On a cold day in February, i caught one of the luckiest breaks in my life.
My partner Chip and I had just landed a large installation project for a new restaurant chain that was building several locations throughout our city, Nashville, Tennessee. However, at that time, our company consisted of only two men, just Chip and I. We had recently started the business, and were firmly in our infancy and eager to prove ourselves in the landscape industry on this larger scale project. In that moment, we did not have the manpower to complete such a project on time.
The long-term implications of this project were huge for our young company. We knew that if we performed well on this project, there would be opportunities for several more in the months to come.
Chip and I called everyone we knew; I called friends of mine from high school, and he called friends of his from his rodeo days (yes, he had spent the previous ten years of his life on the Pro Rodeo circuit). On the first day of the project, I vividly recall a feeling of disappointment and some panic when I realized the ragtag army of men we had assembled at the last minute was the landscapers’ version of the Bad News Bears.
These men had little to no experience, and also had left their work ethic at the house where it was warm. Chip and I worked as hard as we could to make up the slack, and pushed the motley crew as hard as possible, but it was like pushing on a string. Ultimately, with the restaurant opening in less than 48 hours, it was painfully obvious that we were not going to finish the project on time. I remember sitting in the truck with Chip, talking about the gravity of the situation. As we warmed up with the truck heater on, we shared a laugh. These men were so lazy that all we could do was chuckle; we even named one “the rodeo clown.” The laughter turned to seriousness when the realization set in that we probably were not going to finish on time.
Chip and I always had a bias towards action, so we picked up the shovels again and returned to work. It was in that moment that one of the biggest breaks in my business life occurred. An older Hispanic gentleman walking down the sidewalk approached me. He spoke very little English; however, my high school Spanish classes quickly helped me understand that he was asking if we had any work. Yes! We needed help. “Do you need any more men?” he asked. “Yes—at least ten,” Chip and I blurted in unison.
His name was Olvido, and when he later returned with able-bodied men eager to go to work, I could have kissed him. Within an hour, I quickly came to observe that these were exceptionally hardworking men who viewed their work and this project very seriously. We paid the Bad News Bears that night and let them know they could enjoy the rest of the week in their comfortable, toasty warm homes. Olvido and his amigos saved Chip and I from certain landscaper humiliation; with their help, the project was delivered, complete and on time. It was a miracle; they were the miracle.
Respect is not given, it is earned. Those men earned my respect and showed me what a dedicated, serious work ethic looks like. From that day forward, I had an affinity for Hispanic team members.
Based on our performance on that project, our company earned the opportunity to provide the installation for the landscape and irrigation for fifteen additional restaurants throughout the Tennessee region. This initial surge of workload in the early days of our company proved to be instrumental to our success in building an organization from scratch. Had it not been for Olvido and his friends and family, we would not have even been in the game, and certainly would not have progressed onto stages of real company building.
It was in those early years of our organization that I decided to learn the Spanish language in its entirety, and form our company as a multicultural workplace. In hindsight, this was a smart move, as our Hispanic-based team members proved to be some of the most loyal, hardworking men I have ever had the pleasure to work with. The consistency of our operating core served as a long lasting, sustainable competitive advantage for our company. We enjoyed zero employee turnover and a work force with a craftsman mindset, which afforded us the enjoyment of beating the pants off our competition.
So how do you foster a multicultural workplace to build a sustainable, competitive advantage?
Show respect. The Hispanic culture is prideful. I learned early on that many of the men who worked for our company were smarter than I was in many ways, and I let them know it every chance I got. We regularly recognized and applauded team members who excelled.
Make it feel like home. Many of our men were temporary guest workers on the H-2B visa program; they came to the states temporarily for eight to ten months at a time. Many were coming to America for the first time. We held monthly cookouts, grilling foods that they loved (it only took me a few parties to realize that they hated pizza). We hung huge, beautiful flags in our shop representing Guatemala, Mexico, and America. We also held weekly meetings in Spanish. Our culture was authentically influenced by their heritage.
Celebrate the victories happening back home. It is no secret that most Hispanic workers send most of their money back to their homeland to support their families there. Many of our long-tenured team members were able to build houses, farms with livestock, ranches, and stores. We loved that. We would hang pictures of these victories on the walls in the shop and office for everyone to see and celebrate. This, ultimately, became the reason why we excelled as a company.
Above all, be a diverse family. Our company was one big family. We would go to soccer games together, fall festivals, and weekly breakfasts. We implemented a program to provide interest-free, flexible loans to team members for cars, family emergencies, and even houses. It was a no-brainer, because it felt like helping a family member.
A strong multicultural workplace is achieved over many years of leading your organization with an authentic, intentional disposition to care about your people. This stuff is easy to do and can come naturally when you bridge the cultural gap, by having empathy for your people and by really caring about them and their success. As a green industry entrepreneur, you need to focus on the success and fulfillment of your people by recognizing and leveraging the cultural differences. Over time, you will earn loyalty, and the byproduct will be your company’s success. It’s also extremely exciting to be a part of something so magical.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Bryan Clayton is a former landscape industry entrepreneuer, and co-founder of GreenPal.