Planting the seeds of success

Your customers hired you because you are an expert at caring for turf and ornamentals. But when it comes to nurturing your own business, your thumb may not be so green. Before you can build strong relationships in business you must realize that there are common seeds of success for every landscaping business. Being able to understand and germinate these seeds is the key to business growth, but recognizing them can be difficult when you spend so much time taking care of your day-to-day obligations.

What are these “seeds of success” that we in the landscaping and lawn-maintenance industry have in common? From my perspective, they are:

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  • A love of the outdoors;
  • Entrepreneurial spirit and excitement;
  • Personal ambition to succeed;
  • Attention to detail; and
  • A willingness to relate to customers, vendors and employees.

Businesses grow by solving problems

First, try to understand how business grows. It's not only a matter of getting new customers. Business grows by solving problems. Getting new customers is only one problem. The bigger the business, the more complex the problems are and the more people you need to solve them. The organization keeps running while individuals fix those problems, each taking a small portion of the responsibility to bring about a solution.

As I see it, the biggest obstacle in germinating these seeds is not being able to see problems as opportunities for growth. The key is to identify these problems and turn them into growth opportunities. There are three major opportunity areas in the landscape-maintenance industry:

  1. A trend toward consolidation and shrinking sources of supplies;

  2. Static business cycles, due in large part to a dependence on weather and seasonality; and

  3. Labor challenges (finding, hiring, training and retaining the right people).

Let's look at each of these individually.

A trend toward consolidation and shrinking sources of supplies

Consolidation trend and shrinking sources of supplies is the area where the big fish eat up the smaller fish. Personally, I want to build my business, and selling out just doesn't feel right. Here are a few alternative measures you might consider for growing your business, rather than throwing in the towel.

Try developing a partnership with your vendors. This is not a joint business venture, but rather a strategic alliance that facilitates business growth on both sides of the table. Target a few vendors and schedule separate meetings with them to explore how you can help each other build your businesses, not just produce sales. Consider this question: “What can we do together to help each other build our own individual businesses?” Added business development produces the need to purchase additional materials from that vendor. I call this the supply-loyalty ethic (SLE), a “package deal” that is not based on lowest price. It eviscerates price competition. It is a mindset and commitment based on service, quality equipment, materials and workmanship, referrals and recommendations, leads and overall business development.

Finally, realize that it may be time to shop the industry. Not all vendors can help you build your business. Not all vendors have the mentality or commitment needed to drive business growth. Don't be afraid to seek out and develop alternative supply sources that can help you build your business while delivering value and growth, not merely invoice you on product.

Static business cycles, weather & seasonality

The most important thing to remember is that it is far easier to sell new services to current customers than it is to develop new customers. With only 24 hours in a day, how do you lengthen your business cycles? This is an opportunity just begging you to address it — not a limitation. Remember when you thought of adding fertilization to your service listing? While grass grows faster, more frequent maintenance visits are required, resulting in added billing. Many professional landscape contractors also have added power washing, landscape design and installations to their service mix.

Remember, the more creative you are when developing new services, the clearer and faster you will differentiate your business from your competitors. Competitive differentiation builds business. At a recent landscaper association meeting, a lawn-maintenance operator reported having developed a strategic alliance with a paver doing driveway and walkway installations. They worked out an arrangement that netted short of $150,000 in new business from current customers between the two companies in the first year.

Be creative, don't be afraid to ask for help, and remember that necessity is the mother of invention. It is vital that you create additional needs that will prompt your customer to perceive you as being the only outfit that can fulfill his or her expectations. Of course, you have to back it up with timely service, support and ongoing maintenance.

So, now you argue that you can't do it all by yourself. This is an all-too-familiar problem. You have to recruit the right people to fulfill these new service areas. This brings us to the third problem/opportunity area — labor challenges.

Labor challenges

Labor is our greatest challenge in the landscape industry. I started my business about 15 years ago with my own two hands and the help of a few key people. Each one was a “seed.” Those “seeds” have germinated, and today, we employ more than 45 people. Here are a few lessons I've learned about developing good employees (germinating your seeds).

  • Clearly define job descriptions. This is crucial to efficiency and productivity, and critical for business growth. You cannot hire the right people without first clarifying what you want to accomplish and developing detailed job descriptions. To accomplish this, I retain the services of an outsourced human-resources professional. These outsourced professionals are talented, capable people who are like tools in your toolbox. Use the job description that you develop to screen and evaluate your candidates. If you truly want to grow your business, chances are excellent that your friend's out-of-work brother won't be the right tool for the job. Use the right tool for the job.
  • Develop and supervise employees through training and operations guidelines. New customer development is only one part of business growth. Employee development is another. Make your employee something he never dreamed of becoming and you'll get something you may have only dreamed of: business growth. At the same time, you'll be developing the business infrastructure needed to sustain that growth.
  • Mentorship: Empowering your employees to fulfill customer needs. Your employee infrastructure is the backbone of your organization. If you want a strong backbone, feed it with written training and operations guidelines. Don't expect people to remember something you said last week. Use your computer to develop employee memos, schedules and job-site requirements, and include maintenance charts, equipment-use manuals and step-by-step project descriptions. Your people are your greatest investment. Put your information on paper and you'll all be singing from the same sheet of music. Schedule weekly meetings to mentor your staff, review everyone's efforts and make certain that your guidelines are followed. This creates one voice — the voice of business growth.

Attaining business growth

As businesses grow, they are judged in the harsh world of competition. However, overcoming the obstacles of industry problems and business development gives way to what I like to call the “synthesis of actualization.” That's a high-tech way of saying “making it real in the universe.”

The net result is that those seeds of success will germinate, your business will grow and you will become an expert in your field — not merely an expert to your customers, but also to your vendor-partners and employees, as well.

Remember:

  • Keep ignited your initial attitude, drive and desire to succeed.

  • Develop more products and services for your current customers and reduce shrinking profits.

  • Reinvent your relationships with vendors, as well as customers.

  • Cultivate your employees and your customers — make them right for your business.

Do these things and the seeds of success will have your business growing more than you dreamed.

Robert Mytelka is president of Landscapers Supply, Inc (Chestnut Ridge, N.Y.), serving the professional landscaping community throughout the contiguous United States.

You can reach him by calling 1-800-895-4589 ext. 127 or via e-mail at rbm@landscapersupply.com. He also will be available at booths 4404/4405 at The International Lawn, Garden & Power Equipment Expo 2001, Kentucky Exposition Center, Friday through Sunday, July 20-22, in Louisville, Ky.

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