry function.”
These relationships helped grow Groundmasters over the years, and ultimately led to buying out the company so Rorie could begin a new chapter in his career in the software/IT business. Now, he is owner of GIS Dynamics, producer of GoiLawn.com, GoiPave.com and GoiSnow.com, which are a property measurement and estimating solutions for the lawn, pavement and snow industries.
He’s at the shows, still consulting and offering advice (and asking for it), but in a different capacity. “A lot of contractors do what I’m doing – they sell franchise or equipment or they sell something back to the industry because they know it,” he says.
“I got into this technology component, and now I’m looking forward to growing it.”