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Join Your Local Trade Group and Share the Success

By Steve Rak II


Are you an active member of your local or state landscape association? If not, you should be. I have been involved with The Ohio Landscape Association for 20 years and I can honestly say that what I have learned over those years has been very instrumental to my success in this industry.

Now I have heard a lot of excuses as to why people don't get involved with their local trade associations. "I don't have the time" is usually the one I hear most, followed by, "It's just a good ol' boys network". Sorry folks, those clichés don't fly with me. Let me share my story about how I got involved with The Ohio Landscape Association by going to the monthly meetings (they have them over the winter months) with my father and my brother nearly 20 years ago. Now, my brother went to The Ohio State University for landscape contracting and my father took landscape courses at a local college. I, on the other hand, went to college for music and business.

5 Tips to Grow With Your Local Trade Group

1. Go to the meetings: Get there early and make it a point to talk to someone new. Remember, these are your peers in the industry; you have a lot in common.

2. Join a committee: There is always a need for help in any local trade association. Some of the committees are responsible for golf outings, programs, education and more.

3. Volunteer to speak at an event: This may not be everybody's cup of tea, but if you have a valid topic it is a great way to get in front of and network with other landscape company owners in your area.

4. Be personable: I have met my share of know-it-all's in this business and at a trade association event it is not in your best interest to make sure everyone realizes that you are the smartest person in the room!

5. Get to know the board: Make it a point to introduce yourself to the board members and the executive director.

My first thought when I started going to these meetings was this: "I don't have time for this and it's just a good ol' boys network!" I felt like a fish out of water. My father and brother would be talking all this landscape lingo with all the other "real" landscapers while I kind of just hung out throwing in an occasional "yeah, really big trees on that property," and things like that. But there was one thing I liked right away about the meetings and that was the educational aspect of them. They would always have a speaker that talked about business or landscaping, or both. So I kept going to the meetings.

Change of heart

Over the years I became more comfortable with the people and networking aspect of the meetings. I started to realize that all those "real" landscapers were also business people as well, and heck, quite a few of them didn't even go to school for landscaping. In fact, there was quite a diverse crowd of people once I got to know them.

Yes, there were award-winning landscape designers and architects, but there were also people who got into the business because they loved being outdoors. I met other people who were working in family businesses and I met others who only had a high school education. I realized that the "good ol' boys network" was just another way of saying that I didn't feel comfortable with this crowd, and the more I got to know everyone, the more comfortable I began to feel.

My story doesn't end there, because the more involved I became with the OLA the more people I got to know, and my brother ended up on the board and then became the president of the association. Of course he hoodwinked, I mean he asked, me if I would be on the golf committee and I agreed. After a few years helping out with the golf committee I got a call from someone on the board asking me to become a board member. My brother was no longer on the board at this point. I thought it over and agreed, thinking I would be on the board for a year or two and that would be it. After three years I got another call from the OLA's president asking me to be president-elect. My first instinct was to say "no", but after some careful thought I decided to go for it. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made and I am now a proud past president of The Ohio Landscape Association.

I wish I had the space to list all of the things that I learned over the past 20 years from being involved with the Ohio Landscape Association. We have had facility tours and pruning, small engine repair, insurance, accounting and business law seminars and classes to name a few. We have had some excellent speakers like Robert Hurwitz, the founder of Office Max, professional sports figures and local business owners. The OLA also hosts networking events where you meet with other landscape professionals for happy hour and talk business or just shoot the breeze. They also have really good food at all of their events, which is an extra-added bonus.

I could go on and on about all of the benefits of being an active member of your local association, but I think you get the picture by now. If your local association is hosting a meeting, class or networking event in the near future, please consider going. If you are new to this industry, be patient and don't get discouraged if it takes some time to make friends and feel comfortable with your association. Take it from someone who has been there and done that, you may some day become its president. If you're laughing and thinking that it will never happen to you, don't be too sure.

The author is the owner of Southwest Landscape Management, Columbia Station, Ohio, and a partner with his brother, Jeff, in Rak Consulting. Contact him at steve@sw-landscape.com.