Environmental Care

Silicon Valley is well-known as a center of development for the computer industry. This area-in the southern section of the San-Francisco-Bay metropolis-has undergone explosive growth in the last two decades. Riding this "wave" is the San Jose branch of Environmental Care Inc., which provides landscape-maintenance services to many Silicon Valley properties.

Environmental Care, a subsidiary of Environmental Industries, has its headquarters in Calabasas, Calif., with branches throughout the United States. Vice President and Northern California Regional Manager Tom Moore, CLP, has been at the San Jose operation since 1973, assuming charge in 1980. Since then, he has witnessed many changes-regulatory, technological and social. And like many of the clients it serves, Environmental Care has emerged as a progressive leader in its industry by embracing change while holding onto some cherished principles.

A reckoning force: Labor One aspect of business that's been relatively static is Moore's work force. Moore notes with pride that the average tenure at the San Jose branch is 11 years-and that includes lower-level employees. That's not to say that the labor situation hasn't changed over time, however. Moore has seen the sprawl of development encompass outlying areas, including agricultural areas that provided an inexpensive labor pool. Now, workers primarily are city-dwellers by necessity, and this has forced pay scales upward.

Moore doesn't rely heavily on seasonal labor. He emphasizes training and development and then pays his people enough to retain them. "Some companies spend money to train their people and give them the expertise and then they say, 'We've spent enough already.' The people then leave for higher-paying jobs. If you give your experts as much pay as they could find elsewhere in the industry, you get to keep your investment," states Moore.

These experts include color and holiday-decoration designers, as well as irrigation technicians and arborists. Moore frequently recruits college graduates for such positions, which fall within one of several divisions at Environmental Care:

* Exterior Care, for routine grounds maintenance * Interior Care, for interiorscaping * Arbor Care, specializing in tree work * Color Care, creating and maintaining bedding displays * WaterWise, providing irrigation and water-management services * Holiday Works, which provides seasonal decorations.

Environmental Care may utilize any of these divisions to provide needed services at an account. This specialization helps foster the employee expertise that's necessary to satisfy clients' increasingly high expectations. "Expectations are much higher now than they were 10 or 20 years ago," Moore observes.

Building on relationships Having run a successful operation for so long, Moore is obviously doing something right. The key to his success lies in personal relationships. Moore's business background taught him that the customer is always right, "Even when they're wrong," he quips. Because Moore's operation focuses on commercial work, relationships with property managers are critical. "Get on their good side, and it really pays off. Retaining your base business is key." Moore acknowledges that it works both ways, however. "Property managers move around a lot. If you make an enemy, they can be an enemy for a long time," says Moore.

Positive relationships help overcome some difficult challenges. First, they insulate Environmental Care against price competition. Moore strives for fair pricing, but as far as price competition is concerned, "We just choose not to participate in that," he says. A loyal client base makes it easier to afford the luxury.

Good relationships also pay off during economic downturns. Reflecting the tumult of the computer industry, Silicon Valley has experienced dramatic economic ups and downs. For example, in 1984, the Japanese beat American companies at developing the first 512k computer chip. When this happened, says Moore, "Silicon Valley went into a tailspin." At the beginning of the 1990s, economics were again poor. "We really tried to work with clients to adjust work and costs to fit their tighter budgets. Clients really appreciate that," Moore notes. Now that times are better, such goodwill is paying off as clients support more-robust maintenance budgets.

In keeping with his philosophy of nurturing relationships, Moore hires sales people with qualities that will let them effectively develop long-term relationships with clients.

Issues, issues, issues Few places have as many issues as California, so doing business there requires you to embrace change, rather than resist it. For example, the city of San Jose currently is installing the infrastructure for delivering effluent water for landscape use. Ironically, this water is more expensive than potable water due to the cost of installing the new water lines. However, using the effluent will be mandatory, so businesses must monitor consumption closely to keep water costs down. For some of its accounts, Environmental Care uses computers to monitor irrigation systems from its central office. The company can isolate and repair line breaks immediately, reducing water loss and preventing unsightly messes for the clients who arrive for work in the morning. Some of their service contracts actually stipulate a maximum water usage, so efficient irrigation is an obligation, not merely an ideal. Needless to say, this requires some competent irrigation technicians.

Green waste is another issue with which Moore deals, so all of the landscape waste Environmental Care generates goes to a composter. California aggressively restricts landscape products in landfills, so this keeps Moore's operation compliant with environmental regulations. Further, it saves Moore's operation a great deal of money disposing of waste. Moore does not look at this as a regulatory burden, however. Turning "waste" into a green resource reinforces the spirit of environmental responsibility so important at Environmental Care.

In light of the current binge of mergers and acquisitions in the landscape-maintenance industry, Environmental Care's San Jose operation is a model of stability. It proves that some time-honored factors-personal relationships and competence-are as valid as ever in today's business environment. Under Moore's tutelage, the San Jose branch of Environmental Care has grown to become one of the largest units of its parent company, Environmental Industries. Because Moore recently has assumed greater responsibilities as a regional manger, he has handed direct oversight of the San Jose branch to his former operations manager, Nada Duna. Duna, a 12-year veteran of the San Jose branch, is a multilingual horticulturist with a strong operations background. Her capabilities should poise the San Jose branch well for continued growth in what is sure to be a diverse and dynamic future. Although diversification of services has expanded their client base, Moore and Duna never lose sight of how they earned their success: maintaining relationships and retaining clients. It almost sounds old fashioned.

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