Like a Boss: Bringing a New Family Member into the Family Business

In many ways, Ross NW Watergardens, a Portland-based landscaping business, has always been a family affair. Founded by Ross Bowen in 1999, he was joined just five years later by his son, Ben Bowen, who worked his way up the ranks from laborer to technician, to his current position as landscape designer and manager. The younger Bowen says that the collaboration between him and his father evolved from an employee/employer relationship to that of a virtual partnership. While he markets, sells, and designs landscapes, his dad oversees the installations and writes the checks. It has all worked really well for the two and though Bowen says he has younger sisters, there has never been a big interest from them in joining the business. But that all changed when Bowen’s sister Jasmine got married.

Bowen says that his brother-in-law Jose Ortega had been working for a large landscaping firm when he decided it was time to move on. While Bowen says that he and his father were immediately happy to bring Ortega on board, they also recognized there were some challenges in determining the best way to utilize him in a work flow that was already working quite well. They also felt challenged to ensure Ortega felt like a true member of the team and not a “third wheel.”

The answer to finding the right fit was a lot of evaluation. As the father and son began truly examining the company’s needs it was obvious that although they were quite busy, they didn’t need to add to their crews. They felt that the key was finding a position that would improve the company’s efficiencies.

“After all our discussion, we settled on a job description — Jose would be in charge of materials and equipment for all of our projects,” Bowen says. “He would source, personally deliver, or have delivered almost everything our crews required. This would make our crews more efficient and allow Ross [Bowen’s father] to focus on the big picture — and work a little less too.”

While Bowen says they felt good about Ortega’s start, a new challenge became apparent almost immediately. Crew leaders, who had been with the company for more than a decade, were not sure what to think. This brand new employee appeared to have shown up overnight and suddenly had a lot of influence over their projects. Bowen says this secondary challenge was a bit “thornier” to address than the first.

“We realize now that when you parachute someone into a role that involves some level of management or oversight, that you need to prepare not only the new guy, but everyone they’ll be working with,” Bowen says. “Our company structure had been very stable for quite some time but suddenly our crew leaders were wondering if more changes were coming. That made them nervous and a bit territorial.”

To overcome some of the “uncertainty” that Bowen says they had inadvertently introduced into the stable work environment, he and his father have gone out of their way to ensure crew leaders know how valuable they are. Since the crews feel most comfortable answering to the senior Bowen, he stays in close communication with them. While the transition wasn’t seamless, Bowen says it’s working.

“The results have been positive,” he says. “The three of us work well together. The company is more efficient and we have raised capacity even as Ross has taken on a smaller role. But most important to us, our families and the families of our employees continue to be well cared for.”

Our Like a Boss series highlights some common business challenges landscape professionals face and how they conquer them.