May 9, 2002
Keeping up appearances
By Rita Weerdenburg
Once built, the longer-term challenge for contractors is to keep the landscape looking its best throughout the changing seasons of the Canadian climate. Recognizing excellence of a skill that, properly executed, protects or even enhances the value of the original landscape investment is the mandate of the Landscape Ontario Provincial Ground Management Award. Of this year's Awards of Excellence entries, top marks were scored for two very dissimilar projects submitted by two distinctly different companies. The following profile articles look at what works and what doesn't for the large and the small in the landscape maintenance sector of our industry.
Evergreen Landscaping and Lawn Maintenance
The relative ease with which one can alter their course is just one of the many advantages of operating a small company, says Evergreen Landscaping and Lawn Maintenance president Craig Gaynor. Being small and flexible made it relatively effortless for the company to make the transition, when the opportunity presented itself, from their original status as a run-of-the-mill landscape maintenance company to their current distinction as providers of award-winning, top-end residential gardening services.
Evergreen Landscaping and Lawn Maintenance has offered landscape construction and maintenance services in the Hamilton area since 1984. Gaynor takes pride in the fact that, even in their earlier years in business, Evergreen was a clean and tidy operation, offering clients good value and competitive prices. The challenge, he soon realized, was that there was little to set them apart from the competition, especially in the often cut-throat realm of the landscape maintenance industry and its continuing inundation of new businesses.
Moving into the upper-end marketplace required the single, if all too often elusive, ingredient of qualified, dedicated staff - an ingredient that presented itself to Gaynor in 1993 when he was approached by Brad Paton. A qualified horticulturist with a diploma from Mohawk College and six years of industry experience, Paton was looking for an employment situation that would provide him with more challenge and more responsibility. The second opportunity came three years later when the growing company hired Steve Kelly, also a career horticulturist with over a decade of industry experience. Their passion for gardening and natural dedication to detail were exactly what was needed by a small company with a preference to move into a market niche that required gardening, as opposed to maintenance services.
The distinction between the two is a very real one, believes Gaynor. "It's the difference between sending out a crew to mow the lawn and power blow the sidewalks whether or not it's needed, and using qualified horticulturists who can identify exactly what needs to be done each week to keep a property looking its best."
With the exception of a few related commercial clients, residential homes within a 45 km radius of their Highways 5 and 6 home office and yard make up most of Evergreen's customer base. "It's pretty difficult to persuade a condominium board that's always looking at the bottom line on the value of a true gardening service," acknowledges Gaynor.
The structure of their contract, which can be tailored to each client's requirements and budget, further reflects Evergreen's commitment to flexibility. Customers can choose from a menu of services that includes weekly lawn and regular bed maintenance offered at a per month price. Other services such as fertilization and chemical weed control are offered on a per application basis, with price and frequency predetermined at the start of the season. Chores that typically need to be performed annually, such as spring or fall clean-up and tree and shrub pruning can also be added to the annual maintenance contract. Based on an anticipated number of hours, contracts are priced on a flat-rate basis. "Most people have a real phobia about hourly work," says Gaynor.
Currently, Evergreen's maintenance division, which accounts for 40 per cent of the company's overall sales, employs two crews of two people, each servicing an average of 50 homes per week. Depending on the time of year and volume of work to be accomplished, additional part-time labour helps to keep them on schedule. The two crews will arrange to meet at the site of occasional larger projects at the end of a work day. Both crews are similarly outfitted with a late model, heavy-duty 3/4 or one-ton truck and 16-foot tandem trailer, each carrying a 48-inch deck, vacuum equipped Walker mower. Gas pruners are used only for the trimming of formally sheared hedges. Otherwise, pruning is dictated by proper horticultural practices, not efficiency, stresses Paton. One of the most important pieces of equipment carried by each crew is the half-moon edger. "We spend some time to set up proper bed and lawn edges at each site at the start of every contract," explains Gaynor. "All edges are hand trimmed at the end of each cut to ensure a neat, professional appearance."
Understanding and catering to the needs of each individual client is just one more competitive edge afforded to Evergreen by their small size. From the client who insists on being involved in every aspect of his garden's upkeep, including the detailed instruction on the staking of each tall growing annual or perennial flower, to the client who cheerfully delegates all gardening decisions to the maintenance crew, each customer has their own preferences. Regardless of their level of involvement, however, customers gain an extra level of confidence from knowing that the same, qualified staff will be looking after their properties' needs on a weekly basis.
As maintenance staff members become more familiar with the gardens under their care, they are also able to provide clients with the small but important details that make a difference, says Paton. This might mean installing a few annuals in a bare spot that needs some colour, or possibly spot spraying a small area that requires additional weed control. Invariably, these complimentary value-added services result in additional future business, either directly from the client or through a favourable referral.
Dedicated and qualified staff who have chosen horticulture as a career path are especially important in this service sector, and Evergreen has made it their mandate to provide a working environment that meets their employees' needs. Besides a price structure that allows them to offer their employees a fair wage, with the exception of spring clean-up time in April and May, Evergreen staff work only five days per week. "There is always lots of work for any employee who wants to earn extra money by working Saturdays," says Gaynor, "but in this industry we tend to forget that our employees have year round commitments to their families, not just in the winter."
Evergreen's commitment to both their customers and their employees means that their prices are among the highest in the industry, Gaynor admits. "If prices range from $5 to $10," he says, "our price would probably be around $8 or $9." It does occasionally come up as an issue, but only rarely have they lost a customer because of their higher prices. "Once in awhile, customers need to be made aware that we have to run this as a profitable business, with the costs of equipment, fuel and overheads. Especially when we explain to them that our staff are qualified, dedicated people who have chosen horticulture as a career alternative and deserve to be compensated accordingly, they realize they are getting good value for their money."
Because of their low attrition rate and high number of referrals, Evergreen does not find it necessary to subscribe to the percentage of sales principle to establish an advertising budget. Instead they rely on the few tried and tested venues that have worked well for them over the years. Cooperative participation in a home services brochure has been particularly successful, as has their support of the Royal Botanical Garden's annual spring garden show. As they do not provide snowplowing services, the company's Yellow Pages ad is kept to a minimum size to discourage wintertime calls.
It takes a special commitment to provide a high level of quality and service on an ongoing basis - something Gaynor and Paton both possess in abundance. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed by their clients and the trade alike. Their annual entries in the Landscape Ontario Awards of Excellence Program since 1997, in both construction and maintenance categories, have also caught the attention of the judging panels and have resulted in numerous awards. Their achievements culminated this past year with the winning of the prestigious Landscape Ontario Grounds Management Award for the best overall landscape maintenance project.
Clintar Landscaping Ltd.
Merger mania has caught up to the U.S. landscape maintenance industry, with companies acquiring and amalgamating their way into huge corporations with annual sales now exceeding the half billion dollar mark. Where the U.S. goes, Canada is sure to follow, with the inevitable result of dramatic, unalterable change to the grounds maintenance industry on this side of the border.
So believes Bob Wilton, president of Clintar Groundskeeping Services, Canada's largest landscape maintenance company. "There's no doubt in my mind that we're going to see a significant restructuring of the grounds maintenance industry over the next few years," says Wilton, "The marketplace will be dominated by a few large players and there will always be room for the smaller niche companies, but the medium-sized companies will all but disappear as they are either gobbled up or just go out of business."
By paying attention to the trends occurring across the border, Wilton has positioned Clintar, a full-service, franchise-structured grounds maintenance company, to be at the leading edge of these changes.
Today achieving over $10 million in annual sales provided by nine franchise locations, Clintar's start-up 35 years ago (when landscape maintenance wasn't even viewed as a legitimate career choice, recalls Wilton), was very typical to the industry. When the time came for expansion, however, Wilton's preference was to instead take on business "partners" through a franchise arrangement. He continued to operate his original company while expanding his franchise locations until 1980 when that business was also sold as a franchise, allowing him to devote all of his efforts to being a full-time franchiser.
Admitting it is a business concept that does not necessarily suit everyone's entrepreneurial inclination, Wilton believes that a properly structured franchise arrangement actually brings together the best of both large and small business environments. Clintar's organization provides for head office to take responsibility for most of the administrative duties, allowing each franchise owner to devote their energies to providing chargeable services. Most accounting services are provided by head office. This includes everything from keeping track of both payable and receivable accounts, payroll (employee's cheques are automatically deposited to their bank accounts) and the preparation of monthly financial statements.
Clintar's franchise agreement does not require franchisees to purchase materials and equipment from the franchiser. Instead, head office negotiates purchase prices on virtually everything required by a grounds maintenance company from equipment and equipment lease rates to fertilizer to grass seed. Each franchise is then free to place their own orders for supplies and services on an as-needed basis. "Our group buying power allows us to negotiate prices that simply aren't available to the small independent," says Wilton "Our winter salt requirements alone exceed those used by most municipalities."
Perhaps less tangible but equally important are the corporate style support services realized by each of the franchise owners. Training is provided at both the technical and financial levels. Flaunting an industry tradition that says one must be a horticulturist first and a business person second, the backgrounds of Clintar's nine franchise owners are very diverse and include only two with horticultural diplomas. "In today's complex business environment, a good business background is just as, if not more important, than technical horticultural training," stresses Wilton, who adds that each of the franchise owners has on staff a qualified horticultural operations manager. Located at Clintar's Markham-based office, the training facilities include all of the modern gadgets that would be all but unaffordable to each individual franchise.
Monthly meetings provide a venue for the franchise owners to seek and share ideas and information. They also provide the forum for the group to develop marketing strategies. "The actual outcome of these meetings is handled by the head office," explains Wilton, "but we first require a 100 per cent buy-in from the group before we proceed with any of our marketing programs."
The examination of monthly cost studies is one of the most valuable topics of these meetings. Prepared by Clintar's accountant Jo-Anne Nicholson and her staff to ensure uniformity of the figures presented, these comparative breakdowns look at all revenues and costs on a percentage basis. If one operation is spending 3-1/2 per cent of sales on fuel, for instance, while the others spend only 2-1/2 per cent, there is an obvious need for further investigation.
The corporate services provided by head office in no way negates the very real commitment of each of the franchise owners, says Wilton. "Each franchise is very much a small business. Each of the owners has a substantial up-front investment; they have as much or more on the line than any small business owner. They need to pay at least as much attention to providing quality and service as anyone in the industry to stay in business."
Each franchise is guaranteed an exclusive geographical territory. Seven are located in the GTA, and there is one each in Kitchener and London. There is a certain degree of overlap, especially amongst those located in the GTA. To remain fair to all franchisees, all contract awards are based on location, requiring the occasional sharing of customers. The scope of projects is diverse and ranges from corporate and commercial to multi- and single-family residential. Although contracts in the commercial and institutional sectors make up the largest part of the company's volume, the residential sector, both multi and single, have been targeted as the sector with the largest percentage of growth potential.
Each franchise offers their customers a broad-based and flexible menu of grounds maintenance services. Increasingly, notes Wilton, customers, especially those in the corporate and commercial sectors, are looking for one company to handle all of their grounds maintenance needs for a pre-determined dollar value contract. "Companies want to be able to work with a 'budgetable' figure, especially when it comes to snow removal," explains Wilton, adding, "This has allowed us to improve our level of service as we are able to attract better people through our ability to offer year-round employment."
Snow removal accounts for almost one-half of the company's annual volume. It is also accounts for their best profit margins overall, says Wilton. "It has to be the most profitable, because it's also the most difficult part of the business. The hours are terrible, it's hard on families, and it's hard on equipment. Lawns can be cut on a weekly schedule, but everyone's snow has to be plowed at the same time." Providing good customer service is possible only with adequate manpower which, in turn, is workable only with as much advance notice as possible. To achieve this end, Wilton insists that each of the franchise locations be outfitted with their own radar system.
Prices and quotations are the responsibility of each individual franchise, but here too, help is available from head office in the form of a production standard guideline, which provides a benchmark on how long it should take to perform all grounds maintenance functions. As an extra service, head office will also provide new franchise owners with assistance in pricing all new contracts for the first two years.
In an industry plagued with a poor reputation for its professional standards, Wilton believes that the company's corporate identity is one of the most important benefits Clintar can offer its franchise owners. "Regardless of the product or service, today's customers appreciate the confidence that comes with dealing with an established, professional name brand." Maintaining their reputation is a company mandate. Random site inspections by head office staff throughout the course of a season ensure a consistent level of quality. Again, Clintar's corporate structure allows for a proactive approach, including incentives such as a "site of the year" program, which have even more value in encouraging a level of quality that exceeds customers' expectations.
Even more coveted by the highly competitive franchise owners is the annual Franchise of the Year award, as determined by the company's internal professional business standards criteria. Each franchise is scored on financial management, fleet management, level of customer service, marketing initiatives and more. "In short, it's a brutal check-up of each operation," says Wilton. Each of these awards affords the winning franchise owner a level of personal satisfaction that exceeds the fringe benefits of extra publicity and public relations.
Contrary to the opinion of many, Wilton is characteristically optimistic about the impact of environmental issues on the grounds maintenance industry. "The environmental issue is good for business because there is a logical way around the problem - either reduce one's standards or put in place those maintenance regimes that will keep the landscape in better shape. I think it's obvious which alternative most companies will choose."