November 1, 2019
Alan White
Alan White

Give me a shovel

ALAN WHITE, operator of Burlington, Ont.-based Turf Systems, has always been a passionate idea guy. His commitment to elevating the landscape industry has led him to volunteer extensively with Landscape Ontario and CNLA, where he currently chairs its Climate Adaptation Committee.

How do your efforts support the environment and health?

I see my role on the Climate Adaptation Committee as helping the landscape community understand that this is not only our greatest challenge, it is our greatest opportunity. My history with the pesticide debate, plant protection, drought, heat and air quality led me to the realization that our product – living plants – is the only real mitigator of environmental threats. Plants are the most effective CO2 mitigator; they close the carbon cycle loop. Only living things improve air quality, so living infrastructure directly supports our ability to breathe.

My new passion is the urban landscape, which I call the lungs of the city. I am looking to have the urban landscape recognized at the same level of importance as air and water security.

Does the landscape community understand this opportunity?

The leadership level embraces it. On my committee, the leaders of all our teams are sitting at the table, so nobody can pretend to be in a silo. I also use this good news story within my company. The landscapes we maintain generate enough clean air for 13,000 people!
Is the opportunity understood in the mainstream? No. By every single company? No. But the collective good-news story is not about me, it’s about us.

You obviously believe in a big picture: plants and the landscape profession as drivers of climate mitigation. Has your commitment helped your recruit young staff members?

Yes it has, they love the story and they believe the story. Things are different than they were 15 years ago. When I explain how plants actually help us breathe, their spidey sense kicks in and they think, ‘Oh yeah, I knew that, why didn’t I know that? Could the answer really be that simple?’ They are inspired by the revelation that ‘turning on’ a plant is caring for it. Every benefit has an input.

What should young contractors be doing differently?

I think they should learn to articulate how plants provide life. How they let us breathe. The local food movement was driven by chefs. We can do the same for plants.

Did you have a mentor?

I learn from everybody! If I have an Achilles heel, it’s that I don’t have one go-to person for advice. But those I meet in my journey with associations are all mentors. My customers are mentors. They all inspire me to act: If I don’t do it, who will?

Why do contractors fail?

I think you have to open your mind to see opportunity. Those that mistrust, feel lack of connection or powerless, are part of the problem. They don’t capitalize on the benefits of our profession, the ability of plants to improve our environment.
Every business book says you must differentiate to rise to the top. Our product has unique differentiation potential, but few are capitalizing on it.

Are you a leader in promoting green infrastructure?

You can’t argue with plant physiology. Plants provide pure oxygen. Why don’t we have more? Why don’t we look after them? I see plants as the solution to heat and air problems, and they tie in with my economic responsibility to make the world better. It’s not somebody else’s problem, it’s ours. Leadership is motivating people to participate and engage. I have always enjoyed helping people participate. I don’t want a brochure on the environment, just give me a shovel.   

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