Thursday, February 24, 2011

This book could be your game changer

DALLAS — More than 20 years ago Carl Sewell, the owner of a local motor vehicle dealership here, wrote a book. The name of the book is “Customers for Life.” Because its message is timeless the book was recently re-released by Doubleday. After the book’s initial publication, Sewell was in big demand as a speaker although he readily admits he is not professional speaker nor, for that matter, a professional writer. He sold and sells motor vehicles, just like his father did before him. And he's sold a lot of them. A lot.

He doesn’t do much public speaking these days. But when the folks at Lambert Landscaping, based here and hosting the Next Level Network University, asked Carl to speak to the 120-plus owners and managers of the seven companies here he agreed. It turns out he has been a lifelong customer of Lamberts.

Speaking in a c
alm and friendly voice and with more than a little folksy humor he shared some very powerful insights with the Green Industry professionals.

I’m just going to relate a couple of his key points, hoping that you’ll buy the book, read it and put in practice what he’s learned over the course of his extremely successful career running a family business. At the core of his message were two fundamentals for anyone’s business success: 1.) absolute integrity and 2.) performance.

I’ll share just a few other take-homes from Sewell’s presentation to keep this message short.

Start out by determining what exactly you want to be within your industry or market, said Sewell. Do you want
to be a top 50 company? A top 10? Number one?

“If you decide you want to be the best it simplifies many things,” he added.

You get to be the best by finding out who’s the best (not necessarily the biggest) in your industry, studying how they got to be the best, in fact going to see them, if possible, and taking some of your key folks with you. You want more viewpoints than your own.

Also, find and develop mentors. This is critical. It saves a lot of mistakes and prevents a lot of sleepless nights. Sewell says retired people who have been very successful in their respective fields often greatly appreciate the opportunity to help younger people that are interested in learning. Almost in all cases, these relationships lead to lasting friendships. At least they did for him, Sewell said.

A couple final points.

While today’s economy is discouraging to a lot of people it still offers “infinite opportunity” and especially for the landscape business, he said. It’s a great time, best in decades to acquire new talent, acquire other companies and to strengthen your business teams with training and additional education, he believes.

“You might not have another opportunity like this for quite some time again,” he said.
Get Carl Sewell’s
“Customers for Life." It’s a quick and enjoyable read, and a book that you will revisit again and again to keep you and your company headed in the right direction.

Note: when I goggled the book on Amazon I saw that there were used copies for as little as $1.38. Regardless of what the book costs, if you take to heart what Carl’s experiences taught him, it will repay you over and over again. – Ron Hall

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Good karma is what it's all about in the end

The Fisher House in Miami

DALLAS – Times are tough and budgets are tight in the landscape industry as they are in just about every sector be it private or public. There is more need in our communities and among our charitable organizations than there’s been, probably since the Great Depression.

So, how do we as landscape/lawn service companies or individuals within these companies help out? What and how do we give back to the neighborhoods and communities where we provide our services?

A small group of landscape professionals discussed this at the Next Level Network University here this morning and several things became clear:

1. Companies should contribute beyond their day-to-day revenue-producing activities to the welfare of their communities and to special causes. The community gives to you; you give back where you can, right? This is commonly called community service, but I prefer to look at it as generating good karma; it's creating bursts of positive energy the pushes us farther down the road to where we want to be as individuals, an industry or, get this, a society. (Wow, too heavy for a blog about landscaping?)

2. Companies are having to make tough choices in determining which charities and community projects to undertake or contribute to. The needs and requests are much greater than any of us can meet.

3. A lot of times we can do it in support of other business partners or vendors, in the vein of Extreme Home makeover or Habitat for Humanity.

4. Most of us probably do a lot more community service than we realize, not all of in the form of contributing to charity golf outings either. Some of us coach Little League baseball, football or soccer, touching the lives of dozens of youths. Some of us support and participate charitable and humanitarian efforts through our spiritual organizations. We could go on and on. Indeed, as the eight of us sat around the table, eating French toast and drinking coffee, more examples kept popping up.

5. Then there are some neat and established programs that we can become involved with, such asthe Professional Landcare Network's Day of Service this spring or Project Evergreen's Greencare for Troops.

6. The best and most important karma we can contribute to our neighborhoods, our charities, our neighbors, sometimes even fellow employees in need, comes from our hearts, those things that touch our souls and move us to get out of day-to-day worlds and do something cool for somebody else.

In that spirit, let me call out one great example that was shared at our round table -- and not pridefully either -- the commitment that Juan Carlos Vila and his company, Vila&Son, made in contributing to and helping raise funds to get a Fisher House established near the Veterans Hospital in Miami, FL, several years ago. Vila is the CEO of Vila&Son. His story is incredible. He and family members escaped Castro’s Cuba in the 1960s, arriving in Miami with little more than their clothes. Vila&Son is now the largest landscape company in Florida with nine locations. Few people realize his or her hard-earned good fortune more than Vila, a generous man of great personal charm and humility.

A Fisher House is “a home away from home” for families of patients receiving medical care at a major military and VA medical centers. The homes are normally located within walking distance of the treat facility or have transportation available. There are more than 53 Fisher Houses with perhaps a dozen more being readied for occupancy. Click here for more about Fisher Houses.

It’s always tough to write about stuff like this because most of things that we do, we don’t necessarily expect anybody to pat us on the back and say “hey, what a great thing you did.” (Although, isn’t it nice when that happens?)

Finally, thanks to Gary Fears, a young account manager at Heads Up Landscape (and proud BYU alum), for doing a great job facilitating our discussion.

Keep following this blog because there's some powerful sales and customer care stuff arising from this NLN University that we're going to share with you that I'm confident, if you take it to heart and act on it, will help you get to the next level too. – Ron Hall

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

These firms are serious about taking it to "The Next Level"

DALLAS – If you want to know where the landscape industry is going – or at least where some of its most progressive companies think it should be going – you need to be paying attention to The Next Level Network (NLN), which is a tiny organization of progressive landscape companies that network and collaborate to energize their staffs and bring innovation into their operations.

Today the NLN - founded and facilitated by industry business consultant Bruce Wilson - consists of just seven companies: HighGrove Partners, Atlanta; CoCal Landscape, Denver; Heads Up, Albuquerque; Mariani Landscape, Lake Bluff, IL; Vila & Son, Homestead, FL; Pacific Landscape Management, Portland, OR; and Lamberts Landscape Company, Dallas. Owners and management of the companies get together three times a year. They’ve been doing so since 2005.

As I write this, key managers of the companies, including most of the owners, are meeting here in the Next Level Network University. Lamberts Landscape Company is hosting the University. To kick off the event, key personnel (including several owners) of the seven companies dined together in a Marriott Hotel ballroom here Monday evening (about 130 people, including guests) and shared brief overviews of their companies. Several broad themes emerged.

1. Each company is adamant about building the skill levels (technical, sales, operational and financial/business expertise) of its employees. And, in spite of several of the companies being among the largest in the country (Florida’s Vila&Son and Mariani in Chicagoland) each company views itself as a “family” of like-minded individuals working cooperatively.

2. Each company is intensely customer-focused. Vila&Son, for example sports a WIT emblem on each one of its service vehicles. WIT stands for “Whatever It Takes,” the slogan it promotes to its clients in achieving their satisfaction.

3. The owners of these companies are still totally engaged in the success of their employees, and by extension, their companies.

4. Green is not just a color. Without exception these companies are implementing best practices when it comes to environmentally responsible landscape design, construction and maintenance. Lamberts, the host company, has been practicing “organic” landscape care since the late 1980s. Companies such as CoCal and Heads Up, located in arid regions of the United States, are strong into Xeric landscaping; High-Grove Partners instituted its innovative “WaterKnow” services several years ago; but Pacific Landscape Management is taking environmental landscape practices farthest of all, even to the installation of solar panels on its headquarters.

Stay tuned and I’ll continue to report on the NLN University. This small group of entrepreneurial operations, especially as the managers of its member companies start trading experiences and observations, is going to generate some great ideas the next couple of days. – Ron Hall

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Extra fees, no! Increasing productivity, yes!

My wife Vicky and I just returned from a short vacation. We stayed at a nice hotel in central Florida then visited some nieces and nephews and finally ended up in Fort Myers where we hooked up with our son and daughter-in-law.

We were surprised by the “extra” expenses that we incurred in what we had planned to be a frugal vacation. First came the airline baggage and snack fees. We had anticipated these and paid them without a whimper. However, we decided not to pay extra to sit in seats closer to the front of the plane. Until recently none of these services cost extra. They used to be part of the deal when you bought an airline ticket.

Then at the hotel, a very nice hotel, we were surprised to learn that, in addition to the room rate we had been promised we were charged a daily resort fee ($16 plus tax) and also a parking fee ($13 plus tax) — this at a hotel that on our previous stays did not levy a resort fee or charge for self-parking. I don’t even want to talk about the extra taxes and charges accruing to our car rental.

So, what’s the point you’re probably wondering?

The point is this: Inflation is here and it’s likely to get worse. Perhaps much worse. Prices of commodities, all commodities, are rising. Check it out for yourselves.

Businesses that because of competitive pressures can’t raise their base prices are generating cash by other means, in the case of travel with lots of new and innovative fees. (What's next a towel use fee?)

Landscape/lawn services, participating in one of the most competitive and price-conscious industries in North America, find it difficult to tack on fees as evidenced by the fuel surcharges many of them attempted to pass to customers when fuel prices spiked prior to the 2008-09 Recession. So, what to do?

The most obvious answer is to put in place processes to generate more productivity out of each unit of input — be it capital or labor. This has got to be a continuous effort, and it'll only work if you involve your whole team. After all, everyone in your company has a stake in helping it prosper (survive?) as a business in 2011 and beyond.

If you thought operational efficiency and productivity mattered in the success of your landscape operation before, I'm saying that you ain’t seen nothing yet. — Ron Hall

Monday, February 14, 2011

What it takes to make a sustainable landscape

The staff at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas is not only developing a green landscaping rating system with its partners in the Sustainable Sites Initiative, it consults on sustainable landscape design, such as at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Advanced Micro Devices' Austin campus and San Antonio's Mission Reach Project.

Below are some steps for developing sustainable landscapes from the Center:

• A team of landscape specialists conduct an extensive pre-design site assessment that includes ecological history and an evaluation of soils and vegetation. Stakeholders provide input. The design considers the land's cultural significance, the need to provide gathering places for people and to minimize building footprints. Also important are trees and shrubs to shade buildings and land contours that capture stormwater for re-use.

• During construction, the upper layer of soil is carefully retained and re-used because it contains nutrients and microbes plants need. Equipment is restricted to certain locations because the vehicle weight compacts soil and hinders plant growth. Trees and plants that are removed may be stored and replanted. Underground tanks may be installed to capture stormwater.

• Because lawns are resource and labor-intensive, rock gardens and other features are used and a mixture of grasses native to the area replaces traditional turf grasses in lawns. Native lawns often require less water, herbicides and mowing than conventional lawns .

• A mixture of native and regionally adapted plants may dominate the landscape. Besides requiring less maintenance, these plants won't compete with wild-growing native plants for resources, as do some non-native invasive species. Insects and other wildlife often prefer native plants, so native landscapes provide better habitat for wildlife.

• Garden trimmings should be recycled. Mulch and other materials are obtained locally, avoiding the greenhouse gases produced by lengthy transportation. Stone or other materials removed on site are re-used as garden walls or other structures.

• Rainwater collected in barrels or tanks called cisterns is preferable to municipal drinking water for irrigation, because it saves water and energy. Driveways and walkways are constructed of material that allows rainwater to seep into the ground. Drip irrigation is more efficient than sprinkler heads. Features such as sunken vegetated areas or rock walls slow stormwater's movement across the land so soil can remove impurities before the water reaches waterways or storm systems.

To learn how to use eco-friendly landscaping, visit the Landscape for Life Web site created by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin and the United States Botanic Garden. Or visit the voluntary Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks of the Sustainable Sites Initiative of the university's Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the American Society of Landscape Architects and the U.S. Botanic Garden.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Bland Landscape shares some great ideas

Here's a heads up for a great post on another blog maintained by a company called Springleaf Strategies. The blog gives a great look at the many progressive (dare we say sustainable?) initiatives that the Bland brothers, Kurt and Matt Bland, have incorporated into their family's 35-year-old landscaping company, headquartered in Apex (near Raleigh), NC.

The blog is a good read and will give you some great ideas for your organization. Check it out here.