A few years ago, a guy I grew up with told me he’d decided to start his own business. I thought he’d never be able to pull it off, as he was not exactly what you’d call a “star student.” As I headed off to college, I wished him good luck. Deep down, I doubted he would succeed.
Now, fast-forward four years. I’ve come back to my home town, and discovered that my friend’s little business is not only still around, but thriving. When I got the chance to talk with him, I asked how he managed to make his business so successful. His response was simple: “I made a point of running this place in the most productive manner possible, and it prospered.”
Whether my friend realized it or not, he’d instituted some Best Management Practices (BMPs). “If you don’t have good practices in place, your business is not going to grow,” says Marcus vandeVliet, owner of MV Enterprises in Wilmington, Delaware. “You may be expanding at first, but you won’t keep doing so forever, because you’re not delivering consistent results.”
BMPs are systems and techniques that have been developed to address particular problems. Even the smallest companies can grow, in size and in revenue, by following these practices. They’re efficient, practical, and cost-effective measures that can be applied generally to many different types of businesses. Utilizing the best practices that are specific to the green industry can achieve better profitability for your landscape business than just about anything else you can do.
You can’t go anywhere without a good road map. Before you start on the road to success, put a plan in place. Having your business strategy written down, with an “action list” of steps to follow, is very powerful mentally.
“I’d recommend a three-year plan,” suggests vandeVliet. “It should include what goals you’d like to achieve, how your marketing and advertising teams would need to change in order to meet those goals, and an overall sense of what you’ll need from a resources standpoint.”
You probably already have a vision of where you want your company to go in the future. However, it’s all in your head. Mapping things out, in a concrete way, is like giving yourself a crystal ball. Though you can’t completely predict the future, you’ll be better able to see what it’ll take to get there.
It might also reveal any flaws or distractions from your plan. But don’t worry; you can keep changing the plan as you go along.
Creating a three-year-plan is a long-term strategy; however, the same principles can be applied short term as well. A pre-construction meeting is an example of a short-term strategy. It’s simply a meeting, with everyone involved in a project, to go over all the important elements before the job begins. The discussion should include what materials will be needed and in what quantities, which staff members will do what tasks, and an estimate of how long it will take.
“We generally start off with a site analysis, where we look at how best to approach the project,” says Joe Kujawa, owner of Kujawa Enterprises, Inc., Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
“Our account manager goes out with the crew to outline what we’ll need to do, and in what order. We also evaluate the hazards of that jobsite. Doing this allows us to balance the budget a bit better.”
Being able to stay on budget and on time establishes your company as the sort of business that more people will want to deal with. Can you see how a little planning and preparation can make you more productive and profitable?
Set up for safety
No one likes to see crew members get hurt. It’s not only painful, it’s costly. BMPs encompass both using your people effectively on a job and making sure no harm comes to them while they’re doing it. It’s essential to have everyone trained regularly in safety procedures.
“The last thing you want is someone getting hurt,” says David Katz, owner of ELITE Landscaping in Poughkeepsie, New York. “So we’re constantly training our crews. We expect them to wear safety goggles and gloves at all times. We distribute safety articles every week that we get from insurance magazines, have our guys read them and then sign off that they’ve done so. Because of that, we have an exceptional safety rating and we’re proud of it.”
Educating your crews on safety procedures can save you money in more ways than one. There are often insurance rebates available for having a staff that is formally and regularly trained. Don’t just chalk injuries up to “the cost of doing business.” It shouldn’t be.
Curb your chemicals
A major part of caring for plants involves protecting them from vermin and disease, and ensuring that they grow well. Pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers can play an important role in achieving the results a customer wants. That said, the BMP for landscape chemicals is to use them as little as possible. A growing number of customers— commercial as well as residential— prefer that you eliminate them entirely.
One way is to incorporate the principles of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). IPM is an environmentally friendly way to manage pests and diseases by using information on their life cycles and their interactions with other species around them. When you sic ladybugs on aphids instead of spraying them, you’re using IPM. A large part of IPM is making plants strong enough to resist attacks from insects, fungi, or diseases.
More natural methods of control should always be tried first. However, sometimes preventive measures aren’t always enough, and at times, using chemicals may become necessary. Keeping an invasive species from threatening a protected wetland might require the use of herbicides, for instance.
“We’re constantly making sure that we’re doing the right thing for the environment,” says Mark Borst, owner of Borst Landscape in Allendale, New Jersey. “We try to stay away from pesticides as much as we can. Being organic means making sure that a plant is healthy, so that it can resist pests.”
If you must use pesticides or herbicides, be certain that they’re applied correctly. That means regularly calibrating nozzles, tanks and gauges. Be aware of weather conditions. Don’t spray if there’s heavy rain in the forecast; everything will be washed away. Avoid drift and overspray, too. Check the labels for precautions or restrictions.
Water is indispensable for a healthy landscape, but it can easily be wasted. Following irrigation BMPs can help you design, install and/or manage a system so as to make the most efficient use of water.
If you are involved in installing or designing irrigation systems, you already know that a good design is everything. An irrigation system design may look great on paper, but that’s not where it’s going to be installed. You have to take the site into account.
“The design is going to change, depending on whether the system is going to be installed on flat ground, or on a slope. So what you want designed into that system is flexibility,” said Corbin Schneider, senior project manager for Verde Design, Inc., Santa Ana, California. “The contractor, and later, the maintenance personnel, should be able to tweak the system based on the type of landscape it is.”
“When you pass an irrigation system off to a maintenance crew, you want them to be able to use and maintain it correctly,” said Schneider. “Most irrigation consultants design systems to save water and energy, but they also do it with consideration for ease of maintenance.
If a contractor follows the plans and the BMPs, then the system should last for years.”
Evaluating the irrigation system is the final step. It means looking over the system to see if it’s done its job well, and reporting anything notable back to the designer or client. Everyone involved should understand how well the system is doing and what adjustments may need to be made. If BMPs are followed, it should lead to everyone being happy with the result: the client, the designer, the installer, and whoever will be charged with maintaining the system.
Manage your mowing
There are BMPs for mowing, too. Proper mowing sustains the health of turfgrass. Every species of grass has its own optimum mowing height. Keeping each type of grass at its ideal length assures dense, lush carpets of turf. Mower blade heights should be readjusted before every use. Needless to say, mower blades should be kept sharp. That brings us to our next set of BMPs: maintenance.
Mind your maintenance
Your crew members need to be in good enough physical condition to do their work. You wouldn’t expect top performance out of someone with a broken arm, right? Well, you shouldn’t expect your crews to do their best work with broken, dull or run-down tools, either.
In order to keep your teams working at peak efficiency, all of their equipment needs to be kept in good condition. Everything wears out over time, but equipment that’s regularly maintained lasts longer. It’s also safer.
Preventive maintenance is a best practice that should be mandatory. Some landscape companies employ full- or part-time mechanics on staff to do repairs as well as maintenance on their equipment. But you don’t have to go that far.
You can keep up with maintenance by making your workers responsible for their tools. The people who use the blowers should make sure the filters are changed; the mowing crew should do the same with the mowers, as well as making sure the blades are sharp, and so on. Make this a part of their jobs, so it becomes a habit.
“All equipment has standards for minimum running hours before changing oil and filters,” says Katz. “I strongly encourage following the standard recommendations.” He also advises frequent, complete cleanout of tools and lubricating them with fresh grease.
Regular, suggested service intervals can be found in that little booklet that came with the tool when you bought it. You may have heard the old expression, “When all else fails, read the manual”? If you can’t find it, you can easily get another one online from the manufacturer.
Don’t forget about your trucks and skip loaders, either. “In an ideal world, you’re checking your vehicles every day, making sure that the lights and everything else are working,” says Katz.
You’ll be glad you’re doing this when your tools and vehicles aren’t falling apart on the job. Following maintenance BMPs is all about being able to deliver consistent, excellent results throughout the season.
Becoming a master of Best Management Practices doesn’t happen overnight. It takes effort and mindfulness to put the practices into place, and discipline to make sure they happen. If you follow them, however, in time you should find your company creating better, more satisfying results more efficiently. That can translate into a business that grows and prospers—just as that old buddy of mine from my hometown discovered.