Grooming the Next King
Charlie King, 25 years after founding King Green, prepares daughter, Jennifer, to take the company's reins
Metropolitan Atlanta, including Athens, the University of Georgia and Charlotte, N.C.Services:
Fertilization, weed and insect control, termite and pest controlEmployees:
Charlie King is convinced that the most important aspect of running a successful business is relationships.
"Relationships are important in all aspects of the business. Relationships with the customer, the vendor; we try to build relationships and hold on to them," says King, who has been doing just that through his company, King Green, for 25 years. When he started, he was driving around town in a "raggedy old pick-up truck, begging for business," to provide for his family, which included 6-month-old daughter, Jennifer.
King Green employees, including Charlie King, sixth from the left, Jennifer King, ninth from left, Barbara King (Charlie's wife), eighth from left, and Gary Black, current agriculture commissioner and friend of King Green, fifth from left.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF KING GREEN.
Today, King oversees an operation of 65 employees providing lawn, tree and shrub fertilization as well as termite and pest control services. And his baby girl? She's now a company branch manager and is being groomed to take over the business.
The company primarily services the residential sector throughout the metropolitan Atlanta area, including Athens, the University of Georgia and Charlotte, N.C. About 15 percent of its revenues come from subcontracting for landscape companies that specialize in mowing/maintenance.
Putting the family in family business
The benefit of a family business is having a family member whose "heart and soul" are invested in it, says King. King's other daughter, Amber, is pursuing a career as a paramedic, which is fine with him, although he wouldn't have been displeased to see her as part of King Green, too.
Jennifer King, who will be taking over King Green from her father some day, is excited to be bringing different ways to reach out to new customers with new marketing strategies.
One of the obvious issues with having a child involved in a family business is that other employees tend to see the owner treating them with favoritism. "The other employees see that she gets some extra benefits, and she does," says King. "There's no doubt about it. She's my daughter and she's a stockholder."
Shifting thoughts, King says the company works hard to keep customers happy although it's literally impossible not to make the occasional mistake. The important thing is to learn from it and not repeat it.
"You stand by what you do. Now and then, you're going to make a mistake. You just have to make it right," he says. For example, when one of his technicians killed five customers' yards with a bad mix of products, King started making things right even before the customers realized what had happened. "I told them face to face," he says. "We fixed what we messed up."
Keeping customers happy is important to the bottom line in several ways, retention being at the top of the list, says King, who estimates it costs his company about $300 to acquire each new customer. That's the figure he came up with by dividing his company's marketing costs by the number of new customers.
Out and about
King is a natural socializer and especially likes meeting with his customers. "It's fun. I like what I do. I'd rather do that than almost anything in the world. That's why it works," he says.
King Green has not had a price increase in four years and he feels this is the year when he might have to raise prices because of rising costs. The up-and-down (mostly up) price of fertilizer is especially worrisome given the large amount required to serve all of his customers.
"It's gone from $7 a bag to $30 a bag at one point. Now it's back to about $16. We haven't had a price increase for our service. We're just trying to control our costs," he says.
King says if he raises the price of his services, he will do it carefully so it doesn't upset his customers. "We send them a letter; we offer them a prepaid discount. We brief the employees about why we have to increase the price. We haven't gone up in four years. We've never done a fuel surcharge, the price of fertilizer has doubled or tripled. We've worked hard for our clients. We're asking them to tolerate a moderate increase."
King Green does its part by doing everything it can to control costs without sacrificing service quality or losing key employees, he points out.
A few years ago, everyone in the company (including the Kings) took an 8 percent pay cut for a year. The company restored 4 percent of the lost wages a year later, and another 4 percent the next year. This year King anticipates giving employees a raise.
In hiring, King looks for attitude. He wants people with a caring, to-do personality and with an obvious a desire to work for his company.
"When we hire, we hire for the long haul and we're not afraid to put money into training," he says. "If a guy doesn't get the job done and the job doesn't fit the guy or the company doesn't fit him, we try to find that out pretty quickly."
King credits his experienced employees and an enviable employee turnover rate for much of his company's growth over the years. Fifteen employees have been with the company for more than 15 years, and most of the employees were hired as referrals from other employees.
King says he's able to keep good employees because he treats them the way he wants to be treated. "We throw a big Christmas party whether we're broke or not," he says. "We give a Christmas bonus and trust they treat us right and over the years, it's worked. Everybody gets a bad apple now and then, but overall, I've been very fortunate to have very good people work for me who are very loyal."
Keeping things lively
King's philosophy is "one-for-all and all-for-one," meaning sometimes his employees find themselves learning about other peoples' roles within the company. "We let the folks in the office try to get a couple of days each year in the trucks and we let the techs answer the phones a couple of days a year just so they see what's going on," says King. That gives employees an opportunity to see and appreciate what goes on elsewhere in the company.
"We hire good people and they stay so the same face shows up at the customer's door," says King. "The customer develops trust. Even if they don't see the employee on the property after a service, they know we were there."
One of the things that happens when you've been in business as long as King has been is that you end up training others who eventually leave to start their own businesses. He recalls about five former employees that went on their own; sometimes they even become competitors.
"They were trained in how to do it and when they told me what they were doing, we were able to part friends," he says. On one occasion he even loaned a competitor a truck when their truck broke down.
"He could have been out of business. I told him he could borrow one of mine. I know a lot of these companies have non-compete agreements, but I've never been much on that," says King.
Jennifer says these kinds of gestures by her father are not uncommon. King has always worked hard to improve not only their company, but the industry, too. She's determined to work just as hard on both counts, and admits that's a big challenge.
Continuing the tradition
King, at different times in his career, served on the board for the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET), as president of the Metro Atlanta Turf and Landscape Association (MALTA), which he remains as a member, along with the National Pest Management Association. (Note: MALTA has merged with the Georgia Sod Producers Association and the Georgia Turfgrass Association to become the Georgia Urban Ag Council.)
"We have to remain competitive, but we also support the industry, too. It's a breath of fresh air to know it's not a ruthless industry," she says. "I've never seen that in the landscape industry. You're not out to get each other. It's reassuring that we're all working for the same goal: to succeed and to grow."
Jennifer attributes King Green's ability to sustain itself for 25 years to the reputation it holds in the community.
"It's not common to keep a local company for 25 years," she points out. "You see corporations go above and beyond that, but they have bottomless pockets. We have built a lot of respect within the community."
Youth will be served
While she credits her father for that success, she differs from him in that she envisions the company moving in a new direction.
"There's a new generation coming through and I see different ways we can reach out to new customers with new marketing strategies," she says. "I always told my dad that he's got a little bit of old-school marketing antics and I feel I can bring a lot of new, fresh ideas along with my peers. We have a lot of young people in the company coming up and we have a lot of ideas to push forward as we grow."
One such idea is using the Internet more as a marketing tool, through social media and emails.
"Social media is a great way to constantly get our face out there to our customers and have us on the back of their mind," she says. "When they log onto Facebook or Twitter or get our emails, they might think of ways to improve their landscape and we pop into their minds. We can be part of that change they want to make in their home."
Jennifer says her goal moving forward is to build upon what her father has created.
"I want to see it prosper," she says. "I'd love to see it celebrate 50 years. I've grown up in it. It's comfortable to me; it's challenging at the same time. I'm challenged every day, whether it's a customer or an employee, it keeps me on my toes. I would definitely love to see the company grow and I want to continue to be a part of that growth."
She's cognizant that she's dealing with an industry that was much different than the one in which her father entered so many years ago.
Charlie King looks at a prestigious property in Atlanta, Ga.
"There are new regulations on cell phone usage on the truck and we're constantly on the phone with our technicians while they're out on properties. There are tons of restrictions on pesticide use in general and that's been a challenge," she says.
"We have an organic program. That's the biggest challenge - how are we going to appeal to those customers who don't want to use pesticides. I think that as long as we grow with the demands, we'll be fine. We have the people and the knowledge, we just have to grow with what's demanded of our industry."
As King continues to hand over the reins to his daughter, he says he wants to stay involved with trade associations to pass along his knowledge. "I want to be a good steward of the environment," he says. "I want to be a good spokesman for our industry."
Growing up in the business, Jennifer says she learned about the company and its procedures from the other employees. "The employees are like my family. I was never treated as Charlie's daughter, but just an employee, and I've respected them for that," she says.
Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.