St. Louis is a great baseball town. The folks there love their MLB Cardinals, and why not? The team is the winner of 11 World Series championships, second only to the legendary New York Yankees. The 2014 season saw more than 3.5 million fans pass through the turnstiles of Busch Stadium. Only the L.A. Dodgers drew more fans.
How would you like the Busch Stadium property to showcase your landscape work?
If you do, you will have to wrestle it away from John Munie, founder and president of Focal Pointe Outdoor Solutions. His company has been caring for the landscaping and small turf areas around the huge structure for 10 years. He and the Cardinals just negotiated a five-year extension.
“The short story is this: Mark Lamping, the former president of the Cardinals, became a customer in 2000. He’d just had a pool installed the fall before and the lawn was in poor shape—thin, pale and partially tore up from the pool installation,” recalls Munie. “I reviewed the property and gave him a bid. After a week or so, he called to go over the bid and let me know that my mowing number was too high.
“I gave him the only response I could think of: ‘Mr. Lamping, I will not be using a riding mower on your property like everyone else in the neighborhood. If you cannot see the quality difference between the way I mow a lawn and everyone else, I’ll take you to a Cardinals game.’ He said: ‘You’re a funny guy. You got the job.'”
After spending five years on the Lampings’ property, paying attention to personal details, Munie approached the executive with an idea for the stadium.
“The Cardinals had made a decision to build a new stadium and there was some sentiment in the community that this was just a money grab,” says Munie. “There was a lot of emotion invested in the old stadium, so I suggested to Mr. Lamping that we load the property up with annuals out of respect to the fans and all of the great memories. He thought it was a good idea and directed me to the operations department. That was late fall of 2004. We’ve been there ever since.”
Prior to picking up the stadium, Focal Pointe, founded in 1998, served the high-end residential market almost exclusively. “Being asked to work at the Stadium pulled us into the commercial market,” recalls Munie. “Busch Stadium is a high-profile site obviously, and the fact that the Cardinals trust us with their brand attracted the attention of other commercial property owners and managers.
“For our company it became a case of, ‘Congratulations, You are now in the commercial market,'” Munie explains.
As in every other landscape market in the U.S. and Canada, the greater St. Louis commercial property market is price-sensitive and brutally competitive.
“There is a lot of pressure on managers to deliver low pricing to their owners,” acknowledges Munie. “Yes, we do see the pressure, too. Our clients are very aware of wanting a fair price, but they tend to put more emphasis on quality and service. Rarely does low price and high value live in the same house. The problem is customers can’t quantify quality and service because they haven’t experienced a noticeable difference.
“Take the term ‘customer service’ for example. I am tired of those two words because they have almost become noise. Everyone says it, but hardly anyone means it,” he adds.
Instead, Munie and his 80 employees focus on delivering unique client experiences for all of their customers, looking for reasons to go beyond the scope of the contract.
He acknowledges that defining “unique and high value” for every client is a challenge. But it’s a business philosophy he feels separates his company in a positive way from competitors.
That said, Munie admits that pushing his company to ever-higher levels of service is a never-ending work in progress.
“Our service experience last year wasn’t as good as it should have been based upon the standards we have set in our company,” says Munie. “We had some folks in positions who were new to them and, as a result, we had some breakdowns. We did not do a good enough job with training last winter.”
The frigid, snowy winter of 2013-2014, followed by the unusually cool and wet spring, put a lot of off-season training programs on ice.
“We got beat up pushing snow all winter, and we had snow into April,” he recalls. “We were literally thrown into the spring season, and we didn’t do as well as we should have done. Fortunately, we have many great, long-standing clients and a deep team. For the most part, we did manage to hit the mark, but that’s not the standard we celebrate over.”
Munie says he spent a significant amount of time this winter reviewing his company’s procedures and updating its organizational (org) chart. He’s determined to get his company off to a strong start this spring, thanks to planning and the addition of a couple new key managers.
Growth brings its own unique set of challenges, he continues.
“I can remember the challenge of going from $750,000 to $1.5 million in sales. At $750,000, an owner can manage everything,” he explains. “You can be the sales person. You can be the bookkeeper. You can be the account manager. You can run production. You can make it all happen.
“When you get to $1 million, all of a sudden you need somebody, but you are not quite at a point where you can afford them. Then, $2 million to $2.5 million is the same deal,” he continues. “You must have a good org chart with good people, or be willing to do the job of a couple people until you can.”
Entering this season with revenue of approximately $6 million, Focal Pointe Outdoor Solutions has the resources and reputation to attract talent, but more importantly, according to Munie, “we have the culture to retain it.”
“In a sense, we are becoming a destination for green industry professionals who want to do right by their customers,” says Munie. “We have several high-profile accounts, residential and commercial. Those accounts, and the culture we must have to serve them, attracts and retains quality-minded professionals.”
Focal Pointe, from its founding until today, retains a strong presence in the high-end residential market.
“We provide a high level of service for our full-service residential clients – mowing, lawn care, tree and shrub, pruning, mulch, pool maintenance, spa maintenance, irrigation and flowers,” he continues. “We’re a one stop-shop, complete with their own account manager.
“In addition to the convenience we offer, our team has come to truly understand what our customers hire us for,” Munie says. “We are not a landscape company. For our residential clients, we are a life quality company. Think about it. Our clients spend money on their properties because they want to pull in their driveways and feel a certain way about themselves and their places in the world. We are supporting their personal brand.”
“Just like their clothing, automobiles, private memberships and wines; the crisp lines in the lawn and beautiful seasonal color displays we provide, reinforces their place in the world,” he adds. “They’ve worked hard for it, and we’re proud to help them celebrate their success.”
In the case of a commercial property, the quality of the grounds also speaks to the owner’s place in the world, but in a different way.
“It is our job to help position their brand. Much like the building’s architect, we are responsible for shaping public opinion for the entities that call that place of business home,” continues Munie. “That includes the employees, customers and vendors who work directly with the tenants. We are a critical piece in building organizational culture. It would be impossible for a company to brag about their high standards if the grounds told a different story. Conversely, we tell the story for them.”
The company’s ideal customer is an educated customer. “We see it more often than I care to admit. Competitors bid the contract low to get the job, short the clients on the scope, then charge a premium for enhancements – some of which could have been avoided if the original scope would have been performed at a higher level. I’d rather see the customer spend a little more on the contract and a lot less on the enhancements because we’re doing a good job. Educated customers get that, and they appreciate the honesty.”
Munie says that while he doesn’t foresee adding any additional services to his company this season, he sees continued growth in several of the company’s profit centers.
“We have a terrific team of professionals that are focused on the same goals and pulling the wagon in the same direction. As exciting as the last five years have been (the company has grown an average of 28 percent per year since 2009), I believe this team is on the brink of an amazing run. You can almost feel the floor and walls humming, the energy is noticeable”
In addition to its staff of expert horticulturists, arborists, irrigation specialists, turf experts, agronomists and foresters, the company relies upon a strong core of returning H-2B workers to provide its services.
“In spite of the government’s best efforts to do away with it, the reliability of the H-2B program has allowed us to employ very skilled and valuable employees, and because of them we have been able to grow and create a significant number of professional jobs,” says Munie.
“The H-2B workers enjoy the work, and they believe it is an honor to be here. It is unfortunate our politicians don’t see the benefits of these tax-paying, law-abiding individuals who help us actually create jobs. It’s baffling to me.”
So next time you’re trying to sell that big job, perhaps you may want to take some time to think about what you’re selling. Are you selling the riding mower speeding across the property, or are you selling the intimacy and emotional commitment of your brand?