July 17 2012 12:42 AM

There is much to consider for a landscape contractor who realizes the dream of starting his or her own company. Among other attributes, it takes foresight and determination to find a formula for success, both initially and in the long run. Sometimes, it also takes a little outside help to truly optimize that success.

A few months ago, we published an article about two landscape contracting companies and how they were preparing to pass the baton to the next generation. They knew that they needed some outside professional help to structure their companies in a profitable manner. These two family-owned contracting companies, Miller Landscape, Inc., and PROCARE Landscape Management, Inc., are a testament to how the services of an outside company can help put you or keep you on track.

At Miller Landscape in Orion, Michigan, owners Bob and Bill Miller work with Bob’s sons, Jeremy, Marty and Doug, as the business continues its 46-year history of offering landscaping services to the Detroit area. PROCARE, in Byron Center, Michigan, has enjoyed a 23year run of its own under Dirk Bakhuyzen Jr., who operates the company with the help of his sons, Dirk III and Kyle.

The sheer longevity of each company, coupled with the dedication of the second-generation family members involved, may give the mistaken impression that these organizations have always had all their ducks in a row. In reality, each was keenly aware for quite some time that it had some weaknesses related to business practices that threatened to undermine formidable operational strengths.

“Bob has a degree in accounting and I have a degree in business,” said Bill Miller. “But we set those degrees aside and focused on being competent in the field. We established ourselves as a high-end design/build firm, as well as a multi-service company that could handle everything a customer wanted. The business grew to $1.9 million, but we literally stayed there for 10 years and couldn’t grow it any further.”

“We were still operating like a mom-and-pop company,” added Jeremy. “Keeping up with the work we had was a struggle, so the idea of proactively growing seemed overwhelming. We had a great team, great reputation, great referral base —but it could only take us so far. Not only did we have to figure out how to change, but we also had to overcome the fear of change itself.”

On the western side of Michigan, the story at PROCARE was similar. “We developed a very strong operating system and always delivered to customers what we promised,” said Dirk, Jr. “Where we lacked was in financial planning, as well as sales.

We never pursued business; it always came to us. So when the economic crisis hit, we really got our butts kicked financially.”

Open to guidance

In essence, each company felt like it needed to transform itself from a team of landscape technicians into a well-oiled business enterprise that specializes in landscaping. They also knew that pressing issues would have to be addressed to secure their long-term futures.

As it turns out, both sought assistance from LandOpt, LLC, a service organization that licenses the use of proven business systems for a large network of landscape contractors. Their business operating system incorporates components of technology, processes and professional development, all of which are supported by ongoing implementation services.

“There were certain goals we had that we really didn’t know how to achieve,” said Bill Miller. “LandOpt brought expertise to the table, and we joined their network in 2006. We felt they could help us educate and train the next group of managers— family members or not. Given our business backgrounds, we didn’t necessarily find the concepts to be new, but previously we hadn’t been effective at implementing processes on a permanent basis.”

“We all had been frustrated for some time,” said Dirk III, alluding to the financial rut PROCARE had found itself in with regard to planning and sales. “We didn’t really know what we wanted to be. So when Kyle and I learned about Land- Opt in early 2009, we were eager to find out more and see where it could take us. It wasn’t long after that we joined up with them.”

As all contractors in the network can attest, the early stages of being a licensee are busy. Frequent meetings, onsite success coaching and training boot camps keep things lively and waste no time diagnosing the current state of a company.

“We spent the first 12 months breaking down financials and learning what it truly costs to do business from the corporate level down to an account level,” said Jeremy. “At the start, we had to clear some hurdles in thinking, ‘This won’t work here,’ and look ahead to see how these systems would benefit us in the long run.”

“LandOpt transformed the way we estimate and track our jobs,” Jeremy continued. “They were instrumental in helping us realize where our organization was strong and where it was deficient. The biggest thing was to convince us that we needed a dedicated sales professional and could no longer simply wait for the phone to ring.”

Sales concepts made a prominent impression on the Bakhuyzens as well. “The most eye-popping thing they delivered was a real sales cycle,” said Dirk III. “Before, we had no system for sales, so implementing a technical process that tracked pricing and customer information all the way through a sales cycle and into operations was key for us. We worked hand-in-hand with our success coach to analyze our business outlook and see who we should be looking to hire for sales, which tied in with financial planning assistance as well.”

“When we started with them, the economy was obviously affecting our revenue stream,” said Dirk Jr. “The coaching helped us project our cash flow and confidently put a plan in place based on that. Engaging their services certainly turned out to be the right move at the right time.”

If the shoe fits

Another new, yet critical, piece of the puzzle for Miller Landscape and PROCARE alike was the process of identifying appropriate roles within each organization. “We had different job titles, but we often found ourselves all doing the same type of work and wearing the same hats,” said Kyle Bakhuyzen. “LandOpt really helped us in dividing up responsibilities and defining roles, so we were no longer walking over each other.”

“In addition to helping develop and define roles, they helped us determine which people in the company are the best fits for those roles,” said Jeremy, who transitioned into a leadership position as Miller Landscape’s general manager. Jeremy’s brother Marty is an account manager and estimator.

Their dad Bob is an estimator and overall subject matter expert, while Bill is a sales professional, estimator and designer.

What both companies have found is that they’re not only able to maintain better focus on their assigned responsibilities, but that the increased emphasis on specific tasks gives them the freedom and flexibility to do their jobs exceedingly better than before.

“We used to be jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none, it seemed,” said Bill. “As soon as I took myself out of project work and day-to-day operations, I was able to focus on the design and sales aspects—the things I was really good at. Consequently, those parts of the business have grown dramatically, as I’ve given them proper attention.”

Dirk Jr. and Kyle reported similar experiences, now that both are fulltime account managers. “Because I’m now putting all my energy into each customer, I’m solidifying relationships and making new friends,” said Dirk Jr. “And since I’m now doing my job better, that’s actually led to increased sales from existing customers through upsells on top of their contract renewals.”

Filling the general manager and sales manager roles at PROCARE, Dirk III sees major value in the structure delivered by the role system. “It’s allowed us to identify the talents we actually possess and to put them to use in a logical manner,” he said. “Before, it was all about doing whatever needed to be done. Now we know what we need to do within our roles, and it’s been extremely rewarding to see the individual and team successes that have resulted.”

Position of strength

The assigning and/or reduction of roles have certainly paid some immediate dividends. The process also has each company strongly believing that they are well positioned for the future.

“We felt Jeremy had a vision for where the company could go,” said Bill Miller. “Installing him as general manager was a major step toward leaving ‘mom and pop’ in the past and becoming that multi-million dollar organization.”

Dirk III goes back to the improvements the company has made as a whole, and now feels that they are poised to control their own destiny. “We have such a great handle on our planning processes now,” he said. “I truly feel that if we just execute the financial plan we have in front of us, everything will fall into place.”

“It’s the first time I can confidently say that we’re going to be profitable from this point on,” said Dirk Jr. “I know we are. We accepted the coaching; we haven’t looked back and we keep pushing each other to do better all the time.”

Bill Miller concurred with that idea. “Particularly because of the way we were able to weather the economic downturn . . . without LandOpt’s help, we might still be focused on making things happen day-to-day, rather than finding ourselves in a position of strength.”

“The ongoing follow-up is another key aspect of their involvement,” added Jeremy. “They continually keep us from falling back into any bad habits. I’m in my fifth year of developing an annual budget and financial plan. It comes easier every year, but having them providing coaching and deadlines is invaluable.”

The feeling of excitement is palpable at PROCARE as well. “The people on our team can’t believe how the energy of our company has changed from two years ago,” said Dirk III. “By changing the way you think, and convincing your heart to believe that hope and prosperity are in your future, things can turn around. Any company can succeed.”