Anticipate the unanticipated

By Gary Horton

Running a business well requires astute planning for the knowns, but even more importantly the unknowns we’ll face.


“Everything’s going so well!” It’s a great thing in business and in life when we can say that. Yet, too often, it’s just at these times when something we didn’t anticipate or never heard of jumps at us out of nowhere.

It’s been said, “It’s what you don’t know that will hurt you.” That adage just is as true for the green industry as for any other. Here are some examples.

  • A landscape contractor, unfamiliar with the finer points of labor and wage and hour law, fails to record crew lunches and frequently interrupts lunches with site visits. This contractor is surprised when the company then faces a large class-action lawsuit over wages and hours that threatens its very existence.
  • Another contractor, eager to expand, takes on work from whatever developer is willing to accept bids and fails to check out the developers’ credit worthiness and payment histories. In the middle of a large project, one of them suddenly files for bankruptcy protection, and the contractor, having stretched all available funds, faces financial ruin when that month’s payroll can’t be met.
  • A maintenance firm stresses safety and holds regular tailgate talks. But the owner isn’t rigorous about conducting field safety checks, and one day a worker operating a steel-bladed edger without safety glasses loses an eye when the spinning blade kicks a rock into his face. OSHA cites the company for gross negligence after an inspection of the worker’s truck shows it contained neither vision nor hearing protection gear.

Those are three examples of things that happen time and time and again, yet many green industry operators routinely fail to take precautions against suffering such fates. Running a business well requires astute planning for the knowns, but even more importantly the unknowns we’ll face.

Happily, there are some simple steps contractors of any size can take to protect themselves against many of the unknowns.

1. Know your clients. Check credit histories and industry reputations before taking on new business. Avoid dealing with clients or companies with poor records. During hard economic times, these are the ones who are most likely to default.

2. Have a deep, detailed discussion with your insurance broker. Review all the various risk protection coverages available — liability, chemical and toxic materials, worker’s compensation — and make sure you have the appropriate dollar amounts in the categories that apply. In this litigious era, professional practice insurance is a great idea.

3. Read up on your state’s labor laws, know them well and follow them fully. Obtain a labor practices audit of your firm. Find out where you’re good and where you need to improve.

4. Stay on top of national and regional economic news. Make your business plans with an eye toward the most likely economic scenarios ahead.

5. Take nothing for granted. Perform routine, verified site quality and job safety inspections. Call your clients personally and check on their satisfaction. Talk to your workers and ask detailed questions about how they’re being treated and what safety practices are or aren’t being followed.

6. Develop an easy-to-follow company practices and standards guide. Evangelize and push your standards at all levels of your operation and verify compliance with set guidelines.

7. Develop fallback plans. These should account for the “what ifs,” such as taking a big financial hit or losing a large job or key employee. Stash sufficient means away so you can wriggle through any economic challenges you may face.

Of course, we can’t know everything or predict the future. Nor can we be in all places at all times. Still, through thoughtful analysis and careful planning, we can defend ourselves against most of the surprises and unknowns our businesses will face as we charge bravely into the future, building our companies and creating our success stories.

Gary Horton, MBA, is CEO of Landscape Development Inc., a green industry leader for over 35 years with offices throughout California and Nevada. He can be reached at ghorton@landscapedevelopment.com.