It's all about people
Leaders of successful companies often speak of their employees with a great sense of respect, appreciation, and even awe. "I can't say enough about our people," says Mark Borst, owner of Borst Landscape based in Allendale, New Jersey. "Our employees are definitely the backbone of our business."

Borst established his business in 1989 and ran it part time while earning his degrees in landscape architecture and ornamental horticulture. By the time he completed his education he had built up enough business to go into it full time. Now the company has seventy employees and does of volume of approximately six million dollars per year as a full service design-build and maintenance firm.

Steve Nielson, owner and president of Critter Ridge Landscape Contractors, a 25-year-old firm based in Sarasota, Florida, echoes Borst's comment. "The quality of our people and the longevity of our people is what make us successful. Most of our key personnel have been with us for ten years or more."

From across the country in Spokane, Washington, David Brown strongly agrees. Brown is Chief Financial Officer for Spokane-based Land Expressions, a design-build firm founded nearly twenty years ago by owner Dave Nelson. "People really have made our company," says Brown. "We value our employees and treat them well."

When it comes to valuing employees, the Gardeners' Guild of San Rafael, California has a unique story. After starting the company over thirty years ago and growing it successfully for many years, company founder, Linda Novy, made the ultimate demonstration of employee appreciation. She gave the company to her employees. Novy set up an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) and completed transfer of ownership to the employees in 2003. "There was a willingness on her part to sell the company to the people who had helped make it successful,"D says John Ossa, president of The Gardener's Guild. "Now the employees have a chance to own what they helped to build."

While all of these leaders praise their employees, it's important to remember that great employees don't just materialize. They are formed from the values and commitment of company itself. Good employees are drawn like magnets to companies that invest in training and reward excellence.

"We have a great reputation in our area and that helps with staffing," says Borst. "Most employees we've hired have come to us. We have a good history of treating them well and we're able to keep our people. They understand what we want so we don't have to reinvent the wheel every year. This also helps us draw great clients."

Excellent training and generous compensation are hallmarks of the employment philosophy at Land Expressions. "We recognize the importance of training and credentials," says Brown. "All of our foremen are required to achieve Certified Landscape Technician (CLT) certification in order to become lead foremen. I'm a Certified Landscape Professional (CLP) myself. The company is willing to put the time and money into training, testing, and getting those credentials. This gives us something more to offer clients."

The Gardeners' Guild takes training to a new level. "We don't have a seasonal workforce so when we hire, we're hiring for the long term," says Ossa. "We hire for attitude and we invest in people."

This investment is demonstrated through two cornerstone events in the Gardeners' Guild training program. "In addition to routine -- how-to -- training, each year we hold a Safety Jamboree," says Ossa. "This is a one day event where we bring our whole company out for cross training, safety demonstrations, and team building." The day includes outside experts and covers a wide variety of topics such as first aid, safe driving, and injury prevention. "This has been so successful for us that now some of our service providers are borrowing the idea."

The second event is called Gardeners' Guild University. "This is a series of in-house classes we run that focus on management, communications, customer service, finance and other business management topics," says Ossa. "Classes are geared to crew-leader level employees."

Nielson emphasizes the importance of professional development and involvement with professional organizations. "On-going training is critical for employees to keep up with the latest techniques," he says.

Brown agrees. "Duane Nelson, the father of the owner of our company, served as President of the ALCA. He passed on his appreciation for involvement in professional organizations to Dave and the rest of the company. This has been another factor in our success."

These companies have made big investments in their employees with both time and money. But it's obvious that these leaders firmly believe their investment pays for itself many times over.

Business Sense
No one goes into landscaping because they love business. But good business management is one of the most critical factors for success in the landscaping industry, according to these companies.

"We all go into this field because we love what we do," says Borst. "But landscape professionals really need to understand the business side of things. Based on the size our company has become, I sometimes wish I'd gotten a business degree."

Often, part of the equation for success with business management is accepting what you don't know and turning to others for help. To help compensate for his lack of business education, Borst decided to hire a business consulting firm early in his career. "It was one of the smartest things I ever did," he says.

The firm, Vander Kooi & Associates, provided guidance on budgeting, estimating, accounting, and other skills that helped the company better track profits. "If your finances aren't working, your business isn't going to be working," Borst said. "The money I spent, which amounted to about $3-$4 thousand per year, was one of the best investments I ever made."

Brown agrees that owners need to know their level of business savvy and be willing to accept their limits. "A lot of entrepreneurs have skills in design and horticulture but don't necessarily have the business skills. One of the greatest strengths of the owner of this company is that he realizes he can't do everything. He hires people to complement his skills. He hired people to make sure the company grew in a controlled, profitable manner."

Business education is one of the reasons the Gardeners' Guild established "Gardeners' Guild University." Its critical for business management to be understood at every level of operation, says Ossa. "It's important for employees to understand contract specifications, to understand what's extra to the contract and what's not. It's important to understand the need for innovation and efficiency. Employees all need to be thinking about ways to cut costs and to appreciate the importance of capturing accurate data."

Ossa describes an eye opening training activity that drives the message home. "We take a dollar in change and say 'This represents all of our revenue.' Then we start taking some of the change away and say, 'Here's the percentage that goes to direct job costs. Here's the percentage that goes for fixed overhead. Here's what goes to variable costs. And here's what we'd like to reinvest in the company.' Once you do this, the light really goes on. Middle management then starts to generate cost control measures. All of a sudden they do want to stop at the gas station with the lowest price, they do want to lock up tools, and they do want to take care of equipment to make it last."

Brown notes that many state and national professional organizations have identified the lack of business expertise as a concern in the landscaping industry and have made awareness of this issue a priority. %"Companies can really benefit from membership in organizations like these," says Brown.

Know Thyself
Establishing a corporate identity is another factor for success according to these company leaders. Corporate identity involves not only knowing your own company but also being able to project a clear and consistent image both to employees and to clients.

According to Ossa, a clear company mission is the cornerstone of the Gardeners' Guild. "The founder put in place a mission statement and core values that have really shaped the culture of the company. These values include teamwork, trust and honesty, the need for innovation, and giving back to the community  -- both the civic community and the environment. These values have been baked right in from the start and have evolved over time. We honestly live them. We walk the talk."

Several mention the importance of establishing specialties that set them apart in their market. One of the specialties for Gardeners' Guild is sustainable landscape management. Land Expressions established themselves as the area experts in naturalistic water features. For Borst Landscape the specialty was garden maintenance, including seasonal change-outs and holiday decorating. "This has been a definite niche for us," says Borst. "No one else in our area does it. This helped take our company to a different level. It sets us apart and adds an extra touch of quality that others don't offer."

Part of corporate identity is public image, something all of these companies take very seriously. "It's critical to pay attention to image," says Borst. "When we first started out we invested a good chunk of money in developing a company logo. Our image is consistent from the trucks down to the shirts."

Nielsen agrees. "My uncle ran a small business and I learned from him that there are certain practices you follow no matter what business you're in. He told me that image is very important. We keep our trucks and equipment looking good. I respond to every phone call. I'm always early to meetings. We send out thank you notes. We also volunteer with garden clubs and other educational programs and we run regular segments on our community access channel." These little things go a long way in demonstrating that a company pays attention to quality at every level.

To help project their image, all of these companies invested in professional looking websites that identify them as top-notch, class acts.

"We use the Internet for a lot of our research and we found that we form our own opinions based on the way other people's websites look," says Brown. "So we put some money into our own website in the last few years and it's been very good for us. We've gotten good feedback and quite a few projects from it."

"I originally thought websites were more for retail business," says Nielsen. "But we get so many hits on our site. It's been worth the money."

"Don't try to be all things to all people." "Stay focused on what you do best." "Find your niche, and stick to it." These were also frequent comments made by these successful business leaders. It's obvious that they have followed their own advice.

"We're all really proud of our company," says Ossa. "We have a great track record of award winning work. If you were to walk around here, you'd see some pretty happy people. There's a bounce in their step."