Turf Magazine - May, 2013

NORTH FEATURES

Hands-On Leader

From a local start to a national leader, Crystal Arlington knows the industry
By Patrick White


Whether running a business meeting or a hydroseeder, Crystal Arlington, president and CEO of Affiliated Grounds Maintenance Group, Inc., Lake City, Pa., is right at home in the largely male landscape industry.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF AGMG.

Crystal Arlington's first trailer was a red wagon that she hitched behind her bike. After loading an old push mower she would peddle her bike to neighbors' properties and mow their yards. Over the last few decades, Arlington's fleet of equipment has grown - as has her service territory. Today, she is president and CEO of Affiliated Grounds Maintenance Group, Inc., which provides property owners and facility managers with full service exterior maintenance using a network of some 7,000 contractor partners across the country.

One thing hasn't changed, though: Arlington still loves to be hands-on. "My crew will tell you that I'll still get in a truck and go out to plow if we're in a bind. I can still jump in a skid steer. I can still get behind a mower," she laughs. "And I think my guys respect me because of that."

Like her introduction to lawn care, Arlington got started in the snow removal business when she was young, helping her father plow driveways in an old Scout. "He was a farmhand and we did it just to have a few extra dollars in our pockets," she recalls. "My job was to get out in the snow and lock the hubs into four-wheel-drive, and pull the pins to re-angle the plow. But I learned a lot of work ethic."

It also gave her first-hand experience that she says is invaluable. "Someone who's got good morals, good ethics and is a hard worker means more to me than a degree," she states firmly.

That said, Arlington has placed an emphasis on education in her life. Though she became pregnant in high school, she continued to earn her degree. And she continued mowing lawns for a growing list of customers at the same time. "I actually doubled up on my classes and graduated early at age 17," says Arlington.

Afilliated Grounds Maintenance Group, Inc.

Owner: Crystal Arlington, president and CEO
Founded: 1999, Incorporated in 2006
Headquarters: Lake City, Pa.
Markets: Nationwide
Services: Landscape maintenance; snow removal and ice management; parking lot sweeping; pressure washing; additional exterior services
Employees: Independent contractors throughout the U.S.
Website: www.agmgus.com

Just before her 18th birthday, she met the man who would become her husband and business partner, Richard Arlington. Now a business manager and landscape industry consultant, at the time Richard operated his own lawn care business. After they were married, he took over his wife's mowing accounts and Arlington went back to school, earning a degree in elementary education with a minor in special education. She then opened a licensed day care. "That's what I wanted to do. I wanted to teach kids and work with those with special needs," she explains.

While her intent at the time was to get out of the landscape business, that never happened. Even though she was running a day care operation, Arlington was still mowing lawns on the weekends and in the evenings.

When opportunity knocks

Little did she know the landscape industry would eventually become her full-time profession. In 1998 a large national retail customer (Kohl's) approached the Arlingtons with the idea of providing outdoor maintenance for its stores in other parts of the country. "We wanted to impress that customer, and when they gave use the scope of work and how many stores they wanted us to take over, Richard and I got in the car and went and looked at everything and decided, 'OK, let's do this.'"

Richard had built a large list of contacts in the landscape business in his experience as a speaker at industry events, so the couple started calling these contractors to see if they wanted to handle the work.

Before long, Arlington formed Affiliated Grounds Maintenance Group as a national service provider. At the same time, though, she continued to operate a growing day care enterprise.

"In 2006 I realized that I needed to choose whether I was going to run these day care centers or if I was going to run this national company. I couldn't do both," she recalls of the 16-hour days she was putting in. "I decided to sell off the day care centers and go 100 percent into grounds maintenance."

While Affiliated Grounds Maintenance, headquartered just outside Erie, Pa., uses independent contractors to handle only commercial customers, Arlington also owns three separate landscape maintenance companies - in Erie and Jacksonville, Fla., and in Massachusetts - that "self perform," serving commercial clients, as well as high-end residential and HOA customers.

One busy couple

Richard serves as national business manager for Affiliated Grounds Maintenance and still operates a local landscape and snow management company, Arlington Lawncare. "He also has his national consulting and expert witness practice," says Arlington. Together, the two also own a large portfolio of rental property.

It all makes for a hectic schedule filled with plenty of travel. While she's not afraid to get out in the field, most of Arlington's time today is focused on sales. "I'm the person who's out there at the national trade shows, meeting with customers, doing presentations," she explains.

But, for her, meeting with customers and contractors and building relationships isn't just important for business reasons, it's her entire purpose. "I'm in this business for the relationship with the customer and the relationship with the contractors," says Arlington. "And I'm not in it for one year. I want to be able to maintain these relationships. Most of my contracts are for three to five years. I don't like having a relationship where I'm disposable, the customer is disposable, the contractor is disposable." She says this means turning away millions and millions of dollars of work every year because the jobs didn't seem fair to the contractor.

Arlington says one of her priorities is to talk with facility managers and with contractors to come up with a scope of work that's fair for both of them. That can sometimes be a challenge, she acknowledges, but adds that she and Richard spend a lot of time trying to educate both customers and contractors so that everyone will be happy: "We're very careful about how work orders are explained; we're very careful about how scope of work is explained; we're very careful with master service agreements ... There is a way to word contracts where everybody wins."

While there will also be some complaints and grumbling in any business, Arlington points to Affiliated Grounds Maintenance Group's 98 percent contractor retention and 96 percent customer retention. "That shows I'm doing something right," she states.

She credits some of that success with the constant support offered to contractors from her regional managers, who make the rounds of properties on a regular basis to make sure everything is running smoothly. "And Richard and I sometimes talk with contractors about different ways they might do something in order to be more successful and profitable. We don't want our contractors to fail and we don't want them to feel like they're working for free. We want to help them. Every contractor that works for me has my cell number and my email," says Arlington.

Living the business

Being able to relate to the contractors is critical, she continues, and something that not all national service providers can offer. Arlington says that because she and her husband continue to operate their own self-performing maintenance companies, "we live the business, so we know what it's like. And I was a two-person company at one point, so I know how hard it is to get everyone to pay by Friday so I could meet my payroll and still feed my kids. Our contractors need to get paid for services rendered."

This helps when she talks to contractors. "We don't advertise, we get most of our contractors through word-of-mouth," says Arlington. "And I'm one of those rare national companies that isn't afraid to go out on the trade show floor at landscape conventions. I go to a lot of trade shows and tell people, 'We're hiring contractors.'"

So how is Arlington received as a woman in the largely male industry? "I have gotten eyebrows raised at me in corporate America. But once I start doing my presentation and am able to answer questions without having to look things up, the eyebrows come down," she explains.

Among lawn care and landscape contactors, Arlington says she rarely has encountered resistance. "I have been received with open arms. Sometimes people will want to test me a little to see how much I know, but that's OK. That might even happen to males," she explains. For whatever reason, she says that the snow management world seems a little more closed off to women than landscaping. "Sometimes people can be pretty mean. But again, that's OK. My local employees - I have over 200 of them - all respect me because they know I'll go out there and help them. If someone calls in sick, I'll go out and plow. I'll jump on a mower and go out and mow for a day if that's needed."

Arlington is the only woman in the U.S. to be certified in both landscaping (LICM through PLANET) and snow management (CSP through SIMA). She also proudly points to her years of safety awards from these organizations, noting that her experience and education has helped her garner the respect of others.

Arlington says she's met other women in the landscape industry over the years at conventions and trade shows, "some of whom have felt like they've been shunned, and that makes me sad," she says. To help support other women in the industry, Arlington is in the process of starting a nonprofit group to support women working in "non-traditional" careers. Arlington doesn't like the term "male-dominated," because she thinks that makes men sound bad. "I want to give good business advice to women who are not in traditional professions, women who work as mechanics or who own delivery services, etc. Our industry, for example, is more than 98 percent male."

But that number seems to be changing. Arlington also serves as a PLANET Trailblazer, which has really opened her eyes to just how many women there are in this field. That program gives those in the lawn and landscape industry a chance to learn from leaders such as Arlington.

"I've been overwhelmed by women in the industry wanting advice on how to run their business," she explains. "So I'm finding out there are a lot more women out there than I thought, whether it be running the office or actually going out and doing the sales, there's just an array of women working in the lawn and landscape industry. I find it awesome. It's come a long way in the last 10 to 20 years."

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories. You can contact him at pwhite@meadowridgemedia.com.