Turf Magazine - April, 2012

DEPARTMENTS

Contractors' Corner: Great Escape Offers Great Advice

PLANET's annual mid-winter business conference gave attendees lots to try
By Rick Cuddihe

PLANET'S Great Escape conference at Atlantis on Paradise Island, The Bahamas, yielded lots of great ideas that landscape contractors can use to improve their companies. PLANET is the acronym for The Professional Landcare Network, a Herndon, Va.-based association serving lawn care professionals, landscape management companies, design/build and landscape installers and other green industry contractors. Each winter it hosts the event, which typically draws about 150 contractors and guests.

A large group of respected consultants and experts provided the attendees with plenty to think about and share with their teams when they returned from their brief visit to the Caribbean island. Here are some highlights from their presentations.

Keynote gold

Tom Oyler, partner in the Wilson-Oyler Group, addressed the group with a striking presentation titled "Who's On Point," focusing on driving contractors toward fast growth and improved profitability. Oyler should know. He's started and grown several of the most successful businesses in the industry, including U.S. Lawns, and also outside the industry. For example, his Florida-based New South Equipment Mats is rated by Inc. Magazine as one of the fastest-growing companies in the country.

Oyler contended that contractors are not concentrating on the key driver issues facing their businesses in today's economic environment. Instead, they're getting bogged down with operational and process improvement issues. Oyler said that this leaves only one avenue for contractors seeking to extraordinary growth: buying competitors.

"The more benchmarking companies do, the more they look like their competitors. As long as rivals imitate, even a win is short-lived," said Oyler. Instead, business owners should be focusing on what Oyler described as strategic positioning: performing similar activities differently. He cited the example of Southwest Airlines and what it did to become the most profitable air carrier. Unlike its then much bigger and established competitors, it offered consumers low-cost, point-to-point service. It promised reliable no-frills (no first class) service and 15-minute turnarounds.

Oyler told attendees that the essential elements for successful strategizing and innovating lie in developing individual and organizational guiding principles while, also, recognizing and eliminating destructive habits. He advised the group to:

  • treat customers' money as if it was their own;
  • become the low-cost provider in their markets and eliminate dumb taxes that they pass to clients; and
  • always keep their customers at the center of their strategic thinking.

"To hyper-grow, a company must break out of the vicious cycle of competitive benchmarking, imitation and pursuit," reiterated Oyler.

Keys to winning 2012

Kevin Kehoe of 3PG-Three Point Group focused on account and operations management and performing to the highest level to successfully develop and retain clients. Kehoe stressed finding out what customers want and developing key performance indicators for managers that include due-by dates.

He suggested that account managers should be given more responsibility and accountability. In those instances where they take on more, they should also be compensated better.

Kehoe also suggested that operations managers develop forecasts using service line hours to more accurately predict costs and demand more precise reports from field supervisors to stress accountability. He said that accurate hour forecasting is vital to winning in operations.

"The business forecast is not good, but that doesn't mean your forecast shouldn't be good," he said. In spite of what most economists see as at least two more years of high unemployment and depressed home prices, landscape companies can do well if they use all the training tools at their disposal.

In fact, Kehoe predicted an industry average growth of 15 percent in 2012 and suggested this growth is possible because contractor profits are rising primarily due to maintenance production, even while regional hourly rates are falling.

The digital frontier

Web base and social media is rapidly become the shopping choice of consumer and business clients in the green industry. Roger Phelps, promotional communications manager for STIHL, Inc., presented a lively discussion on why the Web and social media should be part of all contractors' marketing programs.

Presenting with Phelps was Pat Shunk of Power Cord Systems and Bruce Robert of Red Letter Communications. Together they recommended ways contractors can increase customer awareness and their companys' reputations by delivering positive and attractive Web-based communications and using social media.

After the informative presentation, they held a series of discussion groups with the conference attendees participating in identifying ways that green industry service providers can use social media to their advantage.

Great landscape tour of Atlantis

The PLANET Great Escape was held at Atlantis on Paradise Island, The Bahamas. Atlantis is truly a paradise with every resort and conference accommodation you can think of, including fabulous weather. Tony Burzo, director of landscape and horticulture at Atlantis, provided an educational tour of the grounds explaining the many and varied types of plants, trees and water features on the island. It's worth mentioning that the Atlantis property comprises the majority of Paradise Island.

Burzo is fairly new to the Bahamas, having recently moved from southern Florida where he spent most of his career managing landscape facilities. For a few lucky attendees, yours truly included, Burzo also provided a guided tour of the Ocean Club Golf Course, the premium 18-hole championship course on the island owned by Atlantis.

The PLANET Great Escape was a great educational event and a "great escape" for over 125 contractors and their guests. For more information on the Great Escape, visit PLANET's website at www.landcarenetwork.org.

Rick Cuddihe is president of Lafayette Consulting Co., a PLANET Trailblazer and works with landscape contractors to improve their businesses. Contact him at rick@lafayetteconsulting.com.