Turf Magazine - February, 2012

NORTH FEATURES

Change of Focus, Change of Fortune

When Mike Russo started working more on his company rather than in it, good things started happening
By Tom Crain

Russo Lawn and Landscape


Owner: Mike Russo
Founded: 1990
Headquarters: Windsor Locks, Conn.
Services: Landscape and hardscape installation; ground maintenance; snow and ice management; and dumpster service
Website:www.russolawn.com

Mike Russo's full-service landscape company hit a milestone in 2011 by growing 30 percent in five years. This comes after tripling in size the five years leading up to the 2008 recession. Through much of the 1990s and into the 21st century, however, Russo had a hard time building up a head of steam with his company.

Russo is founder and owner of Russo Lawn and Landscape, a $5 million company based in Windsor Locks, Conn. He says that maintaining consistent growth in a landscaping business in lower New England requires daily effort by him and his team. It also requires that he step back from day-to-day operations and look - really look - at what's going on within it. He's working with a much different mindset than when he started the business.

"For the first 10 years running the company, I was too focused in the business to work on the business," says Russo. "I was in my own little world focusing on putting out day-to-day fires. I was staying in my own little box doing the same old thing, day in and day out."


Russo provides the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford, Conn., with weekly maintenance services, as well as seasonal color and irrigation services.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF RUSSO LAWN AND LANDSCAPE.

Networking's positive power

Russo attributes his "wake-up call" to a triple cocktail of networking, working with knowledgeable consultants, and finding and hiring other good people who had skills he lacked. He began networking by becoming an active member of the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA), which, in 2005 merged with PLCAA to form PLANET. He capitalized on connections there, worked on association committees with other green industry business owners, and was introduced to the consultants he ultimately hired to help him.


A Volvo L-40 loader with a snow pusher clears snow at an Enterprise car rental shop in Windsor Locks during last year's extremely busy snow season when 84 inches of snow accumulated.

That was a big step, he says. They helped him recognize his strengths and shortcomings as a business owner, and to find employees that could take much of the load of running the business from his shoulders. Much of what he formerly attempted to do is now the responsibility of three field supervisors, three account mangers and a director of operations.

Russo sees his role as focusing on the company's "big picture." To that end, he continues to count on three outside consultants to help him continuely fine-tune his firm's management, training, planning and technology processes. One word pops up in all of these discussions: efficiencies.

Efficiencies matter

"Particularly in this new economy, we have had to focus on crew efficiencies, taking the shortest distance to the job sites, minimizing vehicle idle times, and supplying our crews with the proper tools for each job," says Russo. "We have also had to tighten up our labor rates and hours onsite for all new work bid in the last year."

All Russo's crew members, foreman and field supervisors work on job budgets; each job is budgeted for a pre-determined number of labor e hours spent on each job are recorded on production boards for each work day, and at the end of each month they're totalled for each crew and compared against budgeted hours.

"The team members know what the actual and budgeted hours are each day, week and then at the end of each month," says Russo. "If the team is under budget for that month, each employee earns a cash bonus. All the months are posted in the production room and paid out at our end-of-the-year party."

Russo says results must be regularly monitored. Each week he meets with the company's 14 foremen, and, together, they review the week's services. He expects his foremen to act as "coaches" for their crews. Each month, Russo pulls the entire team together for a brief rundown on its progress in meeting its production and safety goals. Crews that meet the company's safety goals by remaining accident and injury-free earn gas cards to use in their personal vehicles.

Neat technology tools

To improve production efficiencies and allow everyone to stay in touch, Russo has embraced technology within his company. Some of the higher-tech tools that aid the company's day-to-day activities include:

  • Go iLawn (www.goilawn.com) for property measurement;
  • Fleetmatics GPS (www.FleetMatics.com) that tracks service vehicle use, including idling, stopping, speed, location, route traveled, mileage for preventive maintenance, and an alert system for 24-hour non-standard movement;
  • Boss LM (www.bosslm.com) for business management integration; and
  • Nextel phones for foremen and smartphones for account managers.

Branding is important to Russo, and a vital part of branding is image. All employees wear the company's signature maroon and white. Crew members wear company T-shirts; foremen wear collared shirts with name tags; and field supervisors wear polo shirts and khakis. "Clients understand that when a Russo crew is onsite, it looks professional and operates with a system of protocol," says Russo. "All questions and concerns are directed to the foremen who also leave a visitation report at each property."


Russo Lawn and Landscape helps dress up the landscaping at Signature Flight Support at Bradley International Airport.

Russo has also instituted a series of sustainability practices that have contributed significantly to efficiencies. "All of our plant and building material removed from properties is brought back to our supply yard," he says. "Brush is later hauled to a company that turns it into mulch. All of our grass clippings, dig out material and seasonal flowers are used to create compost combined with screened soil to create a wonderful product that we use the next season."


Year-round seasonal color is provided by Russo Lawn and Landscape for Signature Flight Support on the tarmac side at Bradley International Airport.

Russo's turf team ascribes to the IPM philosophy of treating something only if they see it, and weeds and insects are spot-treated. An extreme case of IPM was instituted recently when Russo successfully introduced a hungry army of carp that reduced an excessive algal bloom significantly in one of its customer's ponds.

Russo Lawn and Landscape focuses on the commercial market, with most of its clients located within a 15-mile radius of company headquarters. Major commercial clients include the aviation-focused Bombardier Aerospace and Bradley International Airport and Signature Flight Support. It also maintains the properties of local banks, motels, condominiums and HOAs.


A close-up view of the seasonal color at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford, Conn. Russo Lawn and Landscape installs bulbs, annuals and mums in the beds, and two crews-maintenance and detail-visit weekly. The detail crew deadheads, weeds, waters and fertilizes.

Giving back wins friends

Almost from the start, the company has been appreciated within its market for its generosity. Each year Russo supplies and maintains colorful planted barrels along historic Main Street in Windsor Locks, Conn., along with donating services to the town's Little League and soccer fields. When the nearby town of Suffield needed help to install their new scoreboard on the high school's football field, his team stepped in and put it up. Sometimes requests come at inopportune times, but Russo and his guys find a way to help out when they can nevertheless. Case in point, this past October the soccer field in Suffield, Conn., found itself buried in 20 inches of snow - just before the local team was scheduled to play in the state soccer championship. Russo's workers cleared the snow so the team could practice.


Commons area of Billingsgate condominiums in Simsbury, Conn. Russo Lawn and Landscape focuses on the commercial market, including local banks, motels, condos and HOAs.

Russo says that by working "on" his company rather than trying to run every aspect of it, he and his employees find more ways to serve customers efficiently, and with higher-value services. The process never ends, says Russo, and he's counting on it to take his company to its next major milestone.

For the past 20 years, Tom Crain has been a regular contributor to B2B publications, including many in the green industry. You can contact him at tecrain@goingreenguy.com.