Nov. 14 2018 06:00 AM

Landscape Development Inc.’s Gary Horton shares advice for developing a company culture that will keep your employees coming back day after day.

Landscaping companies have their work cut out for them if they want to attract and retain good employees. But there are some companies out there who’ve got it nailed, and Landscape Development Inc., Valencia, California, is one of them.

Founded in the early 1980s by Gary Horton, the company still has employees who have been there from the very beginning when it was a small firm. And now that it employs more than 1,000 people from all ages, backgrounds and education levels, being everything to everyone is more important than ever.

Staying relevant, letting your employees know they matter and getting them all to embrace the company mission gets more challenging as it grows.

But Horton, who has an MBA from Loyola Marymount College and executive training from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business has a few tricks up his sleeve.

In part two of a Q&A with Irrigation & Green Industry Editor-in-Chief Kristin Smith-Ely, Horton talks more about the steps he has taken to develop his company’s culture, including writing a book that includes a character employees can identify with.

Who makes up your workforce?

California is a very diverse community and our company fully embraces the strength our modern diversity provides. Respect and greater consideration and appreciation for field staff is today a tremendous focus and a company touchstone. We’ve also become a veterans-preferred employer and we are pleased to employ many U.S. vets throughout our organization.

We have an employee who, way back when we were assigning employee numbers — over 35 years ago — he was entered before me, and has a lower employee number than I do. He’s been here since the very start. We’ve had many other long-time employees just like that who’ve been with us their entire working lives.

Now with some of them approaching 65, we’re facing the challenge of providing work opportunities that are productive but safe for people that age. It can get and stay well over 105 degrees in California during the summer. So this is a new challenge with many of our employees getting up there in years.

Overall, I believe our average tenure in our office and professional positions is over eight years — with many at 20- and 30-plus years. Field turnover is similar for foremen and supervisors. Basic labor is more of a challenge, as these workers are often figuring out what they want to do in their careers, and some change direction or can be pulled away by competing companies.

How have you been able keep workers on your payroll for so long?

We’ve achieved our solid employee retention record by creating a company culture and benefits program that makes us the employer of choice in our locale.

While some landscape companies pay minimum wage with little or no time off or vacations, we give all our field staff one week vacation in year one and two weeks vacation in year two of employment. Foremen accrue at three weeks after five years of service. Also, all field staff enjoy four paid holidays and three paid sick/personal days. We also make a point to stay well ahead of the California minimum wage for our entry positions. Today our entry-level wage is $14 per hour.

We’ve also incentivized nearly every position in the company. A great base pay plus generous upsides for achieving business plan goals keeps the excitement up. In 2017, we paid over $1.2 million in various employee incentives through all non-ownership levels of the company.

Finally, retention is most of all about company culture. Valued foremost at LDI are: honesty, artistry, collaboration, energy, fair-dealing, safety, fun and commitment to tangible quality. We hire new staff through a “values filter,” working to ensure that new team members are compatible with the group and our overall purpose and goals. Getting “the right people on the bus” certainly helps the bus retain the people in the first place.

Can you define company culture and why it is important?

Every company has its own personality. And the differences can be profound. Some companies are legalistic. Some are informal. Some are artsy and laisse-faire. Some are business grinders where every penny is watched and pinched. Some promote great respect among peers, and some are rather callous about valuing people at all.

You get to decide what you want your culture to be. You start by listing the values that are important to you, about how you want the world to see you and your company operate. List eight to 10 key values — the things that really matter to you. And when you hire, make sure that the folks you bring on board personally reflect and amplify those values.

Promote those values. Make sure your procedures, systems, compensation and activities all consistently reflect them. Over time, all this effort will create your established company culture, what you’re known for, what customers and employees have come to expect.

So, what’s the payoff? A good, attractive company culture draws the best potential employees to you.

Friction is reduced as you build a great team with everyone rowing together harmoniously, all with the same goals in mind.

What are some ways LDI has developed its company culture? Key to our culture is our tagline and mission statement: “We make our clients’ lives easier and bring them peace of mind.” We are here to serve. We understand that our customers have very busy lives and just want their landscape concerns to “disappear” into something they simply enjoy or that helps them achieve their own goals, like selling homes or renting apartments.

Beyond that, of course, we hire through our values filter, so we’ve got a good match from the get-go.

We wrote our own book, “My Corner of Heaven” in both English and Spanish. It’s essentially a story-based employee manual, where the story itself teaches important values and behaviors that benefit people both at work and in their personal lives. The story follows the life of an immigrant who comes to California to work in the fields. Eventually he finds landscaping, loves it, and progresses and prospers, learning important life lessons along the way.

The main character’s name is Don Mario, and he’s essentially our company mascot. Everyone knows Don Mario and knows “what Don Mario would do” in most situations. All employees are required to read the book prior to full-time employment. We also have it on CD so employees can listen to the book in their trucks. This common theme of Don Mario really helps knit us together.

What is LDI doing to attract young people?

There are two parts to that, really — our professional recruitment out of colleges for landscape architects, project managers and the like; and, recruiting field staff. In California, the demand for labor is super high. We run radio advertisements, Craigslist ads and reach out via social media channels. That works, but in the end if you’re not perceived as a preferred employer in a tight labor market like this, nearly nothing will.

Our professional recruitment is far easier. We have so many great young people from some really great colleges that we can often hire just by calling their friends, and the friends of their friends.

Our website helps, too. It’s in both English and Spanish and projects a progressive and professional image out to the nation. It says, “We’re something different,” and that has appeal. I’d say we have one of the top five landscape websites in the country, and that matters.

Ups and downs

Read Part I of the interview with Gary Horton, “Weathering the Ups and Downs of the Landscaping Business” in the September issue of Irrigation & Green Industry available online at

Gary Horton is president and CEO of Landscape Development Inc., an integrated site and landscape services company based in Valencia, California. More information is available online at