Jan. 1 2007 12:00 AM

When growing up, some people just know what they want to do with their lives. Many don't really know, but find 'it' later in their careers. Still others never seem to find their place in the sun.

Jim Martin, born and raised in Evanston, Illinois, was one of those youths who knew exactly what he wanted his life?s career to be, but didn't know the path he would take to achieve his goal.

Martin attended the University of Illinois. He paid his way through college by working in the lawn maintenance business. In 1972, he received his degree in landscape architecture and was hired by the Winnetka Park District as superintendent of grounds maintenance. Three years later, Martin started his own landscape company, James Martin Associates.

As he looks back, Martin says, "There are four Ss to a business. The first is Survival; number two is Survival with meaning; the third is Success, and the fourth is Significance."

I understand the first three, but what does number four mean?

"Once you've achieved your level of success, and by this time your kids are off to college, ?it's time to develop traditions and cultures to pass on to your heirs and to add to your company's philosophy. It's time for you and your company to get involved in helping with scholarships and charities. In other words, it's payback time."

"We didn't get here without help from others, so once we've arrived and spent some time at that level, it's time to help those less fortunate than us; it's time to help the next generation coming up."

What a refreshing outlook. But Martin didn't wake up one day and have an epiphany. He developed this philosophy after years of struggle and working within a trade organization.

When Martin first joined the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association (ILCA), he remembered it as a great state association. ILCA cosponsored some seminars with the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA), now Professional Landcare Network (PLANET). That was his first exposure to ALCA; he was impressed and decided to attend an exterior seminar in Dallas, Texas.

He felt it was a great learning process, so he began attending more events. He joined ALCA, and in the early '90s began submitting entries for its awards program. Since then, James Martin Associates has won more than 12 awards.

Martin really got involved in 1999-2000 when he was asked to judge the awards; he felt that he would be giving something back to the association. He also went to Summer Leadership meetings, and sat in on committee meetings. He witnessed so much energy and enthusiasm, and began to realize how important these committees were. They were making things happen.

Martin put to work what he learned and his business grew steadily. His firm is a design/build company, although he does some maintenance and snow removal work. The firm employs 42 people in the off-season, building up to 100 or more during the season.

With his company doing a respectable volume of somewhere between 7- and 8-million dollars annually, Martin began to follow the four Ss. He set up an Employee Stock Option Plan (ESOP) in which a number of employees now have ownership in the firm. He also began thinking of the fourth S, Significance, and how he could contribute back.

After sitting on a number of committees over the years, in 2003 ALCA President Michael Bryne, asked Martin to become more involved and run for the board of directors, which he did.

Those were interesting times for Martin. Plans were afoot to investigate the possible merger with the Professional Lawn Care Association of America (PLCAA). "I'm a planner by nature," said Martin. "I saw people who created a vision for making a stronger, more powerful trade association." In addition, there was always the challenge to develop additional sponsorship opportunities to support the various programs of the association.

After spending three active years on the board, Martin decided to step down; however, he did continue to be on the finance committee. He was able to spend this time away from his business because he has a great team back at the office. They have allowed him to do some consulting and get stimulated by other interests.

It was only a few months ago when the president-elect of PLANET decided to step down because of commitments from his business, that a call went out to Martin. He was asked if he would accept the position of president-elect if asked. Martin said he would have to discuss it with his company team. They were very supportive; it would allow some of them to grow as well. Martin accepted and was installed as president of PLANET at its recent convention.

What are the immediate challenges for PLANET? Martin feels the association needs more members if it is to represent the length and breadth of the landscape and lawn care industry. He feels it has to develop a compelling benefit package to attract new members.

But, more importantly, Martin is a firm believer that the work we do not only leads to a great lifestyle, but a great opportunity as well. "Where most people 'go to an office' each day to work, we have the great outdoors," he chuckles. "We enhance the quality of life's environment. We work with beautiful plants and create and maintain this environment."

Martin and his wife Linda have three adult daughters, Jeanine, 29; Emily, 27; and Lise, 25. "We are truly blessed, we have a great family, a reasonably successful business and the opportunity to get involved in charity. What more could one ask for?"

"We need to get ourselves into a position that will help us convey the message to the next generation of the wonderful opportunities available in the green industry," said Martin. "If I could get that message across to one thousand high school counselors, we will show them how this could be the career of choice for many."

What a great message to send.