May 9, 2002
Nurseryman Dwight Hughes, Jr.:
Thinking outside of the box

By Linda Erskine-White

Thinking outside of the box - we've heard this expression so many times that we often wonder about who is left thinking inside. In nursery and landscape production, thinking outside of the box could mean many things - looking at efficiency per person, the amount of time and how many people it takes to complete a task, or the equipment you use in your operation, its efficiency completing the range of jobs for which it is required and the maintenance required for it to remain in top con­dition. Above all, thinking outside of the box is to always ques­tion authority, to always be on the lookout for how to do things faster, better and with improved results.

     In business, and especially in the nursery indus­try, which relies on a seasonal labour force in a concentrated window of time, doing things faster and better should go hand in hand with good business practices. But, according to Dwight Hughes, Jr., a third-generation nurseryman in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and celebrated author and consultant, many members of the North American horticulture indus­try may be performing certain tasks simply because it was what their ancestors have done time and time again.

     Hughes brought this message with him to Landscape Ontario's Congress 2000 this past January, with his seminar "Getting mechanized into the millennium and beyond," offering suggestions on how industry professionals can increase efficiency in their nursery and landscape contracting or maintenance business.

     As a landscape and field production nursery that grows a staple of nursery stock for its landscape projects, Dwight Hughes Nursery does not deal specifically with other contractors, retail garden centres or the public. It also means that what plant material is needed on a job site must first be balled and burlapped and taken from the field, placed on trucks and planted in a landscape in a relatively short period of time, and by the same staff members. And, with a staff of four seasonal, full-time employees, it makes sense to Hughes to continually look at new, more efficient ways of handling projects with systems engineering.

     "Peter Drucker once said that time is the scarcest resource and unless it is managed, nothing else can be managed," says Hughes. To run an efficient and effective business, he explains, you must look at the following criteria: time, people and resource management, money management and marketing management. While money and marketing management are both required for a healthy, thriving business, Hughes' seminar and this article deals mainly with time, people and resource management.

People management - employees who are motivated, trained and skilled
Even more important than the overall volume of business the firm handles are those individuals who perform the duties that contribute to the bottom line - staff, and production per person efficiency attained by these individuals. "Labour is our biggest expense and our biggest problem," says Hughes. "What have we done as green industry professionals to concentrate and focus on that problem?"

     Hughes has many answers to that question, the first being "how will you make your business attractive to new and returning employees?" Employees will put in that extra effort needed to attain maximum efficiency per person if they are first given the right tools to do the job. This means looking at the equipment used in the operation and continually working on ways to get the job done in as little amount of time as possible. "Everything you can do to help your employees move that material without physical labour is an advantage to the company and the operation," says Hughes, indicating that from the time the tree is harvested to the time it is delivered and placed on the job site, it is not touched by human hands. "We do not pay our employees to physically carry material. Our view is to pay them to unload the plant material or place them as opposed to carrying," he says. "If you have to move a plant more than eight or nine steps, then find wheels or conveyor, or some mechanical means to move the material."

Machinery and equipment
Dwight Hughes Nursery has a relatively large arsenal of equipment on which to rely. A Kubota 4WD articulated tractor with turf tires and oversized bucket, outriggers (built by the nursery in its own shop) and attached backhoe, and a Power Trac, an articulated power tractor with turf tires and oversized bucket, purchased four years ago as a power wheelbarrow with lift capacity, replaced a lot of the physical labour required in the landscape operation. B&B plant handling in the nursery is accomplished with a Tree Boss to increase staff productivity. Ramps and aluminum roller conveyors help to load and unload both equipment and nursery stock.

     The Tree Boss, designed about 12 years ago, is a material handling system used to physically handle all B&B procedures at the nursery. "If holes are dug properly with the backhoe tractor, and we have a good operator on the Tree Boss, we can even drop the tree right into the hole," Hughes continues. He also notes that one piece of equipment can be used for a variety of tasks, not just the task it was originally designed to perform. For instance, the bucket of the articulated skid steer could be used to transport mulch and fill to and from a landscape site, and to deliver B&B trees directly to the location they are needed in a landscape project.

Time and Resource Management
Thinking outside of the box is not restricted to larger equipment purchases and use, and can include something as simple as ensuring all equipment is cleaned and stocked for the next day's activities at the end of each day. As Hughes explains, four employees used to spend approximately five minutes each cleaning the hand tools at the end of a landscape job with putty knives and steel brushes. "Now, one person with a power inverter connected to a 12-volt battery can clean the same number of tools in five minutes. Ask yourself what you are paying your people, and then ask yourself how much are they costing you in lost productivity." Organization is everything - from cleaning and stocking trucks for the next day's job to having a place for each tool or supply, and have it ready at your fingertips. Each of their five trucks, stored inside the landscape building each night, are loaded and lined up with all of the material they need for delivery on the next job. "Firms are spending an awful lot of non-productive time, loading and unloading equipment … You have to try to find ways of getting that equipment down the road as quickly as possible," Hughes notes.

     Each truck cab is equipped with index cards, calendar, pencil holder, cell phone, computer and calculator, while the aluminum bed is com­partmentalized to hold all of the hand tools and equipment needed on an average landscape job on a daily basis. While these tools and supplies remain on the truck from day to day, employees add their lunch boxes, cooler and fertilizer. Soda pop, fruit juice, ice water, cups and cup dispenser and garbage can are just some of the extra perks afforded to Hughes' staff, and all coolers, dispensers, etc. fit into their own space on the trucks. Two aluminum boxes, fitted with stainless steel doors open to reveal ropes, marking tape, paint, flares and kneepads. Hand rakes are stored on a small shelf built in the space between the platform and the chassis. Repairs can also be handled immediately as appropriate tools are carried with each machine on a daily basis.

     Not all of these ideas have to result in a large monetary investment, says Hughes. Productivity can be increased for as little as $1.35 (U.S.) for a small putty knife. Attached to a backhoe, this inexpensive and simple tool is used to clean the debris and dirt from the bucket after each use. A clipboard holding copies of a landscape plan carried on the backhoe saves time for the crewmember who would have otherwise had to return to the truck to check on any specifications.

     Hughes is a firm believer in organization, but, he says, that this is not typical of the average nursery or landscape firm in North America. "If I went home with you today," what would I find if I flipped the seats forward in your truck," he asks the audience. "The personality of a business is reflected by the personality of the management." A visual inspection of Hughes' truck would reveal an organizer, along with small items such as water wand heads, hand tools, first aid kits and ear protection for use with paver power equipment.

     Once you have reached the point where you are trained to organize and use all available space, and at the same time, think outside of your comfort level to seek better ways of doing things, says Hughes, "then all the benefits start to come both ways. To the employee, the pension plan kicks in, the profit sharing starts, the company airplane starts up. And, from the employers standpoint, your productivity goes up, morale goes up, people enjoy working for you, you retain your employees longer, the employees have pride of ownership - it's a synergistic effect and everybody wins."

     Part of this win-win situation comes monetarily, through a complete health insurance plan, salary pension and profit sharing, all paid for in corporate dollars. Dwight Hughes Nursery also offers other tangible benefits such as a lunchroom and kitchen, equipped with microwave, fridge, icebox, large utility sink and locker area. Employees also have the opportunity to visit other operations around the country with field trips on the company's airplane.

     While these ideas work well for Hughes and his nursery and landscape operation, he says they may not be right for everyone. "What I am trying to do is to stimulate thinking and make you think out of the box," he stresses.

     "We can't go to the extreme and say 'we can't do this,'" simply because it is not what we are used to doing. "We have to say 'Let's figure out an innovative way to a solution to the problem, and let's attack that challenge in a positive way.'"

Dwight Hughes, Jr. is no stranger to "thinking outside of the box." In 1978, after breaking away from his family's nursery business, Hughes founded Dwight Hughes Nursery in Cedar, Rapids, IA. Since then, this landscape and field production nursery has become nationally recognized for its focus on time management, equipment innovations and forward-looking business philosophies. Hughes shares his ideas across Canada and the United States, including two very popular seminars at Landscape Ontario's Congress. He is also author of Systems for Success, Strategies for maximum efficiency in landscape installation and nursery production.

Systems for Success is available in book or video format from Dwight Hughes Systems Inc. for $30 (U.S.) for the book and $45 (U.S.) for the video, shipping and handling extra. To order, please contact Dwight Hughes Systems Inc., 5205 Nursery Rd. S.W., Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52404.