If you’re worried about how you’re going to separate your mowing technique from that of the business down the road, you may want to rethink your competitive strategy.

This from one of the leading landscapers in the industry—Jim McCutcheon, CEO of HighGrove Partners in Austell, Georgia, and past president of the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP), who says his mantra today is, “Stop thinking like a landscaper.” Instead, McCutcheon focuses on being a service-oriented business that just happens to do landscaping.

And his co-panelists (Scott Jamieson of Bartlett Tree Experts and Frank Mariani of Mariani Landscape in Chicago) at the “Lessons Learned from Industry Giants” session at NALP’s LANDSCAPES 2015 at the recent GIE+EXPO agree. Planning ahead (as well as having multiple backup plans) and differentiating yourself from the competition in unique ways can help ensure lasting success. And these business owners should know. HighGrove has been around 26 years, Bartlett is a 108-year-old business and Mariani Landscape just celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Moderated by industry consultant Marty Grunder, these three industry leaders share everything from their business cultures to their definitions of leadership to the biggest mistakes they’ve made in business and how they learned from them.

From left to right: Scott Jamieson, Jim McCutcheon and Frank Mariani.

Marty Grunder: What is your business vision or culture?

Jim McCutcheon: Culture is critical to everything we do. We have a two-and-one-half day retreat every year. Our people our tired and burned out when we start, but by the time they leave they are reinvigorated. Taking 60 people out of town for two-plus days costs roughly $40,000 but it ends up only costing us $10,000 because our vendors want to be a part of it and help cover the cost.

Frank Mariani: We have a company intranet where we share interesting things that are happening around the company. In our mission statement, we have 10 different things we highlight as a way to show how we need to treat each other and our customers every day. At the end of each story we put up there, we refer to part of the mission statement so employees can continually see how people are using that each day. It’s like our 10 commandments that help guide us to make decisions each day. This builds our culture because it empowers people.

Marty Grunder: What does leadership mean to you?

Jim McCutcheon: I was a micromanager when I started out, but then I realized that I could only grow to a point where I could put my hands on something. Ultimately, I had to change how I operated. Today, I’m a hands-off type of person. I have a senior leadership team of four people. I’ve done their jobs before, but I can’t do their jobs as well as they can. I try to find folks who are stronger and better than I am at particular tasks and try not to be afraid to find someone smarter. You have to understand what you love to do and then find people around you who can fill in the areas where you’re weaker.

Scott Jamieson: Leadership shows up in different styles and demeanors. You have to be OK with who you are and who you’re not. Even if you’re not a big personality, you can still have an impact on someone else at your company so it’s important to channel that energy.

Frank Mariani: You have to listen and learn and think about what people are saying. You need to do simple things. You have to put your associates and your clients before yourself. You have to not be afraid to make mistakes. You have to be able to get in front of your team and not be afraid to say you made a mistake. You also have to understand what you’re capable of. I’m good at driving sales and assembling a team. I know what I do well and I can surround myself with people who cover my shortcomings. It’s nice if your team knows you have the guts to handle anything that comes your way.

Big Leaders, Big Advice

Here are the top nuggets of wisdom these industry leaders shared with the Green Industry & Equipment Expo audience.

  • The best way to retain someone is to pay attention to them.
  • It’s OK to have people who work for you who are smarter than you.
  • Know that as a leader you are always making an impact on your employees.
  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
  • It’s OK to be vulnerable and own up to your mistakes. Be honest about your mistakes.
  • Stop thinking like a landscaper.
  • Don’t be reactive; be proactive.

Marty Grunder: What role does planning play in the success in your companies?

Frank Mariani: I love strategic planning. We live it all the time. We like to get everybody in a room together talking about S.W.O.T – our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. At our company, we get into smaller groups, and usually people all across the company will think of threats and weaknesses that I never thought of. While the process can be tedious, having a leader keep track of the process and lead the effort and track progress from the meetings is crucial. Then, because we put multiple plans in place, I no longer lose sleep at night wondering about what’s going to happen because I know we have a backup plan for different situations.

Scott Jamieson: Most people are looking at their sales goals for just one month. What I’ve found is that an organization that works mostly on strategic planning helps get employees to look further out and brings more purpose to their jobs.

Jim McCutcheon: We have a mantra at our place: “Stop thinking like a landscaper.”

For instance, we recently brought our nursery suppliers in and told them they had the quality I was looking for but they all thought too much like nurserymen. If I asked them about their operation, they’d show me plants and brochures. But, to be honest, if they all dropped off the same plant, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between them. But if they thought more like logistics people, they would turn my head because if they are late or they don’t have the supply I need, that’s when they’re killing me.

So we told our people the same thing. If you think our customers can tell the difference between the way we mow, edge and prune, well they just can’t. The way we differentiate ourselves is with service-oriented issues. We consider ourselves a service-oriented business that just happens to do landscaping.

One example of how we do this is we’re certified in real estate. We give seminars to our customers each year on real estate topics and this helps them fulfill their continuing education credits for real estate. That gives customers extra value from us.

Marty Grunder: What do you do for fun? How do you deload?

Scott Jamieson: Boating is a big deal on Lake Michigan, so our family does a lot of that. I’m also a big road cyclist; I’ve done the 600-mile Tour des Trees bike ride twice.

Jim McCutcheon: I love to run, but I haven’t been able to do much of that with knee surgery that I have to have. Fly fishing is my thing. I like walking the creek and just the nature of the sport.

Frank Mariani: I like golf and I have a passion for cooking. I have a fabulous vegetable garden and we have Sundays at Frank’s where I invite anyone who wants to come over and have dinner … and we might even drink some red wine.

Marty Grunder: What books do you read?

Scott Jamieson: “It’s Your Ship” by Michael Abrashoff and “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson.

Jim McCutcheon: I’m a big time reader and love continuing to learn. If you haven’t read “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand, read that book. “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … And Others Don’t” by Jim Collins is a necessity. I think being a lifetime learner is so important.

Frank Mariani: Jason Clark’s books and “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson.

Marty Grunder: What is the biggest mistake you made in business?

Frank Mariani: Early in my career, I was so competitive. I wanted every job. But that wasn’t smart. Not every job is for us. Now we only take jobs right for us. I wish I would have learned that sooner.

Jim McCutcheon: Years ago, I thought I could conquer the world. I had offices in multiple locations and offered every service imaginable. I felt like we could do it all. I learned that wasn’t for us. We decided to narrow our focus and become better at offering our niche and it’s worked out much better for us.

Scott Jamieson: I had a rough day one day and was walking into the office preparing for a challenging conference call. I walked right past my employees and didn’t say hello or acknowledge anyone because I was so focused on what was coming. Afterward, my employees told me they thought I was mad at them. That made me realize that as a leader in my organization people are always watching me. I learned to be more conscious of the impact I have on others. In tough times, I now make sure to tell our people what is going on and why I may be distracted so they better understand what’s going on.

Marty Grunder: What is one thing you would like to get off of your chest that frustrates you about the landscape industry?

Frank Mariani: This country is the greatest country in the world, and I’m tired of political bickering. We need to unite and return to a place where everyone can succeed.

Scott Jamieson: Someone I respect and admire recently told me he was going to drive prices so low that competitors either go out of business or he purchases them. That devalues the industry. If you race to the bottom with your prices, there’s no where to go from there.

Jim McCutcheon: In this country, people seem to be anti-business. There’s a war on business. If you’re a successful business person, you are the enemy. There are 230 people at my company who are working hard everyday to help achieve our goals and live the lives they want to live. In our industry it seems that people are afraid to make a profit. They think it’s bad. But if you don’t, you can’t provide all of the things you need to to create opportunities and jobs. We should be damn proud to make a profit and say we’re landscape professionals.